Fighting sin through affirmation

October 28th, 2014

The temptations Jesus endures in Matthew 4 are often set up as the exemplary account of how we Christians ought also to fight temptation. Christ, alone in the desert for forty days, faces three separate temptations by Satan. In the first, Satan challenges him to turn stones into bread. In the second, Satan tells Christ to throw himself down off the temple’s roof and see if God’s angels will rescue him before he hits the bottom. And finally, Satan offers Christ all the kingdoms of the world if he will bow down and worship him.

As is well known, to each of these temptations, Christ responds by citing Scripture. To the temptation to turn stones into bread, Christ responds by reminding Satan that our true sustenance does not come from bread alone, but from the very words of God (Deut. 8:3). To the temptation to throw himself off the temple, Christ responds that God should not be put to the test (Deut. 6:16). And to Satan’s invitation to worship, Christ responds that only God should be worshipped and served (Deut. 6:13). 

After successfully citing three separate scriptures, throwing them at the Devil, and winning the temptation battle, Satan flees and Christ is now ready to go preach the gospel, call his disciples, and challenge others to repentance.

Having heard this passage taught on numerous occasions, it seems that pastors easily assume that merely memorizing Scripture to toss at the Devil is a sufficient foundation for resisting temptation. We assume that if people are just grounded in the Word then temptation should be easy enough to handle. After all, that is the example of Christ, right?

Wrong.

Yes, certainly Christ cited scriptures when facing temptation. And these citations were an invaluable part of his resistance plan. This should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, much more is happening here than mere scripture citation.

In fact, if you look at the first two questions Satan asks Jesus, they have something in common (a thing not explicitly cited in the third question, but I think implicitly assumed). Namely, the temptations are conditioned on Christ being the Son of God. The first two temptations begin with, “If you are the Son of God, then…”

In other words, the temptations are centered on Jesus’s very identity. His security. His place in the world. These temptations, in short, are an affront to the reality of Christ’s sonship. 

Now, here then is what is often missed in the way we teach about the temptations in Matthew 4: These challenges to Christ’s sonship come directly on the heels of the Trinitarian affirmation of Christ’s sonship at Christ’s baptism at the end of chapter 3.

The chapter break between chapters 3 and 4 completely throws us off the trail of an important thematic connection.

So let’s briefly put this back together.

At the end of Matthew 3, as Jesus arises out of the baptismal waters, the heavens open up, the Spirit of God (like a dove) comes and rests on Jesus, and then a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (3:17)

The chapter break aside, the very next narrative — the temptation story — raises the question of Christ’s sonship again. In other words, when Matthew transitions from the baptism story to the temptations story, he is actually still engaging the same questions: What is the identity of Christ? Is he God’s son? 

Now, then, the implications for understanding Christ’s resistance to temptation are huge. Christ did not merely resist temptation because he had some prooftexts in his back pocket ready to toss at the Devil whenever he needed them.

Rather, the familiarity with the Scriptures grew out of a sense of identity, and belonging, and knowledge of having pleased his Father!

Christ’s resistance to temptation, yes, had to do with citing Bible verses. But it was much more than that. He resisted temptation because he knew he belonged to, was loved by, and was accepted by God the Father.

The pastoral and homiletical implications of this are huge! It is not merely enough for us to tell our people to memorize some Bible verse to call to memory when temptations arise. Rather, we must help them foster an understanding of their identity with the Father. We must help them see that they are loved and accepted sons and daughters of God. We must move them from fighting temptation out of guilt to fighting temptation because they truly know that God is well pleased with them.

Memorizing verses clearly played an important role in Christ’s strategy against temptation. But those verses only made sense and were only helpful in the larger context of acceptance with and an identity grounded in the Father who spoke from heaven and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We cannot, then, assume that such affirmation is unimportant to discipleship, growth in grace, and killing sin.

Tom Fuerst blogs at Tom1st.com. You can subscribe to his blog via email here.

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