Jesus is Tempted, Part 1
Do you remember your first temptation? When something bad was dangled in front of your face and you had to choose to take it or leave it? Do you remember your first clash of desire?
Do you remember your most recent temptation? The last time that something bad was dangled before you, and you really wanted it but knew that you shouldn’t take it?
How did that go for you? What was that like? Who won that round?
Temptation is universal, isn’t it? We all know it. We’ve all experienced it. We all know what it’s like. We are a company of the tempted. Humanity is a company of the tempted.
So it should not, perhaps, surprise us to see Jesus, as a human, join this company by undergoing temptation. And that’s what our passage today is about: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
There is a lot in these 11 verses of Matthew. I think you’re getting used to that by now—that there’s a lot in Matthew, period. But these verses are particularly packed and there’s a lot that we need to understand and keep in mind if we’re going to appreciate the victory of Christ in this passage.
And so we’re actually going to spend a couple of weeks here in verses 1-11. And one way of thinking about it is one sermon split over two weeks. This week we’re going to focus on verses 1-2 and ask the questions, “What is temptation?”, and “Why this temptation?”
Then next week we’ll look at the three specific temptations and how Jesus responded to each, and what the victory of Christ over Satan means for tempted people like you and I today.
1. What Is Temptation?
But we need to start here in verse 1 and wrap our heads around some of the big ideas here in the passage. And first is just this idea of temptation. What is temptation?
One English dictionary I looked up this week said that temptation is “the desire to do something, especially something unwise or wrong.” That’s a helpful place to start our thinking on the matter, but that’s not exactly what Scripture means when it uses the word “temptation.”
In Scripture, or at least in our passage today, “temptation” refers to Satan’s activity whereby he presents something sinful to Jesus in the hope that he will choose to do it. Temptation is the act of enticing or alluring someone to do something wrong.
The idea that the Devil would be involved in temptation is not a strange idea to us. The very first time we’re introduced to that ancient serpent, he is doing his work of tempting. You remember Genesis 3 and Satan’s conversation with Eve in the Garden. Satan uses his words to try to make Eve want to do something wrong. To try to make her desire to sin.
But Satan was not ultimately responsible for Eve’s sin. All Satan did was present some options to Eve and tell her some lies. The temptation took root in Eve when it did engage her own desires. James 1:14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14).
What ultimately caused Eve to sin was her own desire. Temptation is presenting something to someone in order engage their desires and make them want it.
So Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil, which means that Satan tried to make Jesus desire things that were wrong so that he would act on those desires by taking them for Himself.
That much is true. But there’s a bit more here for us to explore in terms of temptation because of what the first part of our verse tells us. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1).
Jesus was not just tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, as if Jesus happened to be there and the Devil seized upon the opportunity and tempted him. No, Jesus was specifically led to the wilderness by the Spirit for this purpose: to be tempted.
And look at verse 2: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Jesus specifically puts himself in a vulnerable spot. He goes to the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil, and doesn’t bring any food with him, and chooses not to eat anything for 40 days.
Some of you are familiar with the acronym “HALT.” When you’re trying to beat a sinful habit, “HALT” reminds you of four spots you are in when you’re particularly vulnerable. “H” stands for hungry, “A” stands for “angry,” “L” stands for lonely, and “T” stands for “tired.” When you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired we tend to be weakened spot, and it feels easier to give in to temptation.
Jesus was at least one of those—really hungry—and quite possibly lonely and tired after 40 days in the wilderness. So do you see what’s happening here? Jesus is deliberately led into the wilderness to be tempted by the wilderness, and in preparation for that temptation he is deliberately put in a weakened spot.
It’s almost like he’s egging the devil on, just begging the devil to pounce on him.
But how is this even possible? Why would the Spirit lead God’s beloved son out to be tempted by the devil? Doesn’t James 1:13 say, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13)?
That’s a hugely significant question. And we’re going to turn to that now as we ask our second big question this morning which is, why did this temptation happen?
2. Why This Temptation?
What was the reason for Jesus being led out into the wilderness? What was the purpose for this? And how does this fit with James’ words about God not tempting us?
A significant part of the answer is to recognize that there is a big connection between the idea of “temptation” and the idea of being “tested” or “tried.” That’s reflected in the way that “tempted and tried” is a phrase that’s used in songs and books often enough.
This connection is reflected even at the level of language. In the original language of the New Testament, “tempt” and “test”—which is another word for “try”—are actually the exact same word. And that’s because, like a professor of mine explained to me this week, a temptation, at least when someone is behind that temptation, is a specific kind of test. Someone is presenting you with an opportunity to sin and testing you to see if you will commit that sin.
What makes it a temptation is that they want you to sin. They are really trying to entice you with the sin and they want you to fail.
God never “tempts” us in this way. But God does test us. All over Scripture we see God testing people, putting them in hard situations to see how they will respond. He did with with Abraham when he told him to kill Isaac. He did it with Hezekiah when he sent the Babylonian envoys to him (2 Samuel 24).
And God’s testing sometimes involves Satan’s tempting. God Himself is not the one alluring us to sin—Satan is doing that—but God sovereignly allows Satan to tempt us as a part of God’s testing of us.
This is along the lines of what happened with Job. God allowed Satan to go after Job and for Job to be tempted by the words of his wife—“just curse God and die!”—because God had a bigger purpose in testing Job’s faith.
We see this happen in the garden of Eden. God tested Adam and Eve by putting that tree right in the middle of the garden. It would have been so easy to just not have the tree be there. But he put it there. And he let the snake in. He could have had an elephant step on the snake and end it all there. But He set it up and He let it unfold. He himself was not the one alluring Eve to evil, but it’s fair to say that He was testing them through Satan.
He tested His people in the wilderness. Deuteronomy 8:2 says, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
And here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He leads His son to the wilderness to do the same.
From Satan’s perspective, this is a temptation. Satan is deliberately trying to make Jesus sin. Can you imagine what a win this would be for Satan if he can get Jesus to sin? No longer would Jesus be the perfect, spotless lamb. No longer would Jesus be able to die for our sins.
That’s why Satan was willing to offer Jesus all of the kingdoms of this world in exchange for His worship. Satan is OK with Jesus being the king as long as our sins don’t get paid for. And we’ll talk about that a bit more next week.
But from God’s perspective, this is a test. Jesus the Son is being tested. And the Father’s intention is not that He would fail but that He would succeed.
So that brings us a bit closer to understanding why this is happening. Why is the Spirit leading Him out to be tempted? It’s so that He can be tested, and can pass this test.
But let’s ask a further question: why was it so important for Jesus to be tested? Why was it necessary, for Him to confront Satan like this? Why not just avoid the whole experience altogether? What’s the real purpose in this testing?
And the answer is that It is absolutely critical for His mission that He be victorious against the tempter.
And so that’s what we’re going to consider next. Three aspects of Jesus’ mission which made it necessary for him to be tempted and tried like this.
The Second Adam
First, we’re going to consider Jesus’ role as the second Adam. We’ve seen Matthew point us in this direction a few times, presenting Jesus as the new Adam. Paul presents Jesus as the last Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
And so in His role as the last Adam, Jesus is tempted by Satan, just like Adam and Eve were in the garden. He goes through what they went through in order to succeed at the point where they failed.
And yet consider how much greater Christ’s temptation is compared to theirs. Adam and Eve were in perfection, in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by amazing things to eat on all sides, and Satan tempted them to want the one thing that they were told not to eat.
Jesus, on the other hand, is out in the opposite of a garden—the wilderness—and he has the opposite of good food everywhere. He eats nothing for 40 days. The deck is kind of stacked against Him isn’t it? The intensity of His temptation is way higher.
But nevertheless, there it is. As the true and better Adam, Jesus walks through what Adam walked through, in an even greater way, in order to succeed where Adam failed.
The True Israel
The next aspect of Christ’s mission which made his temptation necessary was his role as the true Israel. We’ve also seen this theme several times in Matthew—how Jesus is reenacting the story of Israel, being the perfectly faithful son that Israel was supposed to be. This is why He went to Egypt as a baby—so God could call Him out of Egypt just like Israel (Matthew 2:15).
And what came next for Israel as they were led out of Egypt? They passed safely through the waters of God’s judgement in the Red Sea, and found themselves in the wilderness (Ex 15:22) where they began to experience hunger and thirst.
We’ve already heard some words from Deuteronomy which explain why God caused them to have these experience: “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2–3).
God let them have empty stomachs in order to test them and see what was in their hearts. And we know how they tended to do with these tests. Exodus 16, right after the Red Sea: “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Exodus 16:2–3). And that kind of grumbling goes on and on and on.
They did not do well with their test. They did not tend to accept what God had given to them and trust their Father to lead and feed them. They did not very willingly learn the lesson that man does not live by bread alone.
And so here comes Jesus on His mission to be the truly faithful Son. And just like Israel, He is tested. Some scholars see significance in this testing happening right after His baptism, in that His baptism may be a symbolic counterpoint to the Red Sea experience. It’s possible, given the way that baptism is viewed as symbolizing and re-enacting passing safely through the waters of God’s judgement. In 1 Corinthians 10, in a bit of a different context, Paul actually uses the word baptism to describe the Red Sea parting. So it’s certainly possible.
But far more to the point is how Jesus’ testing in the wilderness corresponds to Israel’s testing in the wilderness. There’s a reason he fasts for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:2). That’s a pretty strong echo of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. And as we’re going to see next week, every time Jesus responds to Satan’s temptations, he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy from passages where God describes Israel’s time in the wildernesses.
And that shows that Jesus knew what was going on here. He knew that He was reenacting Israel’s wilderness wanderings. But Jesus will be different from them. He will be the perfect Son. He will accept from His Father’s hand whatever His father chooses to give Him. He will not grumble or complain. He will choose to live off of every word that proceeds from His Father’s mouth.
And in all of this we see another reason why this testing and temptation was necessary. As the Faithful Son, Jesus is coming to succeed where Israel had failed. And so He must be tested like they were in order to pass the test.
Our High Priest
There’s a third and, for us this morning, final reason why the trial and temptation of Christ was so necessary. And it has to do with His role as our High Priest.
You’ll remember that in the Mosaic covenant, a the priests—and especially the high priest—were the mediators between God and the people, representing the people to God and God to the people. The book of Hebrews has a lot to say about this office and role of High Priest, and says this in chapter 5:
“For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:1–2).
The book of Hebrews unpacks for us how, here in the New Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest. And in order to be our High Priest, that meant becoming acquainted with our weakness and suffering and temptation.
Listen to how Hebrews 2:17-18 explains this: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17–18).
Two chapters later, Hebrews 4:14-16 words it this way:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16).
Let’s consider what these two passages are telling us. First, they are telling us that Jesus has experienced everything that we experience. He was “made like his brothers in every respect.” He “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
And the temptation in the wilderness was ground zero for this experience. You know what it’s like to be weak and tired and to have something attractive dangled in front of your face? Jesus does, and in an even greater way than most of us ever have.
Jesus knows temptation and weakness. And here’s the wonderful thing: that experience did not cause him to say to us, “Come on, I did it! Get your act together.”
I remember hearing a pastor talk like that years ago, addressing a difficulty that some people in his congregation were dealing with. And basically he said, “Don’t try to talk to me about how hard that is, because I went through that and I had it way harder than you and I did it anyways.”
That’s not like Jesus. Jesus, because He was tempted like us, is a “merciful” high priest. He shows mercy to us. He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
But something else that we need to recognize is that this sympathy and mercy does not translates into being soft on our sin. This is not a matter of Him saying: “I get it, it’s hard, so no big deal.”
Rather than being harsh with us or soft on us, Jesus gives us what we really need: help. “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
He has helped us ultimately and eternally by making “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He paid for all of our sins in full so that we can have full access to the throne of God. And from that throne today we seek the help which Jesus gives.
“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
And that’s why what happened out in the Judean wilderness 2,000 years ago is so relevant to you and I today. Like we heard at the beginning of the message, we are the company of the tempted. But praise God that it doesn’t end there. The church is also the company of the redeemed. We are the company of those who have a Saviour who understands our temptations and thus is able to help us in our temptations.
Now one way that we are helped by Jesus is simply by watching and learning from Him as He is tempted. In other words, as we follow along with the account of His temptation, we will learn so much about how to overcome temptation ourselves.
And that’s why I’m so looking forward to next week, when we’ll get to do that. Next week we’ll look more in-depth at verses 3-11 and the specific ways that Satan tempted Jesus and the specific ways that Jesus overcame those temptations.
But for today we have seen enough to rejoice. We have seen Jesus as the new and better Adam, the true Israel, and the merciful High Priest, being battered and tempted and tried in every way that we have—and yet without sin. He emerged victorious. And He lives today to help those whom He has saved.
So let’s make it really personal as we wrap things up here this week. How will you be tempted this week? Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t know, and that’s the problem. I’m always caught off guard by temptation.” But I suspect that if we thought carefully enough, we might be able to think about a way or two that we might face temptation this week.
What would happen if you prepared for that temptation now by remembering what we’ve learned this morning. Remembering that Jesus has been tempted like us in every way. He gets it. He knows what it feels like. And He doesn’t look at you with contempt and treat you harshly. He has sympathy and compassion for us in our temptation.
And from that place of sympathy and compassion, He helps us. In His word, and by the power of His Holy Spirit, and through prayer, and in the sovereign way that He oversees all things, He offers us all of the help that we need.
Yes, temptation is hard, and Jesus gets that, but He gives us no excuse for giving in to it. You have the undefeated champion of temptation in your corner, the one who went three rounds with Satan and walked away victorious. He is the one helping you.
So come to Jesus this week. Seek Him in His word, which, as we’ll see next week, is our most potent temptation-fighting weapon. Through prayer, seek His supernatural enabling grace and help in your time of need. Look for the way out that God has promised to provide for you. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
And in the throes of temptation, when your desire is so strong, don’t feel ashamed to come to Jesus. Right in those moments are when we need to come to Him the most, remembering His mercy and grace and sympathy and help, and press into Him for all that He offers us.