Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness: Exploring the Power of Truth Over Self Interest (Part 1)

Reading: Gospel of Matthew 4:1-11; James 1:12-13

Matt 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit, to be tempted by the Devil. (2) And having fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He hungered. (3) And coming near to Him, the Tempter said, If You are the Son of God, speak that these stones may become loaves. (4) But answering, He said, It has been written: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every Word going out of the mouth of God.” Deut. 8:3 (5) Then the Devil takes Him to the holy city, and he set Him on the wing of the temple. (6) And he said to Him, If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it has been written: “He shall give His angels charge concerning You, and they shall bear You on their hands, lest You strike Your foot against a stone.” LXX-Psa. 90:11, 12; MT-Psa. 91:11, 12 (7) Jesus said to him, Again it has been written: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Deut. 6:16 (8) Again the Devil takes Him to a very high mountain, and shows to Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. (9) And he said to Him. I will give all these things to You if falling down, You will worship me. (10) Then Jesus said to him, Go, Satan! For it has been written: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve Him only.” Deut. 6:13 (11) Then the Devil left Him. And behold! Angels came near and ministered to Him.

Jam 1:12-13 Blessed is the man who endures temptation, because having been approved he will receive the crown of life which the Lord promised to the ones loving Him. (13) Let no one being tempted say, I am tempted from God. For God is not tempted by evil, and He tempts no one. (see also Scrp. Conf. 86)

We begin a short series this morning in which we are going to look at the Lord’s temptations in the wilderness by the devil just after He was baptised by John in the Jordan which can be found in the fourth chapter of Matthews’s gospel. You will have noticed that the temptations are conveyed as a set of three. The first is a temptation the devil incites is for Jesus to make stones into bread, the second is a temptation to cast Himself down from the height of the temple to see if God would undertake to preserve Him and the third is an offer of power and glory if He would worship the devil.

These three temptations actually describe the nature of every form of temptation that a person can experience, so they are like a general overview of the kinds of things that come against us when we seek to live a life using spiritual principles to guide and direct us. With this in mind we will look at these temptations as descriptions of our own process so that we can better understand how the Lord as Truth from the Word in our minds is tried and tested along the way to having our sense of self more grounded in heavenly or genuine spiritual things through the removal of our attachments to the loves of self and the world.

It’s important that we don’t take things too literally or we will miss how this applies to our lives. The apostle James declares that God cannot be tempted by evil. If Jesus is God then we can reasonable ask why the Gospel speaks as if God is able to be tempted by evil or the devil. It’s hard to imagine how the one God of heaven and earth who is Good and Truth itself, in whom there is nothing of evil or falsity, could ever hold within Himself any desire to which the devil could appeal. How then are we to understand what is described here? How is it that Jesus who is God can be tempted?

Well God as He is in Himself cannot be tempted. This is captured in the teachings of the Church where they state that the Divine Good and the Divine Truth is above being tempted. But what can be subject to temptation is the Lord as He is found within the limitations of a finite human mind. So we have described in the Gospels in historical language how God continues to take on the frailties of a finite human mind and it is in this state of life that He can be tempted. Leaving the historical elements behind I want us to focus on what is captured symbolically, or representatively within them so that we can see what this all means for us now, in the present. The Lord becomes incarnated in a finite human form every time He enters into us and it is on this level that the story of His temptations are to be understood.

To do this we have to leave behind as much as we can ideas of space, time and person and enter into a more spiritually orientated view. This means that rather than thinking of Jesus and the Devil as historical figures or entities in a confrontation in the wilderness we take on seeing them as an embodiment or representative of spiritual realities that are opposed to each other and exist and operate in all of us as we seek to pursue the spiritual life. This kind of approach to Scripture is what is meant by Spiritual Christianity. The devil in this sense is not to be thought of as some person like entity, but is to be seen as a personification of our own ego or proprium when it finds its delight in the love of self, which manifests in all our tendencies to selfishness that look to dominate and manipulate others. The term Satan on the otherhand is that strongly felt dynamic that in religious terms is called the love of the world, which is our tendency to define people and things materially or as objects to be owned and possessed.

What then do we have in the figure of Jesus? Jesus in the Gospels is the personification of the Lord’s desire for the salvation of the human race as it is able to be perceived by us on the natural plane of existence. He represents the operation of divine truths or spiritual principles subject to the limitations of human weakness and frailty. This human weakness and frailty is not found in the Lord Himself but in the minds of all those He is looking to save, which is of course everyone. We are the ones who put limits on the Lord’s ability to bring about our emotional, psychological and spiritual healing, and because it goes against the nature of love to force itself on anyone, so He allows His love and wisdom to take on whatever limitations are necessary within us to leave open the possibility of drawing us into a more meaningful relationship with Himself as the source of all that is good and loving. What the Lord is constantly seeking to do is save us, which from the perspective of Spiritual Christianity is to remove the hell of our selfishness out of us so that heaven might flow in from within.

So let’s look at this passage of Scripture and track how truths operate within us in the battle for the salvation of our souls, or our deliverance from the tyranny of self centred living.

Mat 4:1-2 Then Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Spirit, to be tempted by the Devil. (2) And having fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He hungered.

The most important truths we can take from this statement are the ideas that 1. All temptations that are genuinely spiritual are directed at the Lord or what is of the Lord in a person, and 2. That it is the Lord Himself who battles with the evils of self love in our defence. It feels like the struggle to see good overcome evil and truth overcome what is false in our life as something we are doing from ourselves but it is critical from the standpoint of our spiritual well-being that we recognise that this is an appearance given to maintain our sense of autonomy, freedom and independence; the reality is that it is not us at all that does this but it is the truths we have taken into our lives that give us this ability and these truths from the Word are actually the Lord with us. This acknowledgement is very important as it helps us to keep a healthy dependency on the Lord and holds off any tendency to fall into thinking we are self sufficient in spiritual matters. All states of life that lead to positive results as far as our spiritual growth and development are concerned are governed by the Lord in us thought the truths we have taken into our life.

This Scripture is written in such a way as to reflect this, by saying that the Lord undergoes temptation, despite the fact that God cannot be tempted. Jesus then is said to be led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Internally it is Jesus as He is within us that is being led by the Spirit. We can see then, that what takes the leading role in guiding and directing the Lord’s desire for our salvation or Jesus is the Spirit. What we may ask is this “Spirit.” In the gospel we learn that it is the spirit of truth. There is a tendency to think of the “Spirit” as something intangible, vague, vapourish or ethereal but the teaching of Spiritual Christianity show it is anything but. The Spiritual Christianity of the New Church defines the spirit as truth, that is spiritual ideas, concepts or principles that can lead and guide us in life. This is an extremely useful way of viewing the Spirit because it directs us to where we can acquire these ideas which is the Word and the teachings of the Church. Truths make up the spirit or breath of life for the Church. It isn’t something mystical or intangible at all, it’s right here in the Word. To be led by the Spirit is to be led by the spiritual principles of the Word and it is these principles, as they are taken into our lives, that lead and guide the operation of the Lord’s desire for our salvation within us. Or if you like what leads the Lord’s desire for our salvation, Jesus, is the Spirit or truths or those spiritual principles we are working to make a more integrated part of our lives.

This desire for our salvation, or Jesus, the name literally means Jehovah Saviour, is said to be led “up” into the wilderness. The use of the word “up” in the original Greek alludes to the fact that all temptations that arise as a direct result of being in the effort to live a spiritual life, despite how things may appear or feel, are designed to lift us into a closer union with heavenly influences through breaking our attachments to the lower sensual and bodily delights of the natural man. Truths or spiritual principles are living things and so are in a constant kind of movement urging us on through various states of life which the Lord organises and directs for our spiritual well being. One kind of state that is often described in Scripture is that of a wilderness state. This is a state in which temptations and struggles in the spiritual life take place. Indeed without a sense of being in a wilderness state there is little chance that a person is undergoing temptation. The two ideas, temptation and wilderness are very closely linked in the Word.

Being in a wilderness state arises when we are learning truths and are tying to apply them by using them to recognise the affections, thoughts and behaviours in our life that support states of selfishness and so undermines what is truly spiritual. The main idea associated with this word wilderness as it occurs in the Greek is that of feeling alone. In such a state we can feel very much on our own in the struggle. It is a desert state or one of feeling deserted – abandoned. It may feel that we are not making any progress and this can lead to discouragement. It’s the struggle that comes from seeing ourselves as we are and at the same time seeing where we feel we should be spiritually. This creates a hunger within us for the promise of something better, a desire to realise our spiritual potential. When we make an effort to give up our attachments to those things we know are detrimental to achieving real spiritual goals and fulfilling our spiritual aspirations we are in a state of spiritual fasting or hunger.

Spiritual fasting involves abstaining from things in our life that shuts out angelic qualities being expressed through us. For example maybe you’re aware of some behaviour or speech or motive or pattern of thinking that gets in the way of being more loving and understanding towards others. When you look to the Lord to find the ability to resist such things from dominating your life and make sincere efforts to work against its influences you are spiritually fasting. You are fasting because you are know longer allowing yourself to mentally feed on the self centred delights that gratify some lower desire.

But just as fasting from food in the natural leads to hunger, so fasting from selfishness in all its forms leads to a growing spiritual hunger, a hunger that looks to be satisfied through finding fulfilment on a higher spiritual level for our life. It comes as a yearning to be freed from the behaviours, patterns of thought and feelings that drag us down or keep us isolated from others. This hunger is really the Lord’s own desire for our spiritual well being or salvation making itself felt in our own experience. This is what is meant in the Scripture by the statement that Jesus was hungry having fasted forty days and forty nights. Part of the process of temptation is to find ourselves feeling discouraged and wondering if the power of those things that seem to rob us of peace and promote anxieties and worries will ever be broken. Our engagement with the Word, its truths, the Lord, opens up our sight, gives us a vision of what might be. Once we have seen this, then we also see that between where we are and what the vision promotes is a wilderness that must be crossed.

The Lord hungers for our good and His hunger will only ever be satisfied with our free response to His call on our life, a call to resist our evils, our tendencies toward self centeredness and embody angelic qualities that we might know heaven even while in this body of earth. The struggle to do this opens up the way for doubts to enter in and these doubts are represented by the voice of the love of self or in the literal sense of the story the devil which is constantly asking us to settle for something less than the Lord has purposed for us. Over the next few weeks we will look at each of the types of temptation and how they might be experienced in our life.

Amen.

AC 1692 What temptations, or the conflicts that constitute temptations, accomplish, scarcely anyone is able to know. They are the means by which evils and falsities are broken up and dispersed. They are also the means by which an abhorrence of these is produced, and a conscience is not only given but also strengthened, and man is accordingly regenerated. This is the reason why those who are being regenerated are led into conflicts and undergo temptations and why those who do not experience them during their earthly life do so in the next life, provided they are such as can be regenerated. And it is for these reasons also that the Lord’s Church is called ‘militant’. The Lord alone however underwent from His own strength or power the most cruel conflicts that constitute temptations, for He was beset by all the hells and constantly overcame them.

[2] It is also the Lord alone who fights in the temptation-conflicts of those who do undergo these. Man by his own power can accomplish nothing in the slightest against evil or hellish spirits, for they are so closely linked to the hells that if one were vanquished another would rush to take his place, and so on for ever. They are like the sea pressing against every part of a dike. If the dike were to develop a split or crack the sea would never cease to pour through and flood the land until nothing was left standing. It would be like this with man if the Lord alone did not bear up against the conflicts experienced by man in temptations. From the work Arcana Coelestia by Emanuel Swedenborg

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