J. C. Ryle, in his Expository Thoughts on Matthew, says of what is commonly called the Temptation of Christ recorded in our text, “This is a deep and mysterious subject,” and we are disposed to agree with his assessment. But on another level, this is a fascinating story. In some sense, it is almost like watching a boxing-match between two famous opponents: in one corner, you have Jesus the Son of God, and in the other corner, you have Satan, the Prince of the World. When the bell rings, the devil comes out swinging and Jesus parries his thrusts. It goes on for three rounds like this until the devil is abruptly vanquished and gives up. Jesus remains standing. Then an angelic referee comes out and holds his hand up, announcing him as the victor. (That's my attempt to put "and the angels came and ministered to him" in this boxing context.)
Now that’s an interesting story, but clearly this was meant to be more than just another interesting story. There certainly was meant to be a take-away for the reader. What is it?
When you come to a passage like this, you have to ask what the Gospel writer meant to convey to his audience in the narrative. What is the function of this story in the Gospel of Matthew? What is its purpose and message? If we answer those questions correctly, then we stand a chance to appropriately apply that message to our lives in the 21st century.
There are, I think, two ways of reading this text that are correct but incomplete unless taken together. One way recognizes that the overarching theme of all four gospels is the redemption that Jesus the Son of God came to accomplish on the cross. Since that is such a big deal to the Gospel narratives, we are surely right in seeing everything – including this story – as somehow underlining the meaning and importance of Jesus’ redemptive life and death.
In fact, the NT as a whole sees redemption in terms of Christ defeating the devil. For example, in Hebrews 2:14-15, we read, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise took part of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In his letter to the Colossians, Paul describes Christ’s atonement in terms of a victory over demonic powers. He tells us that Christ took “the record of debt that stood against us” and nailed to the cross. Then he says this: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:14-15). Probably, by “rulers and authorities” Paul meant demonic rulers and authorities (cf. Eph. 6:10, ff.).
Thus, when Matthew penned this record of Jesus’ triumph over Satan in the wilderness, we should see it in terms of his victory over Satan for us. We are slaves of the devil (Eph. 2:2-3), in bondage to him and to the death that this slavery brings. What’s worse is that we cannot deliver ourselves. But Christ can. He defeated the devil in the wilderness and on the Cross. He has rescued us from sin, death, and the dominion of the Evil One.
But that is not the only way to read the narrative. Another way to look at this text is to see it in terms of Christ’s example to us. On this reading, we should see Christ as showing us the way to combat the devil. After all, as a true man, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of what it means to live in obedience to God. And the tools Jesus used to turn away the tempter are just the tools that are given to us: the Word of God.
Now some would say that such a reading would be illegitimate, because to do so would undermine the Biblical emphasis on the grace of God through Christ’s redemptive defeat of the devil by turning the narrative into a list of commands. However, even in his redemptive work, Christ left us an example. The apostle Peter tells us, “For to this [suffering for righteousness’ sake] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). What’s interesting about this is that Peter saw no problem in pointing to Christ’s suffering for us as an example to us. Paul also points us to Christ, not only as an object of faith, but as an example to imitate: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).
However, the problem would be whenever we take either one of these readings as the exclusive reading of the text. We need both. We need to see the grace of God in Christ’s suffering and being tempted and tried for us, and we need to see the grace of God in Christ’s pattern of obedience as an example to us. Christ is the Law-Fulfiller, the Law-Keeper, the Law-Satisfier, and the Law-Giver. He comes to us not only as Priest but as Prophet and King.
So as we look at this text together, I want to do so in a way that is faithful to both these readings of the text. In particular, I believe what we are meant to take away from this text are at least three things. First, we need to see that Christ has given us an example for us when we face temptation. Second, we need to see that in the temptation, we are never alone. Jesus, having endured temptation in his earthly ministry, is able to sympathize with us and to give us help and grace in time of need. Third, we need to see that when we fail, when we – like Israel of old – do not pass the test, that Jesus has passed the test for us. He perfectly obeyed God and became the only redeemer of God’s elect. He is therefore to be both followed and believed. He is our pattern of obedience and the object of our hope and faith in God.
Jesus Our Example in Temptation
There are at least three lessons that we can learn from our Lord as we watch him battle the devil.
The first is that we need to recognize our enemy. We read that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (ver. 1). The purpose of Jesus’ march into the desert was to be tempted by the devil. Jesus knew who he was facing, and so must we. “We would not be outwitted by Satan,” as Paul puts it to the Corinthians, “for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:11).
In the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British sent one of their top commanders, General Braddock, to quell French resistance in the interior of their American colonies. However, Braddock didn’t understand his enemy. Trying to fight in European style, his army was virtually annihilated when his enemy fought differently. Several days after his first and only engagement in North America, Braddock died of his wounds. His problem was that he didn’t really understand his enemy.
We can have just as much trouble if we don’t understand that we are facing a real and powerful enemy. It troubles me that some Christians don’t seem to want to acknowledge his existence or the danger we face in opposing him. According to Scripture, the whole purpose of knowing about Satan is to defend against him, not to be amused about him. Though we shouldn’t blame our sins on the Devil (“the Devil made me do it”), neither should we deny his very real role as the Tempter.
The devil is indeed a real enemy. In the Bible he is known as the adversary, the accuser of the brethren, Beelzebub, Belial, the deceiver of the whole world, the great dragon, the evil one, the father of lies, the old serpent, the god of this world, the murderer, the prince of this world, the prince of the power of the air, the tempter. In out text, the devil takes Jesus 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.’” (ver. 8-9). It is noteworthy that Jesus did not contradict the devil’s claim here. It is in fact the case that he is the ruler of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). He takes people captive to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26).
He is wicked. His purpose is to undermine the grace of God in your life. As with Job and Peter, he would like nothing better than to get you to curse God and die.
He is cunning. He knows our weaknesses and knows how to attack us at our weakest link. He’s been at this a long time. He knows how to win.
He is powerful, for it takes the mighty power of God to resist him (Eph. 6:10-20). His temptations are described as deadly, flaming arrows (Eph. 6:16).
He is untiring in his efforts. He didn’t leave Job alone after his first attempt to overthrow his faith. He came back. Though he departed from the Son of God, yet we read that he only did so “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Even with Jesus, the devil came back. He won’t give up!
Second, we need to realize our vulnerability. If he was so zealous in his efforts against the very Son of God, why do we think he will leave us alone? So be aware of who you are facing! Don’t let your guard down. Peter tells us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).
What’s interesting is that we are told that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit . . . to be tempted.” Jesus was the Spirit-filled Son of God, and yet that didn’t make him immune from the devil’s attacks. The trophies of Satan include his victories (temporary though they be) over such titans as King David, his son Solomon, Job, the apostle Peter. In fact, Jesus expressly told Peter that “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). [How thankful should we be for the following words: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”!]
There is never a time here on earth that we are safe – we must be constantly alert. While in this life we never leave the battlefield.
Third, we need to resist our adversary. How did Jesus do it? He did it by a total commitment to the Father’s will over his life above all other things. Thus, when the devil came to him tempting him with a piece of bread when it was God’s will for him to fast, Jesus responds by saying that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every world that comes from the mouth of God” (ver. 4). That is to say, for Jesus, obedience to God was more important to him than bread. His meat and drink was to do the will of the Father (John 4:34). I’ve read people describe what it feels like to starve – certainly after 40 days of not eating Jesus must have been close to this place, if not there – and they say it is more intense and gnawing than any other desire in the human body. It is indescribably awful. But what Jesus says here is that though everything in his body was crying out for a piece of bread – and he certainly could have used his power to get it – yet obedience was more important even than that. If we could even approach that kind of commitment, the devil would be hard pressed to turn us from the ways of God.
And yet, isn’t that the kind of commitment for which we are to aim? The law of the Lord is more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10-11). I think of the words of the psalmist: “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (Ps. 119:20).
We see that same kind of commitment in the second and third temptations. In the second (ver. 5-7), the devil tries to get Jesus to manipulate the Father into doing for him something that was not according to his will (under the guise that it was Biblical to do so). To recklessly expose himself to death would have been to tempt God, and this Jesus refuses to do. To tempt God, to try to manipulate him, is just another way to reverse the commitment to obedience by attempting to make God to obey our whims and desires. In the third temptation (ver. 8-10), the devil tries to get Jesus to worship him instead of God. In some sense, in this temptation the devil just dropped all pretense of what he had been trying to do all along: undermine Jesus’ devotion to the Father. In a real sense, true obedience is really just the outflow of our worship of the living God. The two inevitable go together: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (ver. 10).
In all temptations, the devil plays on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (which he was, and which the devil recognizes – the if is not an if of doubt but of assumption; it could be translated, “Since you are the Son of God…”). He tries to get Jesus to feel as he made Adam and Eve to feel, that he deserved more than what God had given him, or that he could get what was rightfully his in a way that was against the will and worship of God. In the same way, we are often tempted to think that as children of God, we deserve better. We often want to believe that we don’t deserve the trial we are going through. But it would be wrong. Let us trust in a good and sovereign Redeemer. Let us live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, for it will be shown to be sweeter than anything the world can give us now.
Our Lord not only defeated Satan by a wholesale commitment to the will of his Father, but also by a complete commitment to the Word of his Father, the Scriptures. You see that in the way that Jesus answered the temptations of Satan: “It is written.” Jesus took the Scriptures that Moses spoke to Israel about their sojourn in the wilderness (cf. Deut. 6:13, 16; 8:3) and applies the words to himself. He arms himself with Scripture to repel the assaults of the devil.
If we would turn away the tempter, let us, like Jesus, know our Bibles and know them well. Let us know it so that we cannot only recognize truth by its light, but also falsehood in its guise. Let us apply its message to our hearts and lives. Let us, like Jesus, recognize in it the authority of God himself so that it binds us to its obedience when the world calls us to forsake the way of righteousness.
Jesus our Help in Temptation
The author of Hebrews tells us this:
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. (Heb. 4:14-16)
Texts like this are inexpressibly sweet and precious. We need to remember that they have their anchor in texts like Matthew 4:1-11. We are often tempted and tried, and in such times we need help, real help. We need someone who is not only able to help, but who has been there so that he knows how to help – exactly where to apply the remedy and grace that is needed. And Jesus fits the bill because he has walked the wilderness road and faced the devil’s snares.
However, to really get the help we need from this text, we need to guard against wrong ideas about our Lord’s incarnation. There is the temptation to think that because he is the Son of God, that fasting must have not been a big deal, or that he was able to go without food that long by a miracle. Or that facing down the devil was for him not that big a deal. However, all this would be wrong. The real humanity of Jesus meant that the fasting was painful (otherwise, it’s hard to see why the devil would have tried to tempt him to turn a rock into a piece of bread). It meant that the temptations he faced were real – though without sin. He really had to resist them. In fact, by never giving in he endured more from the temptation than one does by giving in to it.
When we face temptation, our text not only teaches us what we are to do, but that we should do so as we look to Jesus for help. God’s grace in Christ is neither only past nor future. It is past, present, and future. It is here “in time of need.”
Thus, when we feel the power of the devil and our vulnerability, we need to remind ourselves that we are not fighting Satan alone. We are to stand, not in our own power, but in the power of God: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (Eph. 6:10). When we feel our commitment to obedience giving way in the face of temptation, we need to remember that Christ is praying for us that our faith fail not. We can do nothing without him (Jn. 15:5), but with him we can do all things though Jesus who gives us strength (Phil. 4:13).
We rejoice in the doxology of Jude: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
Jesus our Redeemer when we fail in Temptation
However, the greatest message of all from this text is that Jesus has done what we ultimately cannot. Though we are called to endure temptations and trials (Jam. 1:12), yet the fact of the matter is that none of us will endure them like Jesus did. He was tempted without sin – that is to say, he never sinned in the temptation, he never gave in. And in doing so, by learning obedience in the things that he suffered, he became perfect and “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).
Thus, our text is not only giving us a preview of Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan, but was in a real sense part of that final victory over Satan. It was because he withstood the temptations of the devil that he was made a perfect high priest to atone for the sins of his people.
Our sins are stinking and hideous. For every sin is in some sense a giving in to temptation, and our giving into temptation is to side with the devil. When I sin (no matter what the sin is, no matter how seemingly insignificant to others), I take the side of the one who is behind all the death and misery and pain and suffering and injustice in the world. And having done so, I have justly forfeited all right to eternal life and the fellowship of God. I deserve the wrath to come.
How can someone like you and me be saved? According to God’s word, we are saved by being united by faith to Christ who takes our place under the law of God and fulfilled it perfectly so that when God sees us, he sees not our moral sores, but the perfect righteousness of Jesus. And then Jesus took our place under the wrath of God so that God’s perfect justice is satisfied by his atonement. Being enemies, God makes us friends in Jesus Christ our Lord.