The Temptations in the Wilderness

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, July 31, 2005

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.” (MAT 4:10,11)

The doctrine of the Church tells us that from His earliest childhood up to the last hour of His life in the world, the Lord was assaulted by all the hells, against which He continually fought, and subjugated and overcame them (AC 1690). And yet Scripture tells us relatively little about His temptations. On the one hand, it would be impossible to describe them in much detail because the Lord’s temptations were battles for good and truths that we can only dimly comprehend. On the other hand, there is value in knowing about His temptations, because as we are created in His image and likeness, that is, with a will and an understanding that correspond to His Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, by learning about His temptations we can learn something about how to handle our own.

While Scripture does not contain a detailed account of the Lord’s temptations, it does provide us with a summary of those battles that the Lord fought against the hells from earliest childhood. The summary is the story of when the Lord went into the wilderness, fasted for 40 days, and was then tempted by the devil in three ways. The three temptations described in these verses represent a whole lifetime of temptation, both for the Lord and for us. Rather than thinking of these as three individual incidents, we should be able to see that each of the three represents a whole class or type of temptation, each of which we may have to face over and over again during the normal course of our lives. 

The series begins when, according to Scripture, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. (MAT 4:1,2)

First, we should note that He was led up by the Spirit, for this sets the tone for all that follows in that it explains that the whole experience took place in the spiritual world. He was in a “wilderness” state of mind, not actually in the wilderness, nor did the Lord climb to the top of the temple in Jerusalem or climb a mountain while accompanied by a fellow named Satan.

The same thing is true for us in our states of temptation, for we all live in the spiritual world as to our thoughts and feelings. While we are yet on earth we are constantly associated with both good and evil spirits, for this is the way that the Lord has provided that His Divine life should flow into us, by means of spirits who serve to moderate the Divine power in much the same way that the earth’s atmospheres protect us from the full power of the sun’s rays. Our temptations are also spiritual in nature, and going into the wilderness represents our states when we feel alone and without any kind of spiritual nourishment or refreshment. We don’t go into the wilderness just once, but many times during our lives, and each time we must find a way back to the “land of milk and honey,” or those states where we feel content and close to the Lord.

The wilderness pictures the state of the church as the Lord saw it in His day, and His temptations were temptations to find some means of saving the people by some other route than allowing them the freedom to choose good or evil – because it didn’t appear to be working very well. But in our own lives the wilderness pictures rather the state of uncertainty and discouragement which frequently comes over anyone who turns from a life of self-seeking to attempt the spiritual life. It is when we are low that the hells attack, when we seem to ourselves to be the weakest. Then, all the chaff is swept away and the essential spiritual quality is exposed.

Even though temptations are the means by which we remove evils from ourselves, by which our spiritual character is strengthened, we should never deliberately invite temptation, for we do not really know the degree of our own weakness, our own inclinations. Only the Lord, with His infinite and intimate knowledge of our particular spiritual make-up and state can judge how far we are prepared to meet evil. Rather than seeking out temptation, it should be our desire to seek out the good of life. This is why we are taught to pray, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (MAT 6:13) But, when in the Lord’s Divine Providence, temptation does come, we should meet it boldly and use all the means that the Lord has provided to help us resist it.

One more thing to consider before we look at the three types of temptation presented in the story is the nature of the tempter himself, Satan. The Devil, or Satan is not a person, but a symbol for the very real power of the hells which is constantly trying to stir up our inclinations to evil. There is not one great devil, but all the evil spirits in hell are called devils. It may help us if in temptation we realize that the evil inclinations we feel are not our own, but actually inspired by hell, and since they are not our own, we can, with the Lord’s help, reject them. (See DP 320)

We read from Matthew, Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (4:3,4). Could the Lord have turned the stones to bread if He wanted to? Yes, He could have. Scripture tells us that he fed the children of Israel in the desert for 40 years by making bread fall from the sky every day, and great flocks of birds to descend on the camp every evening. Yes, He can do anything:  He could have changed human nature, removed the love of evil from all hearts, taken everyone straight into heaven. In the short view, this would seem to accomplish the Lord’s most important goal, that of creating a heaven from the human race and He was tempted to do it But in the long run it would not have worked, because the freedom of each individual to choose heaven according to their own loves and desires would be lost. Without free will, we would not be human, nor would we be able to return God’s love, therefore defeating the very purpose of creating heaven and earth in the first place. Therefore, to turn stones to bread, to turn men into angels, was contrary to Divine order. Instead, the Lord would take on the far more difficult task of leading men to heaven secretly, in freedom, and in such a way as to appear that they were fighting their own evils, and leading themselves to heaven.

For us, this represents our temptation to be satisfied with an external appearance of good, to make truth on the natural plane satisfy our minds, the idea that we can be good by doing external good works without caring about knowledge of God and spiritual things; the thought that if we do things to make others physically comfortable, no thought about the Lord or spiritual things is necessary.

Stones represent truths on the natural plane and to make them into bread to satisfy hunger is to find our satisfactions in natural external good works and taking credit to ourselves for them, without looking to the Lord for guidance and power. The Lord’s answer to the tempter points to the fact that we are primarily spiritual beings and not living truly human lives if we take no interest in spiritual things.

The second temptation is described in these words, Then the devil took Him 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 concerning you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ “ Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ “ (MAT 4:5-7)

Remember that that right at the beginning of the text we are told, Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness (MAT 4:1). This was not something that was taking place in the world of nature, but in the world of spirit, therefore the travel from the wilderness to the temple in Jerusalem was purely symbolic. The temple was chosen to represent the temptation we have to think that we can get into heaven no matter what we do, to think that we can do things which we know are wrong and dangerous to our souls, and expect the Lord to save us in spite of our folly. An example would be to go to church and act as if we believe in the Lord, and then act any way we please during the rest of the week. This is an intellectual temptation, the temptation to think it is enough if we know the truth from the Word without obeying it.

The third temptation is described in this way:  Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ “ (MAT 4:8-10)

Again, this has to be symbolic, as there is no mountain anywhere from which all the kingdoms of the earth can be seen, as most would lie below the horizon. There is no mountain high enough from which to view even those kingdoms which existed in those days. Even if there was, those worldly kingdoms were not the devil’s to give, as they already belonged to the Lord, the Creator. But those in the hells imagine themselves to have great power and dominion over others, and imagine that they therefore have power to give to others – but it is all a sad fantasy. They are permitted to imagine these things, and by magic arts provide thrones and palaces for themselves from which they can pretend to rule as long as they do not harm others. But this they cannot resist for long, and as soon as it happens, the light from heaven inflows and the fantasies all disappear.

This is how the hells tempt people – through fantasies. They whisper in the ear, and you imagine how you might do something without anybody knowing, and you will derive great pleasure from it – but genuine delights are not controlled or conferred by those in hell. The delight we may feel when doing something selfish is a short-lived pleasure that soon demands greater and greater excess, or risk, or whatever, and can only lead to frustration for it cannot be hidden forever as it continues to grow. Only heavenly loves can grow and endure forever, for they never have to be hidden, and they are given by the Lord to those who, from conscience, follows the teaching of the Word.

The essential quality of this temptation is to turn away from the Lord entirely, and delight in the world; to give up the effort to learn and do the Lord’s will and to seek only self-interest and self-satisfaction – the loves of self and the world. There is also the temptation to try to make others serve us, to impose our will on those around us. We can see that with the Lord, whose power was infinite and who knew that His will was right in a way that no person can, this temptation was directed against His inmost love of saving the whole human race. For us it is the temptation to let selfishness take possession of our hearts.

There are several things we can conclude from this story:  First and foremost, we should see and understand the power of the Word in fighting against temptations. We note that in each case the Lord answered the tempter with an appropriate quotation from Scripture. If we really want to overcome our inclinations to do evil, there is no better way than to find a passage in the Word which either expressly forbids it, or commands us to do the opposite to the evil, memorize that verse, and repeat it to ourselves whenever the temptation strikes.

Quoting scripture accomplishes two things:  first it reminds us that even simple things are really important in the context of our spiritual lives, for we are really making a choice between following God, or choosing hell; and it opens a way in our minds for the Lord to come in and help us.

Remember that the Word is like Jacob’s ladder, with angels ascending and descending, that is, our thoughts ascending to the Lord at the top, and the Lord’s inflowing love and power to fight against the evils descending down to us, uplifting, protecting, and leading. 

We read again from Matthew, Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ “ Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him. (MAT 4:10,11) We like to be rational, we try to appear reasonable, and this often works when dealing with people in the world, but it is very difficult to argue with the devil because He can cleverly twist the Word to confuse even the best of us. Instead, we must fall back to the basics:  Know that evil is from hell. When it draws near, tell it to get away, and instead look to the Lord in His Word. The Lord has promised that if you will flee from evils, and strive to follow and serve Him, the devils will leave, and the angels will draw near to protect you and bring you peace. Amen.

 


First Lesson:

(Mat 4:1-11) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. {2} And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. {3} Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” {4} But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” {5} Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, {6} 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.’” {7} Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’” {8} Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. {9} And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” {10} Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” {11} Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him. Amen.

Second Lesson:  AC 1690 (port.)

In the internal sense the temptations are treated of that the Lord sustained in His childhood, concerning which nothing is related in the Word of the New Testament, except concerning His temptation in the wilderness, or soon after He came out of the wilderness, and finally concerning His last temptation in Gethsemane and what then followed. That the Lord’s life, from His earliest childhood even to the last hour of His life in the world, was continual temptation and continual victory, is evident from many things in the Word of the Old Testament; and that it did not cease with the temptation in the wilderness is evident from what is said in Luke :- And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from Him for a season (iv. 13) as also from the fact that He was tempted even to the death on the cross, and thus to the last hour of His life in the world. Hence it is evident that the whole of the Lord’s life in the world, from His earliest childhood, was continual temptation and continual victory. The last was when He prayed on the cross for His enemies, and thus for all in the whole world.   

[2] In the Word of the Lord’s life, in the Gospels, none but the last is mentioned, except His temptation in the wilderness. More were not disclosed to the disciples. The temptation that is related in Matthew iv. 1-11 contains all temptations in a summary; namely, that from love toward the whole human race, the Lord fought against the loves of self and of the world, with which the hells were filled.   

[3] All temptation is an assault upon the love in which the man is, and the temptation is in the same degree as is the love. If the love is not assaulted, there is no temptation. To destroy any one’s love is to destroy his very life; for the love is the life. The Lord’s life was love toward the whole human race, and was indeed so great, and of such a quality, as to be nothing but pure love.  

[6] In brief, the Lord from His earliest childhood up to the last hour of His life in the world, was assaulted by all the hells, against which He continually fought, and subjugated and overcame them, and this solely from love toward the whole human race. And because this love was not human but Divine, and because such as is the greatness of the love, such is that of the temptation, it may be seen how grievous the combats were, and how great the ferocity on the part of the hells. That all this was so, I know of a certainty. Amen.

 


Copyright General Church of the New Jerusalem 1984 - 2008
Author:  Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div.
Page updated October 21, 2008