Sermon 05-08-16: “Jesus Defeats Satan”

May 11, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Sermon Text: Genesis 3:1-15

In the first part of my new sermon series, “Opening the Scriptures,” I talk about the nature of sin and temptation: “At the heart of temptation—any temptation—is the belief that we can’t really trust God: we doubt his Word; we doubt his promises; we doubt that he knows what’s best for us. So we take matters into our own hands. We place ourselves at the center of the universe instead of God.” Is all hope lost? No… because in the midst of this story of humanity’s first sin is a glimpse of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 of the sermon.]

In Luke 24:13-35, two disciples of Jesus are returning from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus, about eight miles away. It’s Easter Sunday. Although some of their fellow disciples told them that they found the tomb of Jesus empty, they don’t know what to make of it. As of yet, alongside most of their fellow disciples, they don’t believe that their Lord has been resurrected.

So they head for home, discouraged and confused.

Jesus meets them on the road, but, as Luke tells us, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” At Jesus’ prompting, they tell him about the events of Good Friday as well as the reports of the empty tomb.

Jesus tells them: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then Luke writes: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

To say “Moses and all the prophets” is shorthand for, well, the entire Old Testament. And when Luke says that Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” he’s implying that all the scriptures—which at that time meant the Old Testament—have something to say about Jesus Christ and his gospel.

And by the way, eight miles is a long walk, which means that Jesus had a lot to teach these two disciples about what the Old Testament said about him.

I don’t blame you if these words surprise you. Except for a few scattered verses in Isaiah and Malachi that we hear every Advent or Christmas season, we modern Christians probably don’t think that the Old Testament has much to say about Jesus.

After all, we call it the Old Testament because it’s obsolete, right?

Wrong!

I mean, think about it: the only Bible that Jesus and his disciples, and the apostle Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers, and the early Church had was the Old Testament. So when Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he was literally talking about the Old Testament—even as we rightly apply the principle of these words to the New Testament as well.

From the perspective of Jesus and the early Church, the Old Testament was far from obsolete; it was, in fact, a treasure trove of information about Jesus.

So that’s what this new sermon series is about: I want to instill within you my enthusiasm for finding Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. And today we’re beginning near the beginning: with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—along with a certain walking and talking snake.

I know it’s fashionable among many scholars and pastors to talk about how this story is a parable, rather than literal history. Although I’m sympathetic with the impulse to do so, I personally don’t take that tack. I do believe the first sin of humanity happened something like this. First, it seems clear to me that Moses is conveying what he believes actually happened. Second, it doesn’t do any good to say, “I can’t believe in a walking and talking snake because I’ve never seen one.” Well, no one has! And Moses tells us why. There’s no scientific reason why God couldn’t have created one. If we believe in God at all, we already believe God designed and created the cosmos and everything in it. Is it such a big stretch to believe that God also created this creature?

So I take the story at face value. I invite you to do the same. Be skeptical of your skepticism.

Regardless, we can be confident that there was an evil spiritual force animating and speaking through this strange creature. And at the risk of sounding like the Church Lady, we all know who that is, right? Satan.

We know this from the Bible itself. First, Jesus surely had today’s scripture in mind in John’s gospel when he said, of Satan, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[1] The apostle Paul likely alludes to Genesis 3:15 when he writes in Romans 16: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” Finally, Revelation 20:2: “And he”—an angel—“seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”

So Satan came in the guise of this creature. Just as he comes in many guises to us today. I’ve told you before that when I was in seminary I went through a period of doubt—about a lot of things in the Bible, including the existence of Satan. I had professors, many of whom didn’t believe that Satan was real, who encouraged us to think of Satan as a metaphor for evil. And you may have heard this too.

To this, I would say that the best reason to believe Satan is real is that Jesus believed Satan was real. That’s an excellent reason. If there’s something I’m not sure about, I tend to believe the guy who was raised from the dead. He knows what he’s talking about. The resurrection proves it.

The alternative is to believe that Jesus was wrong. As one English scholar, Michael Green, wrote: “If Jesus was mistaken on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man,” why should we trust him when he talks about anything else, including his words about God being a loving Father who freely forgives our sins? “It will not do,” Green says, “simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us… The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.”[2]

I believe the devil is real—and God knows I should believe he’s real, given my personal experience and testimony I’ve heard from other people I trust. But even today, with my days of doubting his reality far in my past, I still often fail to see his influence in my life and in the world. Lisa, my wife, is much more spiritually perceptive than I am. And sometimes when I’m going through a hard time, she’ll say, “Of course this is happening. It’s Satan!” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah! Of course!” I’m often the last one to know!

Let’s remember Paul’s words: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[3] If we are Christians, we are all at war, all the time, with an Enemy who wants to destroy us, and our children, and our families, and people we love—he’s actively working right now to send us to hell alongside him—a job that will be easier if we continue to live as if he isn’t real, as if he isn’t a clear and present danger, as if his influence in our world isn’t insidious and deadly.

So we can have great sympathy for Adam and Eve in today’s scripture. We can learn a lot about the nature of temptation and sin from looking at history’s first sin. And as we do so, we can see Jesus, whom the apostle Paul calls the Last Adam or the Second Adam[4]—the human who succeeded in passing the test where the first human failed. So the testing of Adam by Satan in our scripture today foreshadows the testing of the Second Adam by Satan during Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.

By the way, while it’s true that Satan has this theological conversation with Eve, Adam was right there beside her, according to verse 6. So he’s not less guilty than she is. Her failure is his failure too.

When Satan tempted Jesus three times in the wilderness, he quoted God’s Word to him each time. Similarly, in the garden, Satan quotes God’s Word to Eve, with one small change: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And Eve corrects him and says, “Well, no, he said we could eat from all the trees except that one in the middle of the garden. In fact, we can’t even touch it, or we’ll die.” God didn’t actually say that she and her husband couldn’t touch the tree. But remember: Eve didn’t exist when God gave the commandment to Adam, so Adam likely taught her later. Maybe he added the part about not touching the tree—just to be on the safe side. Who knows?

Regardless, in the case of both Jesus and Adam and Eve, Satan’s strategy is to foster doubt in the goodness of God and the trustworthiness of his Word.

After all, when Jesus is tempted, he is on the brink of starvation, having been led by God to fast in the wilderness for 40 days. There’s no food in sight. We can imagine Satan’s asking Jesus, “Did God really lead you out here in the middle of nowhere to starve. What kind of Father would do that to his Son? Do you really think you can trust a God like that?” Similarly, in the garden, Satan says to the first couple, “You’re not going to die if you eat of this tree. God only told you that because he knows if you eat of it you’ll become just like him. He’d be jealous. Do you really think you can trust a God like that?”

So in both cases, Satan is tempting them to believe that God doesn’t have their best interests at heart. God isn’t going to take care of them, so they better take care of themselves. Instead of depending on God completely, they’d better depend on themselves. Instead of trusting in God completely, they’d better trust in themselves. “Go ahead,” Satan says, “eat that fruit; turn that stone into bread.”

At the heart of temptation—any temptation—is the belief that we can’t really trust God: we doubt his Word; we doubt his promises; we doubt that he knows what’s best for us. So we take matters into our own hands. We place ourselves at the center of the universe instead of God. Ironically, Jesus was God; if anyone had the right to do so, it was he. But remember Philippians 2: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself…” Meanwhile, Adam and the rest of us humans desperately grasp at trying to be equal with God; we want to call the shots; we want to be in charge.

Even next week, when the United Methodist Church meets at General Conference in Portland, the central question that delegates will be fighting about—and they’re going to be fighting—is, “Did God really say… thus-and-such? Can we trust him? Can we trust God’s Word? Does God really know what’s best for us? Maybe we should decide what’s best, instead of him?”

But here I am, up on my high horse. Here I am, standing up for the authority of God’s Word! Which is easy for me to do, I suppose, since I’m not tempted to doubt God’s trustworthiness when it comes to the particular issue that General Conference will be fighting about.

But please… How many times do I fail to live my life like Jesus—who could tell Satan, with perfect integrity, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” See, unlike Jesus, I prefer living by bread. I can touch bread. I can feel it. I can smell it. It brings instant gratification. It doesn’t require faith. It doesn’t require trust. I can have it right now; I don’t have to wait for it.

Let me tell you the kinds of bread that I like to live by: I like living by the bread of other people’s approval and acceptance and recognition. And the bread of money. And the bread of fame and popularity. And the bread of relationships. And the bread of free time and leisure. And the bread of shopping for more stuff. Not that these kinds of bread satisfy me, but I keep thinking they will—because the bread God offers, the Bread of Life, seems so much harder to live by.

What about you? What kind of bread do you live by?

So some of you know I went to my doctor a month ago. I was having heart palpitations: which I’ve had for 25 years and haven’t given much thought to it. For me it’s the sensation of an extra heartbeat. A beat in between the beats. Do you know that feeling? But these palpitations were worse than usual, and I was concerned. And my doctor listened to my heart—and it sounded fine. And he said, “You know, stress and caffeine are the number one cause of palpitations.” And I’m like, “Stress and caffeine? I live on stress and caffeine!” Stress keeps me from sleeping as much as I should each night and caffeine keeps me awake the next day.

Not that my “addiction” to stress and caffeine indicate any kind of spiritual problem, right? Jesus didn’t really tell us not to worry or anything, did he?

You see my point?

So I stopped drinking coffee—after 28 years. I’ve been “clean” now for six weeks. But when my doctor told me that stress and caffeine cause these palpitations, I joked with several friends: “I can’t do much to control stress, except—you know—become a better Christian, and trust in the Lord more, and actually believe what he tells me in his Word. But that’s hard, and that’s a long-term projectBut I can darn well control my caffeine intake!” So that’s what I did.

My point is, like Adam—and unlike Jesus—I often doubt that God will take care of me. Like Adam—and unlike Jesus—I place myself on the throne of my life and try to be in charge. Like Adam—and unlike Jesus—I fail to trust my heavenly Father. Am I in trouble? Am I lost? Will I be exiled from heaven the way Adam was exiled from the garden?

Well… I would be if not for this good news: See… where I failed, Jesus Christ succeeded… for me… on my behalf… in my place. This is what verse 15 points to. In that verse, God is talking to the serpent, who is Satan—and here he is speaking figuratively:

I will put enmity between you [by which he means Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he [referring to this offspring of Eve] shall bruise [or crush] your head, and you [meaning Satan] shall bruise his heel [meaning the heel of the woman’s offspring].

The Church has always considered this a messianic prophecy, right here at the beginning of the Bible—the first announcement of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Why has the Church done so?

Please notice: We expect scripture to say something like, “the offering of the woman shall bruise the heads of the offspring of the serpent.” Or “the children of the woman shall bruise the heads of the children of the serpent”—since this will take place at some point in the future. But that’s not quite what it says. Instead, it says, “This son—which is singular, not plural—this son who will be born at some point in the future—will crush the head, not of some descendant of the serpent, but of the serpent himself—the very same serpent who led humanity into sin. This verse looks ahead to Christ’s future victory over Satan. But notice this victory will come at a cost to the Son—the serpent will bruise his heel. But the Son will not ultimately be destroyed.

Of course, Christ won this victory in a most unusual way. And he won it in part because of a tree… What does scripture say about Jesus: “cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” The tree that tempted Jesus was the cross. But the outcome of Jesus’ temptation was very different.

God told Adam, “If you obey my Word concerning this particular tree, you’ll live forever.” But Adam didn’t obey, and he died—and the rest of humanity died along with him.

God told Jesus, “If you obey my Word concerning this particular tree, you’ll die a god-forsaken death and experience abandonment by me.” But Jesus, unlike Adam, did obey, even though it meant death, so that the rest of humanity might live forever.

And so he’s offering us the chance to live forever…

[1] John 8:44

[2] Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

[3] Ephesians 6:12

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:45

3 Responses to “Sermon 05-08-16: “Jesus Defeats Satan””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great sermon. Don’t know that I have ever heard, and certainly not thought of on my own, about trusting God with respect to a “tree” in both instances of Adam and Jesus.

    One small point. I am not sure that saying Adam was “with her” necessarily meant he was “beside her as the snake was speaking.” Paul says it was the woman who was deceived by the serpent, as opposed from Adam. Being “with her” may simply have meant “in the Garden.” What I picture is that Adam chose to “go with Eve, that baby doll, his wife,” over obeying God in that instance. (Note that he tries to foist off the blame on Eve when cornered, not the serpent. Eve blames the serpent.) As I say, a small point.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you. Thanks. Notice that Adam also blames God when he emphasizes God’s role in giving the woman to him.


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