Led by the Spirit into the Wilderness
May 22, 2005
Listen to this Sermon
This is the second message in our new series on the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday we talked about John 3:8 and how the Holy Spirit is the wind—invisible, unpredictable, uncontrollable. He comes and goes as he wishes; no one can control his movements. He alone can give life to the spiritually dead. He alone can bring us the new birth we all need. Without the Holy Spirit, no one will ever come to Christ, and without the Holy Spirit we cannot live the Christian life. When we pray for revival, we are asking the Holy Spirit to blow upon us in a new and powerful way. We ended the service last Sunday on our knees, as hundreds of people came forward to kneel at the front of the sanctuary, asking God to renew the power of his Spirit in our midst.
This Sunday we take the next step by looking at the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a huge topic so we will confine ourselves to the events surrounding the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. As we study the story, keep in mind that Luke presents the Lord Jesus as the perfect man and the model we should follow. In order to fully understand what happened in the wilderness, we need to start before the temptation and continue after the temptation. Our focus is not on the devil but on the Holy Spirit and the role he played in the life of Christ before, during and after the temptation. Five words summarize what happened.
Our story begins with an act of obedience. Luke 3:21-22 tells us that “when all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.” Matthew 3:13-15 tells us that his baptism was an act of righteousness. He fulfilled the Father’s will by publicly identifying himself with the nation of Israel. By submitting to baptism, even though he had no sins to confess, he took a step of obedience that said to the people, “I am one with you.”
While Jesus was being baptized, two extraordinary things happened. First, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. Second, the Father spoke from heaven with words of divine approval: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). The entire Trinity is revealed at this point: Jesus as the Son of God, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice of the Father. What greater assurance could there be that Jesus is truly the Messiah?
Immediately following the story of the baptism, Luke inserts a lengthy genealogy that starts with Jesus and goes back to “Adam, the son of God” (v. 38). Then we come to the story of the temptation (Luke 4:1-11). So the order in Luke’s gospel looks like this:
Luke inserts the genealogy because he wants to demonstrate that where Adam failed in his great test in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-6), Jesus will now decisively defeat the devil.
The first Adam failed.
The second Adam succeeded.
The one true “Son of God” will now square off against the archenemy of the universe. As the text reveals, it won’t be a fair fight. Jesus utterly defeats the devil at every turn.
After the time of testing is over, Luke 4:14 tells us that Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.” As news about him spread from town to town, “everyone praised him” (v. 15). However you wish to explain it, something happened to Jesus in the wilderness. He not only defeated the devil, he returned from his victory in the power of the Spirit.
He now goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath in his hometown of Nazareth. Standing up, he began to read from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me” (Luke 4:18). After finishing the reading, he makes an audacious (and entirely true) claim in verse 21, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” At first they loved his gracious words (v. 21), but later they tried to throw him off a cliff (v. 29). From Nazareth, he went to Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee. When he spoke on the Sabbath to the people, “They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority” (v. 32).
I thought about what word to use for this final step in the story and I couldn’t quite make up my mind. The word “boldness” came to mind, as did the word “certainty.” I settled on the word “freedom” because it seemed to encapsulate the fullness of Jesus’ ministry. Because he is moving in the power of the Holy Spirit, he is completely free to speak the truth with boldness and without fear of what men might do to him.
Stand back and look at the sequence for a moment:
Obedience … Assurance … Testing … Power … Freedom
Luke makes it clear that these things happened in a certain order because Jesus is modeling for us what it means to live in close connection to God. He obeys and the Spirit descends. The Father speaks profound words of assurance. Immediately he is led into the wilderness. He comes out of that ordeal in the power of the Spirit. His freedom to speak the truth with authority endears him to many people and enrages others.
Two Wrong Assumptions
Let’s focus for a moment on his temptation. Luke 4:1 mentions the Holy Spirit twice: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.” The word “led” has the idea of being led by the hand. In a parallel passage in Mark 1:12, a different Greek word is used that means to “drive,” which is why some translations say that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. It doesn’t mean that Jesus went unwillingly, but it does indicate that this showdown with the devil does not happen by accident. We should think of it this way: The Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness, through the wilderness, and out of the wilderness. There was never a moment when he left Jesus. Even in his weakened condition physically, Jesus had the Holy Spirit upon him as he faced the devil. This conclusively refutes two wrong assumptions often made about the temptation of Jesus:
Wrong Assumption #1: That Jesus agonized greatly over the temptations of the devil. But the text does not read that way. The devil tempted him and Jesus immediately defeated him each time with the Word of God. Jesus did experience true agony of soul much later in the Garden of Gethsemane as he contemplated the terrible cost of bearing the wrath of God for the sins of the world. That was true agony. The wilderness was true temptation, but Jesus did not agonize. It was as if he said to the devil, “Hit me with your best shot,” and then, “Is that all you’ve got?” Though physically depleted by his 40 days of fasting, he brushed the devil aside the way a dog brushes away a flea.
Wrong Assumption #2: That the devil was in control of the whole situation. A cursory reading of the text might lead you to that conclusion. But the context makes it clear that the Spirit intentionally led Jesus into the wilderness in order to do battle with the devil. Jesus did not shrink from this desert warfare. Nor do I believe the devil welcomed it. The devil prefers to work behind the scenes through secondary causes. By going into the desert, Jesus flushed out his adversary and made him “fight like a man.” Thus exposed, the devil was easily defeated by the Son of God.
Take a moment to compare verse 1 with verse 14.
Jesus was “full of the Spirit” when he went into the desert.
Jesus came out of the desert “in the power of the Spirit.”
Something happened to Jesus as a result of his victory over the devil. The Holy Spirit’s power became evident and obvious in his life in a new way. In thinking about this, it helps to remember that Jesus was truly human. If Jesus as a man could grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52), then as a man he could grow in his experience of the Holy Spirit. I freely admit this is a mystery we cannot begin to understand, but Luke wants us to know that Jesus went into the desert full of the Spirit, and he came out of the desert in the power of the Spirit. Both before and after, he was fully possessed by the Spirit and fully led by the Spirit, but having defeated the devil, the Spirit’s power became very pronounced in his life. It is the difference between truth understood and truth expressed. As a man, his life had new impact upon the people (they all praised him) after his victory over the devil.
But should this surprise us? Is not this our experience as well? When we face temptation successfully, when we refuse to lower our standards, when we say no to sin and yes to righteousness, when we refrain from evil words that we are tempted to say, after we have passed the fiery trial, do we not come out of that experience with new confidence? Years ago I read a little poem that speaks to this point:
Here is a fact
That should help you fight a bit longer:
The things that don’t kill you outright
Just make you stronger.
Why We Need Temptation
That leads me to a crucial principle we all need to learn. God uses temptation to release spiritual power in your life. Martin Luther once remarked that in making a minister of God, three things are required:
Meditation … Prayer … Temptation
The first refers to meditation on the Word of God. The second is self-evident. But what does he mean by “temptation?” Does he mean that we should go looking for the devil in order to pick a fight with him? No, not at all. But neither should we run from our spiritual battles. No one can ever grow spiritually without facing strong temptations. I’m using the word “temptation” as synonymous with “trial” because the Greek word can be translated both ways. Temptation to most of us means a solicitation to do evil. But any trial can become a temptation if we give in to our anger, if we lose our temper, if we break our promises, if we compromise our values, if we trade in our integrity, if we hide like cowards instead of standing up for what we believe. You could say it this way: The same event will often be both a temptation and a trial. What God gives to us as a trial or a test, Satan almost always uses as a temptation. The very same event may be both a trial and test to you and also a temptation from Satan. God uses it to accomplish one thing in your life and Satan at the very same time is working through that event to try to accomplish something diametrically opposite. Very often God allows a trial to come for a positive purpose, but Satan tries to co-opt it for his own evil reasons. The temptation of Jesus offers a clear example of this principle. We know that the devil came to Jesus in the wilderness, tempting him to turn away from the path of obedience to his Heavenly Father. Luke 4:1 tells us that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.” Who did the leading? The Holy Spirit. Who did the tempting? The devil. Is there a contradiction here? Not at all. Did God know what was going to happen when he sent his Son into the desert? Yes, he did. He intended from the beginning to demonstrate that his Son would not yield to Satan’s blandishments. Was God tempting his own Son? No, he wasn’t. Was God putting his Son in a place where his Son could be tempted by the devil? The answer to that must be, yes.
How Trials Become Temptations
That is an amazing thought. At this point we need to think carefully and clearly. I do not believe that God ever directly solicits his children to sin. I don’t believe that because the Bible specifically denies it. But it is also true that from time to time God allows his children to go into a place where they will face severe temptations from Satan. Is God responsible for the severe temptation? No, he’s not. He does the leading; Satan does the tempting. From God’s point of view it’s a test. From Satan’s point of view it’s a temptation.
We see this pattern occurring in every area of life. God sends a trial and Satan turns it into a temptation. Let’s suppose a child of God contracts a deadly sickness. Could that sickness be a testing from God? Yes, it could. It almost always is a testing from God to purify motives, to cause the child of God to look away from the things of earth to the things of heaven, and to turn the eyes of the child of God back to the Lord. Many good things are accomplished through sickness in the life of the believer. Does Satan work through sickness? Yes, he does. And through that very same sickness Satan will be working to tempt you to despair, to anger, to bitterness, and ultimately to turn away from the Lord. What God intends for your spiritual good is the avenue Satan uses to pull you down.
Or suppose you lose your job. You say, “Could that be from God?” Yes, it could. If you lose your job, could God have a better purpose in mind for you? Yes, and he often does. He may have a better job for you. He certainly wants to build some spiritual character in your life. You may have fallen in love with the things of the world to the point where those good things have become an idol to you. In that case, it is good for you to lose a good job. And during that trial from God, Satan will tempt you to anger, despair and discouragement.
It works the other way just as well. Let’s suppose you get a promotion and a nice raise in salary. Now you are better off financially than you’ve ever been. Can a promotion be a trial from God? Absolutely. Prosperity is often a trial or testing from God to see how you will handle his blessings. Prosperity ought to make us more generous toward the needy. Having more ought to open our eyes to those who have less than we do. But that same prosperity often makes us greedy, selfish, and blind to the less fortunate.
Let’s take the case of a businessman on the seventh day of a long trip. He checks into his motel room, tired and lonely. On top of the television is one of those boxes where they bring in those movies rated X or XX or XXX. The man knows that he has no business pushing that button. But when he’s alone and spiritually disoriented, he feels a strong urge to watch one of those movies. Does God know the box is there? Yes, he does. Did God allow his servant to go into that room? Yes, he did. Is it a test? Yes, it is. And if the man passes the test he will be stronger spiritually because he said no. Is it a temptation? Yes, it is. It’s a temptation to reach over and touch that box and give in to lust.
Those are just a few examples of how something God intends as a means of building you up is also used by Satan as a means of temptation to pull you down. I draw two conclusions from that fact. Conclusion number one is this—Testings and trials are a normal part of the Christian life. They are part of God’s curriculum for you. He puts difficult choices in front of you every day so that by following him and by trusting him in those circumstances you become stronger. Your faith becomes confirmed and you become an example to other people of victory over the world, the flesh and the devil. There’s nothing you can do to escape the trials of life—nothing at all. In the School of Grace, God doesn’t offer a “No Trials” degree program. All of us will be tested many times in many ways.
Conclusion number two—A trial becomes a temptation when we respond wrongly. That which was sent into our life in order to make us stronger is that which actually tears us down and makes us weaker when we respond in the power of the flesh. What God means for good, Satan means for evil. The Christian hangs in the balance between the tests and the trials from the Heavenly Father and the perversions of Satan as he twists that which God gives us and whispers in our ear, “Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.”
Could this be the reason why the biblical writers did not sharply distinguish what we want to keep separate? We separate trials and temptations as if they are far, far apart. The biblical writers had no problem using the same word to mean trials in one verse and then using the very same word to mean temptations just a few verses later. They understood what we have forgotten. Everything good comes from God, and everything he gives us is ultimately for our good and his glory. He does not sin nor does he solicit us to sin. But hidden inside every trial is the seed of a temptation that Satan uses to harvest a crop of evil in our lives.
If Jesus was the Son of God, why did the Father put him in the position of being tempted by the devil? Consider this sequence:
He was led that he might be tested.
He was tested that he might be prepared.
He was prepared that he might be empowered.
We Can’t Stay on the Mountaintop Forever
The same thing happens to you and me. From the high point of his baptism, Jesus was led into the desert of temptation. God never intends that we stay on the mountaintop of spiritual ecstasy. Mountaintops are exciting places. From the mountaintop, you can see vast distances. On the mountaintop, you can feel the fresh air blowing across your face. On the mountaintop, you have no worries. The mountaintop is a place of joy, fulfillment, certainty, and a place of spiritual refreshment. Sometimes a worship service can be a spiritual mountaintop for us. Often we come to a mountaintop at a camp or a retreat or on a vacation or at a happy moment of victory in our lives.
Thank God for the mountaintops. If we didn’t have them, life would be almost unbearable.
But you can’t stay there forever. Sooner or later, you’ve got to go down from the mountaintop into the valley of trouble. That’s where the people are. That’s where life must be lived. That’s where you face your problems and learn to look to God for solutions. That’s where you prove the reality of your faith before a watching world. You have to go down into the valley because that’s where the desert is. And the desert is where the Holy Spirit will lead you sooner or later. And if you try to stay on the mountaintop of spiritual excitement too long, the Holy Spirit will gently take you by the hand and lead you down into the valley and on into the wilderness of temptation. And if he can’t gently lead you, he’ll get behind you and give you a swift kick, and you’ll slide off that mountaintop and go tumbling down into the valley.
Mountaintops are fun but we can’t stay there forever.
We’ve all got to go into the valley and into the wilderness sooner or later.
The Spirit himself will lead us there.
And most of us will go back to the wilderness many times.
When I said that last sentence on Sunday, several people said, “Amen!” rather loudly. This is a truth learned the hard way. I think a few Christians spend so much time there, they feel like they’ve earned a “Wilderness Merit Badge.” But we’ll all spend some time in the wilderness whether we like it or not. There is no other path to spiritual power.
So what do you do if you find yourself in the wilderness? Remember these three truths:
A. You are not there by accident.
B. You are not there alone.
C. You will not be there forever.
When God’s purposes in your life have been accomplished, the Spirit will lead you out of the wilderness, and you will come out stronger in your faith than when you went in.
The Wilderness is All About God!
It was necessary for Jesus to go into the wilderness. It is necessary for us also. Think of it this way. The wilderness isn’t a fun place to be. You always end up feeling alone and exhausted. You may not fast for 40 days, but you will often come to the end of all human resources. And you will feel like giving in and giving up. You will wonder why God has abandoned you. Nothing will make sense; all will seem confusing. But do not despair.
Stand your ground.
Remember the promises of God.
Cling to the Lord.
Do not turn back to the old way of life.
Do not give in to your emotions.
Lean on your brothers and sisters in Christ.
God never leads us into the wilderness in order to destroy us. He intends the time of testing to make us stronger. Think of what you find in the desert:
Victory is here!
Holiness is here!
Spiritual growth is here!
The Holy Spirit is here!
Jesus is here!
Odd as it may seem to us, when we are most filled with the Holy Spirit, we are most likely to be led into the wilderness. So stand your ground and do not give up. Remember that life is all about God. It’s not about you.
The wilderness isn’t about you. It’s all about God.
Your temptations are not about you. They’re all about God.
Your spiritual journey isn’t about you. It’s all about God.
Life isn’t about your dreams, your agenda, your hopes, your ideas, or your plans. Life is all about God’s dreams, God’s agenda, God’s ideas, and God’s plans. It’s his kingdom we’re praying to come, not ours.
So stand strong in the moment of temptation, trusting that God will give you what you need when you need it.
Stand Up for Jesus
In 1858 a mighty revival swept across Philadelphia. So vast was the impact that it was called the “Act of God in Philadelphia.” No leader was more prominent in that move of God than a 29-year-old Episcopal minister named Dudley Tyng. For a few years he had served as the rector of the Church of the Epiphany, but a group of disgruntled church members disliked his bold preaching and cast him out. With a few followers he organized the Church of the Covenant. When the revival broke out, Dudley Tyng began a series of noonday talks for men. On March 30, 1858, he addressed a group of 5,000 men at the largest public hall in Philadelphia from Exodus 10:11, “Go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD” (KJV). During his talk, he came to a climactic point, raised his right arm and declared, “I would rather have my arm removed at the stump than to fail to declare God’s Word to you.” At the close of his talk, 1,000 men gave their hearts and lives to Jesus Christ.
The next week he visited a farm outside the city. Fascinated by a mule-drawn corn thresher, he reached out to pat the mule. As he did so, the sleeve of his jacket got caught in the cogs and his arm was badly mangled, severing the artery and doing severe nerve damage. Several days later doctors amputated his arm, but it was too late. Infection set in and he quickly declined. Before he died on April 19, he spoke to a group of family and friends gathered around his bed. Knowing he would soon be in heaven, he exhorted them with these words: “Stand up for Jesus.” Then he added, “Go back to the church and tell them to always stand up for Jesus.” When those words were repeated at the funeral, they made an enormous impact on George Duffield, a friend of Dudley Tyng, and the pastor of Temple Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The following Sunday he preached a memorial in honor of his fallen colleague, taking as his text Ephesians 6:14, “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place.” At the end of his message, he recited a poem he had written based on Dudley Tyng’s final words. The words were later printed and put to music, eventually becoming one of our best-loved gospel songs. The first verse goes like this:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.
But it’s the third verse that catches our attention. Now that you know the story, you’ll never hear the same way again:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you—ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.
My brothers and sisters, the battles we face are not ours. They are the Lord’s. He fought and won the battle with the devil 2,000 years ago.
He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
He came out in the power of the Spirit.
The same thing will happen to you and me if we will trust in him. Believe that God is at work in your life. Believe that God is at work in your trials. Believe that God is at work in your temptations. Believe that God is at work in your family. Believe that God is at work in your life.
Believe and you will see the victory. Stand firm. Stand strong. Fear not. Stand up for Jesus in the power of the Spirit and victory will be yours. Amen.