“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Freedom. It’s always been complicated for the human race. Sometimes I wonder if we even know what it truly is. We freely make our choices and then our choices make us, building our existence around us either as a legacy or a prison.
But underneath every choice we make, there is something making us… making us whole or making us less. The longer and larger truth is that under all our small decisions lies one core choice; the one choice underneath all other choices, the one decision fueling or failing every decision ever after that one. The very same choice that dismantled our humanity in the Garden long ago is now the choice each one of us makes at some point in our lives, becoming for each of us the garden of decision, deciding everything else.
It is not, as we often assume, the choice to be good, to be righteous, to be religious, to act justly or unselfishly. These are all symptoms, not root causes, signs of the shape of our soul within. In the end every garden of decision, every incidental choice, every fork in the road is like a mirror shining light into the core of who we are, and the paths we choose are symptoms of the shape of our beating heart centre within.
Underneath all our decisions is just one simple choice; God, or not. God on the throne of the human heart and a life lived in partnership and presence with Him, or something else, someone else, usurping His place on that throne, emptying our human heart of His presence.
The choice between God and everything else is ultimately the only choice we ever make in small ways or big that matters, because it sets the course for the rest of our lives, the trajectory of our path. This is the only choice that makes us; makes us whole or broken, living or dead, alive or slowly dying from the inside out.
God knows this.
Jesus knows this.
He knows it also. The one who slides between light and dark and whispers into the air questions questioning everything. The one who skulks and slinks, strumming the strings of humanity’s weakness. The hiss on the wind, winding himself around our souls.
This one choice between God and the absence of Him is the choice the Satan most works to undo in us. The Satan knows that if we choose God we will choose wholeness, and a whole human being is the enemy of darkness. His animosity to the Imago Dei within humankind is strong and violent and far reaching.
And the Satan doesn’t change his tactics much, when he’s on a good thing he sticks to it. From the dawn of time in the Garden to the temptation of Christ in the desert, to now, here, today in all our hearts and minds, in every lonely desert day of our souls. How he loves to use our questions against us, to haunt us with our angsts twisting us inside out, fanning doubt, fostering fear, enflaming ego.
Outright lies are far too obvious, he prefers the subtlety of twisted truth, of plausible deception, fostering uncertainty, cultivating confusion, undermining trust.
“Did God really say” he had hissed in the Garden long ago, “you will not surely die- you will be like God, knowing good and evil..” (Genesis 3:1-4) “You will be like God” he had said. That’s just it though, ironically they were like God, these first humans, made in His image, in His likeness, breathing His Breath, stewarding the earth in partnership with Him. They were the very image and likeness of God, His representation on earth. But the moment they listened to the devil’s wiles their birthright as children of God, the Imago Dei within them began to disintegrate. The Accuser used the very thing they were to twist them into something less.
It was not wrong for Eve to want to emulate her heavenly father, to be like him. Every child longs at some point to be like their loving parent. It was the best of her which longed to be like God, but she reached for what was right in the wrong way. They were like God, but they were not God. She let her desire to be like God (His image within her) malform into a desire to be God, to replace God with her own will and the worship of whatever her will was drawn to… created things, whispering things, enticing things.
And herein lies the achilles heel of all humankind: our authentic spiritual longings get twisted up around our identities and become the root source of all our pain. We reach past God, grabbing at other things to fill the place in our hearts only His love can truly fill.
We were created to be loved but instead of finding whole expression of this love first and fully in our Heavenly Father we satiate our yearnings for love in misshapen attachments with each other, using each other, consuming each other in selfishness. Or in apathetic indolence we ignore one another’s existence altogether, making keeping ‘our brother’ somebody else’s business.
We were created for significance and a meaningful vocation worthy of our lives, but with warped ambition we either drive ourselves to achieve our selfish successes, or in brokenness we avoid responsibility altogether. And where we were created to fulfil our unique vocation in partnership with God we now leave all thoughts of Him behind us, discarded in the dust of our ambivalence.
All our right spiritual yearnings become twisted soul drivers and the Accuser, the hiss on the wind winds us round and round and twists us inside out. Doing anything to keep us from being fully human, anything to keep us from realising and reaching for the love of God, the only thing that can bring us wholeness, peace and true fulfilment.
And the fruit of all our striving withers on the tree, because we choose again and again the tree of our own strength, our own wisdom, our own will, rather than choosing Him; His way, His truth, His life. The tree of life, wholeness and peace.
All this deception and desire, relinquishing and reaching in the Garden at the dawn of time forced humankind out of the Garden with God into the desert of our broken souls.
And there in the dust and heat countless years later Israel tries again and again to be faithful to God, to be human once more. God called them out of slavery and gave them laws, gave them a new story, but nothing but wholehearted devotion to God could breath life back into their empty shells, could heal their fractured human identity; God at the beating heart core of their being, God on the throne of their human hearts, the love of God coursing through their veins.
And that was the one thing, even with all their laws and codes and sacrifices, they failed to do. They could not keep God on the throne of their hearts. They try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, history repeating itself like a droning drum beating time to a throng of betrayal. And everything ever after has a rot and a ruin, everything they reach for when they do no reach for Him.
Then this day, in the desert heat of the Palestinian wilderness, onto Israels stage and into Israels desert, into the deserts of all human hearts walks Jesus, the Son of Man, the Son of David, the child of the people of promise; Emmanuel, God with us.
He had come, fresh from the river Jordan, fresh from the waters parting, the Spirit descending, Heaven seeping into earth and God declaring ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3:22)
This is who you are; You are my son. You are loved. I’m pleased with you. Strange words to most human ears, most human hearts, hearts formed in formative years by parents who had broken hearts, hearts that sometimes withheld love, sometimes withheld approval.
This declaration of love this day by this God, this anointing in light and love and fatherly pride, it came before the testing and the tempting, not after. Not after Jesus had passed the test, got good grades or proved himself. God’s love for His son came first. Just as God’s love for us comes first (1 John 4:19) though we barely comprehend it.
God knew who Jesus was before Jesus had even begun to prove it and Jesus knew He was loved and therefore knew He had nothing to prove; To anyone. And in knowing He was loved, Jesus trusted God, wholly and completely, even as God lead Him out into the wilderness, into the desert of humanity’s long history of deserting God. YHWH Himself comes to do what we couldn’t: To resist.
‘Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.’ Matthew 4:1-2
‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.’ Luke 4:1-2
Nothing to prove. To anyone. Or anything.
‘The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ Matthew 4:3
The Hiss on the wind, he speaks as if it were a question, the Father-ship and love of God, speaking doubt into the air in an attempt to tear the edge of truth, to entice the pride of human identity.
He tempts Jesus with the truth of who He is, His true identity as the Son of God,. If you are God’s son, prove it! The accuser goes straight for humanity’s achilles heel and attempts to use who Jesus is to twist Him into something less, attempting to twist His identity away from God and in on itself.
The Satan doesn’t change his tactics much, when he’s on a good thing he sticks to it. It worked with Eve and Adam, it worked in the desert with Israel. Both listened to the hiss on the wind, and leaned, grasped, lunged for what they thought would make them whole, prove their worth, fill their void. They replaced God with a piece of fruit, a golden calf all borne on a fear that they were not enough without it, that God didn’t love them, that He does not provide what we need: food, love, wholeness, fulfilment. It worked so well every other time, this doubt wedged into truth,‘If you are the Son of God’.
But that’s just it. Jesus, had no doubt. He had nothing to prove. He’d come fresh from the river Jordan where he’d passed through ‘Red Seas’ from death to life, been anointed with water, Spirit and light and bathed with words breathed into time ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ Luke 3:21-22
He knew who He was.
This is what the devil hadn’t bargained on; an identity fully confident in the love of God impregnable to the Devil’s wily darts. Jesus’ strength was born solely in the love of God, that’s it, that’s all; that’s the difference between He and Eve, between He and Israel. Jesus trusted God’s love wholly and completely. Eve didn’t, she allowed a hissing accuser to wedge doubt into her heart. Israel didn’t, they allowed the scars of their past to de-throne God in their hearts.
The greatest weapon used against us is ourselves, and the greatest weapon we have in our defence is the intimate knowledge of the love of God, knowing we are loved, dwelling in that love, living from that love. And for this very reason it is precisely our confidence in that love that the Accuser most wants to undermine. Starting with whether or not God truly cares about our wellbeing, our basic needs, our survival.
‘After fasting for forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. The tempter came to Him…’ Matthew 4:2-3
He’s never liked a fair fight, the Accuser of our souls, he follows no rules of engagement, he’ll win by any means he can. This Accuser always comes, into the desert, into the droughts, into the moments when we are at our weakest. Every normal need and natural function of human beings will be strummed. He searches out our weakest points; weakness like the scars of our past, weakness like the fear we are not enough, weakness like doubt in the love and goodness of God. Weakness like hunger after a forty day fast.
Forty days without food. Forty days wandering in wilderness, dragging in deserts, it’s enough to make you want to lie down and die. It wasn’t arbitrary this number, forty. Noah was forty days and nights in the ark provided in partnership with God (Genesis 7:4,17). Moses was forty days and nights on the mountain with God receiving the commandments of God (Exodus 24:18) and the interceding for Israel after their idolatry (Deuteronomy 9:18,25). Elijah travelled forty days and nights on only food provided by God (1Kings 19:8) and Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years being fed by God and strengthened and tested by Him (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
Jesus journey in this wilderness now is woven with threads from a long history of a people walking, stumbling, traipsing along with God through tests and trials, a long history of God providing, partnering and proving Himself faithful. He loves us. He can be trusted. He provides.
The Accuser begins his temptations, with the basic human need for food, food after a 40 day fast. Just when our strength is lowest the Tempter, the father of twisted truth comes to strum the strings of our humanity, to play us against the weakness of our human condition. Hissing. Humming. What are you hungry for, and will that hunger drive you, or will something else? If God really loved you He wouldn’t let you go without… He wouldn’t let you suffer.
Implicit in this question is a seed planted for doubt, doubt in the love and goodness of God, ‘God has not provided for you, you are starving, you are alone, so do it yourself, independently, look after yourself because God cannot be trusted to look after you’.
It is not wrong to eat. Hunger is not a human failing, but it can become a human falling, as it did in the Garden long ago (Genesis 3:6). Eve ate the apple to fulfil her hunger, her hunger for good food, her hunger for attractive things, her hunger to be more than she feared she was. It is most often our right needs, our normal cravings the accuser prods to pull us down, but any action acting on his slippery hiss-on-the-wind words will always warp and bind, even with things that at first glance appear harmless, appear normal. Like bread.
‘The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Matthew 4:3
It seems harmless enough, practical, even reasonable. But Jesus does not listen a hiss on the wind, only one voice does He hear and obey in His heart. He will not reach for anything in any way that is not of God. No shortcuts. God alone is on the throne of His heart.
‘Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ Matthew 4:4
Man shall not live on bread alone because bread alone is not enough to live on. We are not just skin and sacks of cells strung over bones. Our physical selves are intimately entwined with our spiritual being. Our soul, mind and spirit can only thrive when we dwell not just in the physical realm of food, drink and our five senses but also in the spiritual realm, connected with God through the spiritual ecosystem of our intimate relationship with Him. Without this ecosystem connecting us with God, nourishing us, feeding us with His presence and His word, the living Word, we become spiritually anorexic, emaciated by our own inner emptiness.
The Accuser knows this. He knows our physical needs can scream large and loud and long drowning out the voice of God. He knows our hungers and he knows how to strum them.
Jesus knows this. There can be no room for the listening to lies. Only one voice does He hear and obey in His heart. God is on the throne within Him and the word of God is wielded in His defence.
He doesn’t begin a theological debate, He doesn’t answer with wits and words. He simply says ‘It is written…’, all of the three temptations the Accuser hurls are repelled with these three words… ‘It is written’ … followed by the Word of God.
And this written Word of God, it’s not vitriolic proof texts, nor Sunday school favourites, nor memory verses plucked out of thin air. Every response that Jesus makes to the Accuser is a scripture quotation from the desert sands of time, from the book of Deuteronomy, the story of Israel’s own wilderness wanderings and wranglings with God. The book with one central theme: allegiance to God. The book set on the very edge of the promised land, with Israel poised to enter it. Israel was tested in the desert heat, tested to see what their hearts were full of. They had been allowed to feel hunger so that they could feel God’s presence providing, so they could learn to trust, unreservedly, unswervingly.
‘Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ Deuteronomy 8:2-3
The lack was always the opportunity for them to sense God’s hand with them, the opportunity for them to experience the miraculous provision of God, the care of God, the love of God. The opportunity for them to have a chance to show what was in their hearts, to choose to keep God on the throne of their hearts, showing God their love and commitment to Him in return. God’s hand provided Israel with ‘Angels food’ (Psalm 78:25) Manna, bread straight from heaven, straight from God’s hand.
He can be trusted.
The devil wanted to tempt Jesus away from trusting God’s care and provision. Jesus answers: No. God can be trusted and Bread without Him is not enough to live on.
And Jesus answers from Israel’s desert story in Deuteronomy because He knows who He is; He is Israel. He is God’s son, just as Israel had been God’s Son (Exodus 4:22).
In being led into the wilderness by God, Jesus was completing what Israel had left undone; fulfilling Israel’s calling in partnership with God, being faithful in the wilderness before He begins His incursion with God into enemy territory to take back the promised land, Israel’s promised land, the promised land of Israel’s vocation to bless the whole world.
And it is this calling to fulfil Israel’s calling, to be the true Israelite and bless the whole world, ruling it in partnership with God, this is the very next challenge the Accuser twists inside out and hurls at Him.
What hungers do you have that may, in your weakest moments, be used by darkness to draw you away from God?
What scripture could you use to deflect this temptation? “It is written….
References, Notes and Credits
All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.