Jesus: The Temptations

Matthew 4 and Luke 4

A foundational doctrine of the Church has always been that Satan does tempt people. Specific answers to fundamental questions concerning temptation can be found in these passages. If we learn the lessons Jesus taught here, we can defeat Satan all the time—every time.

Note that it was right after Jesus’ baptism that He was sent into the desert to fast. He was led from the audible Voice from heaven to the isolation of the desert. His circumstances were God-appointed, but that does not mean that Satan would not confront Him. Although God has not promised that our Christian lives would be free from temptation, He does promise that “greater is He that is within you than he (Satan) that is in the world” (I John 4:4). Although we are born with a carnal nature, we also have the capacity to choose whether or not to sin. 

After the dove descended from heaven to bless Jesus, Satan came up from hell to bash Him. What happened that day in the desert wilderness became the classic example of how to resist any temptation. Although Jesus was tempted throughout these 40 days, it is clear that these three primary temptations took place after this period (Luke 4:1-2). Note that “after being tempted 40 days, He hungered.” Jesus had been fasting. He was physically weak…and it is usually in our weak moments Satan attacks us. If there was ever a chance to defeat Jesus, Satan saw this as his defining moment.

The Word of God proves the presence of a personal devil. Satan is not a figment of our spiritual imaginations. The devil is real. Jesus was not having “hallucinations due to His fasting trauma,” as some liberal theologians believe. In fact, there is no instance of Jesus ever having a dream or a vision in His life. This was reality.

The question is not, “Did Satan come?” but “Why did he come?” Satan always tries to deflect people from their mission in life. Satan knew that the stakes were high. Remember that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into this 40-day fasting period (Luke 4:1). He was doing God’s will—He was “about His Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). But even Jesus Christ Himself was not immune to temptation. 

Some folks ask, “How is it possible for God’s Son to be tempted? Isn’t He all-powerful and free from temptations?” It is very hard for mortal man to conceive of temptation without the possibility of sin. “It’s unfair!” some people say. “Jesus was perfect: humans are not!” Others cry, “It’s not a true contest when the outcome is certain. Jesus had to win!”

But remember that the temptations were not a contest, a competition where the “winner takes all.” Jesus had nothing to prove. He could have commanded the devil to flee at any time, just as we can. The Lord had no need to be baptized in water either, but He did it as an example for us to follow. The Lord allowed the temptations to take place primarily for our benefit, not His own.

Here, once and for all at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus proved that a mature Christian can resist temptation. “He was temped in all points, like we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). These passages from the Word of God give us the principles by which we too can overcome Satan. We can learn Satan’s tactics and not be “ignorant of his schemes” (II Corinthians 2:11).

Concerning temptation, it has often been said that “although you cannot stop a bird from landing in your hair, you can stop it from building a nest there.” This means that just because a temptation enters your mind, you do not have to entertain that thought. It is not a sin to be tempted, but it is only a sin as we yield to that temptation. It is Satan’s mission to cause us to sin and it is our mission to resist him. Because temptations are part of life, Jesus taught us to pray that our temptations may be minimized (Matthew 6:13).

It was necessary in the plan of God that the story of these three temptations be played out before Jesus began His public ministry. What we learn from God must be tested. As with all His ministers, God never elevates a man until He has proven him; but he must survive the trial. By overcoming the temptations of Satan, Jesus showed who the boss was before He did one miracle or taught His first parable. He proved that even in moments of weakness, a person can be more than a match for Satan.

Each of the Synoptic Gospels sheds more light on the temptation scene.  Matthew adds, “Afterwards, the angels came and ministered to Him” (3:11). Mark adds, “and He was with the wild beasts there” (1:12-13). Luke adds, “then the tempter departed from Him for awhile” (4:13).

Note that the last two temptations are reversed as we find them listed in Matthew and Luke. But they are out of order for a reason; for God did not want anyone to think that any of these three was more important than the others. Each one of the three deals with a key weakness in human nature: the carnal appetites, tempting God and compromise.

But what do all three temptations have in common with each other? As we shall see, these three tests represent the only three primary temptations there are. Note that all three contain an “if” clause. Read this passage again, and note the “if” clauses. Satan tries to goad and prod people into action.

<> Pride is the common denominator in all temptations.

<> All three are aimed at trying to dislodge Jesus from His firm commitment to His Father’s will—to deflect Jesus from His mission.

<> All three were answered by Jesus with the Word of God. In each temptation, Jesus told Satan, “It is already written.”

<> All three are the same foundational temptations of the 21st century: food, fame and fortune or pleasure, achievement and possessions.

Jesus was tempted in the physical realm: to eat.
Jesus tempted in the mental realm: to jump.
Jesus was tempted in the spiritual realm: to bow.

And all of Satan’s temptations have these same goals today:

1. To sever your communication with God and alienate you from God by sin
2. To cause you to lose faith in God
3. To cause you to cut off your dependence upon God
4. To shake your faith in God’s Word

Faith in the Word of God is what Jesus wants. That is why He always answered Satan with the words “It is written.” He means to show that God’s Word is established and can be depended upon in any situation we may face. Jesus brought up the Word immediately and so must we.

The Temptation for Self-Gratification

It is interesting that Satan’s first attack was on the stomach. Most Americans are overweight. Although some obesity is gland-related, most fat people just eat too much. The first temptation was, in a word, appetite. Although it is a God-given natural appetite, it must be controlled.

Jesus had been fasting for 40 days. He was hungry. The desire for food was what Satan tempted Eve with also. It seemed a legitimate desire that Jesus would want to eat. But fasting sharpens our desire to communicate with God: it is why we fast. Jesus refused to give in to the normal human desire to eat until He was ready. He controlled Himself.

In a larger sense, the focus of this first temptation represents all desire for personal gratification and pleasure. Many people argue that since appetite is God given, it is normal to eat and to overeat. Following this line of reasoning, since the sex drive is also God given, it would be “natural” to have sex outside of marriage. If a Christian is tempted with immorality, remember that God will supply you with a godly mate in His perfect timing. Satan comes to tempt you to decide for yourself, instead of consulting the Father.

Many temptations can feel very right, but be very wrong. But don’t trade the true diamonds of tomorrow for the junk jewelry of today.

Satan told Jesus, “Since you need food, create it!” But Jesus never did a selfish miracle. When He multiplied the loaves and fishes it was always for others. Besides, can we really believe that Satan cared if Jesus was hungry?

There is another aspect of this temptation we must consider. Jesus trusted the Father to supply His needs in His timing and in His way. If Jesus would have turned the rocks into bread as Satan suggested, it would have shown a lack of trust in the Father’s ability to provide. You will note that Satan did not suggest that Jesus pray to the Father for food, for Satan always seeks to estrange us from the Father. The devil said, “You do it!”  It was more than just a temptation to eat. It was a temptation to limit the Father’s methods of care for His Son. Satan wants you depend on him instead of the Father for your necessities. Jesus taught us to pray to the Father for our daily bread.

Think of ways in which the devil has tempted you to take matters into your own hands instead of placing them in His Hands.

Satan suggested that this was a perfect opportunity to prove that He was God’s Son by turning rocks into bread…but he forgot that God’s Son has nothing to prove. “Just do one selfish miracle! Pamper yourself! You deserve it!” But no one ever glorifies God by obedience to Satan. Such a miracle would have reduced miracles to the level of magical tricks. Just because Jesus could have done it does not mean that He should have done it. He would not yield to any temptation. Jesus brought up the Word of God immediately, reminding Satan that “It is written.” The Word of God is always sufficient to foil the tactics of the devil.

Remember that the Holy Spirit had come upon Jesus just 40 days earlier at His baptism in the Jordan. And because Jesus was filled with the Word of God, He was ready to reply to Satan’s temptations. As we are filled with God’s Spirit and His Word, we too will overcome all the fiery darts of the wicked. Only by consistently studying and memorizing the Scriptures will you desire to put on the full armor of God. Read Ephesians 6:13 to find out why we need to “suit up.”

The Temptation of Presumption

The second temptation Christ faced concerns pride, achievement, ambition, sensationalism, uniqueness and notoriety. Like the other two temptations, this one also concerns Jesus’ confidence in the Father.

Many Jews believed that when Messiah appeared, He would rule from the temple in Jerusalem. Satan apparently took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the southern part of the temple complex overlooking the Kidron Valley—a straight drop of several hundred feet. Satan was not tempting Jesus to commit suicide nor was he trying to “fool” Jesus into taking a fatal leap of faith. Satan suggested that all of Jerusalem would see Him jump and angels would come and catch Him before He hit. Satan here inferred that Jesus should presume upon God’s grace. After all, they were in the Holy City in the Holy Temple, the focal point of all worship of Jehovah. Satan said that angels will appear—a hint that the Father would be glorified if Jesus took Satan’s suggestion. But Satan suggests only those things which will ultimately glorify Satan.

Giving in to Satan’s temptations can occur even in church, for Satan often uses religion for his own ends. Something that seems so right can be so very wrong. All three of these temptations include this same element. Although the temptation may have appeared spiritual, it is actually a misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture. In the Garden of Eden, Satan attempted to twist God’s spoken word to Eve before His Word was ever written.

Satan likes to bend Scripture to suit his own purposes. One of his favorite tricks is to pervert the Word in an attempt to get God’s people to act rashly. Turn to Proverbs 3:6, the verse that Satan misquotes here, and note the phrase that is missing: “in all thy ways acknowledge Him.” Satan left out the part of that verse that deals with faith in God. To have given in to Satan’s temptation would be presumption, not faith. Jesus realized this: so must we.

Many of the so-called “faith” teachings that are popular today also assume that God must act when we take a step of faith. For example, if you give God money, He must give you a lot of money. There are many tele-evangelists today who also attempt to con Christians by quoting only those parts of verses which suit their false doctrines. The “Prosperity Pact” (blab it and grab it) is a classic example of what Paul calls “doctrines of demons” (I Timothy 4:1). Also note that Jesus rejected the temptation to be sensational and to call attention to Himself. Whereas TV evangelists tend to love the limelight, Jesus shunned it. 

In Jesus’ response to Satan, we find that He realized that this “leap of faith” would be presumption, not faith. Besides, the Son of God doesn’t act on Satan’s suggestions, only on His Father’s commands. Satan only wants to bring us up to a high point in order to bring us down.

The Temptation of Greed

The next temptation involves the desire for possessions. Perhaps Satan took Jesus to a mountain from which much of the area of Palestine could be seen. But it is more likely that Satan conjured up a mental picture, for Satan is famous for putting alluring thoughts into our minds. Satan told Jesus that he could give Him everything if only He would worship him. He suggested that he could take better care of Him than the Father could! But Satan’s real goal was to divert and distract Jesus from His mission on Calvary.

After all, isn’t the “American Dream” to have everything for nothing? And isn’t it just like Satan to promise what he cannot deliver? Satan wants you to believe that you can have everything for nothing. This is the temptation of gaming, the hope that you can win big! You can be a millionaire! Like the first temptation, Satan wanted Jesus to depend on him instead of the Father. The promises and deals that Satan tries to make with humans are empty and hollow. His power is very limited. He will only deliver that which leads one away from the Father. When we set our sights on the things of this world and not on the world above, we become short sighted. And tunnel vision always leads to spiritual blindness.

But note the satanic loophole: “If you will worship me.” Satan does not want to bless you: he wants your worship. Read Eve’s encounter with Satan in Genesis and see how Satan questioned and twisted what God had said. Note how ridiculous Satan’s promises are: “If you’ll sin, you’ll have pleasure,” when exactly the opposite is true. Satan promised Jesus power over the nations, something only the Father could give. And in the end, because Jesus obeyed the Father and not the devil, He does rule the nations.
The worship of Satan is not casual. Note that in Deuteronomy 32:17 all heathen worship is linked with devil worship. If we heed God’s Word, Satan’s lies will hold no attraction for us. In this passage, we see how the Word Jesus spoke disarmed Satan completely.  In the end, Satan leaves as a defeated foe.  Read Revelation 12:10.

But while Satan is attacking Jesus, angels are nearby, ready to come and strengthen Him (Mathew 4:11). Revelation 12:9-10 tells us that angels will rejoice when they see Satan cast down to hell to trouble the saints no more.

Satan tries to tell us that we can have the crown without the cross. But Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

Dealing With Temptation

As Jesus defeated Satan with God’s Word, so must we. But human beings continue to succumb to temptations. Check out these common cop-outs:

<> “The temptation was just too great!”
But God’s Word teaches:
“There is no temptation that you can face but those that are common to all men; but God is faithful and will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able to bear. And with any temptation, He will make a way to escape” (I Corinthians 10:12-13).
“Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11).

<> “Even God can’t help me to resist this temptation!”
But God’s Word teaches:
“He is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
“The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation” (II Peter 2:9).
“He is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the Father with great joy” (Jude 24-25).

<> “God understands if I do not resist this temptation, for He put it here!”
But God’s Word teaches:
“Let no man say when tempted, I am tempted by God; but every person is tempted as they are drawn away by their own lusts and enticed” (James 1:13-15).

<> “If no one finds out about it, it isn’t really a sin!”
But God’s Word teaches:
“He that covers his sins will not prosper” (Proverbs 28:13).

<> “My sin is too great for God to forgive!”
But God’s Word teaches:
“If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

<> “I couldn’t help it: the devil made me do it!”
But God’s Word teaches:
“Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

<> “This is a small sin, and not worth resisting!”
Read James 1:12, James 3:5, and James 4:17.

Satan usually comes to tempt us with something we can see or visualize. With Jesus he used temptations like turning stones to bread, the spectacular show of an angelic rescue or owning all the kingdoms of the world. He wants to force us to look hard at the world and thereby distract us from serving God. But the Christian who yields in absolute submission to the will of God holds the keys to the Kingdom of God.

Satan’s temptations always lead to compromise, rationalization, hasty decisions and faulty logic. Satan likes to urge people to sudden, irrational actions. He says, “Do it now!” He doesn’t want you to take time to consider the consequences.

Concerning Satan and temptations, several things should be noted:

<> Satan’s temptations always disagree with sound Bible doctrine. The devil knows the Word of God, proving that Bible knowledge is not an accurate gauge of one’s true spirituality. Jesus effectively used a few selected Scriptures against Satan. He didn’t throw the entire Old Testament at him.

<> Note that Jesus was alone in the desert when Satan came to Him. One chief tactic of Satan is isolationism. He wants to get you away from everyone but himself. Some years ago, a demon-possessed man named Jim Jones led nearly a thousand people to commit suicide in the jungles of Guiana. How? He was able to more effectively brainwash them after he had isolated them from others.

<> Satan doesn’t just want you to sin; he wants to break you so you will become dependent upon him alone. He wants to have total control of your life.

<> Note that Jesus did not carry on a lengthy conversation with Satan. He commanded Him—He didn’t simply remind him. Read I Peter 5:8.

<> We are not to be ignorant about how Satan works (II Corinthians 2:11). So, don’t talk to Satan. Read what God’s Word teaches about him.

<> Jesus did more than just conquer temptation. He conquered Satan himself. Because of this, Satan “goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8). But he is a defeated foe. Only because of Jesus’ complete victory over Satan can we overcome temptations.

<> Remember to “Resist the devil” and he will then flee from you (James 4:7).

Many years ago, a widow of a World War I veteran told me the following story: “Our troops had been fighting for weeks with no time to eat or sleep. My husband was trapped in a foxhole one night. The moon was bright and the enemy was all around them. Hanging over his foxhole was an apple tree filled with luscious apples. Though he was starved, my husband dared not reach up for the fruit. He would have betrayed his position and risked the lives of his men. All night he pondered those apples, but he resisted the temptation. In the early morning light, they began to see the enemy all around them. Our boys got their apples, but only after defeating the enemy.”

<> Temptations can be resisted. It has been well said, “Temptation can ring the doorbell but it is your fault if you let him stay for dinner.”

<> Resisting temptations makes you stronger. It builds your faith so that you can overcome future temptations as well. The world tries to say that a man is weak by not taking what he wants. But God’s Word tells us just the opposite. Giving in to temptation makes you weaker not stronger. You build muscles by swimming against the current, not by drifting downstream. God will use your successful attempts in resisting temptation to build your character.

<>We should take heart from these passages. Jesus overcame temptations and so can we. When these three temptations were over, angels came and comforted Jesus (Matthew 4:11). Although God may not send angels to you, He wants you to know that you are not alone, and that He will bless us as we resist temptations. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” After reading how Jesus overcame the devil, we can see why. The story of the temptations were not recorded for Jesus’ benefit nor for Satan’s, but for our benefit.

<> The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. The Father knew that He would face temptations there. But God only sent Jesus there after He had been filled with the Holy Spirit. By doing so, Jesus showed us our need to be Spirit filled in order to resist temptations. In the Great Commission (Mark 16:17), Jesus told us we will be able to cast out devils. But this same verse also promises that we shall speak with new tongues. Thus victory over Satan is linked to Holy Spirit baptism. Don’t try to handle satanic temptations in your own power. Jesus didn’t. 

<>To abolish Satan’s kingdom was only one part of Jesus’ mission. He showed us and He taught us how to live victorious Christian lives. If you try to fight the devil in your own strength, you might get a “demon-stration.” In these passages, we are taught that God has left us no place to run—except to His Word. It is the only safe place to learn the path to victory.

Maxim of the Moment

Love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener.