The Essential Jesus: His Life & Teaching

The Temptation of Christ

Matthew 4:1-10

Teaching t10169

Introduction

We are four weeks into our series on “The Essential Jesus”—focusing primarily on Jesus’ 3+ year public ministry as reported by the four New Testament gospels. We might expect that after being introduced through his baptism, Jesus would plunge immediately into public teaching, healing, etc. But before he could do this, God led him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan in the wilderness (read Matt. 4:1 and Mk. 1:12, noting emphasis on God’s initiative).

Why was it necessary for Jesus to be tempted by Satan? There are actually many biblical answers to this question1--but I want to focus on the reason most applicable to you and me. Jesus had to be tempted so he could be a source of help for us when we are tempted (read Heb. 2:18; 4:16). One of the ways he helps us is by exposing how Satan tempts us. While the specifics of Jesus’ temptations are very different from ours, we will see that the root temptations are exactly the same. Not only this--Jesus’ temptations also correspond to the kinds of temptations we face in different stages of spiritual development. Let me show you what I mean . . .

“Turn these stones into bread”

Read 4:2. This does not mean that Jesus had a bionic digestive system that could fast 40 days before he felt some hunger pangs. It means that after 40 days he began to be racked by starvation pains—his digestive system began to digest live tissue.

Evidently God the Father had instructed Jesus not to eat until further notice. Read 4:3 (“Since you are the Son of God . . .”). Satan, taking note of 3:17, challenges Jesus to use his divine authority to save himself from starvation. This temptation (like all temptations) implicitly slanders God (diabollos): The root temptation is: “God doesn’t care about your needs—so you’d better take matters into your own hands!”

This is the significance of Jesus’ reply (read 4:4). His point is that trusting God’s Word is a higher priority than any other need—because only in this way will our needs be properly met.

Jesus is quoting from Deut. 8:3. The context of this situation has significant parallels to Jesus' (see Ex. 16:1ff). The nation of Israel was also in the midst of a wilderness because they were following God’s will for them. No sooner did they begin to get hungry than they desired to “go back to Egypt.” This was their way of taking matters into their own hands to meet their needs. But God told them to keep following him in the wilderness and trust his promise to meet their food needs in his way. He did this for forty years by giving them manna. By quoting this passage, Jesus is saying that trusting God's promise to care for him is more important (and more secure) than miraculously making dinner for himself.

This is the most basic form of temptation, one to which we should all be able to relate. We are very needy creatures. We need physical sustenance, relational closeness, significance through accomplishment, security, etc. God, who created us with these needs, calls us to a love-trust relationship with him in which we rely on his Word to define our needs and tell us how God will meet them. Satan tells you this is madness, and urges you to meet your needs and make your life work independently from God. Can you recognize this temptation in your own life?

This is Satan’s main tactic to distract you from ever coming to Christ. He just keeps drawing attention to your many needs—and dishing up different ways for you to meet them without entrusting yourself to God. He has an endlessly varied array to keep you from ever realizing your deepest need. Have you come up empty long enough that you’re ready to admit that this doesn’t work (Prov. 14:12)? Are you ready to come to the only One who can properly define and meet your needs? (Isa. 55; Jn. 6)

This is also Satan’s main tactic for de-railing Christians from growing in Christ. When you come to Christ, God experientially shows you his love. But before long, he “kicks you out of the cradle” by allowing you to experience need. This is so that your faith will grow as you trust God’s Word and then experience his provision. But many young Christians instead decide to “go back to Egypt” by meeting their needs in the old ways. Tragically, many true Christians never get out of spiritual babyhood because of this. Satan will keep coming back to these until you overcome them by trusting God in these areas!

If you learn to combat this form of temptation by learning to trust God’s Word, Satan will throw a more subtle temptation at you . . .

“Throw yourself down from the temple”

Read 4:5. This probably refers to the wing of the Temple that overlooked the steep cliff down into the Kidron Valley—certain death for anyone who fell or leapt.

Read 4:6,7. What a fascinating contrast to the previous temptation! In the first temptation, the challenge was to abandon trust in God by disobeying his Word. Having failed through that avenue, Satan now challenges Jesus to demonstrate his trust in God by acting on his Word. (What a way to begin his ministry!) What’s going on here?

Satan is misusing Scripture. Ps. 91 promises God’s protection for his Messiah as he follows God’s ways. The time would come when God would call on Jesus to lay down his life--and he promised that he would deliver him from death. But that time had not yet come. Satan was twisting God’s promise into a license for unauthorized risk. Had Jesus followed Satan’s suggestion, he would (probably) have plunged to his death because it was not God’s will for him to risk his life in this way/time.

This is why Jesus quotes Deut. 6:16, which warns against “putting God to the test” (read 4:7). During the Exodus, God promised to provide for the Israelites in the desert. But at Meribah they “tested the Lord” by demanding water now--or they would decide that “he is not among us.” In his mercy, God provided water--but he was grieved by their attitude and warned them against this untrusting, infantile attitude. And when they persisted, he disciplined them.

So the root temptation is: “You can misuse God’s promises to get what you want.” This temptation is especially effective against zealous but immature Christians. Using scripture in this way appears spiritual, but it is not trusting in God so we can serve him—it is turning God into our Butler and his Word into a list of magical incantations through which we try to manipulate God to fulfill our agenda. Can you recognize this form of temptation?

We’ve got a whole army of HEALER-DEALERS who use this to lead astray against zealous but ignorant and immature Christians. “You can have health and wealth if you pray in Jesus’ name and have enough faith.” But to pray “in Jesus’ name” means to pray for what God has promised in order to advance his will--not to get what we want. What a diabolical perversion of this promise! Those who fall into it reap painful consequences--and (more importantly for Satan) tarnish God’s reputation.

But we don’t need false teachers to fall prey to this temptation. Have you ever rationalized walking into sexually tempting situations by saying “God says he will protect me from sin” (1 Cor. 10:13, but 1 Cor. 6:18)? I sometimes deal with college student Christians who rationalize not looking for work by saying “God says he will provide for my material needs” (Matt. 6:33, but 1 Thess. 4:11,12). Have you ever justified choosing a path you knew violated God’s will by saying, “But God will work all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28a, but 8:28b)? God is under no obligation to respond, and he usually lets us reap the consequences of our spiritualized disobedience so we will learn to seek his will instead of our own. Besides, when we commit ourselves to God’s will, the result will be better than what we wanted (Rom. 12:2b).

If you learn to combat this form of temptation, Satan will move on to an even more subtle form of temptation . . .

“Bow down and worship me”

Read 4:8. This was probably a vision, because no mountain on earth is high enough to see all the kingdoms of the world. Luke adds that he showed this “in a moment of time”—probably because their glory is so superficial that it wouldn’t stand close scrutiny! Read 4:9. Why did Satan do this? Because he knows that, as the Messiah, Jesus has come to attack his kingdom and forcibly re-establish God’s authority over the earth.

What is the temptation? Essentially, it is a deceptive offer to surrender without a fight, to accomplish God’s will without having to suffer. The original language implies that Satan is demanding only a one-time, private act of worship (“Only this once! No one will know!”). And because Jesus knew what it would cost him to re-establish God’s kingdom, this must have been a more tempting offer than we can ever imagine!

So the root temptation is: “You can achieve God’s ends without suffering by compromising his means.” But Jesus rejected this offer (read 4:10). He knew that it was not only idolatry, but that it was (like all of Satan’s suggestions) a lie. Had Jesus accepted this offer, he would have become Satan’s slave just as Adam and Eve had—because to obey God’s enemy in anything is to accept his authority and come under his cruel dominion. No Crown without the Cross!

This form of temptation is especially dangerous for committed Christian workers. We are committed to God’s goals—bring people to Christ, helping Christians to grow, multiplying churches, developing leaders, etc. We want God’s goals—but we also want to avoid the suffering that it will cost us to attain those goals. So Satan will suggest in various ways that we can cut this corner and still be fruitful workers. EXAMPLES:

“You can bring people to Christ without talking about unpopular ideas like sin, repentance, Jesus as the only way to God, etc.”

“You can become a fruitful worker without undergoing painful discipline by God.” (contra Jn. 15:2; Heb 12:4-11)

“You can be effective in Christian leadership without being honest about your problems and sins.”

“You can develop spiritual leaders without the costly investment of personal mentoring.” In rapid-growth situations, it’s easy to fall prey to cutting this corner. When burned by disciples, it’s easy to want to avoid this.

There was no way Jesus could save humanity except through suffering. Thank God he refused to cut corners! And there is no way to serve Jesus effectively that does not involve suffering. But the benefits are more than worth it!

Conclusion

Let’s not miss one more important lesson in this passage about temptation: Our main weapon against temptation is knowing God’s Word!

Why was Jesus victorious in discerning and rejecting Satan’s temptation? Because he knew God’s Word! Spiritual warfare is not Hollywood! It is Satan’s lies versus God’s truth. That’s why Jesus did not say “I think”--he said “It is written.” And Jesus learned God’s Word in the same way we learn it—not by “switching on his omniscience,” but by reading it, memorizing it, meditating on it, etc.

Likewise, Paul says that our key offensive weapon in spiritual battle is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). “Word” here is rhema, which means the utterance of God’s Word, applying it to specific situations. Paul undoubtedly got this image from this event in Jesus’ life.

Here is one of the many reasons why it is so important to get into the Bible daily for yourself! Living in the environment of God’s Word will give you the spiritual acuity to recognize temptation for what it is (Heb. 5:13,14). And it will build spiritual knowledge that the Spirit can recall to counteract Satan’s temptations (Ps. 119:104,165). Why not start reading God’s Word daily with a friend?

Footnotes

1 Because the real battle was with Satan (1 Jn. 3:8), it was fitting for Jesus to start by facing him. Because Jesus is the second Adam (Rom. 5:19), it was necessary for him to choose obedience to God over rebellion suggested by Satan. Because Jesus was the new Moses leading a greater Exodus, it was necessary for him to be tested in the wilderness for 40 days.

Copyright 2005 Gary DeLashmutt