Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/15/94

Luke 4:1-13

The Temptation of Jesus

Luke 4:1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led about by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended he became hungry. 3 And the devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4 And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'" 5 And he led him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to him, "I will give you all this domain and all this glory, for it is handed over to me and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 Therefore, if you worship before me it will all be yours." 8 And Jesus answered and said to him, "It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord you God and serve Him only.'" 9 And he led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the pinnacle of the Temple and said to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge over you to guard you;' 11 and 'On their hands they will bear you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" 12 And Jesus answered and said unto him, "It is said, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 13 And when the devil had finished very temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Last week we saw Jesus at his baptism, the inauguration of his public ministry, declare himself to be a sin-bearer by identifying with sinful mankind in our baptism" a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. That identification was complete. Not only did he humble himself to be take on our nature and be born in a stable, to bear our sins, and to die our death for us, but he also submitted himself to being "tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). As we saw at the Temple at the end of chapter two, this was not Jesus' first temptation, and it will not be his last. But it was one of the most significant, and therefore I want to draw your attention to seven lessons it has for us.


Why is this event happening in the life of Christ, coming hard on the heels of his baptism? Each of the major characters involved had a reason for being there. For Jesus it was simply obedience, submission to the will of the Father. For verse one says he was led there by the Spirit. Jesus had already set himself on the path that led to Calvary, and if this was another step on that road, so be it. His identification with sinners logically entails the experience of temptation, and it might as well come now as any other time. In fact, God's people have frequently experienced a vulnerability to Satan's assaults that comes right after a great spiritual victory. Christ himself was no exception.

For God the Father, it was a necessary time of testing for his Son. The period of forty days in the he desert reminds us of the forty years of Israel's trial in the wilderness. So the point of it is to test and to prove the depths of the identity with sinners as their sin-bearer that was expressed and approved at the baptism. It was good for this commitment to be confirmed at the outset of Jesus' public ministry in a deeper way than could be achieved merely by a symbolic declaration of intent. Also, Jesus had been sent to undo, to reverse for those with the faith to accept it, the rebellion of the first Adam. Part of that reversal must be enacted here: as Adam yielded to Satan's advances, so Jesus must resist them. In no other way could his identification with us be complete; in no other way could he be one to whom we could come with confidence knowing that he understands all our trials.

For Satan, there was the same motive as for any temptation: malice against God and man. But in this case there was an added reason. It was an attempt to divert Christ from his purpose and thus to protect his own kingdom from the threat which this coming Messiah represented. This will become more evident as we proceed to look at the particular form this temptation took.


To complete his identification with us, Jesus would have to experience a temptation as real as ours are. And at this point a number of people have had a theoretical difficulty with this passage. If Jesus was God and sinless, indeed incapable of sin, how could he be tempted? How could an omniscient mind be tricked? How could an omnipotent will be overcome? How could it be a real temptation unless there was a real possibility of Jesus falling?

The first thing to be noted in response to this problem is that the Bible says Jesus was tempted. So, whether we can explain how it could be so or not, we are required to believe that the temptation was real. But there is more that can be said. While as God Jesus was incapable of sinning, as man he was quite capable, just as Adam was. How Jesus' two natures, the divine and the human, worked together in his one Person is a mystery we can never plumb completely. But we can understand that because Jesus' human nature was real, therefore his temptation was real. The bait that was offered him was attractive to him: to eat when he was hungry, even at the price of abusing his divine power, to (apparently) achieve his mission of liberating the kingdoms of the world from Satan without going through the agony of the Cross. Just spend a few minutes with him in Gethsemane if you don't think that was an attractive proposition. In that the bait was attractive to his human nature, the temptation was real. But because he steadfastly rejected it, he did not fall.

Another point that is often missed is that there was a sense in which temptation was harder for Jesus to bear than it is for us, not easier. I mean emotionally harder to endure, if not harder to resist. Imagine how his sinless and holy soul must have recoiled at the very suggestion of disobedience. We see the strength of his reaction when the temptation comes through Peter. "Lord, far be it from you . . . ." "Get thee behind me, Satan!" Have you ever reacted to a temptation that strongly?

We cannot fully understand it, but we can conclude that this temptation was very real and was a great trial for the Lord. And that leads us to:


There are at least two indications in the text that Jesus' temptation was not only real but also quite rigorous. In the first place, it took place over a period of forty days. What we are given would not have taken forty minutes. In the second place, we notice that Matthew's account has the temptations in a different order. Compared with Luke, he has the last two reversed. What this suggests is not that one of the Gospels is wrong, but that Jesus did not get a simple set of three suggestions in order, one, two, three, and then it was over. What we are given is just a representative sample of the arguments Satan used and the rebuttals Jesus made. All these suggestions and probably more were being constantly intertwined for forty days with such intensity that Jesus did not even stop to eat. He was so preoccupied that he did not even notice his hunger and weakness until the very end. And then, when he is at his weakest, Satan comes in with his final assault.

There is an ironic and instructive contrast here which takes us back to the theme of Jesus as the Second Adam who is reversing or undoing what Adam had done on behalf of the human race so long ago. Adam fell in Paradise under the most ideal conditions; Jesus stood in the wilderness under the most adverse conditions. This tells us at least two things when we come into temptation. First, there is no excuse for us. But second, and more importantly, what a strong Deliverer we have! Nothing we have ever faced compares to what Christ has already overcome. Let us run to him and seek his aid, for he understands what we are going through and in him we are more than conquerors. The victory He won alone here He can win for us now if we flee to him and rest under His protection.


The three appeals Satan tried in our summary of this temptation were both typical of Satan's normal tactics used on all of us and strategically adapted to his particular intended victim, designed to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Father and divert him from his mission.

"If you're really the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Temptation always includes the insinuation of doubt. Are you really the Son of God? Did God really say you would die if you eat the fruit? Faith is the key. You are not going to disobey God as long as you really trust him. You cannot deliberately disobey him while you are consciously trusting him. The two acts are inherently incompatible. So Satan is always trying to cast doubt on some aspect of God's Word. This is something that people who think that the doctrine salvation by faith alone apart from works will lead to moral laxity do not understand. Faith is not just mental assent to a set of formulae; it is an active trust in our heavenly Father. Real faith tends to drive out sin by its very nature. And that is why temptation is always allied with doubt. In Jesus' case, the doubt was very specific: Am I really the Son of God? Do I really believe the Voice that came at my baptism? That is why it would have been wrong for Jesus to turn the stones to bread. Surely it was not wrong for him to eat, and I do not think it was even inherently problematic for him to have supernaturally provided bread for himself. But to do it now, after what Satan had just said, would be an act of unbelief. To need to prove one's Sonship by means of a miracle is by that very act to admit that one is doubting the Father's word. And this Jesus resolutely refused to do.

"See all these kingdoms? Bow down and worship me and they are yours." As with the bread, Satan usually appeals to a legitimate desire. Every good gift comes from above, and every good thing was made by the Father as a gift for us. As C. S. Lewis points out, pleasure is a good thing in itself. Satan is reduced to having to tempt us to take good things in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong amounts, or for the wrong reasons. Jesus had been sent to get those kingdoms. Of course he wanted them. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the way proposed for him to get them was the way of compromise, compromise of his loyalty to the Father as the one true God. And this Jesus resolutely refused.

"If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from the Temple." Satan knows that the half truth is the most effective lie, and so he often quotes Scripture, especially to pious people. "It says right in the Bible that the angels will protect you, so jump!" The passage is Psalm 91:11-12. But Satan leaves out a key phrase: the angels were charged to guard God's servant "in all his ways." They were there to guide his feet in the right paths--and jumping off of the Temple was certainly not one of them. We must not be misled by Scripture quoted out of context or quoted to make a point that is contrary to the message of the whole Bible. Presumption does not become faith just because somebody can tie it to a prooftext!


Jesus' response to Satan's rhetoric can be summed up in one word: "No." But there are lessons for us in how that "no" was said.

In the first place, it is noteworthy that Jesus never stooped to arguing with the devil. He might well have done so. He could have pointed out that the passages had been taken out of context or misapplied, that a fundamental misunderstanding of the Messiah's nature and mission was implied by Satan's suggestions. But Jesus does not do so. Why? Well, what would be the point? It's not as if Satan cares about the truth. He's not going to say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I see that you are right. My mistake. Carry on." He is totally unscrupulous. Even if you won the argument, he would never admit it, but would just go on twisting things to his own advantage. Jesus understood that it is best not to let that game ever get started.

Now, I do not mean to exclude rational argument from the field of ethics. We need to know the Scriptures well enough to spot their misuse, and we must apply our reason in doing so. And there are times when we must think through issues to discern what God's will is, what the right application of his Word is. But there is also a time to recognize that we are not dealing with a teachable adversary, but with one who is not really interested in discussing the issue but rather in persuading us to do something we know we shouldn't be doing. An important key to dealing with temptation is to learn the discern the difference. Rational argument is necessary in dealing with the search for truth. It is worse than useless in dealing with temptation. This means that we must think through the issues rationally and biblically in advance so that we know when we are being tempted and can make the appropriate response for that situation.

And what is the appropriate response? That is the second thing to notice about Jesus' example here. He just said "no." Well, no, it was more than that. He spoke with the authority of command in the words of Scripture. The only answer to Scripture misapplied or taken out of context is Scripture rightly applied in its original meaning. Jesus' answers all boil down to this: "What ever you say, I know on the basis of Scripture already thought through and accepted that God has said not to do this. That is the bottom line. God said not to. And that is all that matters to me."

For us, this is supremely important. Even the Archangel would not give a railing accusation against Satan but said, "The Lord rebuke thee." How much more do we need the power and authority of the Word in dealing with that adversary? Even Christ himself availed himself of it. In the Word of God we too have the authority to say, "No!" and make the answer stick.


Surely one of the most sobering verses in this whole passage is vs. 13: "And when the devil had finished very temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time." Jesus had defeated Satan soundly, but that did not mean that the temptation was over. Even Jesus had only a respite until the attacks of Satan resumed. And these same suggestions resumed in more subtle and painful ways, coming sometimes through people that Jesus loved, including Mary and Peter. We can expect no less. There is no final victory in this life, and pride goeth before a fall. So we need to be ready for a recurrence. There will always be one until we see Christ face to face.


We have seen many ramifications of this story of the Temptation in the Wilderness, but let me re-emphasize three of them in closing. First, the Christian life from beginning to end is a life of spiritual warfare, not of permanent rest and recreation. If this story had been fiction, verse three would have read, "And then, having defeated Satan soundly, Jesus lived happily ever after." It doesn't exactly say that. "And when the devil had finished very temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time." In real life that other ending is coming for believers, but it is not yet. It is coming when we see Him face to face. And not before.

Second, Satan is not defeated by argument but by the authority of God in his Word. That does not mean there is no place for argument, for rational debate and analysis. But it means it needs to happen in advance. The moment of temptation is too late for us to try to think through the issues. It is the very worst time to be doing that, for then reason is most likely to degenerate into rationalization. And so we must prepare for the inevitable temptations beforehand by learning the Scriptures well in context so that we can recognize Satan's lies for what they are and counteract them with the Word.

Finally, and most importantly, we must remember that we have a Savior who can be trusted to be both sympathetic and sufficient. He understands what we are going through, for he has been there. And he is able to deliver, for he has already won the victory himself. He is an example of how to defeat the Enemy, but he is more than that. He is a very present help in time of trouble. And so let us run to the throne of grace when that time comes, with alacrity and joy. For the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world.


"And if the Voice at Jordan really said
    That you were his beloved Son, when on
    Your shoulder came the Spirit--you need bread?
    Just ask!  He'd make a loaf for you from stone.
Now, you were sent to take--I'll not say, 'steal'--
    The kingdoms over which I rightly reign.
    I'm not unreasonable.  Let's make a deal:
    No need for either of us to suffer pain.    
Salvation's (as you know) by faith.  Let's make
    It easy for the people to believe.
    It says right in the Bible you'll not break
    A bone, so jump!   The angels will receive . . ."
Thrice, "No," the only answer Satan heard:
    Three times, the simple power of the Word.  (D.T.W.)

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 9/18/2004 9:15 AM