The movement in the Gospel narratives aims to reveal Christ to us as the only Savior of sinners. While it tells a story we must remember that it’s a redemptive-theological story. So the Gospel writers don’t just pick out interesting clips from Jesus’ life that they think might fascinate us enough to keep purchasing Bibles. Instead, they weave the story of His life, selecting particular conversations, interactions, teaching, and encounters so that we might understand who He is and what He has done to deliver us from darkness and bring us into relationship with God.
As we look at the devil tempting Jesus, we’re seeing a cataclysmic encounter. The Serpent of old, the devil, the tempter, Satan who disrupted the purity, goodness, and beauty of the creation at the fall, confronts the eternal Son of God Incarnate. Why did he do it? What was he trying to do?
And from the other angle, why did God allow His Son to face the devil? Why did the Holy Spirit who led Jesus in the wilderness, lead Him into this time of temptation by the archenemy of the Triune God?
We should realize that the devil never has any good purpose in mind. Never! Whatever he suggests he does with ill intentions. He seeks to supplant, overthrow, destroy, and thwart anything that God is doing to secure a people for Himself. We mustn’t be deceived with the devil’s aims.
Before the start of WWII, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought that he could negotiate with Hitler and come to some point of understanding that would quell the Führer’s ambitions, and keep the world free from war. That didn’t go well. As many historians have pointed out, in a proverbial way, he was trying to make a deal with the devil. Hitler only saw things from his terms. The devil is far worse. He doesn’t make deals. He deceives, overthrows and destroys. He aims his temptations at Jesus.
Let’s pick up on the scene where Jesus faces the tempter.
Our Lord leaves the Jordan River valley where John had baptized Him and where the voice from heaven affirmed Him as the beloved Son of God in whom the Father is well pleased. As the Spirit leads Him toward the wilderness, Jesus has the intense consciousness of His Messianic office and mission. For thirty years, He lived in obscurity outside of that one notable visit to the temple as a twelve year old. He labored day-by-day in the carpenter’s shop, following the trade of His earthly father Joseph. He had performed no miracles, given no public talks, and made no intimations that He was the Messiah promised by God and declared by the prophets.
Then John baptizes Him, the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in some visible way, and the divine voice declares, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” No sooner had that declaration affirming Him taken place than the Holy Spirit that filled Him led Him into the wilderness for forty days. While there is some debate among New Testament scholars on whether the entire forty days He encountered temptation or whether it was only at the end, Luke’s record implies that the entire time Jesus faced an array of temptations. What he narrates in our text gives the conclusive temptations. Just as the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin, even so a major portion of that truth took place in those days (Heb 4:15).
Here’s where we sometimes fail to see what happened. Although He is the eternal Son of God, Jesus faced these temptations in His humanity. As man He had to depend upon the same grace, the same Holy Spirit, and the same divine enabling that we do. He had to trust that same Word of God to stand against the devil’s onslaughts, as we have for the same purposes. And as one that had never sinned, and so utterly holy and pure in every respect, His sensitivity to the power of temptation was far greater than what we know. One writer explained, “. . . for in every case He felt the full force of temptation” [A. Plummer, in N. Geldenhuys, NICNT: Luke, 157]. B. F. Westcott, the renowned Greek scholar added, “Sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the experience of sin, but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin, which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain” [Ibid.]. In other words, what Jesus encountered in the temptation was far, far worse than anything that we’ve collectively faced. Where the first Adam failed, the second Adam triumphed.
This brings to mind two important observations. The first, and maybe the most obvious, is that as Jesus faced temptation in the fullness of the Spirit with the Word of God, so also must His followers. Jesus set the pattern for battling temptation. We see His obedience to the Father uppermost in mind. But we can be intent on obedience while getting blown down by the enemy’s devices. We must live in the fullness of the Spirit if we would do spiritual battle. And we must not do it through our cleverness, like Chamberlain with Hitler. We must learn to wield the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Jesus studied the Scripture. He memorized it. He understood it in its context and He applied it at just the right time.
Second, and the primary focus of our study today, we also observe that Jesus’ triumph at the temptation foreshadows His triumph at the cross. Or we might put it: Jesus battled the devil in hand-to-hand combat at the temptation with the cross and our redemption in view. He knew that if He didn’t succeed in triumphing over this series of temptations, on the cross He would not be capable of bearing the weight of the sins where we succumbed to temptation. The temptation exposed the Mediator to the range of temptations that we have faced. He conquered on His way to the triumph at the cross.
So what happened at His temptation? Let’s reflect upon the three temptations.
1. Tempted at the point of His natural desires, i.e. provision without trust
Forty days of intense, personalized temptation by the devil himself cannot be fathomed. For the purposes of our great High Priest to feel with us in our weaknesses, at the point of His own weakness He faced the devil’s shrewdest temptations. Forty days without food leaves one totally weakened. He had lost weight as His body used up the energy of what had been naturally stored in the cells. Now famished, he desperately needed food.
The human body can endure a lot. Some members of the military go through rigorous training where they are left without food in a wilderness area to see if they can survive off the land. Others may go a number of days without food as an act of fasting for spiritual purposes, whether to intensify personal discipline or deepen prayer life or lay out a burden before the Lord. But forty days with no food would leave the body decimated.
At that point, the devil tempted Jesus at the most vulnerable point of His humanity. Like us, Jesus needed food. “He became hungry” expresses real hunger for a real person. The most natural thing for someone hungry would be to secure food by any legitimate means. A hungry person wouldn’t be picky either. Any food would work if one suffers from intense hunger.
So the devil seizes upon that point of vulnerability. “And the devil said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’” It’s in Your power to do so. You are the Son of God, aren’t You? Didn’t You just hear the Most High declare You to be His beloved Son? Don’t You, as the Son, have the power to turn this stone into bread? Doesn’t Your Father care that You are hungry? What’s such a small act to satisfy Your desire? You deserve it! You’ve labored for forty days in this wilderness. A little bread would do You some good.
That seemed reasonable enough. If you’re hungry and you have the ability to secure food, then you jump on it!
How did Jesus respond? “And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’ ’” He cites Deuteronomy 8:3. The context fills in the meaning. God was teaching the children of Israel obedience. For forty years they had wandered in disobedience in the wilderness. Now the second generation, after the first had died in the wilderness, listens to Moses as he prepares them for entering into the Promised Land. Why had the Lord brought them through such a difficult test for those years? “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years,” Moses tells them, “that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:2–3).
Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness paralleled the forty years of Israel. Both were hungry. But Israel complained and grumbled against the Lord, failing to trust the Lord when facing hunger, doubt His care. Here was the temptation that Jesus faced as well. Would He exercise impatience at his hunger and quickly listen to the devil’s inciting command to tell a stone to become bread? Would He use His power to perform the miraculous to satisfy His personal appetite instead of using His power for the purpose of God’s kingdom and glory, as the Messiah should do? Would He trust the Father, accepting hunger as the Father’s plan at that point so that He might grow in obedient trust?
At issue was a bigger matter than the natural desire for food. The bigger issues had to do with how Jesus would use His Messianic office and power; how He would trust in the Father, which is implied by the word proceeding from the mouth of the Lord; how He would obey the Father’s purpose and plan, including hunger, need, and suffering on His way to the cross.
Jesus had the power to turn the stone into bread. But to do so would have disregarded God’s care and provision for Him. It would have turned from a life of trusting God, and in effect, saying that his physical desires were more important than what God had spoken to Him. Temporal satisfaction would have trumped eternal plans.
Jesus resisted. Need would not cause Him to question the Father’s love and care. He had the Word of God, so He knew the promise and certainty of the Father’s character and care. He could continue in physical need by relying upon what God had spoken. As He later told His disciples, “I have food to eat that you do not know about. . . . My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:32, 34). Instead of being governed by His appetites, Jesus was governed by God’s Word. Unmet needs didn’t rule Him; God’s revelation did. He lived on God through His Word. But do we?
2. Tempted at the point of His messianic destiny, i.e. glory without the cross
19th century pastor Alexander Maclaren said that at this point, Luke most likely indicates that, “some sort of diabolic phantasmagoria, flashed before Christ’s consciousness, while His eyes were fixed on the silent, sandy waste” [Expositions of Holy Scripture, 9:81]. “And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” No geographical vantage point could do that but some powerful vision could. “And the devil said to Him, ‘I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.’” The devil, while known as “the god of this world,” does have a realm of rebellion and sin in which he displays his kind of governance. We see it everyday in the wickedness perpetuated in the 200+ nations in the world.
Yet the devil exaggerates too. What he has, he has by permission for a time until God accomplishes His purposes, and then the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire. “God never lets the reins slip out of His hands,” Geldenhuys notes . He has no absolute control, as he intimated to Jesus [ibid., 160].
Here the temptation becomes even subtler. Instead of focusing on the physical, the devil considers the messianic work and destiny. The devil got quite spiritual here, even devising his own interpretation of the prophetic passages. Jesus, by the clear prophetic word of Psalm 2, will govern the nations and rule the very ends of the earth. His messianic mission aimed in that direction. The Father sent Him for that purpose: to rule over the nations as His inheritance (Psa 2:8). So why not find an easy way to that goal?
That was not the Father’s plan. To rule, He must first endure the cross. Jesus knew what lay before Him. The weightiness of becoming sin for us, facing the Father’s wrath, and the agony of the cross burdened Him. The devil proposed an easier way (which is what he always does; but there are no shortcuts to glory). Just worship before his face, and all the authority and glory of the kingdoms of this world would be given to Him.
But there’s no glory without the cross. A shortcut to His messianic work would be a detour to destruction. The devil’s offer would turn to ashes, while he jeered with glee.
“Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’ ’” Again, returning to the authoritative word, It stands written, Jesus exposes the devil’s lies. Even if the devil had in mind just a little worship, and even worshiping a lesser god, God’s Word is clear: He alone is to be worshiped and served.
The context in Deuteronomy 6 from which Christ cited, warns of Israel entering into the Promised Land and then slipping into the pattern of worshiping other gods or even combining the worship of the Lord God with other gods. They were to watch themselves, for the tendency of the fallen heart is to drift toward idolatry. The devil offered glory without the cross for worshiping him. Jesus resisted by returning to the declaration of the Word. God has not changed. He alone is to be worshiped.
To by-pass God’s way for the expedient would be to recognize another god and follow his urging. If Jesus would know glory He would find it by the way of the cross. And even for us, any temptation to glory without the cross is merely self-exaltation and self-promotion. The way of God is the way of the cross. You will not know Him or His glory without the crucified Christ.
3. Tempted at the point of His theology, i.e. Sonship without sorrow
Beaten twice with the Word (and probably many more times throughout the 40 day temptation), the devil attempts to use the Word too. But here is his pattern. The devil and his disciples rip a biblical passage from its context. He gives it the meaning that he wants it to have rather than its true meaning, as do the false teachers that he inspires. That’s why we must pay close attention to any reading or teaching of the Word. Does it have its moorings in the historical and theological context? Does it really mean what the speaker implies? That’s why Paul exhorts us to be diligent to present ourselves “approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Jesus faithfully modeled sound interpretation. The devil does not.
At this point Jesus is led to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. Some of the ancient rabbinic teaching stated that the Messiah would reveal Himself at the roof of the temple. So what better way, the devil insists to Jesus, to make a messianic splash than to stand on the wing of the temple and throw Himself down? Even Josephus talked about that area of the temple, that looking down from it into the Kidron Valley, would be dizzying [Geldenhuys, 162].
‘Claim Your title! They are waiting for You! Throw Yourself down! Oh, You have good reason to do so; even biblical reason’: “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You to guard You,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’” ‘See, there it is! What further proof text do You need? You know that the Father cares for You and will take care of You. If the people see it, they will rush to bow before You and follow You in conquering the nations.’
Nice try. But “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’’” Psalm 91, from which the devil quotes, is not about presuming upon God by some foolish action, testing to see if God really cares. Instead, it’s about believing God, trusting Him, seeing Him as your refuge. The care spoken of in Psalm 91 is not for acts of folly but for acts of faith. He preserves His people who trust Him. So Jesus returns again to Deuteronomy 6 (6:16), where Moses warned the Israelites about the folly of presumption in disregarding obedience and God’s way, while expecting His care. God won’t fall for it, so don’t even try.
The devil would have you presume upon God, just as he tempted Jesus to do. You presume when you think that you belong to God while at the same time you’re really living for yourself. You presume when you think you’ll be in heaven when there’s no evidence that you enjoy the worship, service, and joy of heaven in the present. You presume when you think that a religious decision suffices for the way of the cross.
Satan wanted Jesus to shift his theology to avoid the sorrow and suffering that accompanied His Sonship, ultimately leading to the cross. But without Him as “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who was “smitten of God, and afflicted . . . pierced through for our transgressions, . . . crushed for our iniquities,” there would be no forgiveness of sins, no reconciliation to God, and no eternity in heaven (Isaiah 53:3–5).
Jesus triumphed in the temptations, and with every triumph, the cross lay in His sights. And there, the multiplied temptations we have failed to resist, the sins we have committed, He bore the wrath so that we might know the joy of forgiveness. Yes, He was tempted but faithful all the way to the cross.