Matthew 4:1-11 (Genesis 3:1-21)
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Why was the knowledge of good and evil harmful to Adam and Eve? Why did God not want them to partake of that? What’s the big deal? What’s wrong with human beings having their eyes opened to whatever they want to look in to?
In the beginning Adam and Eve knew only good; they experienced only the gifts and the blessing of God’s creation. They did not need to know and understand how evil works, all the ins and outs of what its like to reject God and to live disconnected from His Word. All they needed to know was that they shouldn’t go there, they shouldn’t depart from His words, and to do so would bring death. That was enough.
The Lord gave this command for good reason. For with created beings like us, to know evil is to be changed and corrupted by it. Even on the most basic level, you probably know what it’s like to have seen something that you wish you hadn’t seen–an immoral image, an act of gory violence, some traumatic event. But now there’s no unseeing it. The evil sticks with you and changes how you perceive even good things in your life. Or on a little bit deeper level, perhaps you’ve done or experienced something that you shouldn’t have. Even if you’ve repented of it and are forgiven, or even if it happened without your consent, even if you’ve tried to forget it and put it out of your mind, the effects often still remain and burden you. You’ve become a bit more calloused or jaded. There is still a sense of being tainted by it all.
God didn’t want Adam and Eve or you or me to know any of this evil. He wanted us to receive only good things from His gracious hand–rather than being turned in on ourselves, hiding out from our fears, preoccupied with covering up our shame. The Lord wants us to live in the blessed innocence of knowing only His goodness, nothing more. That’s not stupidity or naivete, any more than we would call a child stupid or naive because they haven’t seen a bloody mixed martial arts knockout or an X rated movie. In fact we think of children as being greatly blessed when they are free from all the corrupting influences of life that adults know, when they are just able to be kids. We envy them; we find joy in seeing their joy in the simple pleasures of life. Just because we know more and have experienced and seen more doesn’t mean that we’re better off than they are at all. That’s why Scripture counsels us, “In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
Today we acknowledge that we are those who, like our first parents, have transgressed into the realm of the knowledge of good and evil. We’ve wanted to be like God, to achieve our own form of self-fulfillment, to have our eyes opened to whatever our hearts desire. Repent, for that is the way of death. You know it; you feel it in your bones. Turn to Christ Jesus. For He has come to destroy the evil that corrupts our natures. He has come to make things good and right again.
That’s why Jesus is in the wilderness in today’s Gospel reading. In the Garden of Eden man exalted himself to be a god in place of God. However, in the sin-cursed wilderness God humbles Himself to become a man in place of man.
Jesus does not eat but fasts and bears the onslaughts of the devil for us that we may be restored to life. In the Garden man tried to win independence from God, to be his own master, to be in charge of his own life. But in the wilderness, Jesus relies on His heavenly Father, submitting to His will and looking to Him for all that He needs, in order that He might restore us to faith and to a right relationship with God.
Let us give our attention then to the devil’s temptation of Christ and how Christ won the victory for us over the evil one. For here we are given to see the only way out of the trap that the knowledge of evil has lured us into. Only in Jesus is our corruption undone.
Jesus was tested and tempted in every way just as we are. As God, He couldn’t be tempted. But He set aside that divine privilege here. He put His bullet proof vest on the shelf, you might say. This was the Son of God as true Man against the devil, a match promised back in Genesis where God said He would do battle with the devil through the Promised Seed of the woman. The head crusher versus the heal crusher. No referee in the ring. One on one in the wilderness. He fights for you.
The first temptation is the temptation of the flesh, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” “Feed your appetite. Your Father isn’t providing for you like He should. Are you sure He loves you? Take things into Your own hands. Do what you want for Yourself. You don’t have to humble Yourself like this and listen to Him. Come on, Son of God!” Notice how the devil tries to implant doubt with His temptation. “If you are the Son of God. . .” At His Baptism the Father had just said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Now Satan wants Him to doubt that.
This is how the devil subtly attacks you, too. Satan wants you to doubt the Word of God spoken at your baptism. “If you really were a beloved child of God, would God allow you to go through the things you’ve gone through? And look at you, sinner; you don’t much look like a Christian. Are you sure you’re forgiven? Are you sure God wants you?” This is the true evil of the devil’s temptation. It’s bad enough if he can lure you to engage in sinful behavior. But even worse, he then takes those sins and shoves them in your face and tries to make you think you’re not even a Christian, that you don’t have true faith. That’s why the greater temptation is the spiritual kind. In the Small Catechism, Luther placed the three temptations in this order: first, false belief; then, despair; and then, other great shame and vice. The vices come last; issues of faith come first.
And so when the devil assaults your conscience and reminds you of your sins, use Luther’s technique and add a few more sins to the devil’s list that he forgot about, and then tell him to go to hell where he belongs. Fight him off by clinging to Christ and His Word. Know that all of your sins were swallowed up in the wounds of Christ on the holy cross. Anything that the devil can charge you with, Christ answered for at Calvary. With the Word and name of Jesus you can put the devil to flight. In this way Christ truly is your mighty fortress.
Jesus is faithful for our sake. He wins this battle on our behalf, denying Himself, trusting in His heavenly Father, and fending off this temptation with the Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Our real life comes not simply from food but from God’s words and speaking. His breath and voice give us life. “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” “I forgive you all your sins.” “This is My body and blood given and shed for you.” Feeding on that Bread of Life, we live.
Jesus quotes Scripture, and so the devil, in his monstrous craftiness also quotes Scripture. He took Jesus up into the holy city, 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 shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” The devil has here what seems like a pious idea. God says that His angels will protect you. So let’s see if it’s true. Jump from the roof of the temple. But testing God like that does not flow from faith but from unbelief. It’s an attempt to manipulate God and make Him do your bidding. Unbelief demands miracles and signs and outward displays of power to prove that God is really with you. Beware of those who want you to prove your faith with extraordinary works or signs. That is the religion of the devil. Jesus said, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”
Don’t ever forget that the devil is very good at religion. He can quote the Bible with the best of them. But his religion, his Bible-quoting is always a perversion of the truth. It has the appearance of godliness, but it is devoid of the grace of God, or it perverts God’s grace beyond recognition and mixes it with man-made righteousness. The devil laughs at the naivete of those who think that it doesn’t matter what religion you are as long as you’re sincere. The devil is the founder of every sincere false religion out there. He loves it when people are “spiritual.” What he doesn’t like is the cross of Christ–if people believe the preaching of the true Gospel, if they receive the Sacraments with penitent faith, if they trust not in their own merits but in the merits of Jesus alone for forgiveness.
Finally, the third temptation is that of power and honor and glory. “All these [kingdoms of the world and their glory] I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” “You don’t need to go the way of weakness and the cross, Jesus. All this heavy stuff about suffering and sacrifice–just put that out of Your mind. You can have it all right now. Just make this one little change, this one little compromise in Your principles and Your plans.” Whereas we would be mightily tempted to take the equivalent of a billion dollar lottery ticket, Jesus doesn’t entertain such a thought for even a moment. As our faithful captain, He quickly makes one mighty thrust of the sword of the Spirit, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” And the devil slithers out of the ring, defeated, badly wounded, waiting for an opportune time to try a final revenge attack. Jesus would not take the path of least resistance. He took the path to Calvary, the only path that would truly ransom you from the power of the devil. By the shedding of His holy blood, Jesus released you from Satan’s grip and purchased you as His own.
Today’s Gospel, then, marks the beginning of that victory of our Lord over the devil. Here’s the key point: Christ has carried your human flesh into temptation, and He has triumphed. He has prevailed over sin, over the devil, over death, all for you. Where Adam was defeated, Jesus is victorious. And He gives you His victory as a gift through faith in His name. Romans 5 states, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Jesus was obedient even to the point of death on the cross, for you. Just as Adam and Eve’s clothing was made from an animal God had sacrificed, so Jesus was sacrificed for you by the Father, that through His shed blood you would be clothed with His righteousness. The risen Lord has taken away the sin that gives Satan his deathly power over you. Now in Christ you are set free from the fatal desire to know and play around with evil. You can see that lure for what it truly is. Now for you who are in Christ, it is “dust to dust to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
Seeing, then, that we have such a great High Priest and Redeemer, let us hold fast our confession of faith in Christ. Come boldly to His throne of grace, that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need. In the midst of your testings and temptations and battles, believe that in Christ, the victory is already won. We pray, “Deliver us from evil.” And the Lord does; and He has. Through Him the words of the Introit come true for you, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra; the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠