The Duel In The Desert
F. W. Boreham said: “We make our decisions and then our decisions turn around and make us.” In other words, who we are in life is determined not by the ordinary flow of our days, but rather by the way we respond to the crisis times of life, those decisive moments, those turning points that come our way. That’s the way it was for Jesus. We see who He is most clearly in the way He responded to the critical and decisive moments of His life. A case in point is His temptation experience. We shall look at it together in a moment, after we pray…
It was Parent’s Day in a small college town and the owner of the local saloon, trying to capitalize on the event, took out an ad in the school paper which read: “Attention students! Bring your parents here for lunch on Saturday. We’ll pretend that we have never seen you before!” Well, the college chaplain was an alert and clever chap, so the next day he ran an ad in the paper which read: “Attention students! Bring your parents to chapel on Sunday. We’ll pretend that we see you every week!” Well, there is no pretense about it for me. Whether you are here for the first time or you are here some times or you are here most times or you are here every time, I am glad that you are here. For you see, it’s a great joy to be able to share with you in the beauty of worship and to talk with you about the Jesus I love.
Of course, that in itself raises a question. Why is it, do you suppose, that so few people who have been exposed to the victory to Jesus Christ go on to live less than victorious lives? Why is it that even though we claim to belong to Jesus Christ, we are bedeviled by the same problems, the same difficulties, the same weaknesses over and over again? Why is it that so many Christians are worn out, uptight, out of power, without vision, and unable to share their faith with others?
I think the answer may be found in this great story from Matthew 4. It’s the story of Jesus’ encounter with Satan. It’s the story of “The duel in the desert.” Remember, please, that in His baptism, Jesus received the magnificent confirmation from God that He was God’s Son and He was destined to be the Savior of the world. Yet before Jesus could begin to build God’s kingdom on earth, He ran slap up against temptation and evil in the wilderness.
The same thing happens to us. Whenever we receive some fresh inspiration from God, whenever we draw close to God in Jesus Christ, we become the focus of temptation and testing by the forces of evil. In other words, our growth in the Christian faith will be marked not by a softening, but by an intensifying of our moral struggle. The devil is not looking for backsliding or lip-service Christians. No! His cause will be greater served if he can manage to bring down a person of deep Christian conviction.
That’s why Jesus had to fight this duel in the desert. He had to face temptation and conquer it in order to be the source of our strength in temptation. Now interestingly enough, the three temptations He faced are the basic temptations around which all other temptations revolve. There in the desert, Jesus faced the most dangerous weapons in Satan’s arsenal and He won. And because He emerged victorious from this duel in the desert, we know that we can draw upon His strength and claim the victory over evil which He has won for us. Here is what I mean…
The first temptation was the temptation of physical power. Satan said to Jesus: “People are hungry, feed them”
Jesus was in the desert a long time. Forty days. The desert to which we refer here is a spot of land, 35 miles by 15 miles, which runs from the high plateau of Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. It is a barren, arid place where the sand is burning hot, where there is no shade, and where the jackals and other wild beasts roam. It is a fearsome, desolate, God-forsaken place. Jesus was there without food and without the encouragement of another person, and He became painfully hungry. Now Jesus had come into the desert with the realization that one of the great needs of humanity was the need for food. He had seen all too often the hungering masses in the villages of Palestine. And the ache that He felt in His heart for them was now antagonized by His own pangs of hunger.
At that point, the devil made his entrance on the scene. He said to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” That was a very graphic and dramatic temptation. You see, the wind in the desert ceaselessly grinds the sand against the stones so that the stones are rounded and smooth and oval-shaped. If you have ever been in old Jerusalem, you will know that even today, they bake the bread in rounded, oval-shaped loaves. They bake that bread until the crust becomes rock-hard, and then they literally throw it in the corner and stack it up. Since, in Jesus’ day, they had nothing in which to wrap the bread, the crust became the protection, keeping the bread inside clean and fresh. Those loaves of bread looked then, and look now, like stones. So the Devil was asking Jesus to use His divine power to turn those desert stones into loaves of bread, thus feeding Himself and all the hungry masses once and for all. This is the temptation of physical power.
Of course, Jesus was profoundly concerned about the physical needs of people. Wherever He went, the sick were healed, the blind received sight, the lepers were cleansed and the lame were able to walk and leap and run. And wherever Jesus is at work today among His people, His Church, the same things happen. But Jesus also knew that there is a hunger deep within us all which no amount of physical healing, physical feeding, physical sustenance will ever satisfy. It is the hunger deep within us to know the reasons for which we were created, to experience the friendships for which we were destined, to understand the grand purpose for which we were brought to life in this period of history, and to glimpse something of what the future holds for us. You see, we belong to Jesus. We were made for fellowship with Him and there will always be within us a hunger for Him which nothing we can taste or see or touch or possess will ever be able to remove. Yet the temptation to relieve that hunger with physical things is always before us.
The reason that so many people make a good beginning in the faith but then never seem to grow up in Christ is that they pledge their allegiance to Jesus Christ but they also cling to those things which give them physical satisfaction in life. Maybe it’s food or alcohol or money or physical beauty or intellect or job skills or even family—but it’s whatever leads you to say: “I’m going to have this plus Jesus.”
That’s the reason we don’t grow up in Christ. That’s the reason Christians are sometimes involved in perpetuating sicknesses of society. That’s the reason so many people in the world are hungry though Christians have it within their power and their resources to eliminate hunger. That’s the reason the church is so often not the dynamic powerful witness to saving faith it was meant to be. We give our lives to Jesus Christ but we still count our politics, our economics, our prejudices, our homes, our clothes, our possessions, our professions, our bank accounts as more important to us than Jesus Christ. We want the best of both worlds. But Jesus said to Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” And until we face the temptation of physical power, and through Christ conquer it, then any commitment we make to Him will not be effective or lasting or powerful.
The second temptation was the temptation of psychological power. Satan said to Jesus: “People are perplexed, convince them.”
Satan couldn’t get to Jesus with the suggestion of turning the stones into bread, so now he attacked from a different direction. He set before Jesus the picture of the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem—that place where the temple porticoes intersect and look down into the Kidron Valley some 400 feet below. Satan then said: “If you are the Son of God, then jump from this spot and before you hit the ground God’s angels will rescue you. And what a spectacular feat that will be. People will be convinced that you are who you say you are and they will come flocking to you.”
Jesus replied the same way He replied in all three temptations. He quoted Scripture. Jesus knew what we need to learn—that the best way to fight the power of evil in our lives is to know and to speak and to live the Word of God in the Bible. The great New Testament scholar, Adolph Schlatter, was once approached by an admirer who said that he had always wanted to meet a theologian who stood upon the Word of God. Schlatter replied: “Thank you, but I don’t stand on the Word of God. I stand under it.” Well, Jesus stood under the Word of God and He used that Word to defeat the devil. He said: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “God is not proved by sleight-of-hand. I will not draw people to me by performing supernatural stunts. Faith goes deeper than dazzlement. People must walk by faith or not walk at all.”
And of course, one reason we don’t grow up in Christ is that we are constantly deciding what things are important and then asking God for His miraculous intervention to do them. So many times, I have decided what ought to be done in my life or in somebody else’s life and then said: “Lord, this is what you need to do.” That’s no different than climbing the top of the steeple of this church and crying: “Okay, Jesus, I’m going to jump, catch me!” So often we ask God for His strength to sustain us in things that He never guided or willed. And until we face this temptation of psychological power, and through Christ conquer it, then any commitment we make to Him will not be effective or lasting or powerful.
Then the third temptation is the temptation of political power. Satan said to Jesus, “People are weak, empower them.”
What would you do if you were Satan? You have had two strikes already. You know the rules of the game—three strikes and you’re out. Satan pulls out the stops. He takes Jesus to a high mountain. Have you noticed how the progression works. Satan gets higher and higher. He starts out in the wilderness and then the next thing he is at the pinnacle of the temple and then finally he is at the top of a high mountain where you can see the world stretching out in every direction. There Satan gives to Jesus a picture of all the kingdoms of the earth and the glories which are theirs, and he says to Jesus: “All of this is yours, I will give it to you. All you have to do is offer allegiance to me and it will be yours.” Do you see what a subtle temptation that was? Jesus had been promised in His baptism that the world would be His and that it was His job under God to bring that world to God in faith. Here He has that opportunity to do just that. The problem is He is being asked to do God’s work in His own strength, trusting in the evil power of Satan. That’s the temptation—to do God’s work by human power. Because this temptation was so subtle and so difficult to resist, Jesus responds in anger: “Be gone, Satan. Satan get out of here! Beat it!” And then once again the verse of Scripture: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.”
Write this on your heart. The kingdom of God is not a political kingdom. The kingdom of God will not be brought to this earth by the workings of politicians. I ask you to notice, please, that politics has us at this moment tottering on the edge of disaster. The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom. The kingdom of God will be brought not by good deeds through the power of social action. The kingdom of God will be brought to this earth by prayer and by the power of Almighty God. Great answers to the problems of this world will not be found in the political forums of this earth. The only answer will be found on our knees. And until we as a church learn that, we will never be the church God means for us to be. Jesus faced those temptations and He won.
So, let me plant this seed in your heart…
Norman Cousins has a book called The Healing Heart, and in that book he tells the story of how one day he came off the golf course and there was an ambulance there and there was a man on the ground and the paramedics were feverishly working with this man who had obviously had a heart attack. As Cousins looked at the man, he recognized that the medics were working so hard that they weren’t saying anything to this stricken man. The man was obviously afraid, he was terrified, it was written all over his face. And Cousins looked up at the monitor in the back of the ambulance and he saw that the rate of the man’s heartbeat was terribly rapid and the pattern was very jagged. With that, Norman Cousins, while the medics were working, knelt down by this man’s head and he leaned over to him and said: “My friend, I think you are going to be all right.” And the man looked at him and said: “How do you know?” And Norman Cousins said: “I know because I am looking at the monitor in the ambulance and I think you’ve got a good heart and I know you have good people working with you, and in just a few minutes you are going to be in a good hospital. I think you are going to be all right. I think you are going to make it.” Within 30 seconds, the man’s heartbeat began to slow and return to a more normal pattern. Cousins is right. The promise of victory had an immediate effect upon his life. The promise of victory.
God says to us today: “I made you. I love you. To be sure, the power of evil and your vulnerability to it have made a mess out of things in your life and out of things in the world, but I have sent my Son to restore it, and one day in this life, or if not in this life, in the life that is to come, everything will be perfect again. But I know you’ve got a great heart. I know it because I put it within you. And so I call you now to join my Son in the struggle for good in your life and in this world. Together, I promise you, we will win.” The promise of victory.
Look one last time at this great passage—the very last sentence. It says: “Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.” Today—evil and temptation and discord and struggle, but tomorrow—the song of the angels! Today, the duel with the devil in the desert, but tomorrow, the victory of Jesus Christ!
I think that’s why it’s such a joy to share with you in the beauty of worship and to talk with you about the Jesus I love…