Jesus is Tempted, Part 2
In three of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament, we’re told of a strange experience at the beginning of Jesus’ public mission in which Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the Devil… He was away from his family and followers, out in a desert place in Judea; literally, he was in ‘the wilderness’ or ‘the wild places.’
He went out there to meet his ancestors’ ancient foe—and ours—and to undo what had been done. If you will ever see the kingdom of God, it will be because of what happened under that desert moon, where the kingdoms approached each other, surveyed each other, and, long time coming, attacked each other.
Somehow the evil spirit of Eden appeared to Jesus. Poets and artists have speculated for centuries on what this must have looked or felt like. Did Jesus, like Eve before him, see the figure of a snake out there in the desert? Did he appear, as some icons and paintings depict, as a hideous goatlike monster bearing a tantalizing morsel in his hoof? Or did the Devil manifest himself, as he most often does to us, invisibly but with the painfully personal suggestiveness that disguises itself as one’s own thoughts? The Gospels don’t tell us. They simply tell us the Devil was there, and he was not silent... (Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried. Crossway Books, 2011.)
Those words I just read you are from “Tempted and Tried,” a book by Russell Moore about the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. Moore’s words remind us of the far bigger context of the battle between Christ and the ancient serpent in the wilderness. This was not a random scuffle. This was a key battle in the war of the ages. And this battle is absolutely relevant to every single one of us today.
We started our study of this battle last week by focusing on verses 1 and 2. We explored what temptation is, and why it was so crucial for Jesus to be tempted and tried like this. As the Second Adam, as the true Israel, as our High Priest, Jesus was tested and tempted right at the point where everyone before Him had failed. And because He emerged victorious, He is able to save us and help us in our temptations.
Today we’re going to dive in to the rest of the passage and follow along with the specific temptations that Jesus faced. For each of these we’re going to see what Satan’s tactics were. More importantly, we want to see how Jesus responded and triumphed over the temptation, and what His victory means for each one of us today.
1. The First Temptation
So let’s look at the first temptation, in verses 2-4: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (Matthew 4:2–3).
Many people, including me for a lot of years, read this verse and think that Satan was questioning Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. “So you’re God’s son, are you? Prove it by showing your power.” The idea is that Jesus is being goaded by Satan to use His power to prove Himself.
I want to suggest that this is probably not the best way to understand Satan’s temptation. Instead, the best way to understand what’s going on here is to pay attention to the context. What happened right before Jesus went into the wilderness? Do you remember heaven being opened and the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
And yet, immediately afterwards this, the Spirit leads that beloved Son into the wild places to where spends over a month without food before facing the most formidable enemy in the universe alone.
Let me just ask you the obvious question: what Father does that? What father treats His son that way? And that’s not really me asking the question. Just three chapters from now, Jesus Himself will ask, “which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9).
And yet here’s Jesus, no bread, all stones. God treated Israel better than this when they were in the wilderness. “He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing” (Deuteronomy 2:7). Israel didn’t go hungry for this long.
And yet here is the beloved Son, led into the wilderness with nothing.
And with all of this in the background, we’re better equipped to understand Satan’s challenge to Jesus. Just like with Eve in the Garden of Eden, Satan’s words are designed to question God and His word. “You are God’s beloved Son? Really? Out here like this? There’s an easy solution to this, you know—if you’re God’s son, you don’t need to wait on Him. You can end this now yourself. Make yourself some food.”
That’s what Satan’s temptation here is about. It’s not about challenging or questioning Jesus as much as questioning and challenging His Father.
And just imagine how this temptation would land on you in that state. After 40 days in the wilderness without food, Jesus would have been in rough shape. He would have looked terrible. Food of any sort would have been powerfully appealing to him in that moment as a human with a body and a stomach and a metabolism.
So Satan’s temptation, just like with Eve in the garden, is a two-pronged attempt to question God and stir up desires, with the intended result that Jesus would take things into his own hands, cut the test short, and use his power to satisfy his own appetite.
Let me try to press this home to us this morning: Why shouldn’t Jesus do that? Why go hungry when you don’t need to? Why not make some bread and feed himself?
Jesus’ reply in verse 4 is crucially important for both answering this question and for showing us how Jesus overcame this temptation. “But he answered, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”’” (Matthew 4:4).
“It is written.” Do not miss this. Jesus is God’s son. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. And yet in responding to the tempter He responds with the written word of God. “It is written.”
We need to notice that Jesus does not just pull out a verse at random out of the Bible. He doesn’t treat the Bible like a collection of magic words. No, Jesus’ use of Scripture here shows that He really knows the Bible. He knows its storyline and how it fits together and how it relates to His current situation.
We see that in the Scripture that He quotes, which comes from Deuteronomy 8. Remember how, when Matthew quotes a single verse of Scripture, he often has the whole passage in mind? Much the same thing is going on here with Jesus.
I’m going to read verses 2-6 of Deuteronomy 8 so you can see the big picture:
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. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. (Deuteronomy 8:2–6)
God is a good father. He brought Israel, His son, out of slavery and into the bounty of the Promised Land. But before then there was a test in the wilderness. As a part of His fatherly discipline, God cut them off from normal means of producing food in order to test their hearts and teach them that the most fundamental reality in their life was not eating food but rather trusting and obeying God’s word.
That’s one way of summing up the meaning of “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” It’s saying that God is the one who keeps us alive, He’s the one who provides for us, and so receiving and trusting and obeying Him is the most important thing.
In other words, obeying God is a higher priority than eating. That’s what Jesus said in John 4:34: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work’” (John 4:34).
And that’s the part that Jesus quotes to Satan. Obeying God, receiving and trusting and obeying His word, is more important than eating. And right in behind that quote is the bigger context of the passage which is saying: do not assume that because Jesus is hungry, God has forgotten Him or is mistreating Him. He is being tested, just like Adam, just like Israel, to see if He will trust His Father or not, to see if He will receive from His Father whatever He chooses to give Him without grumbling or complaining or disobeying.
So no, Jesus will not make bread for himself. He won’t “bypass the suffering that God has marked out for him and to use his power in a triumphalist, self-glorifying fashion,” as Craig Blomberg has written.1Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 14.
He will trust and He will obey and He will go hungry because real life is about trusting and obeying God. That is more important than full a full stomach.
So Jesus passes the test. He’s makes it. If you’re keeping score, this is Jesus 1, Satan 0.
Do you wonder if angels were holding their breath? Do you think they cheered as these powerful words of resolve and faith came from the cracked lips and gaunt mouth of the Son of Man? I want to cheer for Jesus, strong in His weakness. I hope you’re worshipping Him even now in these moments.
2. The Second Temptation
Satan isn’t done though. He’s not giving up so quickly. And so he ups the ante. He raises the stakes. Verse 5-6 tell us,
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’’” (Matthew 4:5–6).
The point of this second temptation, like the first, is often missed. I’ve heard it explained that the pinnacle of the temple was a very public place, and so if Jesus dove off and was safely carried down by angels, that would attract a lot of attention. It would essentially be showing off and making people notice Him.
But again, that’s probably not what’s going on here. We’ve seen from the first temptation that the statement “if you are the Son of God” is more about questioning the Father than the Son. And that’s confirmed by Jesus’ response, which shows that He was not being tempted to show off but rather to test God.
So here’s how I suggest we put this all together. In this second temptation, Satan is following up on the first one, and basically responding to Jesus as if to say “So you’re going to trust your father, are you? Going to rely on His word which is more important than bread? Well, His word says that He’ll protect His beloved one from getting hurt. If He really loves you, like you’re so confident of, you’ll have a troop of angels protecting you from evening banging your foot. So prove it. Prove His love for you. Jump off.”
We’ve seen that Jesus knows the Bible. Did you know that Satan knows the Bible, too? He quotes here from Psalm 91, a Psalm about God’s protection of HIs people. The Psalm that opens with the words, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’” (Psalm 91:1–2).
And Satan is daring Jesus to prove it. “You trust His word? You’re His beloved Son? Prove it.”
This temptation was intensified by the location. Yes, the temple was a very public place, so if Jesus wasn’t carried safely down by angels, the failure of His Father to protect Him would be very public. That adds to the tension of the challenge.
The temple is also very important symbolically. The temple was in many ways a symbol of Israel’s wilderness wandering being completed, a sign of their permanent home after yers of wandering. And the temple was where God’s presence was most directly manifested. Those words at the beginning of Psalm 91, about the shelter and shadow of God, were actually associated with the temple in Jewish thought.
In other words, if there was any place where God would keep these promises, it would be here at the temple. And if there was any person He would do this for, it would be His beloved son. So why not prove it?
I hope you can see that Satan is basically keeping up his same basic strategy as the first one. He’s