Lent 1 • Matthew 4:1–11 • March 13, 2011
By John Loum
In general, you find that in Middle Eastern and African cultures food quite often is used in a time for fellowship, a symbol of hospitality and the welcome of a stranger. In our text, though, we see how the devil uses food to advance his attack on Jesus; something he thought could easily derail Jesus’s mission. Imagine this: the devil started his dirty tricks on Jesus just when he thought the time was right, when Jesus had been fasting and must have been hungry. Do you realize by what method the devil introduces his lies? He uses a conditional statement, which in my way of thinking suggests the “doubting Thomas” tactic. “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Mt 4:3, and Jn 20:27). And so the devil, by conditionally referring to Jesus as “the Son of God,” is subjecting Jesus’s divinity and lordship to doubt (interestingly something which is similar to the Muslim contention of the Quran Sura 9:30). Yet in spite of the devil’s (the Arabic equivalent is Iblis) deception, as Christians we affirm Jesus’s divinity and lordship as timeless truth.
In continuation, there are two other lies told by the devil. In verse 5, the devil asks Jesus to throw himself down, while showing him the temple. Next, the devil’s promise of kingdoms if Jesus will worship him essentially points back to Deuteronomy 5:6–7, that there is only one God (the word in Arabic for this doctrine is Tawhid), neither should there be any graven image of him. In verse 8, the devil alludes to power and influence, but the devil’s “power and influence” holds no sway over Jesus. After all, the whole universe already belongs to God.
There are several key elements worth noting while reading this text, especially the devil’s final temptation for Jesus to worship him. First, in pagan religions, gods are represented both in human and animal forms. Second, the imageless worship of the invisible God is a fundamental characteristic of Mosaic faith. Third, the sense of covenant here is strong, especially of the Sinai tradition and its deliberations.
The implications of the text in our contemporary world and lives
In my African context, speaking about the devil is not an imagination or fiction, nor is it a delusion. Most Africans would perhaps notably envisage the devil (or something similar called by other names) interchangeably with Satan or an evil spirit. They might conceive of him most notably through his evil works as a tempter or as an evil destructive agent. Still, he would be branded as one who motivates conduct or might even possess someone who might be seen as cunning or perpetrating evil deeds in society or the church. As a pastor, you might sometimes feel as though you can see some actions as being of the devil. And so it was with Jesus later in Matthew 16:23, when he said, “Get behind me, Satan.” The devil is real. This we know to be true.
During this period of Lent, perhaps it would be best to remind ourselves of the many tricks of the devil. They are numerous, and he knows no limits or boundaries. In these days of culture wars, we are witnessing an invasion of nearly every matter considered godly. The devil uses the relativistic tendencies in our culture to marginalize Christian morality and ethics.
In the Lutheran service of holy baptism the question is asked, “Do you renounce the devil?” The sponsors and the congregation respond, “We renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways.” That pledge, I am sure, must be said with some degree of humility, knowing that our struggle is against the power of evil (Eph 6:12). And so, while we are still on this side of heaven, we try to defeat the evil in us. Victory in all of our battles with evil is achieved only through the power and aid of the Holy Spirit. There is a responsibility on our side as Christians to be in the word, so that, like our Lord, a good knowledge of the word can equip us to counter the devil’s tricks and his evil deceptions.
Finally, as we apply this text to our daily personal lives and in our corporate lives as a community, we can gain three lessons. First, there will be struggle and vulnerability in our lives. Secondly, we are bound to be tempted or swayed by the evil one. And third, there will always be victory in Christ. When sometimes it may appear that the devil seems to be in triumph, let us always remember there will be joy in the morning when victory comes and evil is defeated. And then, like our Lord, we take joy and comfort that we are never alone, that the Lord takes care of his own, and that the same angels who ministered to Jesus minister to us.