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“The Path of the Son” on Matthew 4.1-11 by Joe Ellis — First Sunday in Lent, Feb. 18, 2024

This is one of the most significant stories for our understanding of Jesus’ vocation and how he went about fulfilling his mission. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each make sure we hear this story. Each telling points to something incredibly decisive happening in this encounter between the Messiah and the adversary, Satan. Satan is doing more than simply trying to trip Jesus up with a couple of juicy temptations. Satan has crafted these temptations in an attempt to cause Jesus to fail in the vocation God has given Jesus.


There are several ways to title Jesus’ vocation — Christ, Messiah, the Son of Man, but perhaps the most fitting title to capture Jesus’ vocation is “Son of God.” That’s the title Satan keeps using here. Remember, before this battle in the desert, Jesus was baptized by John. Remember, in Matthew 3:16-17, as Jesus was coming up from the water, the heavens opened, the Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove, and the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  In our passage in Matthew 4, Satan wants Jesus to fail in His vocation as God’s Son.


So, what does it mean for Jesus to have the vocation of being the Son of God. If you were to have a conversation with a First Century Jew, or perhaps even a modern Jew, about who first received the title of God’s son in the Old Testament, he or she would most likely say, “The people of Israel, of course!” One of the most powerful affirmations of this is found in Exodus 4. The people of Israel are enslaved in Egypt. God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh in v. 23, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.  I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.”  God intended to bring His son out of Egypt, into the wilderness, to worship the Father. If you are familiar with the story of the Exodus, you know that the son, Israel, failed in his vocation to be God’s son. The son, Israel, was tempted in all the ways that we see Satan here tempting Jesus — and ultimately Israel succumbed to temptation, worshiping a creature instead of the creator. In the narrative world of the Old Testament, this was catastrophic not just because Israel sinned and sin is bad — Israel, the son, became incapable of fulfilling the vocation of being the firstborn son. The purpose that God had for Israel, His son, was to rescue all creation, to rescue all the nations through Israel. God made a solemn promise to the founding father of Israel — Abraham. God promised to Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would reverse the curse of the fall. That Abraham’s descendants would bring blessing on all the nations. That’s a big part of the plan as God brings his son, Israel, out of Egypt — But again and again and again, Israel was incapable of living into its vocation of reversing the curse covering the earth.


Let’s talk more about this curse. You may remember how this curse began. One of the first stories in Scripture (in Genesis 2) tells of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. This garden was perfect, beautiful, life-sustaining — a picture of intimacy between God, humans and creation. In this garden, they were meant to have perfect fellowship with God and with one another. Adam and Even had the vocation of extending the domain of this paradise throughout all the Earth — that the whole Earth might be a temple in which all would worship the Lord God in shalom. But then the tempter came in Genesis 3, crafting a way for Adam and Eve to fail in their vocation. Using the same tactics we see Satan use with Jesus, Satan compelled Adam and Eve to doubt the trustworthiness of God. They succumbed. Instead of expelling the tempter from the garden, instead of trusting in the commands God set out for them, they listened to the serpent. They trusted the creature rather than the creator. They fell from grace. They were expelled from the garden. They set off this rupture in relationship that has persisted ever since: the broken relationship between humans and God, between humans and creation, and between humans and one another.


Of course, God will not leave this world in chaos. He called His firstborn son, Israel, to rescue the nations, to rescue the land, to remove the curse and to restore shalom throughout the earth. But the problem was that the firstborn son, Israel, was under the same curse as everyone else. Israel’s time in the wilderness after leaving Egypt demonstrated that beyond a doubt. This meant the firstborn son, Israel, needed rescuing just like everyone else. The firstborn son, Israel, was just as susceptible to listening to the voice of Satan as everyone else. God had promised Abraham that he would rescue the world through his descendants, through Israel. But Israel itself needed rescuing.


Once again, remember what the Father says when Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism? “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  This is my Son. Perhaps, with the background I just explained from the Old Testament, you can hear the significance of that title. Are you thinking: ‘But I thought Israel was God’s Son?’ Precisely. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel. Jesus is God’s Son — Jesus is Israel. Jesus is doing what Israel could not do for itself. Jesus is doing what Israel could not do for the world. Jesus fulfills the vocation of the faithful son where Israel proved a faithless son. Faithfulness to God’s way is the only way for salvation. Jesus would be faithful where the nation of Israel, where Adam and Eve proved faithless.


So, Satan is attempting to cause the Son to fail out of his mission, his vocation. As I was reading about how the story of Satan’s temptations in the desert was a way of derailing Jesus from his vocation, I decided to go to one of the places in Scripture where Jesus’s vocation is most clearly described: Philippians 2:5-11. When I read this, I was surprised to see Satan’s temptations move Jesus to act in a way that is in complete opposition to Paul’s description of Jesus’ vocation in Philippians 2. This is path that the Son must follow to live into His vocation. In the broadest terms, this describes how Jesus needed to be faithful to bring about the salvation of the world. (This is from the NRSV translation.)

Paul says:

5 Let the same mindset be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


In summary form, that is the Son’s vocation — that is what faithfulness looks like. In getting Jesus to fail, Satan wants Jesus to fail along the lines of that story. After all, that story is the way Jesus would bring about salvation for the world. Let’s look at the different sections of what Paul tells us in Philippians.


First, the Son “though being in the very form of God, he did not regard His equality with God as something to be exploited.”  Notice how this parallels the first temptation. Satan approaches the Son — the Son who is hungry after fasting for so long. Just as Israel was hungry and thirsty in the desert, so was Jesus. But unlike Jesus, the hunger and thirst of Israel led them to doubt God’s sustaining care for them. Israel demanded God satisfy their hunger and thirst. For Israel, God’s goodness was dependent on whether he would give them food. Not so for Jesus. “How did Paul say it? “He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” But perhaps Satan would say, “Jesus, it’s so undignified, this hunger. Jesus, it’s so unnecessary, this hunger. As God’s Son, you certainly have power to satisfy your hunger. Just turn this stone into bread.” Jesus did not consider his power as something to be exploited for his own personal gain — hence he did not exploit his power to turn stone to bread. This would not be the last time Jesus was tested in this way. The Pharisees would come and demand a sign “to test him.” In those moments, giving a sign would only serve himself, satisfying a human hunger for honour, recognition, and power. Again and again, the Son does not exploit God’s power for his own personal gain. But, notice that the Son does wield the power of God to serve others (we see that when he multiplies the loaves and fish in the wilderness). But the Son does not exploit His power to serve Himself. Instead, to satisfy his own hunger, the Son will depend upon the word of God — a quotation from Deuteronomy. This book records Moses’ words to the people of Israel before entering in the promised land. There, God says the purpose of the hunger was to develop humility amongst Israel, dependence on God, and obedience to God’s commands. All Jesus’ responses to Satan are from Deuteronomy. The point shall become clearer and clearer — The Son is faithful to His vocation where Israel was not. Satan’s first temptation, failed.


So Satan tries again to incite the Son to deviate from his vocation. The Son’s vocation involves falling, falling from a terrible height, a fall that would surely kill Jesus. Listen to how Paul would describe Jesus’ fall in Philippians 2: “That though Christ Jesus was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”  That is a significant fall — going from being in the form of God — to emptying those parts of His divine-self so as to not only become human, but become like a slave. Simply to have been born a human emperor or a king would have been quite a fall — and the Son keeps falling. Paul says, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”  Such a fall from heaven — the most humiliating, degrading, painful of deaths. And Satan takes Jesus to the house of God — the place most intimately tied to God’s presence. Satan again tests Jesus’ vocation saying, “If you truly are God’s Son” throw yourself off… but then he quotes Psalm 91 as though to say, “if you must indeed fall, you needn’t fall in such a disgraceful way. Scripture itself says that the angels will catch you. You needn’t fall so far.” This is the second temptation — to avoid falling, to avoid the humiliation, the pain, the despair of falling to death. And as you fall, to experience being stripped of honour, betrayal by your closest allies, scourged, mocked and crucified. This temptation would surface again and again in Christ’s life. After explaining to his disciples how he would be handed over and crucified “Peter says, ‘surely not Lord!’” Recognizing what Peter said was the same temptation as from Satan (it’s about avoiding the pain of falling), Jesus says to Peter: “Get behind me Satan!” The temptation to catch himself from falling didn’t end there. On the cross, the second thief echoes the words of Satan in Matthew 27:40: “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  The Son does not stop his fall. Mysteriously, it’s God’s way for salvation. Jesus declines Satan’s temptation, again quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16 — “Do not put the Lord, Your God to the test.” Jesus will not avoid the fall. The Son was faithful to His vocation where Israel was not. Satan’s second temptation, failed.


The final temptation parallels with the final verse in Philippians 2:9-11. Satan takes Jesus up to the highest of mountains and shows him all the kingdoms of the Earth. Satan makes an offer that he believes will be impossible for the Son to refuse. “All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.”  While the second temptation was a shortcut around the avoidance of pain — the third temptation is a shortcut to victory. Satan holds out to the Son the fruit of victory, the victory the Son would claim only after so much pain, so much humiliation, so much suffering, so much death. Satan is offering: ‘Certainly all that is unnecessary. Forsake God, and all the kingdoms shall be yours. You will get the same, it will only be so much easier.’ But that was not the way of the Son. As Paul teaches us again and again — falling and rising occur together, on God’s terms. Listen to this, Paul says because the Son endured death on a cross, “God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Satan implied he could give him all this without the pain. But what Satan could offer was simply a shadow of what Jesus would claim. The Son’s victory went so far beyond what Satan could offer. In Matthew 28 Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  That is one reason Satan was so terrified of the faithfulness of the Son — the faithfulness of the Son meant the assured destruction of Satan’s kingdom. Jesus is not tempted, he says, “Away from me Satan, it is written (again in the book of Deuteronomy 6:13), Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”  The the Son is faithful to His vocation where Israel was not. Satan’s third temptation failed.


Here, the victory has been won. The Son would be faithful to his vocation where Israel was faithless. The Son would be faithful where Adam and Eve were faithless. The Son has said what Adam and Eve should have said to Satan so long ago: “Away from me Satan.” That was Adam and Eve’s job, to cast the devil out of the garden and extend peace throughout the Earth. They couldn’t do it. But here, Jesus fulfills their vocation, saying what they could not say: “Away from me Satan!” — and the devil left. Jesus, the Son, the only True Israel, did not deviate from the path that the Father set out. The Son did not exploit his status for His own gain. The Son did not avoid the terror of falling from His exalted state to the place of humiliation. And because of this, God highly exalted him and gave him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  The story of temptation is the story of the Son’s faithfulness to His Father which resulted in His victory over the Satan. This is the story where the success of God’s rescue operation for the whole world became vouchsafed in the Son, the true Israel.


Now, I want you to notice something — this is also a lesson for us. Satan wants us to fail to follow the path of the Son in the same ways. We must be aware. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20) After we follow Jesus, we become a part of Him. That means we are a part of Israel, because he is Israel — so we are called to follow his pattern. We are to follow his pattern of not exploiting our relationship with the Son, we are to follow his pattern of trusting that God will raise us up when we fall. That is the whole reason why, in Philippians, Paul told that story about Jesus being in the form of God but not exploiting that power, becoming humble and humiliated only to be raised up by God. Paul remind us that we are to, “Have the same mindset amongst yourselves as was in Christ Jesus.”


Satan attempts us to deviate from the pattern of Jesus in the same way we see him attempting to get Jesus to deviate from the pattern of the Son. Satan tempts us to exploit power for our own personal gain. Satan tempts us to forgo the humiliation of falling if we can. Satan tempts us to avoid the self-abasement that brings about victory. In the same way he tempted Jesus, Satan likewise tempts us to avoid the path of the Son. Jesus tells us that we must follow his pattern into victory: turn the other cheek; love and pray for your enemies; take up our cross daily and follow Him. Satan wants us to opt for easy power rather than the power of the cross. But that is not our way. We follow Him on the road to Calvary — because we want to see the power of God at work in the weak made strong. His victory is assured.


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