“The Temptation of Jesus”
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."
Jesus began his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River where God the Father announced that he was his "beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Mt. 3:13-17) It may seem strange that immediately after this clear, public declaration of his identity, Jesus was immediately led "into the wilderness to be tempted." Why not go to the heart of Jerusalem and begin his teaching and healing ministry to show the arrival of the kingdom of heaven? Going off alone into a wasteland for "forty days and forty nights" may seem counterintuitive to God's purposes. Why this withdrawal into the desert?
Matthew does not explicitly tell us but he does purposely align Jesus' story with that of ancient Israel. Like Israel, Jesus came up out of Egypt (Mt. 2:15). Israel was then 'baptized' in the Red Sea and was made to wander in the desert for a period of forty (years). But whereas Israel was tempted and sinned in the wilderness, Matthew shows us that Jesus remained faithful to God by responding to temptation with Scripture ("It is written" vv.4, 7, 10). Each temptation with each quotation of Scripture from Deuteronomy has a parallel in Israel's history. Matthew's purpose is to show Jesus to be the faithful Servant of God that Israel, along with all humanity, failed to be.
THE PURPOSE OF JESUS' TEMPTATION
It is important to note that Jesus' confrontation with the devil in the wilderness was orchestrated by God. Jesus was directed "by the Spirit," meaning God not only permitted this confrontation but arranged it for a specific purpose: "to be tempted by the devil." Jesus was not tempted by God (Jas. 1:13). Rather God permitted the devil to tempt him (cf. Job 1:12; 2:6). The devil was the agent of temptation but the initiative was God's. Why would God desire his "beloved Son" to go through such an ordeal? Here are four reasons:
- Jesus was tempted to prove he is stronger than the devil - If Jesus is to "destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn. 3:8) and be mankind's champion against evil (Gen. 3:15) then he must be proven to be stronger than the enemy.
- Jesus was tempted to qualify him as our High Priest - If Jesus came to represent us to God as the ultimate High Priest he must know the strength of the devil from personal experience so that he can sympathize with our weaknesses and intercede for us in heaven (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-5:10).
- Jesus was tempted to teach us how to resist temptation - Jesus submitted himself to God, resisted the devil and the devil fled from him (Jas. 4:7). If we follow his example, the devil will flee from us in times of temptation.
- Jesus was tempted to teach us how the devil works - Jesus' temptation provides us with valuable strategic insight into the "schemes" of the devil (2 Cor. 2:11). When the enemy's tactics are revealed, we can use that information to our advantage in our spiritual battle against him (Eph. 6:11ff). Douglas MacArthur once said, "The greater the knowledge of the enemy, the greater the potential for victory."
God arranged this direct confrontation between Jesus and the source of all evil not only because it suited his eternal purpose but for our benefit. Seeing Jesus overcome the enemy gives us who follow him hope. He is worthy not only of emulation but of worship. All praise to the Lord, the founder and perfecter of our faith, the champion of our salvation!
THE PARADOX OF JESUS' TEMPTATION
Matthew 4:1-11 has bred many false views of Jesus' divine-human nature. In an attempt to uphold his deity, some have devalued his humanity. We should remember that Jesus is a totally unique being, at once fully human and fully divine. We must, therefore, guard against any view that minimizes one aspect of his nature (1 Jn. 4:2-3). Jesus' nature is a paradox and as a paradox it cannot be completely explained or understood. To help maintain a proper balance, keep these truths in mind when reading abut Jesus' temptation:
- Jesus was tempted to sin - While the word "tempted" (peirazo) can refer to a test designed by God for our spiritual development (Jas. 1:2), it can also refer to a temptation designed by the devil for our spiritual destruction (Jas. 1:14-15). Each test comes with it a temptation to sin. Jesus' temptation in the wilderness reveals that a situation intended by the Father for good can be, at the same time, a situation used by the devil for evil (1 Cor. 10:13). Since Jesus is a human and temptation is a part of being human in a broken world, it should be no surprise that Jesus was subject to it (Heb. 4:15).
- Jesus' temptation proves his humanity - While Jesus' divine nature could not be tempted (Jas. 1:13) his human nature certainly could. Jesus willingly subjected himself to all the limitations of the human body (Phil. 2:6-7) including hunger. He draws attention to his humanity by applying Deuteronomy 8:3 to himself: "Man shall not live by bread alone" (Mt. 4:3-4). Jesus, as a fully human being, found his spiritual nourishment in the word of God.
- Jesus could have succumbed to temptation - Jesus' confrontation with the devil was a genuine conflict. If Jesus, as a human, was incapable of sinning then looking to his victory over temptation for confidence in overcoming our temptations would lose all significance (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Saying that Jesus could have sinned does not disparage him in the least. As stated above, temptation is a reality faced by all humans. By recognizing that Jesus was capable of sinning we can truly appreciate the greatness of his choosing not to sin! "Yes, Jesus had the possibility to yield. But even more wonderful - He had the power not to yield. And in that truth is His glory and our hope" (Hobbs, An Exposition of the Four Gospels, Vol. 1, p. 47).
- Jesus overcame temptation as a human - Because Jesus faced temptation as a fully human being, he had no spiritual "edge" while being tempted. He met temptation as a human and utilized no weapon unavailable to the rest of us. This ought to give us hope. If we follow his example, we too can conquer temptation through him! Whereas Adam, the first human who was a type of Christ (1 Cor. 15:45), failed in the Garden of Eden, Jesus triumphed. In the wilderness, Jesus faced the inverse of what Adam faced in Eden; "Can you be like God?" the serpent had asked in Eden; Can you be truly human? asked the tempter in the desert" (Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 70). Jesus did not abuse his divine power by using it to serve himself. Instead, he faced temptation with the same tools available to us. He overcame sin by relying on the power of God's word and submitting to it in faith ("It is written" vv. 4, 7, 10).
- Jesus proved that sin is not an inevitable part of being human - Sin is not a necessary ingredient to being human or a forgone conclusion for us. We sin and fail to glorify God, improperly reflecting his image (Rom. 3:23). Jesus perfectly reflected God's image as a human (Heb. 1:1-2; Col. 1:15; Gen. 1:27) and demonstrated that it is not "only human" to sin. If we follow his example in our hour of trial, we too can be "more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom. 8:37).
Jesus' victory over sin in the wilderness and on the cross is an endless source of strength and hope for the Christian. Whenever we are tempted, let us always remember Jesus understands what we are going through. He lays his hand upon us in those moments of intense suffering and wants us to look to him for hope. His victory helps us overcome sin but for the times we fail, he is merciful to forgive us and advocates for us to the Father as one who understands our weaknesses (1 Jn. 2:1-2).
(Points adapted from Kenneth Chumbley's The Gospel of Matthew, pgs. 65-67)