Does anyone not like layer cake? Marc and I were out for dinner recently, and the people at the table next to us ordered chocolate layer cake for dessert. Its layers were made of different kinds of chocolate, and in between were layers of chocolate mousse, and it was all topped with a layer of frosting. It looked so delicious that, of course, we had to try it for ourselves!
Our story from Matthew is a kind of Scriptural layer cake—a three-layer cake. In the first one layer, Matthew shows how Jesus responded to the challenges that Satan posed. In the second layer, Matthew shows how Jesus’ responses to Satan communicate a message for the Church in every age. And, in the third layer, we discover how we can—and should—respond when we encounter the tempter.
We’ve heard this story so many times that we may think it’s pretty simple, like a superhero movie or a sporting event between big rivals. The devil is cast is the bad guy. Jesus is, well, Jesus. The devil tries to derail Jesus from his mission. Jesus chooses the spiritual over the earthly, using Scripture as his toolkit. Jesus defeats the devil and sends him away in defeat. The angels come and dump a bucket of Gatorade over Jesus’ head, and we have a happy ending. Moral of the story: when you’re tempted, just say no.
But there are so many more layers to the story. To get at them, we need to reframe our idea of who and what the devil actually is. We typically think of the devil—or Satan—as the personification of evil. We may not go so far as believing that he moves around the world in a red bodysuit carrying a pitchfork in his hand and sporting goat horns on his head. But, we may believe that Satan is an individual, possibly a fallen angel, who roams the world looking for victims to draw into his web of sin. Or, we may use the word Satan to talk about evil that is widespread in our world—what we call systemic evil, evil that you can’t pin on one person or organization but undeniably exists in our world.
In the gospels, the word devil is used interchangeably with words like Satan, tempter, and the evil one. But that was a relatively recent development in Biblical times. For much of the Old Testament which, of course, is what Jesus and his followers knew as Scripture, Satan was not an evil, fallen angel. He was a member of God’s court, with a special job to do. The name Satan in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary.” He was a kind of prosecuting attorney in the divine court of God’s justice—someone who would test suspects for possible offenses on behalf of God the heavenly judge. It was only in the time between the Old and New Testaments that Satan came to be viewed as a rebellious angel who continued to resist God’s will by trying to get people to sin. So, let’s picture Satan, not as the evil guy in red trying to lead Jesus—or us—into sin, but the one who tests us—and Jesus—by learning what we would do when offered a choice between the values of God’s kingdom or the values of the world around us.
Just before our story begins, Jesus had been baptized. The Spirit of God had descended upon him, and God had spoken those powerful words, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And then, Matthew tells us, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
This is a tough verse, I think. Why would it be necessary for Jesus to be tested? God had already put the divine seal of approval on him. There’s no question about Jesus’ identity. Matthew doesn’t tell this story to prove that Jesus is truly the Son of God. He tells it so that his readers can see that Jesus is the Son of God.
Matthew’s readers wouldn’t have been surprised at Jesus going through a trial period. That was a common theme in hero stories at the time. There’s no suggestion that Jesus was forced into the wilderness. And, the Greek words Matthew uses can be understood in different ways. The verse can be read, “Jesus was led, under the Spirit, into the wilderness.” And, the word for “led” would have had another meaning for those people who lived by the sea. For sailors, it meant to set sail—to set out. So, where we see the Spirit grabbing Jesus by the arm and dragging him into the desert, Matthew’s readers may have seen Jesus under the power and protection of the Spirit, embarking on the first stage of his ministry.
Where he went and what he did and how long he did it is more important than how he got there. Moses and the people of Israel also were led into the wilderness. Like Jesus, Moses fasted for forty days and nights on Mount Sinai before God gave him the stone tablets of the Law. When Jesus’ days of fasting were over, Matthew is careful to tell us that Jesus was famished. In this detail, Matthew affirms the humanity of Jesus. He is the Son of God, but he has human needs and desires.
It’s then that the trial starts. Satan begins the first two questions with the same phrase: “if you are the Son of God…” Like an able attorney, Satan is establishing a set of facts. Satan is not questioning Jesus’ identity here. Satan has no doubt that Jesus can do what Satan is suggesting. He just wants to determine what Jesus will choose when given two options—one that is faithful and one that is not. His intro is more along the lines of “since you are the Son of God…”
Then Satan poses the first test. “If—since—you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” This test isn’t to see if Jesus can turn stones into bread, thereby proving he’s the Son of God. They both know he has the power to do just what Satan has suggested. In fact, in the coming days, Jesus will turn a few loaves of bread and some fish into a feast for thousands. It’s not even a test of whether Jesus will choose the spiritual over the material. Jesus is famished. Human, physical needs are as real for him as they are for everyone else. Jesus never denies the demands of the human body. Satan’s proposal is reasonable, given Jesus’ hunger. But, the test is to see whom Jesus will rely on to satisfy his needs. Will he rely on his own power, or on God’s provision?
Jesus passes the test. In refusing to rely on himself, he reminds Satan of a chapter in Israel’s history. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, where Moses is doing some reminding of his own. Moses reminded the Israelites of how God fed them manna in the wilderness, in order to teach them that all that they have is by God’s grace, and that they should rely on God’s providence. Unlike them, Jesus knows that God’s faithful people rely on God alone.
Satan moves on to the next line of questioning. “OK, Jesus, since you are the Son of God, and the Psalms say that God will have angels making sure you won’t even so much as stub your toe, jump off the pinnacle of the Temple.” FYI, we don’t really know what the pinnacle was, but we can assume that jumping off of it and being borne up by angels would have been a pretty spectacular feat. But Satan’s not concerned with who might witness this act. Instead, Satan is testing Jesus on whether he trusts the words of Scripture. As Psalm 91, which we read as our Call to Worship, says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear us up, so that we will not dash our foot against a stone.” You’ve seen those bumper stickers that read, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”? Satan is asking Jesus whether he trusts God’s word.
Again, Jesus passes the test. Jesus knows that Scripture can be misinterpreted or misappropriated in ways that do not reflect God’s will or God’s intentions. He knows that he can rely on God’s care, expressed in Scripture, without testing God to see if God is reliable or not. Again, he quotes Moses in Deuteronomy, where Moses warns the Israelites not to test God as they did at Massah, where they complained about not having water and God gave it to them. Unlike those ancient Israelites, Jesus knows that God can be trusted simply because steadfast faithfulness is God’s nature. God does not need to be tested.
The tester poses his last challenge. The devil took Jesus to a high mountain, where he could see all the wealth and power of the world’s earthly kingdoms. This happens against the background of the Roman Empire, a world of rigid social classes, where the wealthy and powerful could thrive at the expense of the poor and powerless. Its social, political, and economic structure was enforced by violence and exploitation. Suggesting that this world and these kingdoms are Satan’s to give, Satan is willing to hand them over to Jesus. After all, this world and these kingdoms were the very ones that Jesus came to save and transform. But there’s a catch. Jesus must worship not God, but Satan.
Jesus passes the final test. Dismissing Satan, Jesus quotes Moses’ caution in Deuteronomy to the Israelites not to forget the Lord their God after they entered the Promised Land and found themselves in fine cities, living in fully furnished houses, satisfied by cisterns and vineyards and olive groves, none of which they built or planted. Moses said, “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you.” To take Satan up on his offer might give Jesus a leg up in fulfilling his mission to change the world, but the price will be his faithfulness to God.
The devil, having found out what he needed to know, leaves Jesus. The angels, whom Satan had suggested that Jesus use for his own devices, now come and provide the care promised by the Scriptures.
In this first layer of our Scriptural cake, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus lives out his identity as God’s Son, not through shows of power but through his reliance on God, his commitment to his mission, and his faithfulness to God’s kingdom. In his responses to the devil, Jesus also answers any questions and doubts that Matthew’s readers may have had—in his day and ours. Jesus’ actions are the evidence that he is the one who can lead Gd’s people into Gd’s kingdom.
The next layer of our cake is a word to the Church in Matthew’s time and for all time. In Luke’s telling of the temptation story, Satan only suggests turning one stone into one loaf of bread. Matthew turns that one stone into multiple stones to be turned into multiple loaves. One would have been enough to meet Jesus’ needs. Many loaves would have fed many people. There was a popular expectation that the Messiah would provide food for all, and by meeting that expectation through the use of his own abilities, Jesus would have gained a lot of political power. The Church can be fooled into thinking that, if we give people what that they want, we can gain power in a world where we have little. The Church that starts relying on its own resources to make a big splash is the Church that is no longer relying on God.
Secondly, the Church must take care with how it uses Scripture. It must never be misused in ways that lead us and others away from God’s kingdom, as Satan’s use of it might have done. The Church has a responsibility to study what the Scriptures say, using tradition, experience, and reason to discern their meaning for the Church today. That doesn’t mean we will always agree on what they say. But it does mean that we should test our interpretations against the abiding qualities of God’s kingdom, as it was brought near in Jesus.
Third, the Church must be careful not to begin thinking that the ends justify the means. Jesus could have taken the easy way to gaining popularity and power in service to his mission. But the cost would have been his faithfulness to God. The Church today, as it did during Roman times, must decide what it will be in a time when it is easier to blend in with the world around us in order to increase its popular appeal. There is a danger in seizing on narrow but popular issues in order to gain power or people. There is no shortage of would-be messiahs who demand allegiance to themselves and their programs, both religious and secular. The Church must never fall into the trap of serving other gods. The Church always needs to seek God’s kingdom first—a kingdom of righteousness and justice and compassion.
Finally, we have the last layer of our cake—the layer that speaks to us about how we should respond when we are tempted to take a path away from God’s kingdom. Of course, all the things that apply to the Church as a whole apply to us individually, since we are the Church. But there are some more very practical take-aways in this story for our lives today.
One is that we need to choose our leaders wisely. Some who desire positions of leadership do so for the wrong reasons. They want to satisfy their own needs—to feel important, to gain power, to get revenge on their enemies. If you hear someone say that they are the only ones who can do the job, beware. That is a sure sign that they are relying on their themselves, and not on God. Whether it’s on the national political stage, the Church, or our own circles of friends, we need leaders who know where true strength and power reside, and on whom we—and they—must depend.
Another things we can learn from the story id how to respond to those who challenge us. In this day and time, we have fallen into the trap of villainizing anyone who disagrees with us. We see them as the enemy. We dismiss them or dehumanize them with name-calling—even if it’s as mild as saying “those liberals” or “those conservatives.” When the tempter challenged Jesus, Jesus didn’t get angry. He didn’t call Satan names. He didn’t accuse him. He didn’t argue. He simply answered the challenge by sharing what he knew to be true. When we encounter someone who tempts us to anger, simply because they suggest a path we don’t agree with, we can follow Jesus’ lead.
Finally, as we read this story, we are most likely to put ourselves in the role of the one being tempted. But we can just as easily be the ones doing the tempting. We xan be the ones who make choices based on what benefits us the most. We can be the ones who speak and act out of an arrogance that suggests we have forgotten that God is in charge. We can be the ones who cut corners, even when it’s for a good cause.
In our baptismal vows, we pledge to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world. There are plenty of cautions in Scripture not to be a stumbling block to others. In our actions, our words, and our attitudes, we need to make sure that we’re not the ones giving others cause to move away from Jesus instead of towards him. Paul encourages us to be imitators of Christ, as he strove to be. As we model our lives on the image of Jesus, we can ensure that others aren’t encountering the tempter in us.
Every great cake has a layer of frosting, and here’s the frosting on our Scripture layer cake. As we strive to live more holy lives, in both our encounters with the tempter and in our encounters with others, we are not alone. We do not have to rely on our own strength. Jesus has given us his Spirit, and by the power of that Spirit, we can match the tempter’s testing with grace. We can live lives worthy of our calling, and so avoid being tempters to others. Just as Marc and I were drawn by the delicious cake at our neighbor’s table, as we as followers of Jesus live into the kingdom of God, those who see us will want that, too. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young