Pointing People to Christ (Luke 3:1-22)

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Play Video about Walking with Jesus: Pointing People to Christ - sermon by Dr. John L. Rothra

Sermon Transcript

This morning, we are moving forward in Luke, and we have now left what’s known as the infancy section of Luke, and now we’re dealing with the ministry of—beginning with John but then ultimately—of Jesus himself. And so with chapter three—we’re gonna be in chapter three—looking at the first twenty-two verses. So, chapter 3 verses 1 through 22. And we’re going to be in there seeing, in this case, the introduction of John’s ministry, which was already been talked about a little bit about what he’s called to do, about how he came to exist, how he was—how his parents were told about this child (or his father was told about this child), and she gave birth, they were told what this child is going to be (a prophet), and so forth, But now, we’re going to see part of John’s ministry.

Now, when we look at this passage, the story of John’s ministry may be familiar to some of you, but there are details that Luke does not include and there’s some details he does include. We don’t have the complete picture in Luke—you can also look in other gospels to get a larger picture—but Luke is going to indicate something about John’s ministry: about its place in time (or you could say it’s zeitgeist), also about what he was here to do. And what we’re going to see is that, yeah, it actually has a lesson—an impact—on who and what we are supposed to do as Christians. So, before I read the text (and I hope I don’t butcher some of these names), let’s have a word of prayer.

Heavenly Father, as we read your Word that you have given to us through your apostles and through the men who gathered it together, and how you guided the process of making sure the manuscripts were gathered, were collected, were protected, and how you guided the process of making sure that the text that we have is the text you want us to have—as it is the text you have given us that reveals yourself to us, reveals your message to us, and shows us who we are and why we need you and how we can access you, how we can come to you, how we relate to you. So, God, as we read your Word, I pray that you are honored by the reading of your Word. I pray also, God, I ask you to open up all of our hearts and our ears and our minds to what you say in your Word. God it’s not about what I may say; it’s about what your Word says. And, God, please transform us by your Word, and I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

As we go through this text, first few times I read this there are a few of the names that, well, there’s one in particular that sounds like a disease—it’s not—and you’ll know when I get there, and another one that refers to a region that is not in Texas—you’ll see that in a minute. Beginning in verse 1 Luke writes:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

This text introduces, as I said, John’s ministry. Now, as you read this text, you’ll see that John was a fire and brimstone preacher. We actually need more of those nowadays. Too many preachers are out there preaching a passive, feel-good, pseudo-psychological, Christianized self-help nonsense and not telling people about their sin and their need to repent. But John was a traditional Old Testament prophet, but he was unique in the fact that, unlike the other Old Testament prophets, John was a direct forerunner to Jesus Christ the Messiah. And in these first six verses, we see that John’s ministry was both historical and prophetic.

John’s ministry was historical and prophetic (vv. 1-6)

In verses 1 through the first half of verse 2, we have the beginning where Luke outlines the historical context of John’s ministry, and then in verses 4 through 6, he outlines the prophetic context for John’s ministry, and so John’s ministry is framed within the historical and prophetic contexts. Now, let’s take a look at those two contexts. First, the historical. Verses 1 and 2 (well, the first part of 2). He outlines Caesar (verse one), Pontius Pilate—in this order—Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brothers (who are Philip and Lasanius), and then he talks about Caiaphas and Annas the high priests. Now, these rulers are out—these four rulers are outlined this way for a purpose. What Luke does is he begins with the rulers who are the most distant, the most, the furthest off. You might say today it’s like talking about Washington, DC, and then Luke moves inward, so you move from, like, Washington, DC, to Austin, Texas, to the City Council, and then maybe to, well, me (I guess you could say, in the alignment of the priests, I guess you could say). But the idea is moving from the most distant to the closest, and a lot of commentators have noticed that: he does it in that order.

However, there’s actually a greater significance to this in Luke’s writings. We also know that Luke wrote the book of Acts, and in the book of Acts (in chapter 1 verse 8), he quotes Jesus when Jesus gives part of the Great Commission and says to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses,” and then Jesus says, “in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the whole world.” Jesus goes from the most local to the regional to the global; here, Luke goes from the global—and Rome was seen as ruling the whole world although we now know from history, not really the whole world, but the perception was Rome ruled the whole world—so, he had the global, moving to the regional, moving to the local: the reverse of what we see Luke using in Acts. And so, he begins the ministry by saying it has this impact. John’s ministry (and ultimately Jesus’ ministry) has this impact everywhere. It’s going to impact the people here in the local area. It’s going to impact the region. It’s going to impact the globe. It’s going to impact everybody. And then Jesus later says, “Go preach the gospel to everybody locally, regionally, globally.” So, it’s a reverse of what we see in Acts.

Now, who were these leaders? Well, we know Caesar led Rome. Now, then we get to Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea. So, we have Romans, more Romans, and then we have Herod, Philip, and Lasanius, who were Jews, but they served Rome. These were, you might say, governors (basically, in today’s terminology), with these—the tetrarchs over these regions were like kind of like, I guess you could say, states or you might even say county commissioners or something, but they’re more local, but they oversaw the smaller regions. And these three men (Herod, Philip, and Lasanius) were the descendants—they were the sons—of Herod the Great who was the ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth. And so they had local regions.

But then you have Annas and Caiaphas, two high priests, but there’s only supposed to be one. So, why are there two? Well, the reason is because what happened is one high priest basically resigned—stepped down and retired—and his son took over as high priest. However, the father retained the title, such as we refer to Barack Obama as President Obama. Why? He retains the title although he doesn’t hold the office. George Bush still holds the title of Governor and President although he does not hold those two offices. In the same way Annas retained the title of High Priest but he did not hold office; Caiaphas held the office at that time. So, they both had the title of high priest. Now—so, we have the historical context. By the way, the time frame, this puts it around the mid-to-late 20s AD time frame as far as on the calendar.

But then we have the prophetic context. In verses 4 through 6, what does he say: “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet.” So, he’s quoting here Isaiah (he’s quoting specifically Isaiah 40 verses 3 through 5). Now, he’s most likely quoting here from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and so, but he’s quoting Isaiah 40 verses 3 through 5. What does he say? Of John, Isaiah prophesied that there will be a “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” What would he cry: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight—make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall become straight, the rough places shall become level ways, and,” I love this part, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” That indicates that the prophecy was ultimately about salvation, and this summarizes John’s message. But what Isaiah is saying is that there will be some sign that salvation is about to come, there will be some indication that salvation is about to show up.

Now, for Isaiah in his day, that sign was the Hebrews returning from Babylon, being set free by Cyrus. That was the immediate fulfillment in Isaiah’s time. But the messianic—and for Old Testament prophecies, there’s an immediate and a messianic fulfillment—the messianic, which is the ultimate fulfillment, is Christ Jesus himself. He is the salvation, and John is that voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way for Messiah, for salvation is coming.” The sign at the time of the New Testament is John the Baptist. The [sign] for Isaiah—in his time—was returning from Babylon, and salvation came ultimately in Christ Jesus as John indicates, and as we’ll see in a little bit, to whom John points. And so, John is this voice in the wilderness.

But then we have verses 2 (well, second half of verse 2) and verse 3 which summarizes—briefly summarizes—John’s ministry and his message. Beginning after he talks about the high priests, he says, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah,” see chapter 1, “in the wilderness. And he went into all the region,” that is, John, “went into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s message was simple: repent or die. That was it. How do we know it was “repent or die”? Well, we read later, he talks about fire and judgment. Repent or die: a message that the world doesn’t want to hear today. “It’s harsh. It’s cruel. It’s mean. It’s judgmental.” It’s the truth! Repent or die.

But he talks about this baptism of repentance. Now, there’s some debate about what the baptism points to, where it came from. But scholars are kind of a mixed bag as far as the origins of this baptism, but the consensus overall is this: whatever the source at the time, the people at the time were very familiar with the idea of baptism as a picture of transformation, as a picture of being restored or being renewed, of being—um, I wrote down a word and I just went blank on what it is—cleansing—that’s the word I wrote down—as a picture of cleansing. They were very familiar with that idea. Exactly what the origins are is debated and unsure, but they were familiar with this, and John uses this familiar imagery as a picture of repentance: the idea of being cleansed, clean, renewed, redone, washed by God.

Now, why is he calling people to repent? Well, we know that his message—not his message—his purpose is to be the forerunner, to prepare the people for the coming Messiah. And the way he prepares the people is by calling them to repent. The reason is because only those who are truly repentant will recognize Messiah; those who refuse to repent and remain in their sin will reject Messiah. He’s calling people to be prepared for Messiah, for salvation.

Now, he then moves—Luke now moves more into more detail regarding exactly what John was doing, and in verses 7 through 14, as I’ve already said, we see more detail about John’s message, which I summarize is something I’ve already said: John called people to repent.

John called people to repentance (vv. 7-14)

John called people to repentance in verses 7 through 14. How does he say it? Verse 7, “He said therefore to the crowds,” now, he’s talking to the average person, “said . . . to the crowds ‘You brood of vipers!’” Well, that’s endearing. Imagine showing up to hear someone who you think is inspirational, and the first thing he does is insult you. How many of you sticking around? Yeah, I didn’t—yeah. Most people wouldn’t. Not today. They did. Why? They recognized he’s a prophet, and prophets often used very direct language.

But there’s more than just the directness of his language. What he’s doing is he’s calling the people to recognize their own depravity. They are sinners in rebellion against God. They are sinners guilty before God. He continues, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He’s talking about the final judgment here. He’s wanting them to recognize their need to repent. If anybody’s going to be saved, they must first recognize their need for salvation. They must recognize their own sin. If someone does not recognize their own sin, then it doesn’t matter what they say or do; to deny sin is to deny the need and, ergo, to deny Jesus Christ because Jesus died for the forgiveness of sin. Without sin, Jesus’ death is meaningless.

And John begins by saying you must recognize your sin by saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you?” However, he continues: “Bear fruit—or bear fruits—in keeping with repentance.” Bear fruits. That is, if you truly repent there will be external evidence of true repentance. A lot of people say repentance is saying you’re sorry. Well, you can say the words, but if there’s no actions, if there’s no impact on how you live, we have to ask: is the repentance true? Do you really mean it?

Imagine a child who comes to you after you tell them, “Stop writing on the wall.” And the child picks up a marker, “I’m sorry” [mimics writing on the wall]. Are they? No! They’re trying to get away with it. There’s no repentance there. But how often do we tell God, “I’m sorry,” but do nothing to change how we live. There’s no fruit of repentance, and John says—I was going to say Paul—and John says, “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” When we repent there should be—there must be—an external and outward evidence of genuine repentance. You see, that fruit is the external proof of an internal change, and if there’s no fruit, you must ask: is there an internal change?

When we talked about fruit, when we talked about in James, for example, we talked about a fruit tree.  If you buy a package of seeds and it says, “apple tree,” you plant seeds, it grows. No apple blossoms. None whatsoever. The leaves don’t even look like apple tree leaves. But somebody comes here and says, “Oh, it’s definitely an apple tree.” Is it? is it? And then it turns out it’s producing avocados. That ain’t an apple tree! I don’t care what the packaging says. But oftentimes, when we put out the packaging of our lives that we are repenting, but inside there’s no repentance, the fruit doesn’t match the claim, and you have to question the claim. And so, John tells them, “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”

However, he recognizes a lot of people have all kinds of excuses why they don’t need to repent, why they’re okay, why they are righteous. And oh, people, we do that today. He says, “do not begin to say in yourselves,” this is verse 4, “do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” They tried that with Jesus: “We are Jews, we are righteous, we’re okay, we’re safe, we are forgiven, we are (fill in the blank) because Abraham is our father.” Basically, they (John and Jesus) looked at them and went, “And? So?”

“Even now”—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, verse 4 [8]—“For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” “So what if you’re a child of Abraham? It means nothing. Your lineage does not save you.” And how many today think that they are saved, they are righteous, they are holy, they are okay before God because, well, their parents had faith, they went to church their entire lives, they study the Bible every day, they give to the church financially. None of that will save you. None of that makes you righteous. None of that replaces repentance for sin. And when we try to essentially buy our way to heaven through our works, that currency is—has no value. The only currency that matters to God: repentance and believing in Jesus. That’s it.

But how often do we trust in something else? I’ve heard people say, “My father was a minister.” So what. My father was a navigator in the Air Force; I can’t fly a plane, and even if I did, what he did has no bearing on me. My father is a pastor. Irrelevant; has no bearing on me. My father is a professor, taught both college and high school level (I believe, still teaches). Has no bearing on me. It’s all irrelevant. The only thing that matters is not what our parents did, not what our grandparents did, not who they are—it’s irrelevant. When we stand before God, it is God and us, and we have only two options: belief in Jesus as evidenced through repentance or denial. One saves, the other one keeps us in our condemnation. As John said, “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”: hell. Repentance is vital. We must recognize our sin and our need for repentance. But so many people say, “I’m okay.” No. We’re not okay. We are on a highway straight to that fiery hell without Jesus Christ, and that was essentially John’s message: repent or die.

But they ask him, “Okay, what are some of the fruits you’re talking about, John? How do we do this? What shall we do?” And he gives—there’s three fruits illustrated here. First the general crowds, he tells them, “If you have two tunics or extra food give it to those who have none.” In other words, show love to your neighbor. Show love to other people.

To the tax collectors, they had a habit of saying, “Okay, you owe X amount.” Let’s, for simple numbers, “You owe a thousand dollars in taxes for this year.” And that’s—however, you look at the sheet: “Owed $550.” “You owe a thousand.” Where’s that other $450 go? In the tax collector’s pocket. And so, what does John tell the tax collectors: “Don’t collect any more than you’re supposed to. Stop exploiting people. Treat them fairly.” An example of showing love to your neighbor.

And then to the Roman soldiers who had a habit of looking down upon Jews as sub-human, unworthy of anything, vermin in some cases; and the Romans were also known to be low paid, so in order to increase their income, they would make accusations and demean and insult and do anything they could to the Jews to extort money from them. Why? Romans wanted more. But what’s he tell them? He tells them, “Stop it! Don’t extort people.” But also beyond that, “Stop looking down on them and being bigots.” In other words, love your neighbor. If we say we love God, it will be evidenced in that—in the fact that we love our neighbor by how we treat our neighbor. Who is your neighbor? Everybody. And John is telling them, “love your neighbor.”

And so, John is calling people to repentance. But then in verses 15 to 22 John points people to salvation who is Christ Jesus.

John pointed people to Christ Jesus (vv. 15-22)

“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning,” verse 15, “all questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.” They started wondering, “Is this the Messiah? Is he the one called of God? Is he the man of God?” And we hear that today.

Sadly, many people look to preacher A or preacher B and exalt this person as “the man of God,” a special person,” and many of these people falsely call themselves “Christs.” They talk about themselves being “the anointed of God.” By the way, “Christ” means “anointed one”; to call yourself an “anointed one” is to call yourself a “Christ.” There is only one Christ, and his name is Jesus. He hung on a cross, and he rose again. None of the teachers out there calling themselves “anointed ones” are Christ. None of them. And anybody who says or implies that they are somehow a Christ, run from them. I don’t care how popular they may be, run from them. They are false teachers who are leading you to a false Christ. But John pointed people to the true Christ, to the true Christ.

He says in response, “he answered them saying,” verse 16, “‘I baptize you with water; he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’” This was the lowliest of the lowliest of the lowliest of tasks, and he’s not even worthy to do that compared to Jesus. He is pointing people to Jesus, and we know that later because Jesus shows up. And we also know from other gospels, John pointed to him and said, basically, “There is Messiah.”

But he continues: “[The Messiah,] he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (this is reference to both the saved and the judgment), “his winnowing fork,” we know that because he continues, “his widowing fork is in the is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor” (notice it’s “his” threshing floor), “and to gather the wheat in his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (again, that judgment). Jesus will separate the believers from the unbelievers. And the believers (those who repented and believe in Jesus), will go to that—well, John says barn, picturing the paradise—heaven, new heavens, new earth, the glory of God, and spend forever there; but the non-believers will end up in hell. This is essentially a plea to repent and trust Messiah.

“So,” continuing on (verse 18), “with many other exhortations he preached good news,” that is the gospel, “to people. But Herod the tetrarch,” I’ll summarize: arrested him. You see, John had called out Herod for marrying his relative—I believe it was his brother’s wife—and other things that Herod had done wrong. Herod didn’t like that, so Herod said, “Oh, you’re calling—you’re telling people these things? I’m going to add that to the list of accusations, I’m going to have you arrested.” The world didn’t like John’s message; at least the leaders didn’t. Oh, and by the way, the leaders didn’t like Jesus’ message either; they arrested him and killed him, too. But this did not stop John. Despite what was going on, despite what the government is doing to John, John didn’t back down. He preached the good news.

Now, he’d been talking about the coming Messiah, talking about salvation is coming, and then in verse 21, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form, like a dove.” Now, it wasn’t—he says, “like a dove”—so don’t think that doves are the Holy Spirit, it was just the form used to depict the Holy Spirit. “Descended on him in bodily form,” which indicates it literally happened and that it was visible to more than just John, “and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

By the way, if anybody says that the Trinity is not true or says that there is not one God in three persons, is not teaching this gospel; they are teaching another gospel, and they are not Christians. We have here God the Son in the water being baptized; we have God the Spirit descending on God the Son; and we have God the Father from heaven speaking in a voice that was actually heard by more than just Jesus and John—multiple people heard it. This was a visible evidence and audible evidence of the Trinity.

There is one God, three persons: God the Son, God the Father, God the Spirit. Jesus is God the Son; God the Father is in heaven; and God the Spirit was already at work, as we’ve seen in Luke, and he is still at work today; and all three are a “he.” His pronoun for all three, his pronoun is “he.” Not an “it,” not a “she”: he/him. But we have here the Trinity and what we have is the triune God, the entire Godhead, saying, “You’ve been looking for Messiah? There he is: Jesus is Messiah.” And John pointed people to Jesus.

We must point people to Jesus. We must proclaim the truth, the gospel, the “good news” as it says in verse 18, of Jesus. What is that good news? Well, it ultimately begins with the holiness of God. God is righteous and holy, absolutely holy, but we are not.

We have sinned against God. We have broken his ways, his will, his law. We have failed to love him and failed to love our neighbor. It may have just been an inappropriate thought. It may have just been a passing desire that was sinful. But even those make us guilty because with God you’re either perfect or imperfect. One sin, no matter how big it is or how small it is, makes us imperfect. And because of that we have earned the punishment for sin, which God said is death: physical and spiritual death. And Paul says that apart from Jesus Christ, we walk in condemnation. We are dead in our sins.

But God. God the Son humbled himself, stepped down from heaven, was born of the virgin Mary, lived a perfect, sinless life, and then came his death; was accused of things he never did and was put to death, hung on a cross after he was brutally beaten and tortured and abused, though he earned none of it. We earned all of it. And Jesus shed his blood because that’s the only way sin can be covered, and our blood is tainted and thus not able to cover even our own sin, but Jesus’ blood covers sin.

But on the third day—on that third day—after defeating sin through his death on that cross, Jesus defeated death by resurrecting from that grave, and showed himself to hundreds of people including his disciples, and showed Thomas the wounds in his hands and his side, saying, “You want evidence? Here it is,” physically rose again. That is the gospel of Jesus

And how should we respond? Repent of our sins and believe on Jesus. Those who refuse, that’s up to them, but we should tell people the gospel and call people to repent and believe because the alternative is hell. And if we refuse to show people the gospel, if we refuse to tell people about Jesus, if we refuse to point people to Jesus, what we’re saying to them is, “I hate you so much, I’m willing to let you burn for eternity in hell, but I love God.” Do you? But in order to do this, we must first repent of our own sins. We must repent.

So, this morning, I must ask—don’t look at yourselves and ask, “have I repented,” because we can deceive ourselves. Instead, ask ourselves this: “Will the person sitting next to us or behind us say that we have fruits of repentance, or would they say ‘We see no fruit’?” If you’re not sure of that answer, today is the day to repent. But if you have repented, start pointing people to Jesus.

Let’s pray.

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