And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased." Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'"
So far this year we have seen the prophets and teachers of Antioch fasting in Acts 13 and we have heard Jesus teach us that when the bridegroom, namely, himself, is taken out of the world, then the attendants of the bridegroom, namely, we, his disciples, will fast. And today we get to see Jesus the Son of God himself fasting.
Two Hopes for This Message
I have two hopes for this message. One is that we know Jesus better. Last week we heard him make the amazing claim that the bridegroom had come—God had called himself the bridegroom and husband of Israel in the Old Testament. Now here was Jesus saying—the bridegroom is here. Today in this text we see Jesus as the representative and head of a new Israel, as a kind of new Joshua preparing to take his people over into the promised land, but first tested in the wilderness.
My other hope, besides getting to know Jesus better, is that we understand fasting better and see more deeply into its spiritual value for us individually and as a church. It should give us pause, I think, to realize that the Son of God began his life's ministry with a 40 day fast. We should stop and think about this. We should ask, What about me, Lord? Can I face the incredible challenges to my Christian life without sharing in the fasting of Jesus?
Can we as a church experience the fullness of Christ's power and blessing without humbly seeking the Lord in fasting? These are pivotal days at Bethlehem. I feel a stirring in my heart for what God is preparing for us. When the staff fasted last Wednesday and prayed, the Lord wove some words together that are filled with hope. The last paragraph of my 1994 annual report goes like this:
And finally, thanks to you all for your prayer and your unfailing encouragements. I am happy in this work because you have prayed. What a privilege to be here! There are fresh breezes blowing. My sails are up. The sky is clearing. The Lord is aboard and tells me there is good man-fishing not far out to sea.
My heart is so hungry for a deeper work of God in our midst! A work that will see supernatural new birth taking place week in and week out through your anointed lives in these Cities. This is why fasting is on the front burner. Charles Spurgeon, the London pastor from a century ago, said,
Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the Tabernacle have been high days indeed; never has Heaven's gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory.
My heart longs for us as a church to be nearer the Central Glory, to be so near the fire that we burn with the zeal of Jesus for his name and for this perishing world.
So let's look now at his fasting.
Jesus' Forty Day Fast
Matthew 3:16 says that after being baptized, Jesus came up out of the water and the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. Now the Holy Spirit had always been with Jesus. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But this was a special anointing, or outpouring, or baptism that would rest on Jesus for his three-year public ministry. He was baptized to identify with us in his submission to God's rule and righteousness. And the Holy Spirit came on him, as he does on us, to empower him and guide him in the huge demands of his ministry.
The Father's Pleasure and the Spirit's Leading
As the Spirit comes upon Jesus, God the Father says (v. 17), "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." One of the wonderful effects of these words is to assure Jesus and us that the fire of misery and pain that Jesus was about to walk into was NOT owing to his Father's displeasure.
This is especially important to see when you notice in the next verse (Matthew 4:1) what the Spirit's first act is in Jesus' ministry. It says, "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." The first act of the Spirit in Jesus' ministry is to lead him into the wilderness, and to expose him to Satan's testings.
Jesus Prepares for Combat with Fasting
Under the Spirit's leading Jesus prepared himself to meet the devil by fasting. The Spirit of God willed that the Son of God be tested on his way into the ministry, and he willed that Jesus triumph in this testing through fasting. Jesus triumphed over the great enemy of his soul through fasting.
It seems to me that this story should shake us. Here is Jesus standing on the threshold of the most important public ministry in the history of the world. On his obedience and righteousness hangs the salvation of the world. None will escape damnation without this ministry of obedient suffering and death and resurrection. And God wills that, at the very outset, the ministry be threatened with destruction—namely, the temptations of Satan to abandon the path of lowliness and suffering and obedience. And of all the hundreds of things Jesus might have done to fight off this tremendous threat to salvation, he is led to fast. To fast!
If Satan had succeeded in deterring Jesus from the path of humble, suffering obedience, there would be no salvation. We would still be in our sins and without hope. Therefore we owe our salvation to the faithful fasting of Jesus. This is a remarkable tribute to fasting. Don't ride over this quickly. Think on it. Jesus began his ministry with fasting. And he triumphed over his enemy through fasting.
Deuteronomy 8:2–3 Parallels Matthew 4:1–4
Now to see the fuller meaning of this, turn with me to Deuteronomy 8. Every time Jesus responds to the three temptations of the devil in the wilderness he quotes from Deuteronomy. "Man shall not live by bread alone"—Deuteronomy 8:3; "You shall not tempt the Lord your God"—Deuteronomy 6:16; and "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve"—Deuteronomy 6:13.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness
This is very significant. Here is Jesus led by the Spirit into the wilderness—the wilderness—and to counter the temptations of Satan Jesus quotes passages from Deuteronomy, all of which are spoken by Moses to the people of Israel about their time of testing in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:3–4 it says,
The tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." 4 But He answered and said, "It is written, Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God."
Moses' Words About Israel's Time in the Wilderness
Now look at Deuteronomy 8:2–3 and mark the parallels that you see between that situation in the wilderness and Jesus' situation in the wilderness. Moses says to the people,
You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness [NOTE: as Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness] these forty years [NOTE: as Jesus was there forty days], that He might humble you, testing you [NOTE: as Jesus was "tested"], to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you be hungry [NOTE: as Jesus was made hungry by his fasting], and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.
What Do These Parallels Mean?
There are too many similarities between what is happening to Jesus here in the wilderness and what was happening to the people of Israel to think it is an accident. What does this mean?
It means that God is now preparing to deliver his people—the new Israel—from the Egyptian bondage of sin into the promised land of forgiveness and righteousness and peace and joy and eternal life. To do this he has sent a new Joshua—Joshua and Jesus are exactly the same word in Greek (Acts 7:45). This new Joshua stands as the head and representative of the whole people. On their behalf he will now be led by God into the wilderness. It will be 40 days to represent 40 years. He will be tested as Israel was tested. And he will hunger as Israel hungered. And if he triumphs, he and all his people go safely into the promised land.
The Aim of Jesus' Fast (and Ours)
Now we can see the meaning of Jesus' fasting more clearly.
Voluntary Identification with the People of God
It wasn't an arbitrary choice of something to do in the face of satanic temptation. It was a voluntary act of identification with the people of God in their wilderness deprivation and trial. Jesus was saying in effect, "I have been sent to lead the people of God out of the Egypt of sin into the promised land of salvation. To do this I must be one of them. That is why I was born. Therefore I will take on the testing that they experienced. I will represent them in the wilderness and allow my heart to be probed with fasting to show where my allegiance is. And with the Spirit's help I will triumph through this fasting, overcome the devil, and lead all who trust me into the promised land of eternal glory."
A Means of Battling Satan
In other words Jesus' fasting is part of his testing the way hunger was for the people of Israel in the wilderness. But that doesn't mean fasting wasn't a means of battling Satan. Because fasting reveals where the heart is. And when the heart proves to love God more than bread, Satan does not have the foothold he would if our heart was in love with the earthly things like bread.
Proving Our Hearts
The people of God are often called to go without the ordinary means of life. Fasting is a brief, voluntary experience of this deprivation to prove our hearts. When we experience this "going without," the Lord reveals what is in our hearts. What are we controlled by? Richard Foster says in his chapter on fasting,
More than any other single Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, "I humbled my soul with fasting" (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.
What are we slaves to? What are our bottom line passions? Fasting is God's testing ground—and healing ground. Will we murmur as the Israelites murmured when they had no bread? Will we leave the path of obedience and turn stones into bread? Or will we "live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God"? Fasting is a way of revealing to ourselves and confessing to God what is in our hearts.
The Aim of Fasting
And the aim of fasting is that we come to rely less on food and more on God himself. That's the meaning of the words in Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Every time we fast, we are saying with Jesus, "Not bread alone. But you, Lord. Not bread alone, but you, Lord."
Let me show you quickly in closing why I think Jesus is saying that we should trust in God not bread.
Why We Should Trust God, Not Bread
It comes from the context of Deuteronomy 8:3 where Jesus gets this word in Matthew 4:4,
[God] fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that [NOTE!] He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.
He gave them manna—an utterly un-heard-of food falling from heaven—Why? "So that" they would learn to live on everything that comes from the mouth of God. How does miraculous manna teach that? Because manna is one of the incredible ways God can, with a mere word, reveal himself and meet your needs when all else looks hopeless.
But watch what Satan does with that. Satan says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, turn this stone to bread." In other words, "Do the manna thing. Make manna like you did in the wilderness. If the point of manna in the wilderness was to teach the people to expect miracles in distress, then treat yourself to some miracle bread, and you will be obeying Scripture."
And Jesus responds, "You are so close and yet so far. You have always handled the Word of God that way, so subtle. You sound like you approve God's Word, but you turn every word against him. The point is this Satan: Don't trust in bread—not even miracle bread—trust in God. Don't get your deepest satisfactions in life from food—not even God-wrought miracle food—but from God. Every word that comes out of the mouth of God reveals God. And it is this self-revelation that we feed on. This will last forever. This is eternal life. Begone, Satan, God is my portion. I will not turn from his path and his fellowship, not even for miraculous manna."
I invite you to let God prove your heart with fasting this Wednesday. See if he does not reveal some deep things to you, and give himself to you for food.