The devil or Satan is mentioned several times in Bible, but he only talks to people twice. He spoke to Eve, with Adam watching and listening (Genesis 3) and he spoke to Jesus in today’s gospel (Matthew 4:1f.). Satan is present at other times, but he is not visible to human beings. Part of the purpose of today’s gospel is to reveal the devil as the unseen enemy of God’s people.
The Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is meant to be read in the light of Israel’s forty year experience of testing (Deuteronomy 8:2). The temptations all match up. The “stone into bread” test relates to Israel’s dissatisfaction with the manna (Numbers 11:6, Deuteronomy 8:3). The temptation to worship the devil in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world relates to Israel’s idolatry with the golden calves (Exodus 32:8). The temptation to jump off the temple relates to the time when God brought water out of the rock, where it is said that Israel “put God to the test” (Exodus 17:7).
The three scripture verses Jesus quotes are the verses of the Old Testament where God rebuked Israel for her disobedience in these three specific episodes (Deuteronomy 6:13, 6:18 & 8:3). The point is that Jesus fulfills the vocation of Israel, succeeding in the very tests that Israel failed. The implication is that the devil was present in the Old Testament as the ultimate source of Israel’s temptations. This reveals that the true enemy of God’s people is the evil one. This is the enemy Jesus defeated.
One of the chief errors of God’s people is to misidentify the enemy. First century Israel thought her enemy was Rome. The Messiah was expected to come and defeat the Romans. This is why no one understood when Jesus chose the cross instead of the sword. The path of “obedience unto death” (Philippians 2:8) was a type of warfare aimed at destroying the kingdom of the evil one, but it had no immediate or obvious impact on the affliction of God people.
Jesus was aiming at a cosmic and eternal victory, not a temporal victory. To win that war he had to be faithful to God through a genuine human life. He had to endure opposition and injustice. He had to offer the sacrifice that would atone for sin and free us from captivity to the evil one (Hebrews 2:14-15). He had to lose the visible battle in order to win the spiritual war. Thus, at the very moment of apparent defeat, he uttered the words of ultimate triumph, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Ephesians says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world” (6:12). This is a reflection on the gospel. The visible battles we face in the world are part of a larger war. Our ultimate victory will be determined, not by whether we achieve fame, success or fulfilment of our desires. Our ultimate victory will be determined by whether or not we remain faithful through the ever-present temptations and tests.
Every challenge in life has two dimensions. There is the visible dimension of eating, drinking, working and playing, and there is the spiritual dimension of how these activities impact our faith and faithfulness. There are visible enemies–people and circumstances. And there is the invisible enemy, who uses the visible things to discourage and anger us; to make us covetous and envious. The challenge is to fight the right battle, to discern the presence of the unseen enemy and act faithfully so as to conquer him.
The tests are made more challenging in our time because of the cultural implication that faith should be an aid to success. There is a sense among many that if I believe in Jesus and do all the right things, life should go well. Thus, for many, a setback or misfortune becomes an unbearable test of faith: “Why is God doing this to me?” Many conclude that since God did not lead them to victory in the visible battle, they will no longer believe in him. This triumph of doubt over faith is precisely the victory the devil is looking for. He is pleased when we win the visible battle at the cost of our faith. He is even more pleased when we win neither the visible battle nor pass the test of faith.
Jesus did all the right things, had perfect faith and got killed for it. We must reconcile ourselves to the truth that the call to be faithful will sometimes cost us things we want. There is a name for visible things that are more important to us than God. They are called idols–and we must continually renounce them. We must be ready always to give up any thing that leads us away from faith and obedience. “Whoever does not forsake all the he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
But there is also a paradox. The things we forsake, the things we offer in sacrifice to God, eventually come back to us in resurrected form. “Every one who has forsaken houses, or brothers or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29).
Jesus renounced the world, the flesh and the devil and surrendered his very life in obedience. However, he was raised from the dead and given a new, immortal body. God did rescue him and raise him. He was given all the kingdoms of the world (Revelation 11:15). He himself became the bread of life. Jesus said no to the demonic temptations because they were all lies. They promised a kind of fulfillment that they would not have delivered. The bread would have solved the problem of hunger only for a moment. The devil would not have given all of the kingdoms. There would have been fine print in the contract. The cheap trick would only have produced faith in cheap tricks.
The demonic voice offers us something that is desirable right now, but will not satisfy us in the long run. For this short term fix, the devil requires unfaithfulness or disobedience. Christ offers us resurrection, eternal life and the fulfillment, eventually, of every genuine human desire. He requires of us faith and obedience, which include a willingness to suffer some lack of fulfilment in the present moment. The devil is always in a hurry because he knows that his time is short (Revelation 12:12). Thus, the demonic voice tells us that we must have what we want now. God has, literally, an eternity to fulfill his promises to us. Thus, he is always telling us to be patient and faithful and wait for him.
The Lenten fast is a time to make sure we are seeing the real enemy and fighting the right battle. The disciplines aid us. Through prayer, we gain the wisdom and vision we need to perceive the devil’s schemes. We are given the grace we need to embrace our share of the cross. Through fasting, we learn to subdue the flesh. We learn not to live by bread alone. Through almsgiving, we renounce our idols so that out treasure and our hearts may be fully invested in the coming kingdom. Easter and resurrection will make it all worthwhile. As St. Paul wrote, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; (2 Corinthians 4:17).