Jesus Succeeded Where Israel Failed

Matthew 4:1

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The 3 temptations hurled at Jesus by the devil in Matthew 4 are fairly familiar to New Testament readers. The devil tried to get Jesus to make bread from stones, to leap off the temple, and to bow to worship him. All three of these, had he given in, would have been failures. But what more is happening?

In this passage, Jesus is succeeding where the nation of Israel in the wilderness wanderings failed. It is significant that we see Matthew, who cites Old Testament Scriptures prodigiously, emphasize that Jesus was in the wilderness. The picture, if we think Old Testament, is Israel in the Exodus wandering the wilderness for 40 years.

The call to turn stones to bread is a call from the devil for Jesus to use his own power in his own way for his own physical provision. Israel failed at this in the desert. When God commanded Israel to gather manna, people disobeyed by gathering too much or by gathering on the Sabbath when gathering was forbidden. In other places in the wanderings, the nation sinned against God by not trusting him to provide or by grumbling against his provision. At the border, after the spies were sent into the land, the nation refused to trust God enough to go in and take the land starting with Jericho. One might see that, in this instance, Jesus relies on the provision of his Father without complaint where national Israel did not. Jesus succeeds where Israel failed.

In the second temptation, the devil attempts to get Jesus to cast himself down from the high point of the temple, a nearly 400-foot drop according to some. This is a call to get Jesus to stop seeking to do the work he was sent to do in the way God sent him to do it. It was a call to try to get Jesus to take a lazy and easy way out, forcing the hand of god. Jesus refused, as he would not put God to the test. Of course, in the wilderness, Israel failed here. There were people who demanded that God provide for them beyond the manna. Others presumed upon the Lord and tried to go and take Jericho even after God had forbidden them from entering the land after their refusal to trust him. If the first temptation was a temptation not to trust God to provide, this second is a temptation to force God’s hand by stepping out where God did not command. Jesus again succeeded where Israel failed.

In the third temptation, the devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would simply bow and worship him. In the days of the Old Covenant, one of Israel’s greatest failures was idolatry. The nation turned from the Lord and bowed to statues that represented demons. Jesus, of course, would not worship anyone but the Lord God. Jesus succeeded where Israel failed.

God called on the nation of Israel to be his people. He gave them a set of commands to obey, commands that were not burdensome. As a nation, they would not and could not obey. They could not work their way to God through obedience to ordinances.

Where the nation of Israel did not live up to the commands of God, the Savior did. Where Adam did not keep the command of God, Jesus did. Where you and I have never lived up to the commands of God, Jesus has.

In order to be saved, we need two things: a paid penalty and a perfect righteousness. We need the penalty for our sin to be paid. For us to try to pay the price for our sin, an infinite offense to an infinitely holy God, we would spend eternity in hell. But Jesus, the infinitely worthy Son of god paid that price on the cross. We also need perfect righteousness to enter the presence of God. But we have failed. Jesus has succeeded where all people have failed. And the Lord will count all who come to Jesus as possessing the record of Jesus’ righteousness. Thus, Jesus pays the penalty for our sin and grants us imputed righteousness, counting his perfection to our account, so that we can be in the presence of god in heaven in perfect joy forever. This forgiveness and gifted righteousness is for all who will come to Jesus in faith and repentance.

Amazing Examples for Us

When reading through the Old Testament, Christians often shake our heads at the ancient people of Israel. How could they be so disobedient? They gave in to idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God, and grumbling against the Lord. Why did God put up with them? Why did he let them keep going?

Interestingly, the New Testament answers those questions for us, and in a way that I think many of us would find to be a surprise. You see, God has always been working out one plan. And we see evidence of that one plan in what Paul says to the Corinthians even as he warns them against committing the same sins as did Israel in the desert.

1 Corinthians 10:6-13 – 6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 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.

Take note of the repetition in verses 6 and 11. God let these people sin as they wanted and then recorded the outcome for our instruction. These things happened as examples for us to teach us. Or, as Paul says, “They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

Before even looking at the sins, stop and think. God says that the things we read in the Old Testament are recorded for our example and our instruction. Israel in the desert with their unfaithfulness is there for us to learn from. Their bad example is a warning for us.

Again, do not see this as a coincidence. God is not saying that, since that stuff happened anyway, it should at least be useful as an example for us. No, God allowed the nation to follow their sinful heart for the purpose of warning the people of God in the latter days. Paul does not say that these things took place for no reason, but we can learn from them. Paul says that these things took place for us to learn from them. God was working out his purpose for his church more than a millennium before Jesus walked the earth.

What are we to learn? Briefly, we see that idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the limits of God’s patience, and grumbling against the Lord are all temptations that we too will face. Notice especially that the idolatry is tied to the people rising up to play, to party around a golden calf. Our temptation toward idolatry is not likely to be to bow down before a statue so much as it will be to worship our pleasure, our autonomy, our sexual liberty. Sexual immorality has been a human temptation since early on. Pushing our limits and grumbling that God does not do what we want is a normal failure. And all of these are destructive.

God tells us to look at Israel, see her failures, and learn. Learn to be guarded against sin. Learn to take sin seriously. Learn to take heed lest we fall. Learn that God offers us a way to battle every temptation. Learn from the example that God gave us through years of Hebrew unfaithfulness.

This passage should cause us to take heed and guard against sin. It should cause us to watch out especially for the sins listed. But it should also cause us to praise God and be in awe of his ways. This stuff happened for our edification, our instruction, our example. May we praise the God who was preparing lessons for us more than three millennia ago.

Tempted by Less Than We Expect

Hosea is one of those difficult books with a difficult image. It is not that the image is difficult to understand, but it is tough to look at. It is an ugly image, an emotionally disturbing image.

When God speaks to the people of Israel, he draws a parallel between the nation and an unfaithful wife. As the people forsake the Lord, God uses very strong language to describe their spiritual adultery.

What I notice as I read through this passage is what it was that Israel seemed to be drawn after. This is important, as it catches people still today.

Hosea 2:5

For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’

Without thinking too deeply about why God uses this image for Israel, notice what the six things are that draw Israel, as an adulterous wife, away from the Lord. They are seeking bread and water, wool and flax, oil and drink. These are simple items for living with perhaps a luxury thrown in. These are people who are forsaking God as they chase after basic, material wealth.

Interestingly for the Old Testament culture, God had promised his people all of those things in abundance if they would merely keep his law. But the people would not believe God enough to obey. They preferred to ignore the law of God and seek their material prosperity on their own.

But how might this apply to us today? Are we willing to turn from the Lord for material blessing? Be careful. If you answer this question from a position of security, consider how you would answer that question during a time of want and of persecution.

Friends, we need to understand that it is a common human temptation to turn away from the Lord in order to gain material security or safety. But those who love the Lord determine that we will be faithful to the Lord in times of plenty or want. Paul said that he had learned to be content in wealth or poverty. We must learn the same. We must not be willing to turn from the Lord for physical comforts. And we must not underestimate the temptation that this presents, as people have shown us in the past how easily they fail.

When we are not careful, when we are not faithful, we find ourselves tempted by small things. Bread and water, wool and flax, oil and drink, these should not be major temptations. But in hard times, we can find ourselves tempted by far less than we might think would tempt us at present. May we love our Lord so much that we are ready and faithful regardless of how hard times get.