The Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness
Sinless perfection of the Messiah. The moral fitness of the Messiah for the throne of Israel was something that all orthodox Jews knew would be a requirement for the true Christ. Prophecies such as Zeph. 3:5 required it; “the righteous lord is in the midst thereof, and he will not do iniquity.” We know that “sin is lawlessness [or, self-will]” (1 John 3:4), and therefore the Messiah would have no other will than that of His Father, and would fulfill it regardless of the consequences to Himself! The Devil tempted Jesus in the three great areas of the flesh’s weakness, striving to lead Jesus to do His own will, rather than God’s.
He could not sin. One great reason why our Lord was tested in the wilderness was to prove that He could not sin! Sadly, some take it the opposite way and say that Jesus must have been able to sin otherwise He would not have been tempted. Our Lord did not have a sin-nature. Rather, He had a holy nature. He was incapable of sin. The three temptations of the Devil attested to this truth, but we also have the Lord’s words: “the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me“ (John 14:30). There was nothing in the Lord for Satan to work on. Satan found nothing in Him, nor did God (Psalm 17:3). Note that holiness is not the same as innocence. Adam was innocent in the garden, meaning that he was sinless but still capable of sin. The Lord Jesus was holy from His birth, meaning that He was not only sinless but incapable of sin. “Holiness” is an active power that rejects evil, and clings to good.
Overcoming the Wicked One. In the temptation of Christ we have a profound lesson in the way Christ overcame the Devil, and thus “bound the strong man” (Matt. 12:29). The Lord did not overcome Satan with an act of Divine power, but rather by submission and obedience to the Word of God. This becomes a great pattern for the believer in the face of temptation. We have no such power, but we can obey the Word of God, and that is our strength. “I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one” (1 John 2:14). But having overcome the wicked one and thus bound the strong man, the Lord proceeds in v.12 and on to “spoil his house”.
Summary and order of the temptations. The three temptations follow the elements of the world that the Apostle John speaks of (1 John 2:16).
- The Lust of the Flesh – stones turned into bread
- The Pride of Life – the intervention of angels
- The Lust of the Eyes – the kingdoms of the world
These three things are the devices through which the first Adam fell. In Luke the temptations are recorded in their moral order, following 1 John 2:16. But in Matthew the offer of the kingdom comes in last because Matthew gives a dispensational order. They came to Him in different ways:
- As a humble man, He had a right to satisfy His hunger
- As the Messiah, He had a right to Messianic prophecies
- As Son of man, He had a right to the worldly kingdoms
The Sinless Perfection of Christ Manifested (4:1-11)
The Forty Days (vv.1-2)
¶ Then Jesus was carried up into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted of the devil: 2 and having fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he hungered. vv.1-2 The Spirit led Jesus (the design was Divine), but is was Satan that tempted Him. It is always that way with the activity of Satan. All his actions are allowed by God, and used by Him to accomplish a Divine design. The old English word ‘tempt’ simply means ‘test’ (Gen. 22:1). Jesus could not be tempted in the way James speaks of it in James 1:13-14. The first man met the Devil with a full stomach, having tasted the bounty of Eden. But the second man meets the Devil with the cards stacked against Him… and still Satan found no point of attack. “Forty days and forty nights” speak of a time of testing (Gen. 7:4; Exo. 24:18; Num. 13:25; 1 Sam. 17:16; Acts 1:3).
1st Temptation: Sustenance without Dependence (vv.3-4)
3 And the tempter coming up to him said, If thou be Son of God, speak, that these stones may become loaves of bread. v.3 Jesus is first tested as “Son of God” on earth. At the baptism, Christ’s relationship with God was first fully settled before men. Then, as One in that place, the conflict with Satan begins. In a sense the same is true with us. It is once we see our place “in Christ” and our status as “sons of God” that Satan appears to oppose our pathway. How beautiful to have the pattern of our Lord, that we might overcome, even as He also overcame, and is set down, etc. (Rev. 3:21). One of Satan’s favorite words is “if”… he always challenges what God says (e.g. Gen. 3:1); in this case Satan was challenging the Father’s declaration in Matt. 3:17. The circumstances looked right for the Son of God to make the stones bread. He was hungry, and He had the power to perform this miracle. But He did not have a word from His Father to do so. For Him to make the stones bread would have been independency (John 5:19).
4 But he answering said, It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which goes out through God’s mouth.” [Deut. 8:3] v.4 The Devil was addressing the issue of man’s need, and saying that need is license. But God created man in dependence on Him. To act in independence from God is sin! Satan was saying; “you can’t live without physical bread.” The Lord replies; “wrong, you can’t live without the Word of God.” Notice that the Lord quoted scripture in His response, and scripture was enough to settle the matter. He wouldn’t even answer with His own words… perfect dependence! The context of the quotation is beautiful as well. After wandering for forty years (parallel the forty days), when Israel was in the land, enjoying the bounty of Canaan, they were to remember that man lives by the Word of God.
2nd Temptation: Protection without Obedience (vv.5-7)
¶ 5 Then the devil takes him to the holy city, and sets him upon the edge of the temple, 6 and says to him, If thou be Son of God cast thyself down; for it is written, “He shall give charge to his angels concerning thee, and on their hands shall they bear thee, lest in anywise thou strike thy foot against a stone.” [Psa. 91:12] vv.5-6 The second temptation was intended by Satan to entice the Lord to display His power to glorify Himself. The Devil would twist the promises made to the Messiah, to get the Messiah to seek His own glory, instead of waiting on God’s time, and trusting God to glorify Him in due time. Satan is never more dangerous than when he is using the scriptures, although he takes them out of context, and twists them into a wrong use. He left out seven words of that verse; “to keep thee in all thy ways.” The context of the verse is that of a faithful man walking in God’s ways, who can have the assurance of God’s help. Satan’s direction of action is down. He has always moved “down“… read more. Earlier Satan tried to get the Lord to look down at the stones instead of up to God in dependence on the Word of God (vv.3-4). Here he tries to convince the Lord to “cast himself down“. In v.9 he tries to get Him to “fall down” and worship him. The direction is always down.
7 Jesus said to him, It is again written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” [Deut. 6:16] v.7 Jesus answered “Again, it is written”. Just because Satan has grown more insidious, that should never deter us from the same method of defense, the Word of God. The response is an in-context quotation; a passage often quoted by the Jews as if it forbade excess in trusting God; whereas it really means that man should not distrust God, and thereby try whether God is faithful.
3rd Temptation: Glory without Suffering (vv.8-10)
Resisting the Devil. The two first temptations were the wiles of the Devil in which trickery was used. But the third temptation was open hostility to God. In each temptation, the Lord resisted the Devil. The believer too has the right to resist the Devil when he comes tempting (James 4:7); but we are never told to dialog with the Devil, or to haughtily scoff at him, or rebuke him. Even Michael would “not bring against him [Satan] a railing accusation” (Jude 9), but said “The Lord rebuke thee“. Satan is the highest ranking angel in the creation of God, a higher authority than even an archangel. Our response to temptations should be to remain in simple obedience to the Word of God, even if our understanding is simple. If we do this, we will escape Satan’s wiles.
¶ 8 Again the devil takes him to a very high mountain, and shews him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, 9 and says to him, All these things will I give thee if, falling down, thou wilt do me homage. vv.8-9 Satan proposed that the Lord could have the kingdom (the inheritance) without having to go to the cross, to spare Himself all the sufferings that awaited Him there. The Son’s inheritance is a material one (Eph. 1) and Satan has usurped this inheritance through his subtilty. The path to take back the inheritance and glorify God as to the question of sin would take Jesus to the cross (Col 1:20). But if Jesus would deny His Father and acknowledge Satan (the god of this world) by worshiping him, Jesus could take the kingdoms of the world without paying the redemption price. Satan does have the power to do this, as we see in Revelation when the Devil gives His power to the beast (Rev. 13:2). This was a foolish yet dastardly proposal to present to the Son, the object of whose heart was God His Father, and whose sole mission was to glorify Him (Heb. 10:7). How little Satan understood of “the joy that was set before him”, the joy of doing the Father’s will.
A deal with the Devil. Satan does have control over this world, but ultimately he is just a pawn, being used by God. Satan, as the god of this world, has made similar offers before. The kings of the earth have fallen down to worship him for only a small portion of what he here offered our Lord. If Christ would capitulate, He could have it all. Far better for the Lord to look on to that day when God will say to him “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Psa. 2:8).
10 Then says Jesus to him, Get thee away, Satan, for it is written, “Thou shalt do homage to the Lord thy God, and him alone shalt thou serve.” [Deut. 6:13] v.10 The Lord’s response to this third temptation is “Get thee away, Satan”. We know from Isa. 24:21-22 that the Messiah would have ultimate authority over the demonic hosts. The way the Lord speaks to Satan (v.10) is proof of this! Satan’s boldness in this third test called for a sharp rebuke. The verse our Lord quoted is Deut. 6:13, the thrust of which is that we would have devotion only to God. This is the believer’s safeguard against temptation! We should live with a single eye, seeking only the glory of God. With that attitude, Satan can do nothing… he is defeated!
The Angels Minister to Christ (v.11)
¶ 11 Then the devil leaves him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. v.11 The angels ministered to Jesus’ practical needs (John 1:51), supplying the very things Satan had attempted to get Jesus to take for Himself. What a reward for His faithfulness! The angels are ministering spirits for us also (Heb. 1:14).
Satan bound. The defeat of Satan in the wilderness was a tremendous step in mission of the Lord Jesus. While the positive work of redemption had not yet been accomplished, the strong man – Satan himself – had been bound by the Second Man, in perfect dependence on God. “How can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man?” (Matt. 12:29). After this, Christ came forth from the wilderness and departed into Galilee, where His public ministry properly began… spoiling Satan’s house!
Satan's Downward Progression. It is striking that we always see Satan moving down, down, down...
- Iniquity was found in him; "I will cast thee to the ground" (Ezek. 28:14-16)
- Cursed in the garden; "upon thy belly shalt thou go" (Genesis 3:14-15)
----- 4000 Years ------
- Bound in the wilderness; "first bind the strong man, and then spoil his house" (Matt. 12:29; Luke 4:13)
- Defeated at the cross; "through death he might annul him who has the power of death... the devil" (Heb. 2:14)
----- 2000 Years ------
- Cast down to the earth; "he was cast out into the earth" (Rev. 12:9)
- Cast into the abyss; "and cast him into the abyss, and shut it" (Rev. 20:3)
----- 1000 Years ------
- Cast into the lake of fire; "was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone" (Rev. 20:10)
Use of the Word of God. The Lord Jesus had a verse for every temptation, and He obeyed that verse. It isn’t that the Bible is a magic potion that scares Satan away… rather it is a solid foundation for our souls to rest on. “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). Remember to “resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” He knows he has met Christ in us; not the flesh. “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Common Fallacies. Aside from the direct teaching of this passage, we find practical instruction in it for our own lives. Firstly, we are given the perfect pattern of how to be victorious over the temptations of the Devil. The secret is full dependence on the Word of God. Secondly, we are warned of Satan’s frequently used strategies, which he uses to entice men to sin. These three temptations represent three common fallacies that many people sadly believe.
- The temptation of the stones represents that common fallacy that it is God’s will for us to meet our own needs. For example, if I am hungry while driving down the road, and I see a fast food restaurant to the side, is it necessarily God’s will to indulge myself? Jesus was hungry, and He had the ability to meet that need with food. But He would not act without direction from His Father.
- The temptation of the temple represents the common fallacy that God’s sovereignty in our lives relieves us of our responsibility. Many Christians think they can life their lives recklessly and selfishly, and that its okay because God will take care of everything in the end. That is tempting God, and it is a serious sin to live recklessly.
- The temptation of the kingdom represents the common fallacy that it is acceptable to make a moral compromise in order to achieve a good outcome. The kingdom rightfully belonged to Christ, but to take it from Satan would require a compromise. Very often well-meaning Christians will enter into arrangements that are compromised with the excuse that it is for a good cause.