On November 16, 1532, in what would later become the country of Peru, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and 168 Spanish soldiers defeated eight thousand armed Inca Indians and captured the Incan Emperor Atahualpa. In one day, the entire empire empire was brought down. Let that sink in… Just One battle… and 168 Spanish soldiers defeated 8,000 armed Inca Indians!
How did they do it? Probably because the Spanish had a few things the Incas didn’t have—guns, horses, and steel. No matter how numerous, the Inca didn’t stand a chance. Francisco Pizarro had the power!
Today we see something similar in the reading from Matthew 4:1-11. Matthew recounts the occasion when Jesus defeated Satan, mankind’s worst enemy—the original enemy—the evil foe with whom we’ve had enmity since Eden (Genesis 3:15). All throughout history, Satan has wrought destruction upon our kind and has not let up. There has been no peace on earth. Satan runs free. Yet, on that day out in the Judean wilderness, somewhere east of the Jordan River, Satan met his match. Jesus showed up.
Unlike Francisco Pizarro, Christ didn’t have any guns. He didn’t ride a horse. He didn’t have any steel armor or swords. Yet despite His puny appearance, Christ overcame the greatest foe mankind has ever had.
Now, typically, whenever we think of this account, we usually interpret Jesus’ confrontation with Satan as an example of how we should behave or respond whenever temptation comes our way. We assume that if we do what Jesus does than we’ll be able to resist and stand strong against our enemy, too. But that never works, does it? Not even a little bit. Experience teaches us that we have no power over Satan and his ability to lead us into sin. We’re like Inca Indians with our spears and bows trying to stop a enemy with guns, horses, and steel. Actually, our struggle is more like spears against nuclear weapons. That’s how powerless we are against Satan, and it’s always been this way. Even humanity’s first parents, Adam and Eve—who were superior to us in every way–were easily duped by Satan’s tricks. They were created in the Image of God. They had complete and total dominion over all the earth. They had a perfect relationship with God, and yet, not even they were able to resist Satan. If Adam and Eve couldn’t stand against him, what chance do we have?
Sin is like an autoimmune disease that has completely paralyzed our ability to resist and fight our enemy. Even a great Apostle like Paul struggled with this disease. In Romans 7:14-19 he describes how our sinful flesh twists and cripples our capacity to resist. He says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
Satan seems unstoppable. He seems to hold all the power.
But Jesus Christ has more!
Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He has the ability to do what we cannot do. Yet, surprisingly, Jesus didn’t use His divine power to defeat our enemy. Maybe that would have been too easy…. who knows… but what Matthew wants us to know is that Jesus came to take our place. He came to defeat Satan not for God’s sake but for our sake. He came to make the victory ours, which meant going into battle not with the guns, horses and steel of His divine power and glory, but clothed, instead, in the frail weakness of human flesh. He became man to make the victory mankind’s victory. In fact, Jesus sorta overdoes it; He doesn’t become a mighty, muscular warrior, a man’s man. Instead, He goes into battle in the weakest way possible–He fasts for forty days and forty nights. This means Jesus would have been well past the point of starvation, weaker than any man could be, and yet, He does what the strongest man—Adam—wasn’t able to do.
Just how weak was Jesus? What does 40 days and 40 nights without food do to the human body?
Well, obvious ethical issues prevent Scientists from knowing exactly how long the human body can go without food, so we can’t know for sure how long the body can last, but from what we do know, the human body is surprisingly adaptable to times of famine. I’m sure that a person’s starting weight also plays a factor in how long they can last—with overweight people having a slight advantage since the human body utilizes fat reserves first in starvation mode. It’s also known that women can last longer than men since they typically have a higher percentage of body fat.
What is known is that starvation is a slow process. It begins with our body running low on glucose, or sugar, it’s main source of energy. Within a day of fasting, your body pretty much runs through all available glucose, and starving for energy the body turns to fatty tissue and begins to digest it, turning it into fatty acids that can be used by the muscles as fuel. At this point, starvation can start to feel pretty miserable but you’ve still got the energy reserves you need to function normally. From this break down of fatty acids, ketones are produced and also provide adequate energy. However, eventually, the fat runs out, and when the fatty acid reserves are gone, the body must switch to protein. The only source of protein in your body is muscle, so the body begins to consume them, and as this muscle breakdown speeds up, the body begins to lose heart, kidney, and liver function.
It’s thought that an average person would become become weak and delirious after 25 without food. Death usually occurs after 30 days.
Now, there are some things you can do to stave off death during starvation. Science has shown that you’re much more likely to survive for weeks — and possibly months — if you’re able to consume a healthy amount of water. Without proper hydration, your kidney function will diminish within a few days. Hospice workers have noted that sometimes people on their deathbeds can survive as long as 10 and 14 days without food and water. But these individuals aren’t using much energy. A person who is healthy and mobile would likely perish much sooner.
Of course, we don’t know what kinds of activities Jesus did while in the wilderness. We don’t know how much water He was able to drink. But given the dry, desolate conditions of the Judean wilderness, you can only wonder what it must have been like to go 40 days without food. By this point, He would have been physically weak, hungry beyond comprehension, and likely on the verge of death. Who of us could make it even two weeks? Jesus goes almost 6 weeks!
That’s the moment Satan strikes.
Genesis records that Adam and Eve were in the flush of good health and had the abundance of Eden at their disposal, but they proved weak before Satan. They couldn’t stand against him. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, was victorious despite self-imposed, abject weakness, solitude, and affliction. What a difference!
Now the Bible says that the ways of God seem like foolishness to the ways of man (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) and this episode in Matthew makes that abundantly clear. First of all, it seems like total nonsense for Jesus not to turn rocks into bread. If you were starving and had the power to do that, it’d be foolish not to. However, Jesus demonstrates that unlike you and me, He can draw life-sustaining sustenance from the word of God alone. You and I can’t do that. We can barely pay attention during a sermon–especially when church goes a little long and we’re late for lunch—just a little hunger makes it so hard for us to concentrate.
Secondly, it seems silly that Jesus didn’t take advantage of the fact that He could command angels to whisk Him to safety as Satan suggests. Jumping off the temple tower would have demonstrated to everyone that Jesus was the Son of God. Imagine how many people would have worshiped Him and hailed Him the Messiah. In fact, this particular temptation has always confused me a little, because I sometimes wonder if the ministry of the church today wouldn’t be more successful if visible miracles accompanied our ministry to show the world God’s power. How many more people would believe if only we had angels working alongside us during VBS, Sunday School, and all the outreach events at church?
But even in a delirious state of agony and starvation, Jesus chose the way of the cross. Jesus chose the foolish way of suffering. It was the right way, not because it makes sense to us, but because it was God’s way. We would never chose it, but Jesus did. He followed God’s will even when it made no sense to do so, even as He experienced the delirious confusion brought on by starvation. Jesus made this decision knowing full well that one day He really would be lifted up high for everyone to see, not on the temple tower, but on Golgotha. There He would be lifted up to display not the power, glory and angelic protection worthy of the divine, but the foolish, lavish love of God for sinners who shouted for His crucifixion and jeered the Son of God. You and I would never chose that path—EVER!!!
Finally, Satan offers Christ all the kingdoms of the earth. I don’t even know what to make of this temptation. Just a little power and money can influence me and lead me to make sinful choices, I can’t imagine being offered the whole world. But I don’t think this temptation is so much about us. This seems uniquely tailored for Christ, alone. Jesus was well aware that that all the earth belonged to Him, already. He was the very incarnation of the Word of God, which brought all creation into existence. It would have made total sense for Christ to claim what was rightfully His. He didn’t need to bow down before Satan to receive it. Yet, Jesus refuses it altogether. Why?
The only reason I can think of is the connection all this makes with Genesis 1:26-28 where we are told that in the beginning, Adam and Eve also had complete dominion over all the Earth. It was given to them as a blessing. They had everything a person could ever want. Yet, despite this, Satan convinced them there was yet one more thing they needed… something he could deliver. He told them how they could “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Adam and Eve feel for it.
However, Jesus’ response to Satan’s offer is the exact opposite of the self-centered selfishness of Adam and Eve. Jesus says, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). Jesus chooses to serve the Lord rather than self, even when His own life was on the line.
So you see, in all three of these temptations, Jesus proves that He can do what we cannot do. He alone provides salvation for sinners like us. He alone can defeat that which enslaves us. We can do nothing. We have no power against the enemy. But Jesus, even as weakened as He was by starvation, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
This, I think, is Matthew’s big point.
I said earlier that we like to think this text is meant to give us an example for how we can battle Satan. We want to read into it a what would Jesus do? brand of theology. But that’s silly. We forget that the Christian faith isn’t nearly as much about us becoming more like Jesus but rather is ALL about Jesus becoming like us.
And that’s what faith is. It looks to Jesus for help and it’s the only way we can have hope in all those times when we so easily and often fall into temptation (à la Romans 7). God’s way of salvation isn’t to make us self-sustaining; His way is to make us a part of the One who sustains all!