Sunday, 31 July 2016
I suppose a question that often comes to mind is, ‘What may happen to us after we have had a significant spiritual experience?’ Jesus had recently had a wonderful experience at his baptism when he was empowered by the Spirit for engaging in his public ministry. Moreover, he had received an amazing personal endorsement and expression of appreciation from the heavenly Father. We may want to ask, if we did not know the story, ‘What would happen next?’
It is worth noting that so far Jesus does not have any disciples. The forty-day period in the desert when he was tempted by the devil took place before John the Baptist announced to Andrew and his friend that Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. As we know, Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t mention those initial meetings with Jesus that were given to Andrew, Simon and probably John the apostle. Their meetings with Jesus occurred after Luke 4:13 because we know from John’s account that they returned with Jesus to Galilee. So before Jesus could call any disciples, he first had to deal with the enemy of their souls.
A declaration of war
The apostle John wrote many years after this period that the reason why the Son of God came was to destroy the works of the devil. There is more than one way to destroy a person’s power. We can do so by using our power if it happens to be greater and prevent them attacking us; we could prevent any help coming to our opponents and isolate them; or we could let them use their strongest weapons and show that they are ineffective against us.
The obvious feature of the onset of the period of temptation is that Jesus was led to go there by the Holy Spirit. Mark even says that ‘The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness’, which points to a powerful persuasion and desire to participate in the engagement. There was a strong determination in the heart of Jesus to go and deal with the devil. Moreover, the Spirit also led him in the wilderness for forty days as well as into the wilderness initially.
Why would he want to deal with the devil? One answer is that Jesus gave a clear indication of what his public ministry would involve. During it he was going to deal with various activities connected to the enemy of our souls. This explains why Jesus chose to deal with people who were obviously under the influence of demon possession. Individuals like Mary Magdalene and the deranged man from Gadara who were indwelt by numerous demons were delivered by Jesus. So we could say that Luke here is telling his readers to expect episodes of spiritual warfare until the campaign of Jesus comes to a close.
Another answer to the question about why Jesus wanted to deal with the devil is that he was determined to defeat the devil because of what he had done to the human race in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of earthly history. We know from the Book of Genesis that the devil had found it very easy to tempt our first parents and cause them to depart from God’s requirements. The devil did this in an environment that would have helped Adam and Eve to resist the temptation. After all, they were living amid the beauty and the bounty that the Lord had given to them.
Of course, it is not possible on earth to find such an environment now. Instead, the earth is enduring the consequences of the curse placed on it at the beginning. So the engagement had to take place in a location that showed the effects of the devil’s defeat of Adam and Eve. This is why it is taking place in a desert, which was not like the garden of Eden; this is why, as Mark says, Jesus was with wild animals, which was not like the garden of Eden; this is why Jesus found himself in a place with no provision, which was not like the garden of Eden.
A two-stage engagement
Luke divides the period in the desert into two: he mentions the period of forty days and then he mentions a shorter period in which Jesus faced three particular temptations. We would like to know what Jesus did during those forty days because it looks like it was a period of intense consecration as indicated by it also being a period of fasting for Jesus. All Luke says about the forty days is that Jesus was tempted throughout them and that he did not fall to any of the temptations. We don’t know what those temptations were, and since we are not told there is no point speculating.
The Gospel writers, however, tell us about the three specific temptations that occurred after the period of forty days was over. What do they tell us about what the devil was trying to do as he fought back against Jesus? One suggestion is that the first temptation was about something personal, the second temptation was about something global, and the third temptation was about something connected to worship in the temple. Another way at summarising them is that they were about provision, power and protection, and whether or not Jesus would look to God to provide those blessings.
The first temptation in Luke’s order is connected to two things. One of them is linked to the endorsement that the Father gave at the baptism when he said that Jesus was his beloved Son. Here the devil says, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ The second connection is linked to the physical state of Jesus at that time – he was hungry and the devil suggested to Jesus that he could turn stones into bread. What was the devil tempting Jesus to do? It looks as if he was suggesting to Jesus that he should use his deity to help his humanity. Imagine if Jesus were to do so. Instead of making chairs as a carpenter, he could create them immediately. Instead of having nowhere to lay his head, he could create a house everywhere he went. Instead of being hungry, he could create the best bread that had ever been seen.
This was a subtle temptation that Jesus should cease to be a servant. Instead of doing what the Father wanted him to do, he should do what he was capable of doing. Jesus had the power to avoid pain, but what would have happened to us if he had chosen that path? Of course, Jesus did use his divine powers to help others when they were in situations of need, but he did not used them to benefit himself. Jesus was on a mission to deliver us from the penalty of sin and not on a mission to perform miracles for selfish reasons. Therefore, the devil was told that the food of Jesus was to live according to what the Bible said he should do, which was to obey God’s Word. Nothing would distract him from doing so.
The second temptation was connected to the promises found in Psalm 2 where the Father says to his Son that when he asks for them he will be given the nations for his inheritance. Here the devil claims that he is the one who can give this to Jesus. We should be appalled at the flagrant assertions that the devil makes here, lying in the presence of the eternal Son. The devil somehow is able to show to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. I doubt if the devil knew how Jesus would obtain universal authority – it would be his reward for his achievement on the cross. Yet the devil’s ignorance would not have diminished the force of the temptation, which was for Jesus to get glory without the cross.
The devil used a biblical principal to try and persuade Jesus. It is only the one who deserves worship who can give this reward. Of course, the devil did not have the power or the desire to give anything to Jesus. And he discovered that he could not divert Jesus from obtaining his promised inheritance by serving the Father, who had sent him into the world.
The third temptation involved the suggestion that Jesus perform a spectacular stunt that would show to everyone that he was being looked after by the heavenly host. Satan quotes from Psalm 91, although the promise in the psalm is not connected to jumping off the temple. Instead it is a promise about how one walks through life. The devil was taking a verse out of its context, and he still uses that method. Jesus refused and again quoted from a verse in Deuteronomy. Satan tried to get Jesus to make a leap of faith that would be presumption rather than faith.
Did the devil realise that with this third answer Jesus was claiming to be God? After all, Satan was trying to test Jesus, and the Saviour’s response was to rebuke the devil for suggesting that Jesus should test God. Yet the reply of Jesus could be a claim to deity, as if the devil was being told that he should not be testing Jesus because he is God. Whether the devil realised it or not, he decided to leave the field of battle. Jesus had won in the wilderness.
There are many lessons that we can draw from this incident. First, we see in it many wonderful truths about Jesus. We observe his humility in allowing himself to be attacked by the devil. It would not have been difficult for Jesus to destroy the devil. But that was not the kind of victory that was required from Jesus. Instead, he was to succeed where Adam failed. Adam failed in disobeying the word of God. Jesus succeeded by obeying the Word of God consistently.
We are not to imagine that Jesus succeeded merely by quoting verses at the devil. His triumph was the outcome of living according to the requirements of the Bible. If Jesus had not been living according to the Bible, the devil would have focussed on those areas. There was nothing in the life of Jesus that gave the devil an opportunity to defeat him.
Nor are we to imagine that Jesus because he was sinless was tempted less than we are. Often when we are tempted we give in very quickly. Those who hold out the longest feel more of temptation’s power. Jesus broke the power of temptation by refusing to give in to any of the ones suggested by the devil.
We should also note that all of the temptations that Jesus faced came from outside of him. They did not arise from within him. This is a reminder of his perfect holiness. In him was no sin. We can be tempted by an action because we want to do it. Often we don’t mind being tempted. Jesus hated the experience of temptation and despised the possibility of succumbing to it. There was nothing in him that was attracted to the devil’s suggestions.
Jesus is the perfect example of resisting the devil and doing so until the tempter gives up. The obvious response to temptation is to say no, and keep on obeying the instructions of God. It is also the case that we need to understand the Bible because sometimes the devil can misuse it in order to persuade us to do something wrong.
So the campaign has started in a public way. There would be many more skirmishes between Jesus and the devil. Yet when this first one was over, Jesus would know that he was a step nearer the battle with darkness that would take place on the cross.
Preached on 31/7/2016
Peter, with the other disciples, had participated in the astonishing miracle that Jesus performed when he fed thousands of people although he only used five loaves and two fish. The impression is given that each of the disciples had a basket each of food after the people had been fed (there were twelve baskets), and that the disciples still had the baskets when they were told by Jesus to go into the ship (after all, he told them to go immediately). So we can imagine them crossing the sea with the visible signs of Jesus’ power beside them in the boat.
There is something new here, I think, and that is that Jesus sends them away in the boat without him. Of course, it might not have been a problem for some of the disciples to be in the boat without Jesus because they had been fishermen on the sea and were familiar with it. Others of them may not have been so confident, although we cannot say so for sure. So there may have been anxiety on the part of some at this requirement from Jesus.
At the same time, there should have been a sense of anticipation. After all, on the previous occasion when they crossed the sea, even in a storm, they had seen Jesus do something incredible with the deranged man of Gadara when he was delivered from the oppressive demon possession that he was under. And when they returned across the sea from Gadara, they had seen Jesus heal the diseased unnamed women and raise to life the daughter of Jairus. Although Jesus was not with them in the boat when they left on this new occasion, he had told them that he was coming later (he had sent them before him). Surely they must have wondered what he would do when he joined up with them again.
No doubt, they made some assumptions about how Jesus would rejoin them. Perhaps they thought that he would come later in another boat or maybe they expected him to walk round the shore. What is certain is that they did not anticipate that he would come in the way that he did. Assumptions do not prepare us for divine surprises, and if there is one attitude that disciples should not have, it is to assume what Jesus will do to them or through them or in them.
The activities of Jesus
It can be assumed, however, that Jesus did not do anything meaninglessly. Therefore, we should pay attention to what he did on this occasion before he walked on the water as well as when he did.
The first detail we are told is that he made the disciples go into the boat. Since he had to make them, it implies that they were reluctant to go. Maybe it was because it was late in the afternoon – one reason he had fed the crowd was because it was too late for them to find food. Disciples must learn that Jesus is not limited by the clock and he often asks them to do things at surprising hours. The fact that it was getting towards evening probably did not bother them because those who fished on the Sea of Galilee usually did so at night.
I would suggest that there is another reason why Jesus wanted them to leave immediately and that was the notions that the crowd were beginning to have. John, in his Gospel, gives more details about the crowd who imagined that the miracle was evidence that Jesus would be the ruler they wanted (John 6:14-15). The disciples might be influenced by such ideas, so Jesus protected them from those notions. Better to be in a storm at sea than in a wrong discussion on the land.
Jesus told the disciples that he would dismiss the crowd. Probably they expected that would be their task. After all, they had arranged the way the crowd sat in groups; then they had passed the food to them, and then they had gathered up the crumbs. Surely they could dismiss the crowd. Probably not, because of the crowd’s expectation about Jesus, and because the disciples would be influenced by them. I would suggest that in this decision we see the compassion of Jesus in the sense that he knew that they were not ready to handle this situation. They might have imagined that they were ready, but he knew that they were not. Sometimes there are situations that are too big for us, whether we realise it or not.
After he dismissed the crowd, Jesus took time to engage in prayer in an isolated location. Where did he pray? He ensured he would be in a place where he would not be disturbed. When did he pray? After a busy day. Why did he pray? He loved communion with his Father. We are not told what he prayed about, but we can deduce that he was determined to spend time in prayer before he rejoined the disciples. Maybe he was praying for each of them as they crossed the sea. The striking point is that Jesus was a sinless perfect man, yet he realised the importance of prayer.
Jesus walks on the sea
Mark, in his Gospel, says that Jesus from the mountainside saw the disciples straining at the oars. It was probably a clear, moonlit night. Although it was a stormy evening, we are not told that this storm frightened the disciples. Jesus came to them at the fourth watch, which was about 3am. They had left before 6pm on the previous day (that was when evening commenced), so they had been at sea for about nine hours, and had not rowed very far. Whatever else we can deduce about the time, we can say that Jesus chose when to come to their relief.
The Gospel writers all say that the disciples were making little progress because of the storm and they also describe Jesus as having no difficulty making progress. Indeed, Mark says that he was about to walk past them. Surely the lesson from this is that what was difficult for the disciples was easy for Jesus. What held them back did not hold him back. The storm was a problem that they had, but it was not a problem that Jesus had. Instead of being a barrier to his progress, it was the road on which he moved ahead.
Another obvious lesson is that Jesus is Lord of creation. During the previous journey, he had commanded the storm to cease, and it did. On this journey, he does the impossible, we might say, when he walks on the waves. No doubt, the disciples would have deduced later that there is nothing in the creation that can hinder Jesus when he wants to do something.
The initial response of the disciples to this visible form walking on the waves was that they were seeing a ghost. Obviously they did not recognise that it was Jesus. They were terrified. We are not told that they prayed, yet their fear was recognised by Jesus and he spoke words of comfort to them. It is good to know that Jesus does not judge situations by our performance, because on this occasion the disciples got it all wrong.
What comfort did Jesus give to them? The answer is himself. He did not remove the storm immediately, which is what they might have wanted him to do. Instead he wanted them to know that he was in charge of circumstances, even those that were difficult to handle. They also needed to know more about him and his abilities. What could they learn?
Peter walks on the water
We all know that Peter made impulsive comments, and he would have been aware of his tendency. Yet even he would have been surprised if someone had predicted that one day he would ask to walk on the water. So we need to ask why Peter asked for this experience.
His words indicate that his priority was not to walk on the water but to be with Jesus. So far, Jesus had given no hint that he intended to join them in the boat. Peter faced a choice as to whether he should stay in the boat without Jesus or join Jesus on the water. So we can see that Peter loved Jesus.
Moreover, Peter asked Jesus for permission to walk on the water. So his words were an expression of submission, that he had realised to some extent that Jesus had to obeyed. In addition, his request reveals trust in the competency of Jesus because Peter was sure that Jesus could enable him to walk on the water. And we can deduce that Peter wanted more than head knowledge of what Jesus could do – he wanted to participate in what Jesus was doing.
Strangely, the closer he got to Jesus, the stronger his doubts became. In the boat, it looked so straightforward to walk to Jesus. No doubt, the strong wind felt different when Peter went out of the boat. Still, he knew what to say with his brief prayer, ‘Lord, save me!’ Of course, when you have obviously come to the end of your own resources, it may be easier to say this kind of prayer.
We are not wise when we focus on the fact that Peter also looked at the wind as well as at Jesus. Instead we should remember who it was that was looking at Peter. While the text does not say that Peter took his eyes off Jesus, it clearly shows that Jesus did not take his eyes of Peter. When Peter expressed little faith rather than strong faith, his weakness drew the sympathy of Jesus. The words, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ are almost a commendation, as if Peter had been doing so well but had failed in that detail. Because we must observe that Jesus that saved a person with little faith.
Back in the Boat
The obvious lesson that the disciples learned from this experience was that Jesus was the divine Son of God. Mark tells us that they did not make this deduction when they had participated in the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:51-52). Now they had seen Jesus do something incredible and they confessed that he was the Son of God. Perhaps it is the case that we are better spiritual scholars in dark times than we are in situations when things are going well.
It may also be the case that they heard Jesus say an incredible comment about himself. The words translated ‘It is I’, which Jesus used to comfort his disturbed disciples, are literally ‘I am’, which when taken literally are a claim to deity. Whether they understood his words that way cannot be known, although we can see how they are an indication of his deity. It is important to recognise that whenever Jesus draws near to help us, he does so as the eternal God.
Once they were back together in the boat, the focus was not on Peter and his unusual experience. Instead of expressing curiosity to Peter about how he felt after his time on the water, they all (including Peter) focussed on saying to Jesus that he was the Son of God. Peter went through an incident in which he discovered what Jesus could do for a struggling disciple, but the overall consequence was that all of the disciples discovered more about Jesus.
So they reached the other side with Jesus, even if for most of the journey he was absent from the boat. Yet his eye was continually on them even although they could not see him until he drew near to them. And it is the same with us if we are depending on him. He arranges our providences, he sees us through those providences, and he will be us when each providence comes to a close.
Preached on 31/7/2016