With the interns, I compare the task of preaching to standing in the middle of a river. As a river flows, you feel it’s current. Now, if you just dip your foot into the river or just wade out into the river a few feet from the shore, you can feel the current, but it is weak. However, the closer you move toward the middle of that river the stronger the current is. And if you can go out into the very middle of the river and stand, facing away from the direction of the current, then you’ll stand there with the full weight of the current of the river at your back.
Now, take that image, and think of the river as the scriptural text that is being preached. As is the case today, it is Matthew 3:13-4:11. I could come to this text and preach a whole sermon on the importance of Scripture memory for fighting against temptation. After all, Jesus quoted Scripture in answer to every one of the enemy’s temptations. And that sermon would no doubt be helpful. You might be encouraged to memorize Scripture (as my small group started doing together last week). But it’d be like dipping our foot into the text. I mean, though the Bible encourages us to hide God’s Word in our hearts, it’s hard to imagine that the main point of Matthew 3:13-4:11 is the importance of Scripture memory.
What I want to do instead is to wrestle with this text until I see what I believe is the main point of this text, the main thing the Spirit wanted us to see in this unit of Scripture when he inspired Matthew to take up his pen and write it down. Then, when I think I see this main emphasis, or point, or theme of the text, I am ready to preach in such a way that I can preach and you can feel the full current of the weight of the Scripture behind my words. That is, I want you to be able to say, “That sermon didn’t press against me with power because of what Lee said as much as because what Lee said had the full current of the scriptural text behind it.” I want to stand in the middle of this text and preach in such a way that you feel the full weight of it.
Now, this is a challenging task. I’ve sat with my head in my hands and prayers running through my mind countless times, asking the Lord, “What’s the main point of this text?” – whatever that certain text might be. This week, that prayer revolved around Matthew 3:13-4:11. This unit of Scripture tells two stories in Jesus’ ministry. The first is his baptism (3:13-17), and the second is his temptation by the devil in the wilderness (4:1-11). And as I outlined this book and put the sections together that I would preach on the upcoming sermons card, I felt confident putting these two episodes in Jesus’ life together. After all, Matthew, Mark, and Luke put the baptism of Jesus and the temptation of Jesus right together. Well, Luke actually divides these with Jesus’ genealogy in the middle of them, but that only works to show that these two episodes belong together. Let me show you what I mean. If you turn to Luke 3:21, I want you to see what theme, emphasis, or point Luke uses to link these three stories together. Starting in Luke 3:21, we read of Jesus’ baptism with ends with the Father saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Then, Luke includes a genealogy that begins with Jesus and ends with Adam, whom Luke calls “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Then, Luke gives us the temptation account in which Satan begins his first temptation of Jesus saying, “If you are the son of God” (Luke 4:3). Do you see? Luke is showing us clearly that Jesus is the Son of God. Adam and Israel were both called God’s sons, and they should’ve reflected God in their lives and reign over the land, but they failed. Now, here is the second Adam, the true Israel, and the true Son.
I think that same theme links these two episodes in Matthew’s gospel – the theme of sonship. Jesus is attested to as God’s Son in 3:17, and then is tempted by the devil wherein the first two temptations begin with, “If you are the Son of God” (4:3, 6). Matthew is telling us in his gospel the same thing Luke tells us about Jesus in his gospel, namely, he is the son of God. But I think there’s another element that we must attach to this theme of sonship in order to see the fullness of how Matthew is linking these episodes in Jesus’ life together, and that element is suffering. That is why I’ve titled this sermon, “Sonship and the Path of Suffering.” I think that Matthew is showing us in this gospel early on that Jesus is the Son of God whose path of obedience will be the path of suffering. So, this morning I want to show us why I think that’s the case, and then I want to spell out what I hope are some powerful implications for us as well. First, then, let’s note that,
Jesus is the Son of God, and the Father loves him
Now obviously this is the culminating point of Jesus’ baptism as the Father says from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). But let me walk us through the text a bit before we get to that point.
The last time we saw Jesus in the gospel, he was probably about two years old, being moved around by his adoptive father, Joseph, who was protecting from the murderous plot of Herod. Now, here we are probably about twenty-eight years later, and Jesus steps out to begin his public ministry. Specifically, Matthew tells us that Jesus came to be baptized by John the Baptist. And John was hesitant, saying to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (3:14).
What’s interesting about that response, however, was that at this point, John didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah. We know this from the gospel of John where John records John the Baptist saying, “I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel. . . . I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (John 1:31-34).
So, why then did John think he wasn’t worthy to baptize Jesus and should be baptized by him if he didn’t yet know he was the promised Messiah? Well, we can answer that, I think, by understanding that John and Jesus knew each other. They were cousins. In fact, John had no doubt been told the story by his mom when she and Mary were both pregnant, the baby John had leapt up in Elizabeth’s womb as they were together. And John may have spent enough time around Jesus growing up to know that Jesus never did anything wrong. So, this was probably just John saying to Jesus, “Hey, we know each other well enough to know that you’re a much better person than me.”
Nonetheless, Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). That is, Jesus was acknowledging that John was saying something true, but this baptism needed to happen. Why? Jesus simply says to fulfill all righteousness. But what does that mean? At its simplest that means that Jesus knew that the Father wanted him to be baptized by John, and Jesus was intent on always obeying his Father. Second, it may also be Jesus’ way of identifying with his people. He came to save those who would identify with him, so he comes and is baptized as they were being baptized. It may also mean that Jesus understood that his mission involved bearing divine judgment. The baptismal waters can be a picture of judgment, so that when one is baptized, he is pictured as undergoing the judgment of God and coming out on the other side in a position of having been saved from that judgment. Perhaps, then, Jesus fulfills righteousness by being baptized and showing that he understands his mission will involve facing divine judgment – not for his own sins, since he had none, but for ours. Finally, it may simply be necessary so that, as John admits, the Baptist needed the Father to show him who the Messiah was, which he did at Jesus’ baptism. Perhaps it’s all of these. In the end, however, Jesus is baptized, and as he’s baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends on him, and the Father attests to who Jesus is by saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17).
Now, we’ve already seen that Jesus is the Son of God from Matthew 2:15. But now the Father makes it explicit. And if you’ll remember, when we looked at Matthew 2:15, the title “son of God” is not simply a reference to Jesus being God the Son. The title “son of God,” rather, was a title given to a human being or human beings who were to resemble God, reflect God, and represent God in reigning over his creation. This is why, as we saw, Luke doesn’t hesitate to call Adam “the son of God.” Adam should have resembled, reflected, and represented God as he reigned over the world. But Adam fails. Then along comes Israel. God calls them out of slavery in Egypt, saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” and he takes them through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and ultimately into the promised land. But they, like Adam, fail as well.
Finally, God made a promise to David that he would indeed have a true son who would reflect him, resemble him, and represent him, who would be God’s son. And this one would come from David’s line. This is why David’s sons were each called the “son of God” as Psalm 2:7 would have been read at their inauguration (“You are my son; today I have begotten you”), always looking for the true king, the true son, who would resemble, reflect, and represent God in his reign over the earth. This is what the Father is saying at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son [whom I promised I would bring to reign over the earth as a perfect resemblance of me].” That’s who Jesus is. He’s the promised son of God who has finally come and has now stepped on the public stage with his baptism by John.
And of course the Father loves him. He calls him his “beloved Son” and one “in whom he delights.” This is why I’ve said in this first point, “Jesus is the Son of God, and the Father loves him.”
But notice one more thing in this quotation from the Father in 3:17. The first half is from Psalm 2:7, as the Lord would say to David’s sons, “You are my son.” But the second half (“with whom I am well pleased”) comes from Isaiah 42:1, which is one of the servant texts from Isaiah. And if you remember the task of the servant from the book of Isaiah, you’ll remember that the servant’s task according to Isaiah 53 is to suffering for the sins of his people. So, even in this moment of the Father attesting to the Son, we get a reminder that sonship and suffering can indeed come together, which leads us to our next point:
Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, where Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights and was (obviously) hungry. From what I’ve read, if you have water, you can go for a little over forty days without food, and that’s probably what Jesus was doing here, drinking water but going without food. And in that moment of weakness and hunger, the devil comes to tempt him.
In Satan’s first temptation to Jesus, he says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3). And we’re familiar with Jesus’ response. He quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). But before skipping by it too quickly, let’s slow down and examine this text a bit. I mean, what is this temptation? Why is it wrong for Jesus to turn stone to bread? I mean, he performs plenty of other miracles.
I think the temptation the devil brings to Jesus here is to question God’s provision. I mean, Jesus makes clear throughout his ministry that he only does what the Father has him do. He says in John 5:19 that he does nothing on his own but only does what the Father does. And to this point, the Father’s will for him was to fast and not have bread. The Father hadn’t told him to turn stones into bread, and Jesus trusted the Father.
You see, I think that’s really what Satan is driving at, this trusting in the Father’s provision. It seems that Satan is saying something like, “If you’re really God’s Son, whom he loves, then you shouldn’t be suffering like this. You need to start acting like a Son.”
And Jesus’ answer is to say that he absolutely trusts his Father, fully, and he knows he needs to obey his Father more than he needs bread in this moment. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, and if you look back at that section, it’s insightful. Deuteronomy 8 deals with Israel (God’s son that failed) in the wilderness. And if you read 8:3-5 something very clear comes to the surface. The text reads, “And [God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.”
Do you see what that text is saying? God let the Israelites be hungry at times in the wilderness and then provided them food so that they might learn to trust him. And when he says that he disciplines them as a man disciplines his son, he is talking about formative discipline. That is, this isn’t corrective discipline, like a spanking when a son has disobeyed. This is formative discipline, like when we put our children through challenging tasks so that they might grow.
In other words, because God loved the Israelites and knew that their greatest good was learning to trust him instead of having what they wanted at every turn, he let them be hungry sometimes so that they might provide for them and teach them and grow them.
So, as Satan is saying to Jesus, “If you are God’s son, then you shouldn’t have to be so hungry,” Jesus answers, “I trust my Father to do for me what is good.” Satan is suggesting to Jesus the same thing he said to Eve, “God is holding out on you,” but Jesus knows better. He knows that because God loves him, he’ll put him through times of difficulty and suffering because he disciplines those whom he loves. We heard this earlier in the reading from Hebrews 2:10, “In brining many sons to glory [the Father made the Son] perfect through suffering.” That is, the Father was preparing his son through steps of suffering for the next difficult task of obedience that ultimately culminated in being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Satan’s comeback then is to say in essence, “Well, if you’re so confident the Father will provide for your need, doing whatever is best for you, make him prove it.” That’s what I think he’s saying when he suggests that Jesus throw himself down from the temple and force the Father to show himself to be true to his promises that Satan quotes from Psalm 91.
Jesus’ response is again to tell Satan that he trusts his Father. He doesn’t have to put him to the test. Again, this is where Israel (God’s “son”) failed. They refused to trust God and made demands of him to make their situation better. They wouldn’t trust the Father who called them his sons and loved them to do for them what is best – even if what is best was a time of formative discipline.
Finally, Satan tells Jesus just to go get what the Father promised him. I mean, it’s clear from Psalm 2:7-8 that if Jesus is the promised son of David, that the Father will give him the whole world as his possessions. However, what we know and what Jesus knew is that he would be given the earth after walking the path of obedience that would lead him to die on the cross and be raised the third day. Satan’s temptation to worship him and get the kingdoms of the earth now is a suggestion that Jesus sidestep the suffering and go get what should be his.
Jesus again, by saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” is saying that he completely trusts the Father and makes his entire life about worshiping his Father through absolute obedience. And it’s no wonder, later, when Peter tried to get Jesus to avoid the cross that Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus had heard this temptation before.
What Jesus understood was that sonship and suffering are combined. As the Son, he was also the suffering servant. God loves the Son, and that means that he will take him through times of formative discipline that is painful. He’ll be hungry, weary, without a place to lay his head, without human companionship, and eventually hanging on a cross, dying for sinners. To be a son who is deeply loved by the Father is not at all at odds with suffering. In fact, the Lord disciplines his sons, whom he loves. This is what I think Matthew wants us to see about Jesus in this early section of his gospel, but this also has implications for us.
You and I are God’s sons, and the Father loves us
That same section we heard from Hebrews 2 about the Son’s path being one of suffering told us that Jesus is not ashamed to call all who trust in him “brothers.” That is, if you’re trusting in Christ and his life, death, and resurrection for your salvation, then God has adopted you as his son. And I say “son” and the Bible calls you a “son” not because salvation is for men only but because only the son in the family would receive the inheritance, and God wants us to know that all those whom he makes his children are heirs with Christ. So, we’re all sons in that sense.
And not only has God made you his son, but he wants you to know you’re his son. That’s why Paul tells us in Galatians that God sent his Spirit to dwell in you so that you might cry out, “Abba, Father,” to God, knowing you’re his son. And if you’re his son, he loves you. In fact, the only reason you are his son is because he loves you. He loved you when you were unlovable and proved his love by sending his Son to die for you. And this means:
God’s path for us (sons) is one of suffering, and we must trust our loving Father in it
If God loves us as his sons, he’ll love us enough to form us and shape us through disciplining, trying circumstances. And in those circumstances, we must trust our Father to give us what we need because he loves us. Let me relate this from my own life perhaps in a bit more detail than I have in the past. I came to this church as pastor sixteen years ago when I was twenty-one years old. I was a kid, and though it was probably foolish, in my heart I just wanted to obey the Lord. And within those first two years, I felt in some moments like I was walking through hell.
A number of people weren’t in favor of me as pastor, so I started having meetings almost weekly where I would meet with people who would tell me everything they didn’t approve of about me and that they were leaving the church. One lady told me in one meeting that she was leaving and others were leaving whom she knew were big givers and that we’d go under financially and then they’d all come back and take their church back. She said that to a twenty-one-year-old kid. I’d leave for meetings with my wife sitting on the couch crying, knowing what I was stepping into. Finances got so bad that payday would come, there was no money to be paid. There seemed to be no one joining the church and a number would say, “Hey, if things get settled down there, I’d like to join,” which was like saying, “If your little boat there doesn’t sink and drown you and you get the holes plugged, I’ll jump in with you.” And I had no agenda. I was just trying to pastor. The only agenda I’ve ever had as a pastor was to preach through the Bible in fifteen years. I felt like I was dying. That wasn’t every moment, but it was painful and scaring.
And the enemy was constantly saying to me in those days, “If you’re God’s son and he loves you, then why is he holding out on you? Why isn’t he blessing you like he’s blessing that guy down the street? Why aren’t these prominent people speaking out on your behalf? Why isn’t he bringing people to join you?” And I listened to the voice of the enemy and was being destroyed by his tormenting questioning of God’s love and care and provision.
I didn’t realize it then, but you know why God was taking me through that? It was because I am his son and he loves me. I mean, I can struggle with pride and wanting prestige now. Imagine if God had allowed me as a twenty-one-year-old kid who’d been largely praised at every turn and in every decision to see great blessing and receive great praise and support as a pastor. God loves me more than to allow that. He knows what I need. He loves me more than I can imagine. And he loves me enough to form and shape me through discipline, and he will continue to love me enough to do that.
And the same is true for you. Maybe right now the enemy is saying to you, “Why is God holding out on you? If you’re his child, then why is he allowing you to taste suffering like you are? Why hasn’t he given you a spouse when he’s done that for your neighbor over there, and you and I both know you’re trying so hard to walk in a godly manner, even more than that person? Why isn’t he giving you success in your career to the degree he’s given it to your neighbor, who’s not even as gifted as you are? Why are you struggling financially, emotionally, with your health, and on and on and on if you’re his child?” And you and I must say to the devil’s whispering voice, “My God has made me his, loves me, and knows what’s best for me. He loves me enough to make me like Christ, and he knows precisely the kind of formative discipline that will require. So I will trust him. I will not accuse him of wrong or bring unloving because I need look no further than what he did for me in Jesus. I am his child, and that may mean that I suffer, but I would rather suffer under the sovereign hand of my Father whom I know loves me more than I can fathom and trust him to give me what I need than I would have him give me over to have everything I want.” Then we pray for grace to trust him more, knowing that our need to trust and obey God is more precious than bread. Let us make that our prayer now, as we come to the table. Amen.