A sermon preached by Dr. John Clayton at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 20, 2018.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him (Matthew 3:13-4:11).
On the banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist called to Israel, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The call for repentance was accompanied by an outward sign of purification, the sprinkled water of baptism. His declaration of the kingdom of heaven was accompanied by harsh words for the conservative and liberal elites of his day. John’s message and method was simple, and he was unmatched in his boldness. The beauty of his simplicity was in his identity, a prophet preparing the way for the King. Hearing of this kingdom of heaven one might assume a royal procession, but instead we are introduced to the King with these simple words: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” John’s baptism, unlike Christian baptism, was a symbol of Old Covenant repentance of sin in preparation for the Christ to come. That Jesus had traveled from Galilee to be baptized is telling of the widespread reach of John’s appeal, but there is greater meaning to Jesus’ baptism. In fact, Jesus’ baptism is a baptismal declaration.
In Jesus’ baptism, we see at least three declarations about Jesus. The first baptismal declaration is of Jesus’ sinless perfection and divine nature. John tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Every child of Israel was called to repent, but what if you are the sinless Son of God? The Apostle John would later declare, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). A baptism of repentance implies former sin, but Jesus “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22).
John knew personally that he was not worthy to even carry Jesus’ sandals let alone baptize him. Before John stood the living Word of God, and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John knew His place before the King, the sinless Son of God, confessing, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus responds to John’s humble question with the second baptismal declaration of this passage, Jesus’ fulfillment of righteousness: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry had come “now,” but how does a baptism of repentance fulfill all righteousness?
Jesus’ baptism is in fact a beautiful gospel picture. He who knew no sin took upon Himself, the symbol of repentance for His people. In this sense, the writer of Hebrews clarifies, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Jesus identifies with His people by taking upon Himself the symbol of their repentance. As the voice of one crying in the wilderness prepared the way of the Lord, making his paths straight (Matt. 3:3), Jesus heard the cry, obeyed, and walked the path to the baptismal waters of the Jordan, and Jesus was baptized.
As Jesus ascends from the river, the third baptismal declaration is made, a declaration of Jesus’ identity. Unlike any other moment, unlike any other recipient of John’s baptism, in that moment “the heavens were opened” to Jesus. Make no mistake about it, the heavenly spotlight is upon one Man, Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove, coming to rest upon Him. This outward manifestation of the Spirit of God reveals Jesus as the anointed King of the heavenly kingdom. Just as God’s Spirit anointed ordained service in the Old Covenant, Jesus is anointed, not by a prophet of God, but the Spirit of God. He is ordained for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2), and introduced by his heavenly Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Word of God is spoken, fulfilling prophecies from the Psalms and Isaiah. These specific heavenly words, aligned with their fulfillment also tell specifically of Jesus’ identity: The prophesied Son of God and suffering servant are one and the same person. The King had come ushering in His heavenly kingdom, but He must suffer for the sake of its heavenly citizens. Jesus’ baptism declared His sinless perfection and divine nature, His fulfillment of righteousness for His people, and His identity as the Son and suffering servant of God. Having been baptized for His people, He now must be tempted and tried for them by satanic temptation.
James writes, [God] tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13b-14). Yet, Jesus was not lured and enticed into the wilderness of His temptation by sinful desire, nor was He lead by Satan. Rather, Jesus was “led up by the Spirit.” The same Spirit who anointed Him for ministry now leads Him into the wilderness. And then, we read perhaps the most obvious statement in Matthew: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” But, there is deeper significance to this obvious statement. The great football coach Vince Lombardi famously said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Imagine the fatigue of a forty day fast.
The vulnerability of humanity is not lost on Satan. At Jesus’ point of vulnerability, Satan, the tempter, arrives. Before we consider the specific temptations of Jesus, let us consider how this satanic temptation confronts two common errors. First, some blame God for temptation. In a misguided zeal to declare God’s sovereignty, some attribute temptation and even sin to God. However, we see clearly that while the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, it is Satan who actually does the tempting. Indeed, James says, “God tempts no one” (James 1:13). The second common error is to consider Satan unbound by God’s control, or worse to consider him the evil co-equal of God. The book of Job reveals that Satan is not only a creature under God’s sovereign reign, but he may only do what God permits. Jesus has been led into the wilderness by the Spirit, He has fasted to the point of human vulnerability, and under the sovereign permission of God the temtper comes.
Temptation, in essence, is an invitation to take something good and pervert it. Temptation was no different for Jesus than it is for us today. Consider the three ways in which Satan tempted Jesus. First, Jesus is tempted to elevate His physical needs over the spiritual, to place the cares and concerns of the earthly kingdom equal to or greater than the heavenly kingdom. Second, Jesus is tempted to manipulate God’s Word in an effort to coerce divine action. Third, Jesus is tempted by the instant gratification of power, authority, and wealth. In these temptations together, we see the summary of human temptation: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). And we also see that in every temptation, Jesus responded with Scripture revelation.
As is the case in much of Matthew’s gospel, there is a story within this story. As Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years, the Son of Israel was led into the wilderness to fast forty days and nights. As Israel grumbled in the wilderness over their earthly hunger, the Son of Israel declares, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” As Israel rebelled against God at Massah, the Son of Israel declares, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” As Israel fell before the golden calf at Sinai, the Son of Israel declares quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Just as Israel’s sins in the wilderness represent human sin, the Son of Israel, the faithful Israel, the true Israel was tempted in every way, yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15). Just as Jesus represented His sinful people in His baptism, He represented us in His temptations. Here, in fact, we hear a simple yet profound gospel message. He who had no need to repent, came for those in need of repentance. He who was sinless was tempted and tried for sinners. In fact, “God shows his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), and “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:10-11).
Because of what God has done for us in Christ, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Just as the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted, so God teaches us even through the devil’s temptations. The Westminster Confession explains, “The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends” (WCF 5.5).
Just as Jesus was tempted by Satan to elevate His physical needs over the spiritual, so also you will be tempted with a myriad of sins, the desires of the flesh. But, according to Romans 8, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Just as Jesus was tempted by Satan to manipulate God’s Word in an effort to coerce divine action, so also you will be tempted with a myriad of sins, the desires of the eyes. But according to 1 Corinthians 15, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Just as Jesus was tempted by the instant glorification of power, authority, and wealth, so also you will be tempted with a myriad of sins, the pride of life. But, according to 1 John 4, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
It is not a matter if you will be tempted to sin but when, so Paul encourages us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Because this is true, it is time for a declaration of revelation! “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Let the Word of Christ dwell in your richly (Col. 3:16), and like newborn infants crave the pure milk of the Word (1 Peter 2:2).
You nor I are victims. Satan has been defeated and is a snivelling, permission-dependent pawn under God’s sovereign control. So, let the temptations of this present darkness drive you to a greater dependence upon Christ and the provision of His Word. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).