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Christ Tempted in the Desert


1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting for forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. 3The tempter came to Him and said, "If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."

4Jesus answered, "It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If You are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: `He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give You," he said, "if You will bow down and worship me."

10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'"

11Then the devil left Him, and angels came and attended Him.


Jesus had just experienced a great spiritual triumph. As He emerged from the waters of baptism, "He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, `This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased'" (Matt. 3:16-17). In this chapter, right after His great spiritual triumph, Jesus faces a great spiritual challenge. This seems to be a general rule. It happens to all of us. "[S]o it often is, that after sweet communion with God in His ordinances, after large discoveries of His love and interest in Him, follow sore temptations, trials, and exercises."[1] This teaches us that, following spiritual triumphs, we must be especially on our guard against the tempter. It is at those times that the devil wants most to cut us down, so as to negate any edification we received from our spiritual triumph. In Jesus' case, the devil (firstly) wanted to shake Jesus' confidence that He was truly the Son of God after the Father had declared it to be so. And so, the devil begins his temptings with the phrase: "If You are the Son of God. . ." Then also, as we shall see, the devil wanted to cause Jesus to use improperly His office as the Son of God, thereby causing the Father to no longer be "well pleased" with Him.

Surprisingly, "Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted in the desert" (vs. 1). This same Holy Spirit who just descended upon Jesus after the waters of baptism, now leads Jesus into the desert "to be tempted". Why would the Holy Spirit do this? "Sharp temptations, as they often follow seasons of high communion, so are they often preparatives for the highest work."[2] The motive of the Spirit was constructive: to prepare Jesus for His coming arduous ministry. Jesus was to spend the next three years "on the road", so to speak. His ministry would be very demanding physically. What better preparation for this than forty days of fasting in the desert. Moreover, the ultimate goal of Jesus' ministry was His sacrifice on the cross. This was the main reason He came to earth. Throughout His life, He would be tempted to forego His sacrifice (most notably, see Matt. 16:22-23; Matt. 27:40). Here in this episode, Jesus is tempted in this same way in the third temptation as preparation for the future temptations. His resistance of this temptation will strengthen Him for the resistance He will need throughout His life on earth.

There is yet another constructive reason that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. This is, as the writer of Hebrews explains it, so that Jesus "might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service of God" (Heb. 2:17). Jesus, by becoming a man and (so to speak) walking in the shoes of a man, now has sympathy for the struggles that we face day to day. "Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb. 2:18). We can be comforted by this fact, as we are tempted, and we can be emboldened in prayer by the fact that Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb. 4:15-16).

And so we see, there were many constructive reasons that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. The motive of the devil in tempting Jesus was, on the contrary, destructive. Whereas the Holy Spirit desired to strengthen Jesus through the temptings, the devil desired to destroy Jesus and His ministry. Thus, we are hereby taught that there are two types of temptings or testings. There are constructive temptings, those that have the purpose of strengthening the one being tempted. And then there are destructive temptings, those that have the purpose of destroying the one being tempted. Throughout the Bible, we have many examples of constructive temptings sent by God. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac to strengthen his trust in God; the Israelites were tested in the desert to strengthen them as a nation; Job was sorely tested by trials to strengthen his faith; etc. Many times, the devil is present at these constructive temptings with the motive of destroying the one being tempted. Though combined with the constructive temptings of God, such temptings by the devil are evil. It is the intent of the temptings that determine the goodness or evil of them.

So two principles are at work. God at times leads us into situations in which we will be tempted. The devil actively seeks to tempt us. The conclusion we can draw from this is that, yes, we will face much temptation in this life. We should not be surprised, dismayed or discouraged by this. "Deep is the disquietude which many Christians suffer from finding themselves subject to internal temptations to sin, both continuous and vehement. It staggers them to find that, without any external solictations, they are tempted so frequently, and at times so violently, that as by a tempest they are ready to be carried away, and in a moment make shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience. Surely, they think, this can only be accounted for but by some depth and virulence of corruption never reached by the grace of God, and inconsistent with that delight in the law of God after the inward man which is characteristic of His children. But here we see, the holy One of God, an example of solicitations to sin purely internal, for aught that we can perceive, continued throughout the long period of forty days."[3] To experience temptations is not evil. Even our sinless Lord faced temptations.

"After fasting for forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry. The tempter came to Him and said, `If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread'" (vss. 2-3). In preparation for His ministry, Jesus spent "forty days and forty nights" in prayer and fasting. Fasting is a good accompaniment to serious prayer and meditation. It focuses our minds on the providence of God. Through fasting, we realize just how much God has given to us. Jesus' fast was a total food fast (Luke tells us that Jesus "ate nothing"), and not just a day fast (Matthew explicitly tells us that the fast was "forty days and forty nights"). I have heard that after the first few days of fasting, it becomes easier to fast for awhile. Then, right around forty days, the hunger becomes unbearable. It is this hunger that, I believe, Matthew is referring to when he says, "[Jesus] was hungry".

It was at this time that "the tempter" came to tempt Jesus. "The tempter" was none other than Satan himself (see vs. 10). Make no mistake. Satan is a real being. He is an evil being. I do not think we should jest about the devil; he's too dark a being. We should not dress up like him at costume parties. He should not be a lovable comic character in our movies. We should not use him as a mascot at our high schools.

The devil is a sly being. He waited until Jesus was at His weakest before he confronted Jesus with the full force of his temptations. He was sly also in that his temptation of Jesus was subtle: "If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." On the face of it, what would be wrong with Jesus turning the stones into bread? There is nothing in the law of God that forbids the turning of stones into bread, is there? However, for Jesus, to turn the stones into bread would be to forego His mission of living as a man on earth. We men cannot turn stones into bread when we are hungry. We must depend upon the providence of God for our bread. So also Jesus, in order to live as a man, must also depend on the Father for providence, just as men do; and so He must not use His power as the Son of God for His own comfort. To do so would have threatened the validity of His mission on earth. He came to earth to live as a man to be an example of how men should live. If He used His power for His own comfort, He would not be living as a man, and so we would not be able to use His life as an example for us.

So, the essence of this first temptation is that the devil was trying to get Jesus to use improper means, means contrary to the will of God, to get His sustenance. And though we are not tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, are not we also tempted many times in a similar way? "The prime temptation of millions, though they often realize it not, is to use improper means of making their bread."[4] Jesus was not to use His special gifts to satisfy the desires of His flesh. So also we should be careful to use our God-given gifts to primarily serve the Lord, not ourselves.

Jesus answers the devil by quoting the Word of God: "It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (vs. 4). The thrust of Jesus' answer is that, yes, our daily bread is important, but obedience to God, obedience even to "every word that comes from the mouth of God", is most important. As stated above, for Jesus to turn stones into bread would have been against the will of God, because Jesus was sent to live as a man on earth. Jesus in answering the devil was quoting from the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses in that passage was encouraging the Israelites to obey the Word of God, teaching them that to do so was more important than seeking sustenance for themselves because it is from God's hand that sustenance comes. Moses told them: "Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:2-3).

As we shall see, to withstand the temptations of the devil, Jesus each time quotes from the Word of God. This is a great testimony to the divine authority of the Bible. Notice that throughout His life on earth, Jesus treated the Old Testament as truth, as the holy Word of God. In this passage, we learn that the chief weapon that we can use to resist the devil is the Word of God. The Word of God is the "sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17). But to use the Word of God, we must read and know the Word of God.

Also, each time Jesus quotes from the Word of God to resist these temptations, He quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. More specifically, He cites commandments that were given to Israel while they were in the wilderness for forty years. This suggests that the forty years in the desert for the Israelites were typical of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert. Both the Israelites and Jesus came through the waters into a new life (Israel through the Red Sea; Jesus through the waters of baptism), and then were led by the Spirit of God to be tested in the desert. Israel, of course, failed their testings over and over. By contrast, Jesus resisted the temptations and passed the test.

"Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. `If You are the Son of God,' he said, `throw Yourself down. For it is written: "He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone"'" (vss. 5-6). In the first temptation, the devil was trying to get Jesus to improperly use His own powers to turn stones into bread, rather than waiting upon the providence of God. Here, the devil is trying to get Jesus to improperly use the providence of God. To reenforce his temptation, the devil even quotes the Word of God from Psalm 91:11-12. In that Psalm, the Psalmist is teaching us of the protection that God provides those who "make the Most High [their] dwelling" (Ps. 91:9). The devil leaves out a portion of the verses that he is quoting. The passage reads: "For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone" (Ps. 91:11-12). The devil omits the phrase "to guard you in all your ways". This phrase suggests that the protection of God is upon those who happen into danger in the normal course of "[their] ways" as they dwell in the Most High. This passage in no way suggests that we should go out of our way to put ourselves in danger so as to require the protection of God.

To resist the devil's temptation, and to refute his use of the Word of God, Jesus again quotes from Deuteronomy: "It is also written: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test'" (vs. 7). Jesus uses a clear command of God to refute a suspect application of a promise of God. This command is clear. We are not to put ourselves in a situation that forces God's supernatural hand of protection. This is to test the Lord. The original command was made to the Israelites concerning their "testing" of God at Massah: "Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah" (Deut. 6:16). At Massah, a thirsty mob of Israelites demanded that God supernaturally supply water for them as proof that He was still with them (see Ex. 17:1-7). For Jesus to hurl Himself off the pinnacle of the temple would be a blatant "testing" of God, forcing a supernatural deliverance of His Son.

The seduction of this temptation lies in the fact that the spectacle of the angels supernaturally saving Jesus as He hurled Himself off the pinnacle would draw attention to all the onlookers that Jesus was specially sent from God. Would not this be an effective way to get the people's attention? Would not the people be more apt to listen to the teachings of Jesus if they saw the angels supernaturally protecting Him? Maybe. But Jesus did not want His ministry to be based upon spectacle, but rather He wanted His ministry to be based on the teaching of the Word of God. Jesus wanted substance not spectacle. Many ministers of the Word of God today would do well to follow this example: more substance, less spectacle.

Here, the devil tempted Jesus to test God by doing the spectacular. The devil also uses the same temptation upon us, but in a more "ordinary" way. He does not take us to the pinnacle of the temple, but he tempts us to demand God's supernatural protection. For example, Christian Scientists who refuse to take their children to the doctor for treatment are improperly putting God to the test. It is to improperly put God to the test if we expect the supernatural work of God when ordinary means are available to achieve the same ends. It is pride that leads us into this temptation. We don't want to say, "Well, I took my son to the doctor. He was given medicine and the Lord worked through the medicine to heal him." No, we would (in our own pride) rather say, "Oh, I laid my hands on my son and prayed over him and God supernaturally healed him." We, in our pride, desire to display our own "spirituality" by bragging about how God supernaturally intervenes for us. "Preservation in danger is divinely pledged: shall I then create danger, either to put the promised security sceptically to the proof, or wantonly to demand a display of it?"[5]

Another thing that this passage teaches is that the Word of God can very easily be improperly used. "One of the subtlest and sometimes mightiest forms of temptation to a devout mind is the misapplication of Scripture, so as to give apparent warrant for doing what we incline to. We need not only to know the language of Scripture, but to understand the real meaning and legitimate application. A great aid in this is to compare other passages, as our Lord here does."[6] Be careful! Even the devil quotes Scripture! "But what is this I see? Satan himself with a Bible under his arm and a text in his mouth!"[7] To discern true application of the Word of God, we must compare Scripture with Scripture. And to compare Scripture with Scripture, we must study so that we know the whole counsel of God.

"Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. `All this I will give You,' he said, `if You will bow down and worship me'" (vss. 8-9). First, this temptation begs the question: How can Satan offer the kingdoms of the world to Jesus? Are they his to offer? Later, Jesus calls Satan the "prince of this world" (see John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and Paul calls him the "god of this age" (see II Cor. 4:4). Mankind through sin has, for the most part, pledged its allegiance to Satan. And so, when Satan took Jesus "to a very high mountain" and supernaturally[8] showed Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor", these kingdoms were truly Satan's to offer.

The condition for giving Jesus all the kingdoms of the world was physically very easy to do: just "bow down and worship" Satan. However, the consequences would have been very farreaching, for to worship Satan is to ally oneself with the enemy of God. One might ask, "Why would Jesus even consider worshipping Satan? Why was this a temptation to Him?" The reason that this was a temptation at that time was that the path that God had laid out for Jesus was a difficult one. In order for the Father to set His Son at His right hand, Jesus would have to endure the cross. Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut. Satan was offering Jesus the reign of the earth for just the cost of bowing down to him. Jesus could have the allegiance of the world, without having to endure the suffering of the cross.

Yes, Satan's way is easier, but the consequences of it are dire. For Jesus to have taken Satan's way would have meant death for all men. It would have also meant that Jesus would have been forever separated from His Father. This would have been unbearable for Jesus. Recall Jesus' cry of anguish when He was separated from the Father for just moments: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). And it is always the case that Satan's way is easier for the present, but the consequences are dire. To choose Satan's way is to live a life for oneself, thinking only of satisfying one's own desires. To choose Satan's way is to live without any concern for the commandments of God. To choose Satan's way is to be free from service and obedience to God. But of course, the consequence of choosing Satan's way is death: eternal separation from God. It is to cry forever: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"

Jesus could very easily have chosen the quick, easy way to gather a following. To bow down to Satan would have meant instant adoration of the masses. A whole world of people would have been His followers. Many ministers of the Word of God are tempted in this today. They think they must use worldly means and tactics to gather a following. They rationalize their worldly methods by saying, "Well, to help people, I need a large following." But the consequence of using these worldly means in the ministry is a dead, compromised ministry, a ministry that leads people, not to the truth of God, but to the ways of the world.

It is our salvation that Satan is attacking here. If Jesus had bowed down and worshipped Satan and was thereby given reign of the world, He could have founded the largest, most successful religion the world has ever known. However, our salvation would have been lost. If Jesus had never endured the cross, we could never be reconciled to God. Again, it is our salvation that Satan is attacking here. And he has continued to attack our salvation throughout history by setting up false religions. Satan continues to set up religions that bypass the cross. The Mormons, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists offer the world, but ignore the true salvation that is only found through Jesus Christ's work on the cross.

Jesus once again uses the Word of God to resist the temptation: "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only'" (vs. 10). The result of Jesus' resistance to temptation was that "the devil left Him" (vs. 11). This is always the result of resistance to temptation, as James taught: "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7). Satan and his allies are not omnipresent. If you resist him, he will flee from you and go to more fertile ground for his temptations. The easiest way to be rid of your temptations is to resist them.

One other result of Jesus' resistance and victory in the desert was that "angels came and attended Him" (vs. 11). May the Lord be praised that we have the gift of these unseen beings, the angels, who are "ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14).




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