All’s Well That Starts Well
Dr. Jim Denison
We’re all salespeople in life. We all have something we want others to “buy” or believe.
According to Newsweek, Andrew Fischer is selling his forehead. The 20-year-old Nebraska man decided to auction it as ad space for 30 days, and received more than 100 bids. The winner is a snoring remedy named “SnoreStop,” which will pay him $37,375 to display their logo. He says he’ll use the money to pay for college. With a son in college myself, I’m wondering what a pastor’s forehead goes for.
Last week, two men robbed a pizza delivery woman. Then one of them called the victim on his cell phone to apologize, and asked her for a date. She declined, gave his cell phone number to police, and they arrested the man. What he was selling, she wasn’t buying.
My father sold electronic components to oil companies. I’m a salesman as well, with a specific product to sell you this morning. I’ll show you why you need it, how to use it, and what happens when you do. Then I hope you’ll buy what I’m selling–not for my sake, but for yours.
Why to live by the word of God (vs. 1-4)
As our story opens, we catch up with Jesus after he’s spent 40 days in solitude with his Father. He’s in the wilderness area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea known to the locals as “the Devastation.” It is desert, full of rocks and sand, parched, cracked, dusty hills and valleys, “Death Valley” in our country. No wonder he’s able to be alone with God.
He has just fasted 40 days, abstaining from everything and everyone but his Father. No one could be closer to God than him, right now. Just then Satan appears out of nowhere with his first of three temptations. The Greek reads, “Since you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (v. 3).
The wilderness surrounding Jesus is covered with small, round, sun-bleached rocks which look amazingly like the bread baked in his day. Imagine you have not eaten for 40 days, and you have the ability to turn a tennis ball into an orange or a sandal into a steak. You would have to rely on yourself rather than your Father for your needs, using your powers for your purposes rather than the One you have come to serve. But you would be tempted.
Here’s how Jesus responds. Here’s what to do the next time Satan comes calling: live on “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4).
Jesus quotes a statement made by Moses to the children of Israel after they learned to trust God for the manna which kept them alive in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:3). The point is simple: we do not live on our ability but God’s provision. Not on our resources and experience and education, but on the word and grace of God. Your next breath is his gift. Your abilities and opportunities come from his hand. You didn’t deserve to vote in America and not Iraq. It all comes from the grace of God.
So before you begin your next day or make your next decision, go first to his word. Go to Scripture before you go anywhere else–to your own education and ability, the advice of friends, the counsel of worldly wisdom. Seek Scripture first. Ask what God says on the subject, and choose to do it. Live by the words of God.
Why trust the Bible with your life?
Because it is literally the “word of God”: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Because it has been accurately transmitted to us. “Textual critics” are scholars who compare ancient manuscripts to produce a copy as close to the original as possible. Whether they are Christians or not, they know that the Old and New Testaments we possess today are virtually identical to the originals. The only questions which remain affect matters of spelling, punctuation, and isolated verses; none relates to essential doctrines or practices of the faith.
Because archaeology confirms the accuracy of Scripture. For instance, the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) was once dismissed as non-historical. Now tour guides in Jerusalem point groups to its location in the northeast quarter of the Old City. I’ve seen the ruins myself. We have a stone inscription documenting the life and office of Pontius Pilate; the ossuary (coffin) of Caiaphas, the High Priest of the crucifixion; an inscription found at Delphi which describes the work of Gallio, proconsul at Corinth (Acts 18:12-17); and scores of other artifacts which document the accuracy of biblical history and description.
Because the Bible keeps its promises. A mathematician once investigated the statistical probability of one man’s fulfilling eight of the 61 major Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah, and calculated the odds as one in 10 to the 17th power (one followed by 16 zeroes). That number of silver dollars would cover the state of Texas to a depth of two feet.
Because the Bible changes lives. I once owned a 1965 Ford Mustang, and found myself under its hood as often as I was behind its wheel. Chilton’s Car Repair Manual became my constant companion. I learned to trust its advice because it worked.
In a postmodern world which believes truth is relative, a book must be relevant to be accepted. Try living by the word of God, making its truths the guideposts of your life. Go to Scripture first. See what God says on the subject you’re considering, the decision you’re making. And you’ll learn for yourself that you can rely on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
How to live by the word of God (vs. 5-7)
Now Satan, seeing that Jesus is going to fight his temptations with God’s word, uses Scripture himself. Taking him to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem, 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, he challenges him to throw himself down since the Bible promises God will protect him (Psalm 91). Then the crowds will see and be amazed, and he can be their Messiah. He can avoid their rejection and the cross it will bring.
But Jesus knows that Satan is misusing the word of God. He left out the condition for the promise: “If you make the Most High your dwelling–even the Lord, who is my refuge” (v. 10). In other words, if you do what God says, following his direction and will, then he will protect you according to that will. The promise Satan quoted is no guarantee that God will protect us whatever we do–it is God’s assurance that he will enable us to fulfill his will in our lives.
In response, Jesus quotes Scripture accurately: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 7, quoting Deut 6:16). Do not make God prove himself to you, for the Creator of the universe has nothing to prove to his creation.
Here’s the point for us: live by God’s word, as you interpret it correctly. Don’t misuse or misquote it as Satan did–know its intended meaning as Jesus did. How?
We’ve reprinted a pamphlet I wrote on that subject a few years ago, and placed copies where you can take one today. The pamphlet is a very short version of a book I published some years ago on biblical interpretation, and the class I taught on the subject at Southwestern Seminary.
Here’s the even shorter version: know the author and setting of the text you are studying. Learn what the words mean, and discover the historical circumstances which affect its meaning. Now restate the text in your own words. Then discover the theological truth the passage intends to teach–what it says about God, humanity, the future, sin and salvation, etc. Apply those principles to your life in practical ways.
Start today, where you are. Buy a study Bible–I recommend the NIV Study Bible, though there are other good options available. Get a notebook. And make an appointment to meet God in his word every morning. Schedule time for Scripture just as you would for any other person or subject. Begin reading the Bible systematically. If you don’t have another place in mind, start with the Gospel of John. Decide how many verses you will read each morning, and keep to your schedule. Ask the questions we just discussed, and write down what you learn. Day by day, God will feed your soul from his word. And you’ll have the tool you need to defeat Satan and live in spiritual victory.
When you live by the word of God (vs. 8-11)
We’ve asked why and how to begin every day in the word of God, and to live by what we learn there. Let’s close with this question: what happens when we do? Here’s the answer.
Satan doesn’t give up on Jesus. He takes our Lord to a “very high mountain” and shows him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (v. 8). He offers all this to our Lord, if he will forsake his call to be Messiah and worship the enemy. One more time, he can avoid the cross and its pain, if he will refuse God’s word and will for his life.
Once more Jesus quotes Scripture in response: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (quoting Deuteronomy 6:13). Then Satan left him, and “angels came and attended him” (v. 11). When Jesus stood on Scripture, the enemy could not stand against him. The same will happen for us: though Satan is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, we are to “resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). With this command and assurance: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you” (James 4:7-8).
Now the decision is yours. You should expect Satan to tempt and attack you, whether you’re a follower of Jesus or not. You should know that your only sure defense is the word of God. If the perfect, sinless, omniscient Son of God did not attempt to defeat temptation in his own wisdom and strength, but spoke only the word of God, should we do anything else?
And you have only today to be ready. Jesus didn’t know when Satan would show up–neither do you. He doesn’t give us a time out to go pray and read and get ready. That’s why we need to begin the day with God, before anything else happens. We put gas in the tank before we start the journey; musicians warm up before they play or sing; athletes lift weights before the season begins, and stretch before the game. Today is the day to decide that you will begin tomorrow with God, in his word.
If you started today with God in his word, let this message encourage you. If you didn’t, let it invite you. As simple as it sounds, there is no more important practice in spiritual growth and victory. No more important tool in winning the battle against temptation and fulfilling the perfect will of God for your life. Don’t expect the enemy to make it easy–you’ll be distracted, scheduled, and busy. But the harder it is to begin the day in God’s word, the more you need to.
In 1990, at the Moscow International Book Fair, religious publishers were allowed for the first time to give away Bibles. In earlier years they could exhibit them, but they could not distribute them. Taking advantage of this new opportunity, publishers passed out more than 10,000 copies of the New Testament in contemporary Russian. Soon the Bible exhibit became the most popular at the fair. Russians stood in long lines to get their copy of a book which most had never owned and many had never seen.
Nearby was the exhibit of the American Atheist Press, headed by Madelyn Murray O’Hare. In a country steeped in atheism for most of a century, we would expect her display to be popular. But we would be wrong. My friend Johnnie Godwin was there, and took a now-famous picture of the scene. In the foreground hundreds of people are standing in line for their Bibles. In the background, Mrs. O’Hare sits in her booth alone.
Tomorrow morning, which line will you choose?