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The most important thing to understand about the temptation of Jesus is contained in just five little words that we tend to skip right over without even hearing them. "Jesus returned from the Jordan." It's even easier to miss this if you read from Matthew and Mark's account of the temptation. They just say, "then."
It's what happened at the Jordan that's makes what happened in the wilderness so significant. Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan River. Three things happened at the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan that we need to understand if we're going to understand the significance of what takes place in the wilderness. And all three are very closely connected to each other.
1. 1st – Jesus is Father's Son
First, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, "the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven said, 'You are my Son, whom I love.'" (Luke 3:22). That's the voice of God the Father speaking. And He is speaking directly to Jesus. His word is meant for Jesus to hear. It's for Jesus sake that the Father says what He says. It's important for Jesus to know that He is the Son of God, dearly loved by His Father.
Later on, as we heard last Sunday at His Transfiguration, God the Father would speak from the clouds again and say something very similar. "This is my Son." Sounds like the same thing doesn't it? But it's really much different, because this time the Father is speaking to the three disciples who are on the mountain with Jesus. "THIS is my Son, listen to Him." He's not speaking to Jesus but to the disciples. It's important that THEY know that Jesus is the Son of God, with whom the Father is well pleased.
The point is, as Jesus, "returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness," He does so with the testimony, the Word of God the Father ringing in His ears – "You are my Son, by beloved." And if God says, "You are my Son," then frankly, you've got nothing to worry about. God will supply all your needs and deliver you from all danger. He will guide you in paths of righteousness and protect you against all enemies. Jesus returned from the Jordan with the Father's unchangeable and infallible word, He is the Father's Son and He is loved.
2. 2nd – Jesus is Israel
Now, that's a good thing for Jesus personally, individually, but it really takes on its great significance when we consider the second thing that happened when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. For quite some time before Jesus came to the Jordan and after, John the Baptist had been calling Israel to come out to the Jordan to be baptized. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that "all Israel came out to be baptized." And then, one day, Jesus came to the Jordan and told John that He wanted to be baptized too.
Of course, John had a problem with that because "all Israel" needed baptism because of their sin. Jesus had no sin. John said, "I should be baptized by you." But Jesus said, "Do this to fulfill all righteousness." Here's what that means. If you can picture this, "all Israel" went into the Jordan river and were baptized and Jesus was baptized and came out of the Jordan River. Let's say it another way. When Jesus went into the Jordan River and was baptized, He was united to everyone else who had gone into the Jordan River to be baptized and He took on their identify. He became Israel.
So, just as Israel had spent 40 years in the wilderness, being tested to see if they really believed and trusted that God was their Father, Jesus went into the wilderness and Israel's whole 40 year time of testing was compressed into 40 days of testing to see how Jesus really believed and trust that God was His Father. But now, He's not just Jesus. Now, having "returned from the Jordan," He is Israel. The old Israel failed the test miserably, the new Israel, Jesus Christ, would do it again on their behalf. And if He is faithful and trusts firmly in the Word of God spoken to Him in His baptism, then "all Israel" will be redeemed and reconciled. In Christ, they would all become "My Son, whom I love."
3. 3rd – Jesus is the Christian Church
Now third, just as Jesus was united to the Old Israel by His baptism in the Jordan, He has established Baptism as the place and the way that the New Israel is united to Him. The only difference being, the New Israel no longer goes by the name Israel. Now, it's called the Christian Church. That means that in your baptism, you were united to Christ and became one with Him, so that His life is accounted as your life just as He is the new Israel for the old Israel. As He is the faithful, obedient, trusting Son of the Father, we are accounted faithful, obedient and trusting children of God.
So, first, Jesus is told by the Father that He is His Son, dearly loved. Second, in His baptism, Jesus is identified as Israel and redoes Israel's history in the wilderness. And third, in your baptism, you were united to Jesus so that you are known by God the Father, not according to the way you live your life or your faithfulness or unfaithfulness, but by His life and His faithfulness.
All of that is contained in those five little words, "Jesus returned from the Jordan." And how important it is to understand this much before we follow our Lord into the wilderness. For without this understanding, we might easily make the mistake that many make and think that Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted in order to give us an example of how we are to deal with temptation, and nothing more. Listen, if Jesus is only an example to us, then we are on our own, and doomed to fail. But if He has united Himself to us and we are hidden in Him, then we rightly understand that He enters into the desert to face the tempter for us and our fate depends entirely on what He does. Our hope is based on Him, and Him alone.
And what a relief that is. For right away we are shown just who it is that is behind every temptation that comes our way. "The devil said to him…." Suddenly now we realize who was behind every temptation that Israel faced those 40 years in the wilderness. They weren't up against flesh and blood, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers…against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Eph. 6:12).
No wonder Luther has us sing, "No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected."
And notice just where the devil tries to sink his fangs. He goes right for the God's Word. "If you are the Son of God." If he can just cause a crack, even a small fissure of doubt in God's Word, he knows that Jesus will fail. Just like the first man had failed. All it took was a simple question. "Did God really say…?" And once he had sown his seed of doubt in God's Word, the man and his wife were easy pickings.
Think about it like this. When you were baptized, the heavens opened and God the Father said to you, personally, individually, "You are my son, my daughter, whom I love." But how many times have we doubted His Word and promise to us? How else can we explain our lack of trust in Him. If God is our Father, then we've got nothing to worry about. God will supply all our needs and deliver us from all danger. He will guide us in paths of righteousness and protect us against all enemies.
But we wonder, 'IF I am a child of God and God really does love me, why do bad things happen to me? Why don't I have enough money to pay the bills? Why did I suffer that injury or have this disease? Why do I feel such disappointment and pain and heartache and loneliness?' And because we doubt God's Word and promise that we are His children and He is our Father, we listen to other words and grab hold of other promises.
But long before we ever ACT contrary to God's Word and promise to us, our downfall is already complete. All it takes is the slightest bit doubt. The actions will eventually, inevitably follow.
Aren't you glad that Jesus Christ has united Himself to you and that you are hidden in Christ and that your life before God depends on His performance and not ours, and that He goes into the wilderness to face the devil on behalf of us all?
II. The Temptations
Luke makes it very clear that Jesus was tempted throughout the entire 40 days that He was in the wilderness. The three temptations that we're told about actually happened just as it's written, but they also are representative all of the temptations that Jesus faced. In fact, as you follow Jesus' who ministry from His temptation in the wilderness to His death on the cross, what you see is that He is constantly facing one temptation after another, each one a variation of one of these three.
The first temptation is for Jesus to not trust that God will satisfy his physical hunger. He should take matters into His own hands and turn these stones into bread.
The second temptation is to not trust that God will protect and rule His people. He should take matters into His own hands and acquire political authority and prestige to rule over His people.
And the third temptation is to doubt not to trust God's faithfulness and reliability. He should put God to the test.
Each one of these particular temptations has it's historical counterpart to Israel in the desert. They suffered physical hunger to see if they would trust to provide them with their daily bread, which He did by raining down Manna and quail.
They had no king to rule over them and protect them. They had to trust that God would rule over them and protect them, which He did when He drowned Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea and delivered Israel safely through the Sea.
They were to trust in God's Word which He spoke through His servant Moses. But they tested God, demanding that He prove Himself to them, which He did by causing water to gush from a rock.
Israel was tested in exactly the three ways that Jesus was tested. Israel failed miserably but Jesus succeeded perfectly.
I suspect that we could lump every temptation that faces us into one of these three categories as well. And the primary issue in each and every temptation we face is whether or not we believe and trust God's Word and promise, made to us in our baptism, "you are my son, you are my daughter, whom I love."
III. His Victory is Our Victory
By His success over the devil, Jesus has rewritten history. Every failure to stand against the schemes of the devil has been rewritten with Jesus' victory. The victory that the devil won over the 1st Adam in the garden has been rewritten by the victory of the 2nd Adam in the wilderness.
Whereas all of Adam's offspring, right down to you and me were born in his sinful and fallen image, Jesus has given birth to a whole new humanity, born not of the flesh nor the will of man but born of God. A new humanity that is no longer identified as the sons and daughters of Adam, but that is identified as the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and sons and daughters of God the Father.
"So Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness."
And because He has won the victory, He would have us call upon our heavenly Father with all boldness and confidence saying, "lead us not into temptation," trusting without doubt, that has "delivered us from all evil."