Temptations of Jesus


In life we are constantly facing new challenges, new opportunities, new experiences, some disappointments, and hopefully many encouragements. Whether we are at school, at university, at work, or at home, life will carry a mix of predictable happenings, as well as things that we know nothing about.

One thing we can be 100% certain about, is that we will have to face all sorts of temptations in our personal life, and in whatever service the Lord has given us. Satan’s aim is to neutralise our effectiveness as Christians at the personal level, and definitely at the level of our Christian ministry. Life for the Christian is a daily battle, whether we are aware of it or not; whether we like to think of it in these terms or not.

What exactly are we to learn from this passage in Matthew 4:1-11? How do we know that things happened the way this account tells us? Obviously, Jesus told his disciples about it. But why would he share such a personal experience? So that they might learn from his experiences. That’s why we are not to see these experiences as relating exclusively to Jesus. Rather, we are to see how these temptations are to be understood in terms of our life and our ministry.

Temptations are always aimed at undermining our relationship with God. They come to us in 3 main forms, we can categorise them something like this:

  1. ‘What’s in it for me?
  2. Seeking to be popular.
  3. Seeking power & glory.

The text

About the first 30 years of Jesus’ life we virtually know nothing. We know that he was brought up in a godly family with the opportunity to study the Law and the Prophets; in other words, the Old Testament. We see glimpses of his knowledge when, at the age of 12 his parents found him in the temple sitting among the teachers of the law, listening to them and asking them questions. We are told that everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers (Lk. 2:46-47). In addition, every Jewish boy was expected to learn a trade, so we can assume that he was apprenticed to Joseph and learned carpentry (Mt. 13:55). But apart from that we know nothing.

The time finally came for Jesus to begin his public ministry. But, before that happened, he had to face a number of tests.

We are given a clue to how to understand these temptations by the way Jesus answered Satan. All his answers came from Deuteronomy where Israel, God’s adopted ‘son’, was told how to face the way ahead. Now we are to compare the way Israel faced the tests in the wilderness, to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. Israel was chosen to demonstrate to the world what it was like to live under God’s rule, but failed miserably. Now, God’s real Son comes to bring in the kingdom of God through his death and resurrection. So, how is he going to face the way ahead?

Who initiated the test? We read Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (v1). James tells us,

When tempted, no-one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;…. (Js. 1:13).

If Jesus, as the Son of God could not be tempted by evil, what was Satan trying to achieve? Satan tried to tempt him at the level of his humanity. If Jesus failed at the human level to overcome these temptations, then we could never look to him for help when we are tempted. It would mean that at the human level it was impossible to overcome temptation. In that case it would be no good even trying to beat it. Let’s surrender to it and then ask God to forgive us, with the excuse that not even his Son attempted to overcome Satan’s seductions at the human level. That is why it is critical for us to understand that Jesus’ temptations took place completely at the human level of his nature.

We are told about these experiences to show us that his Son, even in his extremely weakened human state, could overcome every temptation Satan placed before him, in his complete dependence on his heavenly Father, without resorting to his divine powers. This gives us the confidence that in Christ we too can overcome every temptation Satan directs against us. We don’t have to live weak, defeated lives. But ‘beginner-type’ faith, or innocent faith, is not strong enough faith when it comes to facing some of Satan’s temptations. Until faith is tested and we learn to overcome temptation, our faith will remain weak and immature.

The source of every temptation is Satan, God’s enemy. Most people in the world think of temptation as a big joke; something you can play around with and see how far you can go, and if in the end you can’t resist it, you might as well have some fun. Have we as Christians been influenced to any extent by this kind of thinking?

Satan’s single determination is to weaken our relationship with God, steer us away from the will of God, and neutralise our Christian influence on people around us. When we see temptation in these terms, we have to take temptation very seriously. When God tests us, it is to give us the opportunity to become stronger. Satan’s aim is the opposite. He wants to weaken us and leave us defeated.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of the things that make us stronger as God’s children, and the things that weaken us and make us ineffective in the way we live and serve our Lord.

Temptation 1 [‘What’s in it for me?’]

After fasting for forty days and forty nights, the tempter came to Jesus and said, If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.

1. How To Understand This Temptation.

These temptations took place just after Jesus’ baptism. At his baptism heaven opened and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove. He also heard a voice from heaven saying, This is my Son, whom I love, and with whom I am well pleased.

Now, after 40 days and nights in the wilderness, devoid of human contact, experiencing hunger pains, plagued by heat during the day and cold at night, the tempter came to him with a rescue plan. “If you are the Son…?” he began… Who was Jesus to believe? When a person is in an extremely weakened state, the mind doesn’t think clearly. Had the Father assured him that he was his Son, or was that some kind of dream? The tempter always seeks to provoke doubt. It was like that in the Garden of Eden when he confronted Eve with the question, ‘Did God really say that?’ Today Satan comes to us and says, “Does the Bible really say that? Can you really believe all that you read in it? If there is so much disagreement about what it says, how can you place your confidence in it?”

On the other hand the tempter could have meant, “Since (not, if) you are the Son, tell these stones to become bread.” The Greek allows for both meanings, and perhaps we are meant to understand it both ways. If we are to understand it as ‘since’, then what the tempter was saying to Jesus is, ‘you have the capacity to satisfy your own needs. You don’t have to wait for some divine intervention. It’s in your power to do something about it. You don’t need to wait for God. You are desperately hungry. Go on. Do it! Think of yourself.’

Jesus’ response was to quote from Deuteronomy: …man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:3). In a later account of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, we read that when the disciples returned from the village after buying some food, they tried to persuade Jesus to eat, because he was tired and hungry. His response was, My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (Jn. 4:34).

The Israelites had lived through their own great deliverance from Egypt and witnessed the way God cared for them along the way. God had not only rescued them, but was committed to looking after them. Yet they moaned and complained when their faith was tested. That’s when God told them that they needed to learn that a person does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. If they were to live as the people of God, they needed to learn to trust him, not just when things were going smoothly.

Ordinary food was not enough to sustain them through the journey of life. They needed to depend wholeheartedly on God for their survival. If it was God’s will they should survive, he could keep them even without ordinary food. It was in his power to do so. Who had kept Moses 40 days and 40 nights without food on two occasions when he had to go up Mt Sinai to receive the tablets of stone from God? Had they forgotten about that?

2. What Does It Mean For Us?

We live in an age of instant gratification. As someone has said, ‘If you are hungry, eat; if you are lonely, have sex; if you are bored, go shopping’. The danger that faces the Christian church today is to offer an easy discipleship. Give people something that they want. Don’t face them up with the radical demands of discipleship. That will only put them off.

God may have given us a role, or responsibility in the life of the church, but how are we going about it? We all begin with a ‘beginner-type’ faith (or, innocent faith) in our Christian life. But as we grow spiritually, our faith needs to grow; not in quantity, but in quality. It isn’t a matter of asking the Lord to give us more faith; rather it is to allow him to deepen our faith, and he does that through the tests that come our way. Until faith is tested and we learn to overcome temptation, our faith will remain weak and immature.

The attitude that says, ‘What’s in it for me? How can I use it to achieve what I want?’ is an attitude more common than most of us are prepared to admit. It’s not always easy to see this motivation clearly in our selves, but, if we are going to be useful to the Lord, we need to pray that we will be helped to overcome this temptation. We have to come to the stage where we can sincerely and honestly say, ‘Not my will, but God’s will be done.’ That, however, will bring about new tests. That’s when we will have to decide how we will respond to God. Jesus’ attitude was, ‘Lord, I’m in your hands completely; do whatever is right.’

One of the things that struck me some years ago when I was looking at these temptations again, was that no matter how extreme a situation may face us, as we live and work for the Lord, if it is God’s will that we survive, we will survive even if all the so-called necessities no longer seem to be there. And the reverse is equally true. If it isn’t God will that we survive, not all the essentials of life that we can build up around us, will keep us going. Our God is a God of miracles and we rarely see this aspect of God because we rarely trust him completely. He is able to bring us through every experience that faces us in life, no matter how extreme it may be.

Our own gifts, wisdom, and abilities will never be enough for the things God wants to achieve in us, and through us. Nor must we ever let flattery spoil our dependence on the Lord. It is never about self-satisfaction; it is about doing God’s will, God’s way. It is always a rewarding experience.

Temptation 2 [Seeking to be popular]

Then the devil took Jesus in his imagination to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and said, ‘If/since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, and watch as the angels of God swoop down to rescue you in the sight of an awestruck crowd. What a dramatic start to your ministry that would be. The people would eat out of your hand right from the start. People are always looking for wonder-workers. You do want them to take notice of you, don’t you? Take the short-cut to glory!’

1. How To Understand It

What was at the heart of this temptation? God had acknowledged Jesus as his beloved Son. He had sent him to be the Saviour of the world as the angel made clear to Mary before his birth. The task of redemption was ahead of Jesus. The devil was basically saying to Jesus, ‘You know, you are going to face all sorts of difficulties: people are not going to listen to you, there is going to be widespread opposition to you, not too many are going to believe what you have to say, are you sure you can trust God to keep you safe in every situation? Why don’t you just make sure that you can rely on him. Put him to the test. At the same time you’ll win people’s hearts. You’ll be a popular leader. Give people something exciting, something easy for them to accept and to follow.’ It was the temptation to become the popular guru.To put it another way, it was to force God to bolster Jesus’ reputation. That was not the basis on which Jesus wanted people to follow him.

The faith that depends on signs and wonders is no faith; it isn’t trusting God. It is doubt looking for proof, and looking for it in the wrong place. Satan was offering Jesus an artificially created crisis as a way of testing God’s faithfulness. It was not trusting God in the everyday situations that crop up in the process of obedient service.

Once again we need to look at the OT background to this temptation. The people had witnessed the incredible parting of the Red Sea to allow them to escape the Egyptian army sent to pursue them, and they had witnessed the powerful demonstration of God’s presence at Sinai. But when they were faced with the lack of water on their way through the wilderness, they forgot that God had not changed. They grumbled and complained to Moses. They said to Moses,

Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst? (Ex. 17:3).

That is like saying to God, either you are blind to our needs, or you don’t care what happens to us. Prove yourself to us. Yes, you did wonderful things then, but what about now! You are making it awfully difficult for us to trust you. Make us comfortable, satisfy our needs, and we’ll trust you. This was nothing less than a challenge to God; a challenge in which they forgot who God was, and what he was seeking to teach them.

In Jesus’ case, the devil even resorted to the Scriptures, saying, ‘Your Father promised to send His angels to keep you safe. Why don’t you make sure that he keeps his word?’

What was Jesus’ response? It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

2. What Does It Mean For Us?

Satan knows how to be subtle when he wants to. In this case he actually used Scripture. Jesus used Scripture to answer him the first time. Now he virtually says to Jesus, ‘I also know how to use Scripture. Didn’t God promise to protect you, so that you won’t get hurt, no matter what you do?’ In quoting Scripture Satan took a verse out of its context. But that is what he often does with Christians who do not know the Bible well enough.

We will never overcome Satan’s temptation while we are not familiar with what the Bible says. The Bible helps us to understand God’s will for us, and how that will is to be worked out in our lives. This is completely contrary to the way the world thinks. The world thinks of power, of influence, of success. You want to build a big congregation, give people what they want. Tell them they can enjoy all material blessings as well as the spiritual blessings, and they will flock to you. Give people a crystal cathedral and make them feel significant, and they will pack the pews. The world regards that as success. Someone might say, ‘But they must be doing something right to get all those people.’ That’s not the criteria by which we are to make our judgements. Hitler managed to harness a whole nation to carry out his evil purposes.

God’s way to defeat sin and evil comes when we recognise our own personal weaknesses and inadequacy. Paul had to wrestle with this problem in his own life and ministry. God said to him, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul’s response was, That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (v.10). Not many people regard insults, hardships and persecutions as part of a success story. Nor was Paul merely a lover of pain!

The cross of Christ will always be God’s illustration of the way he conquers sin and Satan. What the world regarded as failure, was the very means by which victory over evil was obtained. And that principle hasn’t changed in the way God works in the lives of his children. He continues to demonstrate his power in the lives of those who are prepared to walk humbly before him, not seeking their own will, or their own glory, but his; who depend not on themselves, but on him alone.

However, that is not the stance that we readily accept. We want to be seen as being successful, capable, innovative, ‘with it’. And it is this image of ourselves that gets in the way of God working his will, his way, to bring about deep changes in us and in the lives of others. We often want to control what happens and when it happens, so that we can point to concrete results of our efforts—yet, all in the name Christ!? He becomes our servant, instead of the other way round. That’s putting God to the test.

I realise some people might have a problem with the whole issue of putting God to the test. Didn’t God tell king Ahaz to ask him for a sign to prove to Ahaz that he was able to defeat the 3 kings from the north who came marching against Jerusalem, despite their great numbers? (Isa. 7:10). Didn’t Elijah test God when he poured water over the sacrifice on Mt Carmel before he lit the fire under it?

In both cases it was God’s honour that was at stake, and it was a critical time in Israel’s life. Either the people ended up putting their faith in God, or they were going to continue down the path of paganism. The question we need to ask ourselves when we expect God to act in some miraculous way is: ‘Whose glory are we concerned with most of all?’ Is it that he might be glorified, or, is it that our reputation might be bolstered? Knowing the human heart, that is not an easy question for any of us to answer honestly.

God has promised to keep us in the day-to-day events as we live for him and serve him. But, when we create an artificial situation for him to intervene in, that is testing God. That kind of situation is never for God’s glory. It is usually for the enhancement of our reputation and status.

Jesus knew that the only way to achieve the God-given goal of his mission was through the cross, not through some magical display. It would involve perseverance, faithfulness to the Father, rejection, and finally a terrible death. Just because we can achieve some superficial results with our own efforts is no guarantee that that is what God wants of us. God wants people to be saved, and radically transformed, not merely Christianised.

Temptation 3 [Seeking power & glory]

Satan’s subtle approaches in the first 2 temptations hadn’t worked, so in this third temptation he comes with all guns blazing. No more nice-guy approach helping Jesus out of his predicament or showing a concern for his public acceptance. No more veiled suggestions. This time it was a blatant, “Worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the world.”

Satan knows the Bible, and he knew that in Psalm 2 God told his Son that he would give the nations for his inheritance, and the ends of the earth for his possession, and that he will rule them with an iron sceptre.

Satan was saying, ‘I can give them to you, without you having to face the cross. All you have to do is form an alliance with me. Together we would be great! What a liar! The kingdoms of the world were never his to give, nor can you ever trust him. Jesus called him the ‘father of lies’; he is the master of deceit, but we often can’t recognise his deceitfulness unless we are familiar with the Scriptures.

1. How To Understand It

We are all familiar with the expression, ‘The end justifies the means.’ How we set about achieving our ends is not important,’ some people say. ‘It’s the end that counts.’ If the end is a worthy cause, who worries if along the way we manipulate a few things to achieve what you are aiming at?’ That’s one of Satan’s lies. We see this principle operating in business, in economics, in government, in education; and, unfortunately, to some extent in some Christian institutions and organisations. The temptation is to get a quick-fix to obtain what we want.

Had Jesus made an alliance with Satan, his ultimate goal of providing salvation, would have been changed completely.

2. What Does It Mean For Us?

Any alliance we enter into with secular authorities always affects the way we live and carry out God’s work. We become harnessed to values and directions that we have to accommodate to, if we are to continue to reap the benefits of that relationship.

When Christian organisations and missions begin to receive financial assistance from governments, it always dilutes the clear-cut Christian witness. This is the story of so many private schools in Australia, and certainly true of a number of prestigious universities in America. They began with a clear Christian mandate to train young people to go out into society with a strong commitment to maintain Christian values and perspectives. The more help they received from their governments, the less Christian they became. In fact, some of the universities in America that began with a strong Christian witness and Bible-based curricula now produce people who are actually anti-Christian in their attitudes. This is true of some of our so-called church schools.

Satan is cunning. He achieves his aims with great patience and perseverance, and he relies on Christians becoming increasingly ignorant of what the Bible really teaches, and allowing the world to set our agenda. In some cases we have accepted too much from secular authorities, and now we are bound to them. In some of our church-run retirement homes, ministers have been told that they can no longer witness to the residents about the Lord, and chaplains have become no more than social workers. Satan has made deep inroads into our so-called Christian institutions, and we have given up the message that people are lost and are going to a Christless eternity. The only way back to God is through Jesus Christ, and him alone. This is a message that is offensive to many non-Christians, and sadly, it is becoming more and more offensive to some Christians.

In an article “Have you gone Hollywood?” Pastor Silas Krueger says the most insidious aspects of Hollywood’s self-applause seem to have permeated the thinking of some churches these days. Advertising brochures of some churches are shamelessly saying, “Look at us!” “We are ‘the place to be!’” “Church was never meant to be boring—and ours isn’t!” What is significantly lacking in each of these brochures is any reference to the name of Jesus and the message of the Gospel. So, what is the focus then? It’s on you! Are you having fun yet where you are? Do you feel your needs are being met where you are? Does the place make you feel good about yourself? The church seems to exist around what you want.

Self-advertising is not new, says the author. That was the approach Adam and Eve fell for in the garden, The deceiver told them, “It can be all about you and what you want,” and they bought it.

We too are confronted with a choice of two paths: One the pathway of love that involves self-sacrifice and powerlessness, but one that faithfully represents God and the Gospel. Or, the path of quick-fix solutions. It leads to what the world regards as success, prestige, and control. But, it can only be one, or the other. The two do not mix. Nor do they mix in the life of the church.

Jesus’ words to Satan on this occasion are so vital, Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ We cannot serve God and money, or God and popularity, or God and status, or God and power, or God and numbers.

Concluding thought

The wonderful news is that Jesus, in his humanity overcame every temptation. As the writer to the Hebrews put it:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:15,16).

For those who fall, and who of us has not fallen over the years, there is grace, there is mercy, and there is forgiveness for those who come to the Lord with genuine repentance, and are prepared to submit to doing his will, his way.