Every movie with a larger than life hero builds to an epic showdown between him (or her) and the evil archenemy. A fierce struggle explodes on the screen. Predictably, it appears that the villain has the upper hand, gloating as he prepares to deliver the death blow to the hero. But just then, summoning that last bit of strength and courage, the hero makes some unexpected move resulting in the hero emerging victorious, his nemesis vanquished. Hooray for the good guy!
While the above describes a writer’s fantasy with make believe characters, a very real and gritty showdown occurred in the desert over twenty centuries ago. The hero could not be more heroic nor the villain more evil in the story told in Matthew 4.
Immediately following Jesus’ baptism and the heavenly Father’s proclamation, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3:17), the Spirit led Him away into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). Often after glorious experiences even the purest of souls can soon find themselves in a dry and barren place. If it was true for Jesus, it will be true for us as well.
Once there things grew worse. First, He ate nothing for 40 days. At the end of this time of fasting, He was next confronted with His old enemy, Satan. Satan would fire his best broadsides at the Son of God as the battle between them raged.
The desert landscape where the first temptation took place was littered with small stones about the size of a loaf of bread. Knowing the extreme hunger Jesus felt from the long fast, Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). In calling Christ the Son of God, it was not a recognition of His exalted position as much as it was sneering mockery. We hear echoes of it by those gathered at His feet when Christ was crucified. “Let God rescue Him now if He wants Him, for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:43). Apparently Satan thought he might be able to somehow compromise Him. The “if” showed his belief that he was superior to Christ, that his rebellion begun in the hidden ages before time could still hold promise of victory over the Almighty God.
Although eating after being hungry for so many days was not a wrong thing, the temptation’s power was in its suggestion to take a shortcut, to bend the laws of God and nature to take advantage of Jesus’ divine power over all creation. But Jesus would have compromised His humanity with the miracle. Instead, Jesus met this and each temptation using the same means available to even the simplest follower of Christ: He answered by quoting Scripture.
The next temptation raised the stakes. Taking Jesus to the highest part of the Temple that towered 200 feet above the valley floor below, Satan challenged Jesus to jump off to prove God’s protection of Him. Through a sensational act Jesus could to the crowds gathered that here was a kind of Superman. But Jesus refused. He replied, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (4:7). Yes, God would stop Jesus from mid-plunge but in doing so Christ’s whole mission would be compromised. The problem with special effects, Hollywood has learned, is that people have an appetite for more and more. Instead of salvation for the world, it would be entertainment for the masses.
The last temptation only raised the stakes higher still. Knowing that Christ came to bring all the people of the world back to God, Satan offered a seductive remedy. “The devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me’” (vs.8,9). To win the world without the cross! Jesus knew the agony He was destined to face and for a short moment of submission, it could all be avoided. The devil offered what seemed to be a great prize at a small cost.
But the devil’s promise could never be. First, Jesus was not willing to violate the command found in the Scripture: “Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” (vs. 10). Jesus could never give to Satan that which only God had a right to claim. No other created thing is to be adored and worshipped.
Beyond that, Satan offered to give something that he didn’t own. God holds the title deed to this world – the devil is only a squatter. Not one square inch belongs to him. It is why we can boldly sing, “This is my Father’s world.” Soon enough, the rightful ownership of God will be asserted and Satan’s kingdom wiped away like a lean-to in a hurricane.
Note this. The devil offered Jesus the best he could because he knew that nothing less would do. Judas sold his soul for 30 pieces of silver. But often we settle for far less than the kingdoms of this world. A few hours of sleep on a Sunday morning, a job that pays a little more, an act that helps us fit in with the crowd. It is easy to despise God’s great gift as did Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of beans (Genesis 25:29-34).
The Bible says that following Jesus’ victory over the devil that “the devil left him” (vs. 11). In the book of James we read, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (4:7). When a child of God stands firm against temptation, the devil has to retreat, at least for a while. There is a sweet rest that comes after the battle. Hold firm! Rely on the Scriptures! Trust in the power of God! You will grow stronger and the devil will take a beating.