Sermon 03-06-2022: “If You Are the Son of God”

March 14, 2022

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

If you are of my generation or older, you will no doubt remember a song that was all over the radio back in the spring of 1985. I’m talking about the song “We Are the World” by USA for Africa, a group of American pop and rock stars. This was a song recorded for charity. The proceeds from the sale of the record went to famine relief in Ethiopia. Not long ago, my boys were watching a “making of” video on YouTube about the song, and I was struck by a rather glaring error in the song, which I promise I had never noticed before… and maybe you haven’t either. It’s from the lines that Willie Nelson sings… He sings:

As God has shown us by turning stones to bread

And so we all must lend a helping hand

As God has shown us by turning stones to bread… Hold on a minute! Nelson is undoubtedly referring to the first temptation in today’s scripture. Except… in today’s scripture God refuses to turn stones to bread. Jesus, who is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, doesn’t turn stones into bread! That’s kind of the point! The whole idea of “turning stones to bread” wasn’t God’s idea at all; it was the devil’s idea. 

But I guess the song wouldn’t have had quite the same impact if Willie Nelson had sung, “As the devil has shown us…” 

I mean, the songwriters could have chosen any number of examples from scripture of God working miracles to feed hungry people—in order to make the same point, but man… they really blew it with this example! They got it completely wrong!

But the very fact that the songwriters got it wrong may perhaps demonstrate why the devil’s temptation was so tempting in the first place—it does kind of seem like something God might do. And Jesus is God… So why doesn’t Jesus perform this miracle? What’s the problem with this temptation?

I’m going to answer that and other questions before this sermon is over, but first I need to tackle a practical question, related to plausibility: Can we believe that today’s scripture really happened? Does it make sense? Is Jesus’ encounter with the devil here plausible? That’s the first point. The second point is about God’s promises… Can we trust that God loves and cares about us as much as his Word says he does? Third, provision… What does God give us in order to help us believe his promises. And fourth, proof… What has God done to show us that we can trust him? How can we know for sure these promises are true? Plausibility, promises, provision, and proof… That’s what this sermon is about…

First, plausibility… Did this really happen? Does it make sense? I mean, the devil shows up and starts talking to Jesus? Doesn’t that seem a little far-fetched? 

First let’s notice: Luke doesn’t describe the devil’s physical characteristics here. We don’t know in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. But I know for sure that if you’re picturing a cartoon Satan in horns, red tights, cloven hooves, and a pitchfork, that’s not how he appeared to Jesus.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’s insightful and depressingly funny book The Screwtape Letters. The book is a correspondence between a senior demon named Screwtape and his young and inexperienced demon nephew, Wormwood. In Lewis’s depiction of the spiritual realm, each demon has a “patient”—a human being who’s living and breathing in the world right now. It’s the demon’s job to lead that person to hell as best he can. And Screwtape and his nephew are discussing strategies and tactics for doing just that in a series of letters. In one of the letters, Screwtape discusses the question of whether or not his nephew should let his patient know the truth about Satan and demons: that in spite of what many modern people think, Satan and his fellow demons are real. Screwtape says that there are benefits associated with both options. If people believe in Satan, they can become inordinately afraid of him, like the Salem witch trials, which can rob them of joy, make them superstitious, cause them to do harmful things—and that would be good—but if they don’t believe in the devil, then they won’t be alert to the many ways the devil does his evil work in the world—and they’ll fall victim to him more easily. It’s hard to say which is better, Screwtape says. But he tells his nephew that hell’s official policy these days is to keep the existence of the demonic realm a secret. 

The late Keith Green, a Christian singer-songwriter, wrote a song in the ’70s from Satan’s point of view. He sings: “I used to have to sneak around/ But now they just open their doors/ You know, no one’s watching for my tricks/ Because no one believes in me anymore.”

I confess, years ago, that there was a season in my life in which I bought into this lie—that the Bible’s reports about Satan and the demonic were mythological or simply figurative. I thought I was too sophisticated to believe in a literal devil.And that’s what many of my professors in seminary believed and taught—there were a few exceptions. Let me just say that now my life makes a lot more sense believing in the reality of an unseen force that actively works against us and seeks to cause harm.

Screwtape goes on to say that it’s easy to keep the humans from finding out the truth about demons. He writes, “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in [your patient’s] mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that… he therefore cannot believe in you.” 1

And that’s the number one obstacle to believing in the existence of Satan: he’s become a cartoon character. He doesn’t seem real.

What Jesus is facing in today’s scripture, however, is no cartoon character; he’s real. Some Bible scholars I respect, like N.T. Wright, argue that since there’s no physical description of him, Satan could have come to Jesus in exactly the same way he normally comes to you and me: as thoughts, orintuitions, or ideas in our heads. We don’t know, and it’s not important… What’s important is that Satan does come to Jesus, and these temptations are genuinely tempting to him. They’re not silly. They’re not trivial. They’re not easy. Jesus isn’t going through motions of being tempted, only pretending that this is hard for him when it’s really not; he’s not humoring the devil. No… He’s been fasting for 40 days… That’s about as long as an adult male can go before starvation kicks in. He’s physically very weak. In his weakened condition brought on by fasting, Jesus considers giving in to the temptations. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be temptations! 

And if you’re like me, you might say, “Well, I can see how Temptation Number One would be tempting… Jesus is on the brink of starvation. And I can see how Temptation Number Three would be tempting… If Jesus performed some spectacular miracle in the capital city of ancient Israel—throwing himself off the temple mount, where all these faithful Jews in Jerusalem are gathered—so many people would see him do it and believe in him… that would be great! And doesn’t Jesus want people to believe in him, after all?

But Temptation Number Two seems harder to swallow: Would Jesus really be tempted to worship the devil? When I was a kid I thought that was something that only hard rock and heavy metal stars like Ozzy Osbourne and members of the band KISS did! That’s not true, by the way… They don’t worship the devil. But my point is, if even those guys don’t worship the devil, does it seem plausible that Jesus would worship the devil? 

Two thoughts: First, the Greek word underneath the English word “worship” means that it’s something that Jesus only has to do for a moment—one time. It’s not intended to be an ongoing activity. 

And second, consider this: Jesus is the world’s one true king. One day, the Bible says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”2 Why not get a head start on that now? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus could usher in God’s kingdom on earth right now… instead of waiting until the Second Coming? Think of all the evil that Jesus could prevent in the world if he were the world’s ruler! For one thing, if Jesus were running the world right now, at least hundreds or thousands of Ukrainians wouldn’t be getting slaughtered at the hands of this evil Russian autocrat!

So what the devil is offering Jesus is a shortcut to glory: “If you love these human beings as much as you say you do, and you want to rescue them, then just make this one small compromise… and you’ll get what you say you want, right? And you won’t even have to follow your Father’s plan and suffer and die on a cross! But forget about your own suffering. You could prevent so much suffering of people living in the world right now! Don’t you want that, Jesus?”

See, this temptation is tempting because it appeals to Christ’s love for the world. It’s just that it comes an at unacceptably high price. So of course Jesus says no.

So that’s Point Number One: I believe, and I hope you do, that this account of Jesus’ temptations is plausible.

Point Number Two: Promises… Does God keep his word? Can God be trusted? Does God keep his promises—including the promise that he’ll always love me? 

These questions are at the heart of these three temptations. To understand this point, let’s consider what happened in Jesus’ life immediately before Jesus was led into the wilderness for these temptations: Turn back to Luke chapter 3. Jesus was baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. And after he was baptized, Luke 3:22 says, “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

So in this baptism, God gives Jesus a visual, audible, and supernatural demonstration of the meaning of Christ’s baptism: It means that he is God’s beloved Son, with whom his Father is well pleased.

So his Father has just told him, “You are my beloved Son,” and here we are, in today’s scripture, 40 days later, and what’s the first thing Satan says to Jesus when he comes to tempt him? Verse 3: “If you are the Son of God…” In other words, “If the last thing you heard your Father say to you—40 days ago—is true, then of course you’ll want to do what Willie Nelson wants you to do… of course you’ll want to turn these stones to bread. After all, if your Father loves you as much as he told you he does, then naturally he wouldn’t want you to starve out here in the wilderness. Would he? I mean, what kind of loving father would want that?”

So you see the devil is trying to sow seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind about whether his Father was telling the truth when he said that loved him and cared about him.

This is a tactic straight out of the devil’s playbook. Think, for example, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3: Satan convinces Eve that God was lying to the couple about how dangerous the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was. “That’s not true,” Satan tells her. “God just doesn’t want you to become like him, and know good from evil. He’s not looking out for your best interests. He’s withholding something good from you out of spite or jealousy.” Satan is sowing seeds of doubt in her mind about God’s love for her… about whether he truly cares for her. “If God did love and care for you,” the devil says, in so many words, “then of course he would let you eat this fruit.”

And we see Satan’s tactic at work again in Israel’s 40-year experience of being tested in the wilderness after leaving slavery in Egypt. That number 40 is symbolic. Just as the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea and were tested in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus passed through the waters of the Jordan in his baptism and was tested in the wilderness for 40 days. The difference, of course, is that Jesus passed every test, whereas Israel failed nearly all of theirs. 

So we’re meant to remember Israel wandering in the wilderness… And here’s the main thing we’re meant to remember about it: How much Israel doubted that God truly loved them and cared about them… how much they doubted that God was looking out for their best interests! I mean, what was their ongoing complaint: “Why did you, Moses—and you, God—lead us out into the wilderness to starve—or die of thirst? We had plenty of good food back in Egypt! We had everything we needed back there”—never mind that they were slaves! They always seemed to forget that part!

So Satan is tempting Jesus to doubt his Father’s word when his Father told him he loved and cared for him. But not only that… The reason God’s Son came into the world in the first place was to be Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior. When his Father told Jesus that he was his beloved Son, he was also saying something about his mission: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” How could Christ accomplish his purpose for coming into the world if he dies of starvation before he even gets started on that mission?

So the devil would also love for Jesus to ask questions like, “Was my Father telling the truth about my mission? Can I trust him? Will he keep his word?”

Like I said, this is a tactic straight out of the devil’s playbook… He used it against Adam and Eve. He used it against Israel in the wilderness. He’s using it here against Jesus in today’s scripture.

And he uses it against us today. He tempts us to ask, “Does God really love and care about me? Will God keep his word when he tells me that nothing will separate me from his love? Will God keep all the promises that he’s made to me in his Word?”

I had a “frenemy” in my Baptist church youth group when I was a teenager. His name was Rick. He was popular, athletic, good-looking, girls liked him… So naturally I hated him. But also… he was very conceited, and he picked on me… a lot. Anyway, Rick was very predictable: because every time we went on a youth group retreat or church summer camp—a couple of times each year—you could count on Rick, responding to the youth pastor’s altar call, walking down the aisle… to receive Christ as Savior and Lord in tears… very emotional.

I mean, the poor guy must have gotten re-baptized four or five times! He must have prayed to receive Christ as his Savior and Lord about thirteen times!

And each time he walked down the aisle to to pray to receive Christ, I wanted to say, “Rick, didn’t you do this six months ago?” And I’m sure he would have said, “Yes, but this time I really mean it, I promise.” And I’m like, “I think you meant it last time? How many times do you have to get saved before you’re finally saved? Besides, Rick… maybe you’re just feeling guilty for picking on me so much. Stop doing that, and you probably won’t need to repent so often!” 

I’m kidding, but I feel sorry for Rick when I think about him. Because it was clear that the devil had been whispering in his ear something like this: “Do you think God really loves you? Are you sure? After all the sins you’ve committed over the past few months? I mean, do you really believe that God is going to forgive you again?You need to get your act together. You better walk down the aisle again, and pray that sinner’s prayer again, and maybe even get baptized again… and maybe this time it’ll stick.” 

Are we so different from Rick? Do we ever doubt that God really loves and cares for us? I do… I certainly face that temptation—especially when life isn’t working out according to my plans. This voice says, “Brent, if God really loved you, why would he let you be in this mess in the first place? If he loved you, why would you be struggling like this, why would you be facing this trouble? And people see through you. They don’t care about you. They don’t want to listen to you preach!”

That, my friends, is the same voice of the devil that tempted Jesus in today’s scripture!

So what do do to fight against this temptation? This brings us to Point Number Three: Provision… What has God given us to fight against the devil when he tempts us to doubt God’s promises?I want to focus on two things—both of which God provided for Jesus in today’s scripture.

The first is the only offensive weapon that the apostle Paul says that we possess when we “put on the whole armor of God” in Ephesians 6:17— and that is, the “sword of the Spirit,” God’s Word, holy scripture.

In all three temptations, Jesus fights against the devil by using the Bible. But especially pay attention to Temptation Number Three, in verse 10: There the devil tries to use scripture itself against Jesus. And my fellow Methodists, please notice what Jesus doesn’t do: He doesn’t say, “Satan, that verse isn’t true. You can’t literally believe that particular verse.” Jesus doesn’t say, as too many modern Christians say, “The Holy Spirit has revealed something new to me, Satan, which isn’t found in the Bible or may even contradict what the Holy Spirit has previously revealed in the Bible.” Jesus doesn’t say, “I’ve been praying, Satan, and my Father told me me something else, and while it’s not found in the Bible, I feel pretty confident that I’m right.” He doesn’t say, “Well, my experience leads me to believe that this other thing is true, therefore I can just ignore what the Bible says.” 

No… Jesus doesn’t do those things. Instead he says, “It is written.” In other words, everything we need to know about God, about Jesus, about the gospel, about our relationship with God, about how we should live as faithful believers in this world, is contained in this book.” If anyone had the prerogative to ignore what God’s Word says, and rely on his own experience, and do his own thing, it’s God’s Son Jesus. After all, only he knows the mind of God perfectly… and he knows it from first hand experience. Yet he’s confident enough in the truth of God’s Word to rely on the same “sword of the Spirit” that God has given us… holy scripture! He says, “It is written…” He stands on the truth of God’s Word to fight every scheme of the devil.

Oh that we would also say, “It is written.” Oh that we modern Methodists could have that same confidence in the truthfulness of God’s Word that Jesus has! Without it we will lose to the devil every time!

Now here’s second provision God has given us—which he also gave to his Son Jesus: Our baptism.

In the first and third temptations, Jesus is tempted to use a miraculous sign in part to prove that his Father genuinely loves and cares for him as his beloved Son—that his Father can be trusted, that his Father is telling him the truth. A miraculous sign—like leaping off the pinnacle of the Temple or turning stones to bread—would confirm his Father’s love and faithfulness, or so Satan wants Jesus to believe. 

But Jesus doesn’t need any additional confirmation. He has everything he needs… in the voice that he heard during his baptism.

And our Lord wants us to know that this voice that he heard… is also spoken over us… in our baptism! The meaning of baptism is demonstrated in the voice that Jesus heard and the vision of the Holy Spirit that Jesus saw! When we believe in Jesus and are born again, it’s as if our Father says to us, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” “You are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.” We are adopted into the family of God, but you better believe that parents don’t love their adopted children any less than their natural born children!

So… fight against that devilish voice tempting you to doubt God’s love, and the way you do it is by trusting in God’s Word and remembering your baptism… And if you say, “Oh, I don’t remember my baptism! I was an infant…” That’s okay, because you remember Luke chapter 3… You remember what your baptism means.

Finally, Point Number Four: proof. How can we know for sure that God loves and cares for us. By looking at verse 13, a key verse in today’s scripture: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” Until an opportune time.

The reason Jesus’ Father wanted him to be tested here at the beginning of his ministry was to prepare him for an even greater testing later on in his ministry. Most Bible scholars believe that this “opportune time” occurred when Jesus was sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, “If possible take this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done.” This opportune time occurred when Jesus was arrested falsely accused, beaten, spit upon, mocked, when soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head. This opportune time occurred when Jesus carried his own cross to Golgotha, when he experienced separation from his Father and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This opportune time occurred when Jesus experienced God’s wrath, when he experienced hell itself on the cross.

All the while, Jesus undoubtedly heard the voice of the devil saying, “If you are Son of God, you don’t have to put up with this! Are you crazy? You don’t deserve this! Free yourself! Come down off that cross and save yourself… If you are the Son of God.

And in part because of the testing in today’s scripture, Jesus could reply, “You don’t get it, Satan. “There’s no if… ‘If I am the Son of God.’ It’s ‘because’: Because I am the Son of God, I refuse to ‘save myself.’ Because through my death on the cross, I’m going to save instead all these people I love.”


  1. C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 203-4.
  2. Ephesians 2:10-11 ESV

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