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 still inviting Jesus to question His Father’s love and protection. I mean, if there was no question, there would be no need to prove anything.
And it’s likely Satan is trying to once again play to desires—in this case, the very human desire to feel safe and protected, on our terms. The desire to see God work on our timetable. The desire to be in control of when and where and how He displays His love for us.
I hope you can feel the force of this temptation. Have you ever been in a low place, a rough spot, and prayed something like “God, why don’t you just prove yourself to me? Why don’t you just answer my prayers and show me that you’re there?”
Haven’t you ever longed for a clear sign of God’s activity in your life, a strong demonstration of His power? Haven’t you ever wanted God to step in at your command and operate on your timetable?
So how would you respond in Jesus’ spot? How would you respond to the opportunity to satisfy those desires, stoked by 40 long days in the wilderness? How would you respond to the opportunity to force God’s hand and make Him come down from up there and prove Himself to you?
How does Jesus respond? “Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”’” (Matthew 4:7).
Oh, Jesus gets it. Once again, pulling out the Sword of the Spirit to do battle with the dragon. “It is written.” And once again quoting a part of Scripture that shows that He knows what’s going on here.
“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16. Here’s the fuller quote: ““You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah”(Deuteronomy 6:16).
We read about Massah in Exodus 17. Right after God provided Manna for them, we read this:
“All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ And Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’” (Exodus 17:1–2)
God does provide water for the people. But here’s what verse 7 says about the episode: “And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Exodus 7:7).
So in other words, their demand for water wasn’t just a genuine request. It was a challenge, an ultimatum, a test. “Ok God, if you’re real, if you’re with us, then prove it by giving us some water.” It’s the opposite of the patient trust they should have had at that point after seeing the Red Sea split and having bread from heaven being provided for them.
Testing God is the opposite of trusting God. And that is the message, in the background, behind Jesus’ words to Satan on the top of the temple all of those years later. He will not do what Israel did, testing His Father to prove whether He was there or not. No, He will trust His Father. He will continue to wait on His timeline, His initiative, even if that requires suffering. And on a very basic level, He won’t disobey this command to not test God.
Jesus 2, Satan 0.
3. The Third Temptation
But Satan is not finished yet. He raises the stakes even higher in the third temptation we read about in verse 8: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’”(Matthew 4:8–9).
This last temptation was easily the greatest and most powerful out of all of them. Satan is pulling out all of the stops and going for the jugular here.
Here’s why this temptation could have felt so powerful: Jesus had come down from heaven for this purpose of claiming back the kingdoms of this earth that are rightfully His from the rebellious spiritual forces who had led humanity into rebellion against Him.
This was a big part of what was meant by “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The King was coming to declare war on the principalities and powers, and claim back his creation from their clutches. Like Jesus will say in Matthew chapter 12, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matthew 12:28–29).
That’s a way of summing up the mission and ministry of Jesus: overpower Satan, and plunder His house—which means, setting you and I free.
And I think it’s fair to say that at this point, Satan knew that he was no match for Jesus in a pitched battle. I mean, just think about what happens when the demons meet Jesus later on in the gospel. They are terrified. Right after this temptation Jesus is going to tell Satan to leave, and Satan has to listen. He knows he’s no match for Jesus in strength.
So he tries to trick Jesus. He offers Him all of those kingdoms—those kingdoms that Jesus is going to fight for and die for and which the church of Jesus is still fighting for today as we go out to make disciples of the one true king.
He’s saying “You can have them without a fight. Without a struggle.” And whether Satan understood this or not, this also means “Without the cross.” “You can just have them if you worship me.”
I imagine that if you or I were in this spot, this temptation would have felt very alluring. It would felt so easy, in this moment, to question God’s plan.
And it would have been really easy, especially in such a weak spot, to desire a quick end to the fight. “Maybe this is the best. Maybe all of the struggle, all of the suffering, all of the pain of the cross, all of the centuries ahead for the church of struggles and setbacks and trying to convince missionaries to go to unreached peoples—maybe this isn’t the best way. Maybe it’s best for me to strike this little bargain and I can be king right now and skip all of the pain.”
But it wouldn’t have worked, right? Because if Jesus worships Satan than Jesus isn’t really the king. He’s no better than Adam and Eve, listening to the snake instead of telling the snake where to go. He’s no better than Israel, who constantly worshipped other gods because their promised blessings seemed easier to come by than Yahweh’s.
If Jesus worships Satan, than Satan keeps his job and Jesus is no king at all.
But Jesus is not like Adam. Jesus is not like Israel. Jesus is the faithful son who does not stumble as He holds fast to His father’s will.
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”’” (Matthew 4:10).
What did those words sound like coming out of Jesus’ mouth? Did they come out like a roar? Were they a struggling whisper, barely audible above the desert wind? We don’t know. But what we do know is that Jesus didn’t budge. Jesus didn’t flinch. Jesus is unmovable as He ones again uses the Sword of the Spirit to hack this temptation to pieces.
Jesus is quoting here from Deuteronomy 6:13. In that passage, God is speaking to His people on the edge of the promised land and warning them of the allure of the gods of the nations around them.
“It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:13–15).
Jesus will obey. He will love and honour His Father and will submit Himself to His Father’s plan, though it leads right to the cross, and He will not give a drop of allegiance to any other power.
And with that, the temptations are finished. Jesus tells Satan to leave, and Satan listens. He’s been allowed to tempt Jesus, and that permission has now been revoked. The test has been passed and now it’s time for Satan to get out of his face. “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:11).
Jesus 3, Satan 0. The bell rings, the fight is over, and the victor sits down in his corner where his team surrounds him to give him the nourishment and care that he needs.
Look to Jesus to Learn and Worship
This morning as we end there’s two big ideas that I want us to walk away with. Both involve looking to Jesus. And the first one is looking to Jesus to learn from Him.
We need to learn from Jesus because you and I will be in situations like He was. God tests His children. Adam was tested. Israel was tested. Jesus was tested. And you will be tested.
1 Peter 1:6 and 7 reminds us that “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7).
You will be tested. And some of this testing will take the form of temptation. Satan or his cronies will tempt you to doubt God’s provision, test His protection, and question His plan. You will be allured by the easy road around the suffering God has chosen for you. You will be invited by that forked tongue to question God’s word, question God’s character, and take matters into your own hands.
Jesus faced these temptations, and because He resisted, you can, too. We heard last week how Jesus Himself helps us when we are tempted. But today we can’t miss how Jesus shows us how to fight back against temptation with the powerful word of God.
This is not about memorizing a favourite verse or two. This is about a deep and substantial knowledge of the Scripture, a familiarity that comes from regular, repeated reading and exposure to it. Knowing the story, knowing how it fits together, knowing where we fit in the story, knowing the truth about God and ourselves and others, knowing the promises in the Bible that directly address our temptations, knowing how to respond when Satan and his messengers try to twist the Scripture to our peril. And yes, this probably includes some deliberate memorization as well, which is not as hard as you might think if you learn how to do it properly.
Satan is a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, says 1 Peter 5:8. When that lion pounces next, what are you going to use to fight back? Reading the Bible is not about doing a little religious duty to make God happy. This is about your survival. This is about whether you stand or fall when the principalities and powers come for you.
“In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:16–17).
How well do you know your Bible? Can you say “it is written _____” the next time Satan comes at you with lust, or greed, or pride, or laziness, or grumbling, or lying, or rebellion?
Know the Word, people. And if you don’t know how, if you don’t know where to start, please come have a conversation with me. Whether it’s joining a small group or doing some one-to-one Bible reading, our church is full of people who would love to help you get into God’s word.
And please hear again, this is not a matter of religious duty. If we’ve learned anything from our passage this past two weeks, it should be that knowing Scripture is a matter of spiritual survival.
So learn from Jesus in that regard.
Second, let’s look to Jesus and be amazed by Him. Worship Him. Cheer for Him.
I know many of you here are sports fans. You get all excited about watching two teams battle it out for something that, at the end of the day, doesn’t mean anything of real importance.
But here is a battle for the ages, a duel between the top champions of darkness and light, and it means everything. Because Jesus was out there as our champion, taking the heat for us so that He could set us free from the Devil’s tyranny.
If Jesus had failed out there, if Jesus had given the Devil one inch, there would be no hope for you and I. Blackness and lostness and slavery for ever.
But instead I hope you know that every truly good thing that you enjoy in your life, every answered prayer, every forgiven sin, every promise, every bit of help and fellowship we experience from him as we struggle with temptation—you have all this because Jesus passed His test out there in the wild places.
The best news in all the world for us today is that Jesus won. He won in the desert. He won at the cross. He won in His resurrection. And if you get that, if you feel that, good luck trying to be unhappy. Good luck trying to be grumpy. Good luck trying to be allured by temptation.
You have been set free from Satan’s clutches by your powerful Saviour, and how can that not give you joy, how can that not infuse you with strength, how can that not make you offer your entire life freely to your Saviour?
And if you’re listening to these words and you don’t know Jesus, you’re still in the clutches of the prince of darkness, then please come to Christ today. Today you can believe on Him and be saved. Today you can rest in the perfect sacrifice He made in your place on the cross. Today you can rest in the victory over death and Satan he won in His resurrection. Today you can bend your knee to His kingly authority over all things. Call upon this Jesus today and be saved.
Let’s stand and worship this Jesus together now in song.