The Temptations of the Lord

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record our Lo/d’s temptations in the wilderness. All three make it clear that the Holy Spirit was responsible for Jesus being in the place of temptation. Jesus was “led” (Matthew and Luke) and “driven” (Mark) into the wilderness. He did not, that is, expose Himself deliberately to the attack of the enemy. Consistent with the prayer which He taught His disciples, Luke 11. 4, it would not have been proper for Him to have courted battle. Nevertheless, it was in God’s will for Him to be tested. This testing is presented as being the express intention of the Spirit: “to be tempted”, Matt. 4. 1. The temptations appear to have lasted throughout the forty days, Mark 1.13. Our attention, however, is directed only to the three great (and, doubtless, crowning) ex-amples at the end of the period.

Temptation 1. "If thou be the Son of God … bread”. The devil was fully aware of our Lord’s status as the Son of God. No less certainly did he know that our Lord Himself was conscious of it also, Luke 2. 49; 3. 22; and later, 4. 41. He raised the point only to use it as an argument to seek to persuade Christ to act.

From every angle the temptation seemed so reasonable. “If stones can be changed even into children of Abraham, Luke 3. 8, surely, as Son of God, You are capable of changing them into bread!”. On a purely natural plane, hunger can furnish a very powerful motive to action. Many grossly inhuman acts are recorded of so-called civilized peoples when faced with extremities of hunger. The Lord Himself a man, felt hunger as keenly as any other. In the devil’s favour also was the fact that there seemed to be nothing illicit with making bread. In these directions lay much of the plausibility of the first temptation.

The real issue was, however, whether Christ could be persuaded to act in a way independent of the Father. In the face of His extreme need, would He choose His own will at the expense of God’s will? Jesus replies: “Man shall not … mouth of God”. With each of the three temptations, Jesus meets Satan with a well-chosen text of Scripture. This quotation, taken from Deuteronomy 8. 3, is singularly apt. The nation of Israel had been brought up out of Egypt, had been baptized, 1 Cor. 10. 2, and then led by God into a desert where they had remained for some forty years. In that desert Israel both hungered and were “proved”, Deut. 8. 2, 3. Israel’s Messiah trod in detail the very same road, Matt. 2. 19 to 4. 2.

Christ points out that one of the great lessons that Israel had been taught in the desert was that the Source of bread (and obedience to His word) was more important than bread itself. Jesus had received no word from God about making stones into bread. His Father’s word was of greater importance to Him than bread. The Lord asserts His continued trust in God.

The opening word of Christ’s quo-tation is interesting, “Man shall not . , . .”. Satan had started with, “If thou be the Son of God …”. Jesus seems to reply, “I do indeed acknow-ledge that I am the Son of God but would point out that I am also now ‘found in fashion as a man’, Being such, I am subject to and dependent upon God”. We can compare John 5. 19, 30, 36 and John 12. 49.

Temptation 2 (following Mat-thew’s order). The Lord had just openly asserted His faith and trust in God. “All right”, the devil seems to say, “then prove it. If You trust Him so fully, then You will not fear to place Your life in jeopardy. Indeed, You have His specific promise to protect You–cast Yourself down”. Satan demonstrates his versatility and attacks from the opposite direction in no time at all. When fighting, his foot-work is superb!

"The promise to which you refer is indeed true”, Christ replies, “but one is not entitled to misuse God’s word to justify creating unnecessary danger for oneself. That would mean deliberately putting God to the test. It would not be trust but presumption. There is a vast difference between faith and folly. A second text of Scripture must qualify the one you have quoted: ‘It is written again’, Israel once sought to put God to the test at Rephidim by insisting upon some form of miraculous evidence of His pre-serving care. The Scripture warns others against making the same kind of mistake; you shall not tempt the Lord your God, as you tempted Him in Massah”, Deut. 6. 16; Exod. 17, especially v. 7.

It will be noticed from the second temptation that it was not the know-ledge of Scripture that distinguished the Lord from Satan. Satan can also say, “It is written’. The basic differ-ence lay in that Christ not only knew Scripture–He obeyed it! His victory did not consist in knowing that the law forbad tempting God : it consisted in submitting to that law and in refusing to tempt Him. It should also be observed that in His reply to the first temptation Jesus had balanced the truth of His divine Sonship with that of His humanity. In His reply to the second temptation He balances God’s promise with God’s command. May God save all of us from partial and one-sided views of His truth.

Temptation 3. Finally, in the third temptation, the devil entirely discards his mask. Whereas previously he had subtly avoided all reference to himself, he now openly attracts attention to himself, “… will / … worship me”. He offers Christ the world’s kingdoms in exchange for His homage. Satan has successfully baited millions of men with earthly ambition. He utterly fails with Jesus. Luke points out that he showed the Saviour “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time”. This may suggest that he presented Him with a mental picture of kingdoms not even present then. “The god of this world” lays claim to them as his; see 2 Cor. 4. 4; Eph. 2. 2; John 12. 31.

As Satan has now dropped his mask, Jesus in His reply expressly names him and dispels him with the two words of Deuteronomy 6. 13. Moses had refused the treasures of Egypt, Heb. 11. 26; Christ refused the whole world. The Lord would not receive sovereignty over the world on the devil’s terms. In God’s purpose Gol-gotha lay between Him and the dominion of the earth. The cross pre-cedes the crown. God’s way was more costly, but it was the way that He would go!

Luke remarks that the devil “had ended all the temptation” {lit, "every temptation"). Satan had exhausted all his ammunition. He had held nothing back and it had availed him nothing. Truly, the prince of this world had nothing in Him, John 14. 30. Satan’s fierydartsfailedtodiscoverany combustible material.

The temptations now over, God sends His celestial waiters to provide His Son with the food that He had refused to supply on His own intiative, Matt. 4. 11.

The whole incident of our Lord’s temptations contrasts well with that of Adam and Eve. Our first parents fell by loosening their grip on God’s word, Gen. 3. 1-6. They fell in a splendid garden, with no need to feel one pang of hunger, 2. 16. Having sinned, angelic beings were sent by God to stop them eating–of the tree of life, 3. 24. Jesus refused steadfastly to move in the least degree from the word of God, He met the tempter in a desert, among wild beasts, Mark 1. 13, and not having partaken of food for forty days or nights. Having con-quered, angels were dispatched by God to provide Him with something to eat. Glorious Saviour! “In all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin”, Heb. 4. 15.

Luke notes that, following the temptations, Satan left the Lord “for a season’. In the third Gospel the adversary’s next specifically recorded assault is in chapter 22. Satan is mentioned in connection with the trial of the apostles, v. 31. Luke also reports in that passage the saying of Jesus at Gethsemane concerning “the power of darkness”, v. 53, with its rather sinister and diabolic overtones. It is interesting to compare the wilder-ness temptations with Gethsemane. In the wilderness the one common factor in each of the three temptations was the issue of whose will should reign–God’s will or Jesus’ own. Would the Lord await the time, will and good pleasure of His Father with regard to His food? Would He, in a spectacular manner, “suddenly come to his temple”, Mai. 3. 1, and so compel Israel to receive Him then? Or would He meekly await His Father’s purpose? Would He seek to accelerate God’s will for Him in obtaining the kingdoms of the world by improper means? In brief, would He rest in dependence on God’s will or choose His own?

Gethsemane raised again the same issue in immediate prospect of His passion. According to Matthew’s gospel, three times again He makes selection of the Father’s will in prefer-ence to His own will, Matt. 26. 39, 42, 44. Our Lord has left us an example. We ought truly to borrow an arrow from David’s quiver and pray, “Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God”, Psa. 143. 10.


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