“Into The Wilderness”: The Principle of Spiritual Testing (Matthew 4:1 sermon)

Those of us who have children know that parenting can be a very “up and down” experience. Cheryl & I have talked about this a number of times. It’s like you never get to “sit on your laurels” — even when you experience a victory with your kids, there is some new “crisis” just lurking around the corner. One time when our kids were in high school Cheryl & I had gone with our son David to the regional high school track meet where he was competing in the 400 meter run, and he surprised us, and actually PLACED at regionals — as a freshman! We were SO excited, and on the way home we were just so thrilled, and talking about that — when all of the sudden we got a call from our daughter Libby that our oldest son Paul had just been “let go” from his first job at a sandwich shop because he was too meticulous at putting the sandwiches together — they said he “wasn’t Subway material.” After we got that call, Cheryl & I looked at each and we said something like, “Can’t we just savor one day of victory in our kids’ lives, without having some crisis pop up again?” But that is often the way it is with kids; you go from highs to lows, over and over and over.

And we need to understand that the same thing happens in our spiritual lives as well. Every Christian gets some “spiritual highs” where we experience God in a fresh way, or take a special “leap forward” in learning and growing in Him — but we also need to learn that the “spiritual highs” don’t typically last very long. Here in Matthew 3 and 4 we see that Jesus, who modeled so much for us about what it means for a man and to walk with God, went through this same thing. He went from a spiritual “high” right into a time of testing, as an example for us in our spiritual lives as well.

I. The “Mountaintop” Before The Wilderness

Can you imagine the “spiritual high” that Jesus might have been on, immediately after His baptism? Think about what had just happened to Him: He had just been baptized — a meaningful spiritual experience in itself. Then as that happened, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him like a dove, anointing and filling Him for ministry; and the voice of His Father called down from heaven: “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” I had never really thought of it before I read this passage again recently, but this must have been, just from a human/emotional level, an amazing “spiritual high” for Jesus.

Every Christian gets these “spiritual highs”:
— Maybe it is the initial “high” of your salvation. When you are saved, you realize that you have been going in the wrong direction with your life, rebelling against God and His commandments. You are convicted of your sins, and hear that Jesus died to pay for them on the cross. When you ask Him to forgive your sins and come into your life as your Lord & God, then you are saved, and the “weight” of conviction is lifted off of you; you know that you are going to heaven. Everybody doesn’t “feel” the same at conversion (and salvation is not based upon our feelings) but many people do experience a kind of spiritual “high” with their salvation.
— Or maybe it is the joy of obeying Jesus in baptism. We have talked previously about how there is something about confessing Jesus publicly in baptism that “nails down” a person’s salvation. Not long ago, someone who had been baptized told me that they felt so blessed when they came up from the water of baptism; that it was just a very emotional, spiritually “high” moment.
But there are a number of other “spiritual highs” in the typical Christian life as well:
— Sometimes it comes from an inspiring worship service, where you get “carried away” in singing and praising the Lord.
— Or maybe it is the “high” of a revival experience at a camp or spiritual retreat, as God works in your life in a special way. Keith has led our students in a “Disciple Now” this weekend, and maybe some of you students would say this has been a “mountaintop” weekend for you.
— Maybe it is a prayer that you have prayed for so long, and God answers it, and you are SO thankful to God for His power in answer to that prayer.
— It could be the joy you feel as you repent of a certain sin in your life, and that “barrier” that sin always puts between you and God is taken down, and you feel so good, and so close the Lord.
— Or maybe it’s when God gives you a great victory in your life: something you have prayed for, and worked to make happen, actually comes to pass, and God blesses you with it, and you are so excited!
— Or God uses your ministry so that someone gets saved, or you help someone really learn to walk with the Lord, or to overcome a stronghold in their life, and you really get to “see” the fruit of a spiritual victory in your ministry. There is a great joy in that!
— Or it could even just be the “high” of a great personal quiet time with God, and the special closeness He gave you with Him in worship. I remember a few months ago I had had the greatest worship and Bible reading time one day, and I was outside just walking and praying and looking up at the moon and the stars, and I was just so thrilled and thanked God. I had just read about a man who had been searching for the real meaning of life, and I prayed and said: “God, I thank you that I KNOW that: I HAVE what so many people are looking for in life; I know You, the one true God, and You have showed me how to worship You and walk with You”. It was such a “spiritually high” moment.

In so many times and so many different ways, we can experience spiritual “highs” in our lives, just like Jesus did at His baptism. And it is not a “bad” thing to have a spiritual high — but we need to always keep in mind: those “mountaintop” experiences are good: but they don’t last forever!

II. From The “Mountaintop” to “The Wilderness”

It is very revealing that immediately after that “spiritual high” that Jesus experienced, the very next verse tells us: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

This is SO typical of what happens over and over, in every Christian’s spiritual life. We do not usually get to stay on the “spiritual mountaintop” for very long. We are often immediately brought down from the mountain top into the wilderness to be tested. We see this SO many times in scripture:

— In Exodus 19, the Bible tells us that Moses was called up to Mt. Sinai to receive the Commandments from the Lord. And it describes how God came down on that mountaintop: “YHWH descended upon it in fire, and the smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked” and Moses spoke, and God answered him with thunder. Exodus 24 says that “To the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of YHWH was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” “and Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights.” (:18) Perhaps no one before or since has had that kind of personal experience with God. And yet, God had just given Moses the tablets “written by the finger of God” (31:18) when the Lord told him to go down, for the people have corrupted themselves” with the Golden Calf.
It’ s like: seriously? The tablets aren’t even “cool” yet from the fire of the finger of God that engraved them — and the people are already turning against God, and Moses has a crisis he has to address. It didn’t take long for him to go from the mountain to the valley.

— We see this same kind of thing happen with the prophet Elijah in I Kings 18. Elijah had just experienced the great victory of seeing the fire of God fall from heaven to consume the sacrifice that he made on Mount Carmel, and all the people of the land were crying out: “YHWH, He is God; YHWH He is God!” I Kings 18 ends with this great victory, and the rain that God sent in answer to Elijah’s prayer — and the next chapter opens with the wicked Queen Jezebel telling Elijah that he is a dead man — and :3 says “Elijah ran for his life”, and :4 says, significantly, “he … went a days journey into the wilderness” where he asked God to take his life.
That didn’t take long did it — for Elijah to go from the “high” of Mt. Carmel to the despair in the wilderness.

We see that pattern over and over. We see it in Jesus’ life both here in Matthew 3 & 4, and also in Matthew 17, where the Bible tells us that Jesus went up on the Mountain and He was transfigured and “became as white as light” and His 3 closest disciples marveled at Him. But how typical, that as they came down from the mountain, they were immediately greeted by a man who fell down before Jesus, asking Him to have mercy on his son, who was demon-possessed. He said in :16, “I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.” And Jesus says in :17 “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.” Again, the spiritual “high” of the glory of the Mount of Transfiguration didn’t last long, and Jesus was immediately “hit” with the problems of demon-filled people, and ineffective and powerless disciples. It was “back to the valley”!

And yet that is just SO typical of what happens, SO many times, in our own Christian life: you do not usually get to enjoy a “spiritual high” for long, until you get brought down into “the valley” or “the wilderness”:
— You get saved, and you’re so excited, and the “weight has been lifted” from your soul, but then you come back to “real life” and get hit with “people.” I remember when I was 8 years old, I was baptized at the First Baptist Church of Harrah, Oklahoma on a Sunday night. I went to school the next day, and I was so excited, and I told one of my classmates: “I got baptized last night” and she just looked at me with the most condescending look on her face and said, “SO?” I have never felt so slapped in the face with cold noodle! Wow … welcome down from the mountain to the wilderness!
— Or you get that spiritual “high” from worship, and Bible Study, and discipleship, and ministry, and Christian fellowship on Sunday, and what a great day it was; a foretaste of heaven! — but then on Monday morning you go back to your corporation or factory or office, and all the complainers, and those joyless souls who just seem to sap the life right out of you.
— Or you’re on the “high” of that “mountaintop” of that revival or the youth retreat, but then you come home to the same old family you had when you left: and your parents still get on your nerves, and your brother or sister is still annoying, and you’ve still got your chores and your homework, and all the things you’d left behind for a while when you went to “the mountain.”
— Or you get a major answered prayer that just makes you sing “Hallelujah”, or you get a breakthrough in your Christian life, and you are so excited about what the Lord is doing in your life — and then you get in a big fight with your spouse, or you get hit with a crushing unexpected bill, or a major crisis at work — or as I have seen SO many times in people’s lives, Satan will bring the WRONG kind of guy or gal across your path to try to try to distract you, and get you to “ditch” what God has been doing in your life.

It happens in so many ways. You go from the “mountaintop” to the “wilderness” just as quickly as Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus did. It is important for you to know that WHEN this happens to you (because it WILL!) you are not alone. This happens to every Christian. Peter tells us “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” (I Peter 4:12). This happens to every one of us. Every Christian goes through the same thing, because that is what happens: we go from “the mountain top” to the wilderness. Every single time.

III. The Purpose of the Wilderness

And this happens for a reason. It was not a “coincidence” that Jesus went from the “high” of baptism into the wilderness. In fact, the Bible tells us this didn’t happen accidentally; that God LED Him there. Matthew 4:1 says “Then Jesus was LED UP BY THE SPIRIT into the wilderness.” Jesus didn’t just “wander” into the wilderness; He didn’t just “happen” to get tempted out there. No, the Bible specifically tells us that the Holy Spirit, who had just descended upon Him like a dove in the aftermath of that amazing baptism experience, then purposefully LED HIM UP into the wilderness. This was part of God’s plan: for Jesus to come away from the “spiritual high” of His baptism, into the wilderness of temptation and testing.

It is very revealing that we see here in the temptations that follow in the next verses, that the devil tried to get Jesus to doubt what God had just told Him at His baptism. What did God the Father say in 3:17 when His voice sounded from heaven? He said: “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” God told Jesus, “You are My Son, and I am totally pleased with you.” Now notice how Satan begins his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4:3: he said to Him, “IF You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” “IF You are the Son of God”! Jesus knew that He was God’s Son. And God had just TOLD Him that He was His Son, in that amazing baptism experience. But now Satan was testing Jesus, in the very thing that God had just told Him was true. Jesus was tested in the wilderness, on what He had just experienced on “the mountaintop.”

And that is what happens to us as well. When we have had times of spiritual growth on “the mountaintop” with the Lord (whatever form that “mountaintop” spiritual growth takes), God then allows us to come into a time of “wilderness” of trial and temptation, where Satan will to try to get us to doubt what we know that God has told us about Himself, or what we just learned about His word, or our ministry, or His call on our lives. It is not a “fun” thing to go through, but it is an important element of our spiritual growth, because that testing helps us to consolidate what God has just accomplished in our lives.

It is like the process of strengthening your body through lifting weights. Most people don’t lift weights every day — or at least they don’t lift with the same muscles every day. They’ll lift weights one day, and then the next day they will rest, and let those muscle build back up again, and strengthen — and then the following day they lift again. And that process of lifting and then resting builds the muscles and strengthens them over time, and incorporates into the body the benefits of the exercise.

A similar kind of thing happens to us spiritually. God will draw us near to Him, in a “mountaintop” experience — whether it is salvation, or baptism, or a retreat or revival, or even a special prayer and Bible time or an especially effective ministry experience. But how much of that have we really learned? How much of it will we really retain? God “leads us up” by His Spirit into a “wilderness” where we get tested and see how much of that we really kept. And we find out maybe we didn’t really “keep” all of that. But hopefully we did some. Maybe we did indeed learn something, and we did grow. But we show how much we really learned, and how much we really “kept” by how we live and act in the wilderness of testing afterwards. So hopefully we did indeed grow a little bit. So now God will take us into the next “mountain top”; to another lesson; to another close walk with Him — and yes, then He’ll allow us to be tested in the wilderness again after that.

So listen: although it may not be pleasant to hear, I am not here to “tickle your ears”, I am here to tell you the truth. And the truth is, You WILL be tested. It IS coming. You will NOT stay on a “spiritual high” forever. Most of you know that already. Maybe you are in a spiritual “wilderness” right now. And maybe you feel like you did something wrong: “What have I done to get myself in this ‘wilderness’?” Maybe you are questioning if you were really saved, because you’re thinking this wouldn’t happen to you if you were really a Christian.

Don’t let the enemy mess with you like that. Every Christian experiences this “undulation”, this “up and down.” Everyone has “spiritual highs” and then goes into the wilderness again. It may be helpful for you to realize that this WILL happen to you; it is NOT unusual; it is most likely not your fault — it’s a normal part of every Christian’s experience. You are being tested to see how much you just learned; to see how much of that truth you are going to really hold on to. There is a good old saying: “Don’t doubt in the darkness what God has shown you in the light.” Don’t doubt, in the wilderness of testing, what God clearly told you on the mountaintop of the spiritual high. But you WILL be tested on it; you can count on that.

You young people coming out of the Disciple Now Weekend can pretty much count on getting tested. Maybe this was a “spiritual high” weekend for you. I hope it was. But I can promise you, that just like Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil after His spiritual high of baptism, now YOU are going to be tested after your spiritual high as well: maybe tonight; maybe tomorrow; but you will be tested: How much of this that God showed you this weekend are you really going to keep? How much of it are you going to really implement in your life? How much of it are you going to forget when your parents come down hard on you and you feel like you didn’t deserve it? How much much of it are you going to lose when your brother or sister starts bugging you again? How much of it are you going to keep when you’re tired the next day and you don’t feel like getting up and having your prayer and Bible time with the Lord? Or what are you going to do when you face some of your old friends on Monday? You ARE going to be tested.

We ALL are; whatever our age. It is a spiritual principle. You experience something of God, and you get tested on it. You learn something, you grow in some area of your life, then you get tested. You go up on a “spiritual mountaintop” — but then you will immediately be led down into the valley. It will happen over and over again in your spiritual life.

So when will all these “wildernesses” end; when will all this testing stop? It won’t stop until you cross the last “river” to get into heaven. The last test; the last enemy you face is death. You will find out then, how has your whole Christian life prepared you for that? What have you learned from your whole life of walking with God that has prepared you for this hour? Some people show, unfortunately, that they didn’t learn much. (I remember years ago watching with dismay while a deacon, who was a “pillar” of his church, was carted away into a minor surgery whining and crying because he was so afraid that something might happen to him and he might die!) Others face that hour with confidence: they know that just like God has been with them through their different wilderness experiences, He will be with them as they cross this last river as well.
But your wilderness experiences won’t end until then. As long as you live, God will continue to bring you through times of spiritual growth, and spiritual testing, over and over, to test and to consolidate what you have learned into your spiritual life.

Your challenge right now is: Don’t be surprised when you are brought into the “wilderness”. It WILL happen to you. It is a law of spiritual growth. Be ready for it; stand firm in it. Live out what you learned in it. Don’t give up in the middle of it. AND … (this might be comforting to you) know that it won’t last forever. Remember: just as the spiritual “high” of the mountaintop doesn’t last forever, neither does the spiritual temptation and test of the valley last forever. You won’t be in “the wilderness” forever. If you’re in “the wilderness” right now, be faithful, and endure this test until its over. It can help you to get through this time when you realize that soon this test will be over, and God’s gonna have you back up on the mountain top again before too long!

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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