The Battle in the Desert Back to all sermons

Date: September 27, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 4

Tags: temptation, battle, Satan, weakness, desert, PastorShadi, Syria, refugees, war, Church Without Walls

Synopsis: It was The Battle in the Desert. In Matthew 4, the Spirit led Jesus out into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Why did he have to go? What was accomplished/demonstrated there? As we watch Jesus counter Satan’s temptations with Scripture, we learn valuable lessons on how we can defend against temptation in our lives as well.


Temptation. It is something we all live with every day of our lives. It is something we will continue to live with for the rest of our lives.

I think sometimes we carry in our minds a misconception – or maybe we might call it a futile hope. It is the misconception that we may one day arrive at some mystical stated called “Christian maturity” when we will somehow escape temptation and find smooth sailing in life. This myth is perpetuated when we watch other Christians who seem so mature (especially if we don’t know them very well). We look at the calmness of their outward expression, and because we are unable to see the battle being waged within, we conclude that they are not really bothered by temptation. “He or she is so stable, he must not be bothered by the temptations I struggle with. If only I could by like him or like her.”

Let’s lay that myth to rest. We will never escape the reality of temptation as long as we live on this earth! But lest we become discouraged, let’s also understand this. Temptation itself is not sin. And it is possible to learn to overcome temptation and to become ever more victorious in our war against it. But as in any war, it is important to know your enemy and his strategies, and what weapons we have at our disposal to successfully defend against his attacks.

We are studying Matthew 4 today and the account of Jesus being tempted in the desert. I have entitled the message The Battle in the Desert.

This passage is rich with significance and application. There are a number of ways to approach it. I want to focus on two: the theological and the practical.

First of all, let’s consider the theological implications of this passage. Verse 1 tells us: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

So the first question we are faced with is this: Why was Christ tempted? Clearly the Spirit led him into the desert with a purpose. I would like to present two answers to this question.

First, he was tempted to demonstrate his sinlessness.

Let us pause and consider what temptation is. The Greek word for “tempt” comes from a root word meaning a trial or an experiment. It is a test to reveal the true nature of something. This testing can have a good or a bad purpose, depending on the motivation of the tester; either to prove by the test that someone is sinful or weak (which is the devil’s motivation in temptation), or to prove someone is righteous (which is why God allows testing to come into our lives).

This is the first reason Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted. God has just announced from heaven that “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” In other words, this is my beloved Son who does what pleases me. To claim it is one thing. To prove it under temptation and testing is another.

Men once built an unsinkable ship. It was the pinnacle of man’s ship building expertise. It was invincible – or so the builders claimed. And if they claimed it was unsinkable and they had all the engineering drawings and designs to prove it, who was to argue? They named the ship the Titanic. Of course you know the rest of the story. A dark night in the north Atlantic, an iceberg, and man’s unsinkable ship was soon on its way to the bottom of the ocean.

Christ was God’s unsinkable ship; the Son who only did what pleased him. That was the claim. But how do we know? Well, Jesus went out into the desert to be tested against the very sharpest attacks that Satan could offer. And he passed the test! He sinned not. He was tested and came through without a blemish. He met the iceberg of Satan’s temptations and came away without so much as a scratch on the paintwork!

There are some more subtle depths to this passage. What is the significance of the 40 days and nights? We might think back to the Old Testament record and recall that Moses was 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain in God’s presence. Or we might think of Elijah, who journeyed 40 days on the strength of the meal given to him by the angel. But I think the more significant connection relates to Israel, and a period of, not 40 days but 40 years of wandering the wilderness. God says of this time: “I tested you in the desert.” In terms of symbols, Israel was called “God’s servant”. They were to be the sources of God’s blessing to the nations of the world. But they were not obedient. They failed the test. Not only in the desert, but many times thereafter. So God promised that he would send another Servant; an obedient Servant who would do all that God commanded him to do. He too spent time in the desert; 40 days and 40 nights being tempted by the devil. And he passed the test. He did not sin.

So Jesus was tempted in the desert, first of all to demonstrate his sinlessness and his obedience to the Father’s will.

Jesus was tempted so he could share in our humanness.

The second reason he was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil was to share in our humanness. One of the titles Jesus carried was Son of God. But he also willingly took upon himself another title when he came to earth: Son of man. He was both fully God and fully man. In his experience as a human, he experienced temptation just like we do. The writer of Hebrews brings out this reality and this reason for Jesus being tempted.

In Hebrews 2:17-18 we find this:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

We go on to read in Hebrews 4:15-16:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

He knows what it feels like to be tempted. He sympathizes as one who has “been there”. He was fully human. By the way, this also lays to rest a common excuse that you and I sometimes use. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m only human” as an excuse for sinning and giving in to temptation? Jesus proved that being human doesn’t mean we have to sin. Being human means we will be tempted. It does not mean we have to give in to the temptation and sin. He was human too. He felt the full power of Satan’s temptations – yet he was without sin.

Let us leave the theological implications of the story now. Let’s look at the story to see what practical lessons we can learn for facing temptation. I think we can summarize the lessons from the passage this way:

Battling Satan’s lies with God’s truth leads to victory.

To start with, let’s consider Satan’s Lies.

Satan is subtle in his approach. He very rarely uses a head on attack: “Follow me and I’ll make you the biggest sinner in Abu Dhabi!”

Satan’s strategy is to offer us something good; something that appeals to us, to our needs, to our basic desires. Often times these desires or goals are not wrong in and of themselves. In fact many times they are things which God himself has actually promised to give us. But then comes the twist. Satan shows us a way to fulfill those desires and to reach those goals by using a shortcut that deviates from God’s will. At the end of the day, that is always Satan’s bottom line: to sidetrack us from the will of God in any way he can.

Let’s see how this comes out in the story in front of us. We pick up the reading in verse 2: And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

The first caution we see here is that Satan attacks at any point of weakness and vulnerability. Jesus was hungry. After forty days without food, we can understand why! Let me point out that this was a supernatural fast. Don’t try this at home! But the end result was clear. He was hungry and weak and therefore vulnerable. Satan is a master at picking his spots, which are always our weak spots when we are tired, hungry, distracted, ill, lonely, angry – I could go on and on.

Verse 3 goes on: And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

So what is the issue here? Being hungry is not a sin. Eating is not a sin. Bread is not a sinful commodity. The need itself is legitimate as is the filling of that need. But remember what I said about the shortcut? Use your divine powers to meet your own needs. Rather than waiting for your hunger to be satisfied within the will of God.

Throughout his life, Jesus repeatedly made this claim about his miracles: I do nothing of myself. I only do the works that the Father gives me to do. Jesus had willing laid down his right to exercise his divine powers independently and apart from his Father’s will. That commitment was tested in this temptation. Satan offers the shortcut; a selfish, independent use of divine power to meet his personal needs.

There is also another subtle twist, an appeal to pride: If you are the Son of God…Remember how Matthew 3 ended? Jesus was standing on the bank of the river Jordan and the voice out of heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son…” Now Satan is saying; “Really? Prove it. Show your power. Exercise your privileges.” And of course there is the subtle appeal to autonomy and independence. Take the shortcut!

Let’s see how Satan employs a similar strategy in the second temptation:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and 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 will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”

Here there is again the same appeal to pride of identity and position. If you are the Son of God… In other words, “Prove it! If you’re special, surely God will show it by taking care of you.” There may also be a reference to the Messianic hopes of the day. In the popular theology of the day, the Jews were expecting Messiah to appear directly from heaven and to descend to the temple. We can only imagine the impact were Jesus to come floating down from on high, born gently by the angels to land softly in the temple courts. Instant acclaim and worship.

Now let me ask: Was Jesus the Son of God? Of course he was. Could the angels have protected him and kept him from harm? Of course they could! Did Jesus deserve the acclaim and worship of the people? Absolutely. But was this God’s way? Was this the Father’s plan? No! It was another shortcut.

Now let’s look at the third one:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

This is the third and final temptation; the pinnacle and climax of the conflict. Remember Matthew’s theme; Jesus is the King. What do kings do? They rule. Here Jesus is offered “all the kingdoms of the world.” Now we might debate whether Satan actually had the authority to deliver on his promise. Remember, he’s a liar. But on the other hand, he is referred to in the Scripture as “the ruler of this world.” But whether he had the power or not, he is still utilizing the same strategy: a legitimate goal. Jesus was a king. He had the right to rule. But here is the shortcut. There is no need to go to the cross; no need to suffer. “Just bow your knee to me and accept my sovereignty and rule and all of this can be yours, painlessly and instantly.”

It is important to recognize that Satan always paints beautiful pictures of results. But he is a liar. He never paints a complete picture. What Satan offers is bait. It may be good bait. But what good is cheese to a mouse with a broken neck.

Yes, Jesus could have had the bread to fill his empty, aching stomach. But only at the price of forfeiting his dependent and obedient relationship to his Father. He could have won instant acclaim and fame, only to find out how fleeting such fame was and to know that he had broken faith with God’s plan. He could have ruled the world without going to the cross – only to pay the price of being subject to Satan and his dark kingdom for the rest of eternity. When you’re dealing with Satan, he never tells you the whole story. You have to read the small print in his contracts. Because there is always page after page of small print in his contracts – and none of it makes for pleasant reading.

Let’s see how this strategy works in the present day situations that you and I face. One of the primary commodities Satan advertises is happiness. Everyone wants to be happy. Then he links that happiness to such things as possessions, wealth, power, fame, pleasure, relationships. These are the things that will make us happy. When we accept his math, his equations, we begin to pursue these goals and very quickly he starts to offer shortcuts to achieving them.

“You want more possessions? Use the credit card. Run up the debt. You deserve it. You need more income to pay for these things? Engage in questionable business practices, cheat on your taxes, trample on other people. You need to unwind, have a little fun? Have a few extra drinks. Better yet, try drugs. You want sexual fulfillment? Why wait for marriage? Why confine yourself to just one sexual partner? After all, your spouse is half a world away. God gave you your sex drive, didn’t he? He’ll understand.”

Throughout, he offers a simple commodity: happiness. I remember counseling with one man who was contemplating a course of action that was clearly against God’s word. And yet his simple rationale was: We have to be happy!

And so the shortcuts are all around us. But what we fail to realize is this simple fact of life: Lasting joy and true happiness come only by doing God’s will. All else is a trap and a lie.

When you think of Satan’s strategies, think of these three words and word pictures: shortcut, bait, small print.

So, how do we resist temptation? In any battle it helps to know the enemy’s strategy. But we also need to know what resources we have at our disposal to defend ourselves against his attacks. As we look at Jesus’ example we find, as we said before, that Battling Satan’s lies with God’s truth leads to victory.

At each point in the battle and in response to Satan’s temptations, Jesus fought back with Scripture. Each time he answered Satan with a quotation from the Old Testament.

Let me add a caution here. Some people may try to use Scripture as a book of magic texts or words. Just recite something, anything from the Bible like a kind of magic mantra to overcome evil. That was not how Jesus responded. In each case he used a very specific Scripture which counteracted the action that Satan was trying to elicit. He was like a swordsman very skillfully parrying the thrust of an opposing swordsman.

To the first temptation to turn the stones to bread, Jesus responded by quoted Deuteronomy 8:3. Let’s take a look at the broader context of the verse he used. We will start reading in verse 1:

The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Do you see why this is such an appropriate text for Jesus to quote? The paragraph is about obedience to the commands of God and the reality that there is something more important than bread and physical food – and that is obeying God. Put that in the context of what I said earlier about God testing Israel in the desert and Jesus as the true Servant of the Lord who was now undergoing his own wilderness testing – and we can see how vital it was for Jesus to remain submitted to his Father in absolute obedience to his words.

In the next temptation, Satan quotes Scripture of his own about the angels and God’s protection. But Jesus immediately recognized the twist and incompleteness of Satan’s use of Scripture. Yes, in Psalm 91 there are some wonderful promises of God’s protection for his servants – but that is not the whole story. Satan loves to quote Scripture out of context. Jesus responds with another Scripture quote: Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. In other words, don’t paint God into a corner with your own presumptuousness and disobedient actions and expect him to bail you out and come running to your rescue.

The final temptation is more easily parried with a clear command of Scripture: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ” (verse 10) The end does not justify the means if the means involves disobedience to God’s word and God’s will.

I would point out that battling Satan does require a practical knowledge of Scripture and an intelligent use of it. It involves memorizing Scripture. One way of using Scripture strategically is to memorize verses that relate to a chronic temptation that you are experiencing. I recall a time in my life when I was battling against the sin of anger and inappropriate expressions of anger. Anger is a very deceptive emotion and a self-justifying one. “I have a right to be angry!” we tell ourselves. But God convicted me of that sin and helped me see the harm I was doing to myself and others. I went to the Book of Proverbs and typed out a whole page of Bible quotes about anger and self-control and I went over them again and again until I had them memorized. Then I had a sword and shield to defend myself when the temptation to angry outbursts came.

You can do the same. If your weak spot is sexual temptation, memorize Scriptures about lust and purity of thought and mind. If your vulnerable spot is materialism, memorize verse on riches and true treasure in heaven. Then when the temptation comes, quote the verse or verses; to yourself as well as to Satan. Compare the two; this is what God says, this is what Satan and the world are saying. Which one will I believe? Which will I obey? In this way the Word of God becomes a sharp sword to turn aside Satan’s attacks.

Battling Satan’s lies with God’s truth leads to victory.

This section ends with these words:

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

That’s victory. Let me close with two quick points. When it says that the angels ministered to Jesus, what do you think they did for him? I think they fed him! Just like the angel did for Elijah in the wilderness. I also think it’s a great reference back to Psalm 91 that the angels would protect the servant of the Lord. The point I am making is this; what Satan offered Jesus, God the Father actually did for him. But he did it his way, after Jesus demonstrated his faith and obedience. Legitimate desires and goals will be fulfilled in God’s time and in God’s way if we resist the temptation to take Satan’s shortcut.

But I would also add this quick point as well. Matthew tells us that Satan left him. But he would come back. In Luke’s account we are told that Satan “departed from him until an opportune time.” Today we looked at the Battle in the Desert. Later in Matthew we will witness another battle; this one the Battle in the Garden. We are in a war with many battles. We can win battles, but that does not mean the war is over. Stay alert. Be on your guard. Continue to resist the devil and his lies. The better we understand his strategies and our own weapons of defense, the more effective we will be in standing against him in the battle of God’s truth against Satan’s lies.

So if there is an area or areas of life in which you repeatedly find yourself falling prey to temptation and Satan’s lies, go home and use a concordance. Look up verses relating to your vulnerable area. Start memorizing them. Use them when temptation comes. And if you sin and fall, confess it quickly, ask for the help of God’s Holy Spirit and try again. And again. And again. Over time, with God’s help and the right weapons you will begin to emerge – not free from temptation, but increasingly victorious over it.


  1. Read Matthew 4:1-11. What questions do you still have about this passage? (After raising the questions, discuss possible answers as a group – and identify possible future avenues of study.)
  2. In the message, Pastor Cam identified two reasons Jesus was tempted. What were they? Do these reasons make sense to you? Can you suggest any other possible answers?
  3. What is the difference between temptation and sin? How do we know when we have crossed the line?
  4. Go through each of the temptations one a time and identify the bait, the shortcut and the small print.
  5. Give examples of Satan’s strategy from everyday life (these can be theoretical and general in nature).
  6. Jesus used Scripture to counter Satan’s temptations. How have you used Scripture in your battle against temptation? Are there any specific strategies you have found helpful?
  7. What will you do this week to prepare for and defend against temptation?