“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you,’ and `On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, `You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him” (Matt 4:1-11).
Lent 2014 is here! Each year on the first Sunday of this season, Christians – Catholics in particular – revisit the temptation of Jesus Christ in the desert. We can look at this episode from several angles. In the passage quoted above (Matt 4:1-11), three characters are involved in the temptation drama: Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the Tempter. At times, people focus too much on two characters, Christ and the Devil, forgetting the third, the Holy Spirit. In fact, there is yet a fourth character who goes almost completely forgotten: the Father. When the Tempter says “If you are the Son of God,’ it is as if he said “If you are the Son of the Father . . .” Where there is the Son, there is the Father. The temptation of Christ did not take place out the blue. There is a context for it. It occurs sometime (soon after) Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. At his baptism we know that the Spirit descended on Jesus, consecrating and constituting him as the Messiah and Savior. The Father confirmed him as his beloved Son (cf. Matt 4:13). So, at his baptism Jesus’ identity as Son of God was solemnly revealed by the Father. He was ready for full-fledged ministry.
But let us return to the specific passage of the temptation given to us by Matthew. The passage begins by indicating that Someone is responsible for sending Jesus into the desert: the Spirit. Let us keep this point in mind. Second, let us bear in mind that at the heart of the temptation episode is Jesus’s supreme identity as the Son of God. In every temptation, the Tempter’s ultimate goal is to attack and undermine our identity as children of God. Temptations can come under different colors and appearances, but what is common to all is the Tempter’s intent to undermine our fundamental identity as children of God. In other words, every temptation is an opportunity for the Devil to attack this identity. It is not immediately clear what the Tempter’s intentions are, but the Sacred Scriptures expose him.
In the case of the Lord’s temptation, the Tempter did not hide his intentions. He went straight for Christ’s eternal identity: “If you are the Son of God . . .” Son of God though he was, being in the flesh made Christ able to be tempted. The Tempter took advantage of that. If he succeeded in undermining Christ’s identity as Son of God, the rest would be easy. We know the rest of the story. On the Cross, this same attack on Christ’s identity as Son of the Father returned for the last time, coming this time from those who crucified him: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, (and) come down from the cross!” . . . He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God‘” (Matt 27:40, 43). The dying Christ overcame this final temptation by reminding himself that even in the most agonizing hour he was still the Son of the Father: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).
We are told that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. As Son of God made man he needed the assistance of the Spirit at all times in order to stay focused and not be confused one bit about his eternal identity as Son of God and his current mission as Messiah. The Spirit would strengthen him at all times and empower him to resist the attacks of the enemy. We too, born again and redeemed by the Blood need to be continually led by the Spirit. Like Christ, we are also the target of the Tempter. Unless we allow the Spirit to lead and guide us we cannot resist the Enemy. Also, as in the case of Christ, the Tempter’s ultimate goal is to undermine our identity as children of God. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is the engraver and sustainer of our new identity as God’s children. Let us read Romans 8:14-16: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” When we are led by the Spirit, he upholds our identity as God’s children, he sustains and protects the identity, and he always reminds us of who we are. Who you know yourself to be goes a long way to determine the choices you make. An identity crisis leads to crisis in many areas of one’s life. Committing sin is a case of identity crisis. No wonder John wrote: “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God. By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother” (1John 3:9-10).
This passage can blow your mind because of the sheer boldness of its claim. But you need to read the entire First Letter of John to appreciate the author’s teaching, especially chapters 1 and 2. In any case, the point is this: identity determines behavior. Nature determines an act (or at least, should). Your awareness of who you think you are has a lot to do with the choices you make in life. If you are well aware that you are the son or daughter of God, how would that not affect your behavior. This explains John’s bold statement that the Christian cannot sin because he is born of God. In other words, so long as he lives in the full realization of being a true child of God, it would be difficult for him to act contrary to his new nature. Your nature shapes your choices. Your nature is the driving force behind your acts. So, for a Christian, sin is not the norm. It is the exception. But we all know that often we are swayed by the wind of temptation. It explains why we need help: the Holy Spirit. He reinforces our consciousness of our new identity and nature as God’s children, constantly reminding us of who we are in Christ, and providing us with the strength to reject the Devil’s offer of false identity. Paul is right: Those who are led by the Spirit are children of God. And so long as they allow the Spirit to lead them, they will keep the Devil away because they will not be confused about their identity.
This message is about us. We all need to be led by the Spirit in order to be aware of who we are and not be deceived by the Tempter. Let us make a decision today to surrender to the Spirit’s lead.
Invitation to pray,
Come, Spirit of God. Come into my life. Without you I am blind. Without you I forget who I am. Come. I surrender to your lead. With you as my strength and guide, I can rise above the Tempter. I can live as the Father has ordained. Amen.