We cannot discuss the temptations of Jesus without dealing with those he experienced in the wilderness, as described in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. These temptations focused specially on matters that were fundamental to his whole mission on earth. If he had failed here, his whole work would have been undermined. What do we find?
The source of temptation
First of all, we notice the origin of the temptations. The Spirit leads Christ into the wilderness so that he might be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). The devil is permitted to tempt him, as he was allowed to tempt Job. He wants to destroy Jesus. That is Satan’s whole purpose. He wants to ruin Christ’s mission. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:10-13).
Jesus, then, is faced with the devil. This is his enemy. This is the tempter. He would later be tried and tempted by men also, but always lurking in the background of such experiences is the tempter himself. It is not so much the world, as the Prince of this world, that must be overcome (see John 14:30; 16:11).
The nature of temptation
Secondly, we see the nature of the temptations. Why are these particular temptations so significant? Because they are all designed to strike at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Their subtlety lies in the fact that the devil tempted Jesus in relation to things that were true of him, and that were possible for him to do.
The first attack is at the level of self-provision (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:1-2). He was hungry after fasting. Humanly speaking, therefore, he was vulnerable. ‘Make stones into bread’, proposed Satan. Possible? Yes. So why not do it? For this reason. It was an invitation for Jesus to assert his independence from his Father, rather than place total dependence upon God. It was a temptation to perform a miracle merely for his own benefit. Since selfishness is sin, Jesus’ essential sinlessness was under threat.
The second attack was at the level of his purpose (Luke 4:5 ff; Matthew 4:8 ff). This idea was highly plausible because it seemed to provide a shortcut to power over the kingdoms of the world. But these were not Satan’s to give. He is tempting Jesus to possess his rightful inheritance by wrongful means! — That is, without obedience to his Father. It was, moreover, a temptation to idolatry, to worship one who was not God for the sake of personal gain.
Attack three was at the level of his protection (Luke 4:9 ff; Matthew 4:5 ff). To throw himself from the temple roof would be the sort of dramatic act that would attract people’s attention and support. If he were assured of safety, why not do it? After all, the devil’s quotations from Scripture were true, were they not? What was so wrong with this proposal?
It was a potential disaster, for this was not God’s time for a public declaration of Messiahship. This is seen, for example, in John 7:1-9, where Jesus has to resist his brothers’ suggestion that he go up to Jerusalem to do great works. Jesus reminds them that his time had not yet come. Such suggestions were from the domain of evil. It was also, of course, complete presumption. To throw himself from the temple would amount to testing God. All these temptations, therefore, were designed to undermine Jesus’ mission before it began. Yet throughout, he remained completely submissive to his heavenly Father.
How, then, did Christ overcome the temptations? First of all, he is filled with the Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is with him (Luke 4:1). Secondly, he maintains an attitude of worship (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:4,8,12). This is also implicit in his forty days of fasting, which no doubt were accompanied by prayer. Thirdly, he answers the devil directly with the clear Word of God.
Thus the Lord effectively counters Satan. He overcomes his temptations. He puts the devil to flight. As James was to write later, in words true of the temptations in the wilderness: ‘Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you’ (James 4:7). It was not that the devil would stay away. He departed only until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). But at every point Christ overcame, that he might accomplish his purpose and destiny. He remained holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners (Hebrews 7:26). He was indeed tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Lessons for us
What lessons are there for believers from the temptations of the Lord? No doubt, temptation was different for him, since unlike us he did not have a fallen nature which welcomes sin. However, on that very account, his temptations were no doubt even more intense than ours, and he was, after all, tempted in every area in which we may be tempted. The principles and lessons are clear.
We must be aware of the devil and his devices. As he tried to trip up the Lord, so he delights to trip up the Lord’s followers. And we must recognise his power and subtlety. How weak we are! How lacking in awareness of his wiles! How ineffective, often, in resisting his attacks! We must be aware of him and resist him. We must have on all God’s armour: truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer (Ephesians 6:13-20).
We must be people mighty in the Scriptures. See how the Lord used the Scriptures to counter the devil. How familiar he was with the Word of God! How familiar are we with that Word? How much do we have recourse to the Scriptures in our daily walk? We are culpable for failure to know and use the Word of God. Is this a measure of how it has diminished in our estimation?
We must focus on things that are good and godly. John reminds us that all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life — are not of the Father (1 John 2:16). Surrounded by such things, how can we keep our thoughts pure? We may do so by a proper use of meditation. ‘Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things’ (Philippians 4:8).
We must be submissive to God. As Christ was submissive to his Father, so too his people are to be submissive to God. James says, ‘submit to God. Resist the devil’ (4:7). We will not resist the one if we do not submit to the other. How can we hope to resist temptation ourselves, if we are not close to Christ? The Christian is to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18; cf. Luke 4:1). As Paul puts it to the Galatians: ‘Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:16).
We must be people of prayer. The key, no doubt, is the secret place of prayer (Psalm 91; Matthew 6:6). Why are we so powerless today? Why does the devil seem to have such free reign to do his devastating work in the church? God’s people need to be stirred up to Christlikeness, to holy living, to resisting the devil, and to being overcomers of sin and temptation.
It is like this. You cannot score runs at cricket if you are not bowled at. The bowler is trying to get you out, by ferocity or deception. In the same way, in life, the devil throws everything at us. How do we counter him and at the same time bring glory to the name of Christ? We face things with grace and determination: ‘Give me grace to counter Satan’s devices’, we should pray. We also remember what Jesus said to Peter: Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail’ (Luke 22:31-32). In our spiritual warfare we have the support and encouragement of Christ’s own intercession (Hebrews 7:25).
We remember that we have a High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses, and was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Where does this lead us? To a throne (denoting power) of grace (denoting abundant mercy). ‘Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:16). We will not be overcomers without such boldness at the throne of grace. Nor will we be able to resist the devil without the mercy and grace which the Lord will provide in the face of our manifold temptations.