Tempted in the Wilderness

The last time you prayed the Lord’s Prayer, what did you ask for regarding temptation? Doesn’t it seem strange to read in Matthew 4:1–11 that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted?

Why was Jesus tempted by Satan? Jesus is not just an example in how to fight temptation. Why is the account of the temptation of Jesus recorded in Matthew (as well as in Luke, and briefly in Mark)? The account of the temptation must have come from Jesus himself, as he was alone with the tempter. What do you learn from reading this passage? If what you take away is that it is important to resist Satan, and that you need the Word of God to do so, you have learned some valuable lessons from the example of Jesus, but you will have missed the most important part of this struggle. Indeed, we must learn from the example of Jesus (see 1 Peter 2), but don’t make the mistake of seeing Jesus only, or even primarily, as an example.

Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be the last Adam, the true Israel. Back in Matthew 2:15 tge apostle made a connection between Jesus in Egypt ant the Exodus. God had brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, where their obedience to him was tested. In Deuteronomy, the book from which Jesus quotes, Moses often rebukes Israel for its unfaithfulness. They had failed to be the obedient son. The temptation scene also recalls Genesis 3, a point particularly emphasized in Luke’s Gospel. Would the second Adam resist temptation? Would the true firstborn Son remain faithful? The 40 days of fasting reminds you of the 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 days that Moses spent on Sinai, as well as Elijah’s journey to the same mountain. The Holy Spirit, who had descended upon Jesus, baptizing him for his public ministry, leads him into the wilderness for the purpose of being tempted. Jesus begins his public ministry by succeeding where Adam failed, by being the obedient Son that Israel had not been. This is the beginning of what Jesus would do for you and in your place. “The immediate duress of the desert events of Matthew 4:1–11 sets the tone for subsequent course of Jesus’ entire ministry. The testing of his messianic faithfulness that culminates in his death and resurrection secures eschatalogical deliverance from sin and its consequences.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, p. 108).

What do you need to know about resisting temptation? Understand how powerful the devil’s temptations are. “He was hungry” is an understatement. But Satan is not just addressing the physical hunger and weakness the Savior was undergoing. He was trying to get him to question God’s good provision for him (recall his first question to Eve in Genesis 3). Implied might be something like this: “Did I just hear the Father call you his beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased? He doesn’t seem to taking very good care of you.” The devil is quite capable of quoting Scripture. But he twists the passage from Psalm 91, which is about trusting God’s faithfulness, into false support for testing God. Would Jesus work a spectacular miracle by falling from the high point of the temple (perhaps a projection over the Kidron Valley) to see if God’s angels would catch him? But the purpose of the miracle would not be humble service, but a spectacle calling attention to Jesus. Note that while Satan quotes from Psalm 91, he stops short of verse 13. Perhaps it is too close to feeling a heavy foot crushing a scaly head! The third (in Matthew’s Gospel) temptation focuses on how Jesus is to obtain his kingdom. Will it be by the “easy” route? Will he serve himself? Or will he take the much harder path of serving his Father, doing his Father’s will? Satan’s basic tactics don’t change. In Eden he wants Adam and Eve to question God. In the wilderness Israel is focused on filling their bellies (with something other than the miraculous bread from heaven!). In the Judean wilderness he offers Jesus the opportunity to make himself what he want to be, rather than taking the path of suffering. He uses the same tactics on you. How do you resist?

Know God’s Word. Each time Jesus responds to Satan with “It is written.” Jesus takes the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God. In response to the first temptation, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3. God did provide for the hunger of his people by giving them manna, but you need more than bread to eat. You need to live by the Word of God. To the second, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, with its command not to put God to the test. And to the third, with its enticing call to worship Satan, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, with its call to serve and worship the true God alone. Bit Jesus doesn’t just quote verses out of context. He understnads God’s revelation of himself as the One God and the call to live in covenantal faithfulness with him. That is what Jesus is doing. “Jesus Christ, however, knew the word and, by obeying it, established himself as God’s true last Adam and true Israel. Recall, in Matt. 4:1–11, when the devil sought to tempt Jesus. With each temptation Jesus responded to Satan by quoting from the OT, from passages in Deuteronomy where Moses rebuked Israel for failing in its task. In contrast to Adam and Eve, Jesus overcame the temptations by knowing and trusting in God’s word.” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 222).

How is temptation overcome? Jesus overcame Satan in your place. If you don’t tead Matthew 4:1–11 as a handbook of dealing with temptation, how is temptation overcome? Start by recognizing that you are not smart enough or powerful enough in yourself to resist. While Satan is not all-powerful, he is an exceedingly dangerous enemy—more than you can handle. But the good news of this passage is that what you cannot do, Jesus has done for you. We use the word vicarious to describe the atonement. Jesus died and rose in your place. But his temptation in the wilderness is no less vicarious. He was tempted for you, in your place. And where Adam failed, where Israel came short, he triumphed. While the temptation certainly is Satan trying to waylay Jesus and turn him from the path of obedience, it is also the Seed of the Woman beginning to place his heel on the head of the serpent. Satan is being defeated! “In the wilderness temptation, we may say that it was actually Jesus who confronted Satan, rather than the other way around. From the devil’s perspective, he wanted to prevent Christ from depending upon the Holy Spirit, and thus cause him to fail to maintain an attitude of service in his state of humiliation. Jesus’ desire for his messianic glory to be revealed – Jesus as the Son of God – could only be attained through suffering. (Mark Jones, Knowing Christ, p. 111).

Entrust yourself to your faithful God. Because of what Jesus did for you, you can resist Satan. 1 Peter 5 describes Satan as a roaring lion, trying to devour you. But you can resist him because Christ has already conquered. Matthew 4 is a foretaste of Matthew 27 and 28. Understand the power and danger of the great red dragon of Revelation 12. But know that the Son born to the glorious woman is the one who rules the nations with a rod of iron. He defeats all his and our enemies. He rides on the white horse, and ultimately casts the dragon into the lake of fire.

Why did the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted? So that he could overcome and defeat that freat enemy, and so that you can be rescued from the grasp of the evil one. Trust your victorious Lord!