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Winter Quarter: Honoring God
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 2, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Key Verse: Matthew 4:10
“Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
What purpose was served in the ministry of Jesus through the temptation in the wilderness? What responses to such temptations do we learn from Jesus’ responses to Satan?
Historical, theological, and experiential background for study text:
Temptation in the Bible implies a freedom of choice in which we can be faithful or unfaithful to God. Notice, the choices we face are not just the choices our culture offers, or the pleasure-seeking behavior that seeks to tempt us daily. Primarily, our choice is to be faithful or unfaithful to the meaningful life God provided in Christ of our own benefit.
The temptation of Jesus begins at the onset of his earthly ministry following his baptism by John the Baptist. The gospels want us to understand that before one can be faithful to God, to the point of ultimate sacrifice, one must be faithful to the truth, divine righteousness, and faithful to one’s true self as created by God.
The temptation of Jesus lasts the important biblical numerical number of 40 days. The number 40 was an important number in the Bible, often representing the completion of an important act required by God. Moses and the Israelites were tested for years in the wilderness as daily and yearly they were asked to choose God or self. Elijah withstood the terrible drought that lasted 40 days as he lived at the Brook of Cherith. After his baptism, Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness in preparation for the ministry of suffering and life that awaited him. Forty days tested a man’s spiritual resolve, revealing the depth of his commitment to do the right thing for the right reason. Sadly, during the other occasions involving 40 years or days, God’s servants often failed as temptation weakened their commitment to God. However, Matthew wants us to clearly understand Jesus remained faithful and morally strong.
As previously cited, the testing in the wilderness follows his baptism by John the Baptist. John’s baptism for Jesus meant that he had accepted the ministry of death and resurrection that awaited him as Messiah. He was not in need of repentance or forgiveness. Therefore, his baptism implied an event no other could know or experience as he did. His immersion in the Jordon implied his acceptance of death and burial, and arising from the water implied a new life that not even death could conquer. It is for this reason that God says, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” Could God not have been pleased with Jesus’ response to his baptism? The answer would be “yes,” or God’s statement would make little sense. Jesus could have chosen to avoid his baptism or accept it; after all, he had free will. Jesus “chose” to accept his messianic ministry of life and death. As he later said, “No man could take his life from him. He would give it away.” Read John 10:18. Thus, God was pleased with his painful choice that involved the redemption of the world.
If one is going to make a commitment to God through baptism, that commitment will be tested to reveal its strength and the depth of commitment to God’s ministry on the part of the one baptized. Notice, Jesus faces his temptations alone with Satan in the wilderness. The great adversary confronts the Son of God with a myriad of lies; however, Jesus has only his own commitment, his own faith, and his own spiritual courage in facing this temptation. No other individual is present except for the presence of the Holy Spirit. Many are willing to battle temptation with others near, for it can boast of their character. I have witnessed many over the years do the right thing because the right people are watching. But few want to struggle against potent sin with only their conscience available, along with God’s Holy Spirit. Facing temptation alone calls for the greatest depths of moral courage. When others are around, we find comfort in knowing others see and respect our behavior. But how do we withstand temptation when the battle involves only our own inner strength in God? Would we act as strongly or courageously if no one saw the righteous moral choices we make? Would we withstand temptation for no other reason than it is the right thing to do, even if no other soul stands near?
Each of us will face temptations for our faith. The commitments we make to follow Jesus are the most important decisions we face in life. Either our decision is sincere, or it isn’t. Either we choose it for convenience sake, or for spiritual devotion. Notice, this battle of temptation isn’t conducted in the presence of anyone other than Jesus, the Spirit, the Father, and Satan. The battle of temptation does not exist for us to prove to anyone that we deserve the title Christian
. We do not need to become ensnared in the conflict of proving to others we are indeed worthy of belonging to Jesus.
Perhaps one of the more interesting statements in Jesus’ temptations is the devil’s attempt to get Jesus to “prove himself.” It isn’t really Satan that we battle in temptation. After all, Satan has no power over us and the temptations he offers are all lies. Satan’s great deception is to get us to fight within ourselves. If Satan can get us to doubt our worthiness and dare us to prove our worthiness, we face temptation from a far weaker position. His temptations are asking us one major question, “Spiritually, of what are we made?” “Are we self-made men and women, or children made by the grace of God in Christ?” Just how strong is our commitment to Christ, and how well do we know ourselves? God has revealed who we are as his children, and especially who we are in Christ. A high price was paid on Golgotha to reveal our infinite worth to God, a worth of such great value no evil power in the world can devalue who we are. Therefore, to engage in a battle in which we attempt to prove we are stronger than evil is an exercise in futility. That battle has long been over. We are stronger than evil, and our character is indestructible by evil unless we yield our soul to it. Therefore, why fight that battle? We do not need to prove who we are in Christ. Jesus knew he was Messiah. God’s words, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased,” settled that issue. Jesus spiritually will battle one already declared powerless by God.
As Christians we must never become ensnared in the battle of trying to prove we are worth bearing the name “Christian.” We have no power to prove the depth of righteousness that belongs to the Christian. We cannot manufacture our own spiritual power; instead, we walk faithfully in the spiritual power Jesus has already provided. Our calling is to live as one who has already inherited a life the devil cannot conquer. Notice how often the tempter begins his temptation with the statement, “If you are who you say you are . . .” This is his most deceptive trick and the only trick that can move us off the straight and narrow. We aren’t testing Satan in such a battle, we are “putting the Lord God to the test” and it is a test he has repeatedly won through covenant, righteousness, and love.
Temptation confronts us all. However, who are you fighting? To whom are you attempting to prove you are worthy to belong to Jesus? What is the greatest strength you possess in facing temptation, and from where does it originate? What is the certain spiritual focus you can lose when you face taking on temptation alone? What words and actions most helped Jesus in his spiritual battle with temptation?
Historical, theological, and experiential reflection on Mat. 4:1-11:
All of the temptations offered Jesus were never Satan’s to give
. What does this tell us about the nature of the temptations we all face? Jesus saw them for what they were, and from whom they were offered. His spiritual awareness of the nature of temptation empowered him to move from the wilderness victoriously and into the ministry that would redeem the world. It wasn’t Satan’s world to rule or give. It was God’s to give to us through love and grace. From the most basic human need of hunger, to the human lust for power, and the false confidence that we can protect ourselves from all danger, represent most all temptations offered in life, and all are false offerings. On the surface they appear attractive, yet in reality, suffering and struggle are a part of life. Hunger will always be a part of life, for some more than others. The temptation to gain power is always waiting to pounce, for we are repeatedly told we are little apart from the possession of power, and protection from pain and loss represent our greatest fears, for we witness or experience them regularly. Life must consist of more than what we hope we can avoid. Life must involve the meaning God has given to life regardless of the struggles life can bring. God accomplishes the amazing through suffering and struggle as unattractive as they may appear. The cross certainly serves as the ultimate example of this truth. Notice, Jesus ignored every temptation offered to make life easier, more powerful, and less painful. He knows that life can be found in and through what we try to avoid. It isn’t that God desires that we hurt and suffer. However, interactions with others in life are always going to lead to painful encounters. If I love my family, I am going to hurt for them at some point in our journey. But love will be worth the struggle. We love many in the world, and they love us. Thus, we will share love and sorrow together in life. Yet, Christ promises a day when all suffering loses its power. Read Rev. 21. Thus, Christ ignores the temptations that make life sound rather simple and easy. He answers the questions for what they are: fallacy. The real answers to all such questions will be fulfilled when God’s kingdom comes in all of its glory.
Do you understand the true nature of temptation? What helps you place temptations in proper perspective and strip them of fear? How did Jesus handle temptation in a manner from which we can learn? What is it we learn from struggle and pain that spiritually makes us stronger and endows us with a greater understanding of this life? What does the manner in which Jesus treated the temptations say about the life to come in God’s kingdom? What do you believe is being promised in Rev. 21? Read Romans 5 and ask, “What did Paul understand about struggle and the spiritual power of adversity?” How does Paul’s understanding in Romans 5 address the issue of choosing to believe the temptations that promise ease and less struggle in this life? How did Jesus live what Paul had taught in Romans 5 as he faced his personal temptations as Messiah?
There is no promise anywhere that pain, loss, and protection are promised facets of life. Life is what it is. It tests us, tries us, and allows us to experience God’s presence in Christ as we walk through difficulty together. Our great pains of today will become those things that produce character in our soul tomorrow. Life has everything to do with living in the image of Jesus, to respond to it as Jesus responds. We cannot know the fulness of the Christian life in Christ if we attempt to avoid struggle and those things in life that test. Yes, we will all walk through the wilderness, but the life of ministry awaiting us is beyond description, and the results it can accomplish are not in the hands of Satan, but only in God.
Almighty God, we can easily fear those moments in life that test the soul. However, you are Lord of all, and nothing can occur to us that is beyond the scope of your grace and purpose. Thus, we trust you. As we face the wilderness, teach us to face the power of the character you have given us in Christ as we confront the powerless temptations that possess no truth. You are truth, your life is truth, and your power in our life is true. Now teach us to walk in that powerful confidence. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.