Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior whom God had promised. The angel in the Christmas reading (Luke 2:11) said it. Matthew started this Gospel with that good news (Matthew 1:1). It was the reason the Magi came, and Herod was afraid (Matthew 2:3-6). John the Baptist heralded his coming and the voice from heaven declared his arrival (Matthew 3:11-12, 17). Now, even the tempter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, in a skewed way. Jesus is the light that banishes darkness, the bringer of the kingdom of heaven.
What was the devil’s plan when he came to Jesus? This is clearly a special visitation. Did the tempter want to discredit or disqualify Jesus as the Messiah of God? Or, did he want to see if Jesus really was the Messiah? In this story, when the devil tried to lead Jesus into temptation, it was the latter that he accomplished. This is one more part of Matthew’s argument that Jesus really was the fulfillment of God’s promise; he was (and is) the Messiah.
You will find many articles and blog posts that delve into the details of each temptation that Jesus endured. They make up an interesting episode, the interchange and details that capture our attention. However, I’m more interested in setting it in the larger story here, set between the declaration of God and the proclamation of the kingdom.
I hope I’m not the only one, but I’ve always loved the poetic imagery of Matthew 4:16 (from Isaiah 9:2), the metaphor of darkness and light. This seems especially apropos given this time of year in the northern hemisphere, especially “up north.” Here in southern Wisconsin, sunset comes early this time of year, a little after 4:30 pm. That’s, of course, nothing compared to Fairbanks, Alaska, which has about four and a half hours of sunlight now.
In Matthew 4, people are sitting in darkness, in the shadow of death. One of the purposes Matthew has for quoting Isaiah 9:1-2 is to point out that Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Galilee keeps up with the messianic promises found in Scripture. But this quotation also brings a more cosmic scope to Jesus’ presence. The kingdoms of this world, despite their splendors (v. 8), sit in darkness. The darkness of fear, of death, of anguish, of hopelessness.
Light & the Kingdom
That’s where Jesus comes in. He will shortly teach his disciples that they are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), but that’s only because Jesus shines through us. We are stuck in darkness, but Jesus brings a message—and a reality—of hope and God’s love. The kingdom of heaven has come near in the person and work of the Messiah.
Temptation & Repentance
As darkness is the absence of light, so sin is the absence of love. Temptation, sin, and shame are a downward spiral, taking us down into the darkness. But the light has dawned. Love is a spiral as well, this time taking us into the kingdom. God’s love pours into us, and we, in turn, respond with acts of love toward God and others. Receiving love begets giving love.
But we screw up. Sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we make decisions. Jesus brings us into the circle of love, but we are often tempted. Giving in to temptation turns us away from God and drops us into the dark spiral. However, that’s not the end. God never stops pouring out love to us, and we can follow Jesus’ command to repent (v. 17). Repentance is the opposite of temptation, as we turn back toward God. We can then see the splendor of God’s kingdom where there is no darkness, only light.
Teaching Temptation (and How to Fight It)
It is good to teach our faith formation participants about specific sins, often connected to the Ten Commandments. Especially for our younger disciples, this list of concrete actions to identify and avoid is very helpful. Our free activity this week, “What Would You Do?” from our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) curriculum gives participants a concrete list of real-world temptations so that together the group can think about how to fight them.
However, it’s also important to teach our younger and older participants that temptation and sin are not just about lists. Sin is about leaving the path of love for God and others. It is when we lose hope and give in to fear. It is when we focus on ourselves and neglect others. Sometimes temptation is about fulfilling a pleasure or need with the wrong thing. Other times it is losing our grip on God’s promises, forgetting about God’s great love for us. No matter what, God never stops loving us and calling us back. Repentance is the way we get ready for the great news: the kingdom of heaven has come near.
So, how will you teach or preach this story?
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
Epiphany is upon us, but it’s not too late to order faith formation resources! If you had ordered Fall Living the Word resources or are interested in just getting started, order your Winter resources now, which go to Transfiguration Sunday. As soon as your payment is processed, you can download the Winter (and Spring) quarters immediately and start using them!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!