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Jesus defeats demonic temptation
Some of my teachers are hard to remember, while others I will never be able to forget. I never liked Mr. Crutchfield, but he won immortality in my hall of bad memories.
I made sure to get to his college physics class early and to sit down quietly. Almost two hundred of us would wait in the large, steeply-sloped lecture hall for his grand entrance through the side door. His coming was an important event. You see, the moment Mr. Crutchfield entered, trailed dutifully by his grader, a holy silence had to dominate the entire room. Immediately!
If some unthinking soul failed to see the mighty man enter, Mr. Crutchfield would look up with a scowl and snap, “Take out a sheet of paper.” Then would come an all-too-regular pop quiz. At times, even when the room was just perfect, Mr. Crutchfield would give us a pop quiz anyway. Keep in mind that we’re talking college physics here.
Fortunately, I will never have to face those surprise tests in physics again, but life throws its own little tests at me regularly. Although I don’t like them any more than ever, I have to face them, just as you do.
Testing, trials, and temptations come in many forms. They swoop down frequently, if unpredictably, throughout the course of life. At such times, we must face the hardship of living in tension. Some tests strike with the suddenness of a lightning bolt. Other problems, such as chronic illness or an unhappy marriage, can linger for years with quiet savageness. Those things are the bad news.
The good news is that Jesus thoroughly understands how it feels to take tests in life. He faced both kinds: the sudden, sharp tests and the long, grinding ones. Christ knows from experience what we so desperately need from him in our own hour of crisis. For Jesus, every test took on the dark hues of a final exam, because his whole mission could have been destroyed through a single act of sin. By considering his model, we can learn how to endure when the sky begins to fall.
The First Test
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
After being baptized to identify himself with those turning to God, Jesus entered the wilderness to face the onslaught of Satan. To the Israelite mind the wilderness was a place of testing. It also represented a place of purging and preparation before full possession of the Promised Land.
Like Israel, Jesus faced trial in the desert, the scene of the nation’s great failure under temptation. Jesus was the keystone of a new beginning for the people of God, so the Father tested him to prove his qualifications for that mission. The Spirit led him into the desert, demonstrating that this encounter for the Son had the direct approval of the Father. The Father had a totally constructive purpose for Christ in imposing this test.
The Holy Spirit did not commune alone with Jesus in the wilderness. An unholy spirit, Satan, met them there as well. He came to destroy Jesus and his ministry, if possible. If Jesus could be made to stumble even one time, then he would be disqualified as our sinless sacrifice upon the cross. At that crucial moment both God and Satan were operating in the wilderness. The two unequal forces collided in the heart and life of Jesus Christ.
The Greek verbs imply that Jesus faced temptation during the entire forty days. Luke draws our attention to the end of that time so that we can appreciate the tension at its greatest intensity. Jesus had eaten nothing, and by that time his hunger must have been severe. To hunger is not wrong, and to satisfy hunger would not normally be wrong either. But to interrupt a God-intended hunger would defy the decision of the Father.
In his hunger Jesus was reenacting the experience of Israel during the exodus, but with one vast difference. The Israelites’ hunger had led them to grumble against God in unbelief (Exodus chapter 16), but Jesus never faltered in trusting the Father to meet his need at the proper time.
In meeting the test of bread, Jesus quoted from the teaching of Moses (Deut. 8:2–3). Moses told the Israelites that God had tested them in the desert to know their hearts. He had allowed them to know hunger and afterward fed them with manna so they would realize that man doesn’t live merely on bread.
On the surface, it is clear that Satan was tempting Jesus to prematurely end the God-intended test. But underneath that, I see this attack as an attempt to get Jesus to distrust the Father. In other words, Satan was trying to disrupt the relationship.
Jesus could easily have met his own need by converting the stones into bread, just as Satan proposed. But that would have demonstrated a lack of trust in his Father’s loving care. Jesus passed this test with ease.
Lessons from the First Test
Our times of testing resemble those Jesus experienced in certain ways. Both God and Satan can simultaneously work in a given case. The test itself is often amoral, like a knife. A knife in the hands of a surgeon can cut out a cancerous growth and promote healing, yet in the hands of a murderer, the same knife brings death.
So it is with testing. In the hands of the Lord it takes on a constructive purpose, but in Satan’s hands it turns toward our destruction. The Greek verb peiraz?, used in verse 2 by Luke, can mean either “tempt” or “test.” Satan tempts us to bring destruction, but God tests us to confirm obedience and promote maturity.
The Second Test
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
Matthew says that this temptation took place on a high mountain (Matt. 4:8). In the Bible, mountains often symbolize authority, power or a kingdom. So in a symbolic sense, Jesus was taken to the very throne room of Satan, from which he could survey the entire kingdom that had fallen into Satan’s hands. All the wealth, power and glory of the earth lay within Christ’s grasp in those moments!
With consummate persuasion, Satan put great emphasis on the personal pronouns in the Greek text. “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me” (Luke 4:6, italics added). Satan brought all this pressure to bear “in an instant,” perhaps hoping to bring about an impulsive response from Jesus.
Jesus suddenly faced an opportunity to grasp something he should not have. That’s an experience all of us have had and will have again. This kind of temptation invites all kinds of internal justification.
Let’s look more deeply at what Jesus was being asked to do. Satan was inviting him to rule the world immediately. Would that have been wrong? After all, the world rightfully belongs to Christ, and one day he will return to rule over all of it.
So, it wasn’t wrong for Jesus to want those kingdoms, but his time had not yet come. To have the world immediately would have meant the abandonment of his purpose to die on the cross for our sins. In effect, Satan was saying, “Jesus, instead of facing all the pain and suffering that you will endure, why not take all into your hands right now? It’s so easy! All you have to do is bow down and worship me.”
In that second test, Satan played the role of God by taking Jesus to that high mountain and showing him the kingdoms of the world. Jesus saw what he could not then have. This situation recalls the occasion when God took Moses to the top of a high mountain and allowed him to look at Canaan, which he would not be able to enter at that time (Deuteronomy 34).
That second test centered on immediate rule. On the surface, Jesus was invited to worship Satan. But to do that, he would have had to reject sole allegiance to the Father. Again, Satan was attempting to disrupt the relationship between the Father and the Son.
In his answer to Satan, Jesus maintained his sole allegiance to the Father: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:8). Christ passed up unlimited pleasure and chose unlimited pain, to maintain his complete loyalty to the Father. Satan was thwarted a second time.
The Third Test
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
I agree with Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish Bible scholar who embraced Christian faith, who said that Jesus was taken to the highest point of the temple at the time of morning worship. At that hour a priest would blow a great horn, and the thousands of worshipers would pass through the huge doors into the temple.
The Jewish rabbis taught that when the Messiah appeared, he would do so on the roof of the temple. They supported their dramatic prediction with several verses from the Old Testament. Knowing all that, Satan brought Jesus to a moment of great opportunity. Underneath him walked thousands of those he came to save.
When Jesus looked at the people, Satan reminded him of a promise from the Psalms (Psalm 91:11–12). If Jesus really were the Messiah, then the Lord’s angels would not let him fall and die. Instead, they would save him from harm. Such a miracle would undoubtedly have brought immediate acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. By this tactic, Satan again tempted Jesus to avoid the cross and have the kingdom in an easier way.
In answering this enticement, Jesus again relied on the Old Testament: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). Jesus stopped without mentioning the next few words of the quotation: “as you did at Massah.”
The sad story of Massah is told in Exodus chapter 17. There the Israelites tested the Lord and said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exod. 17:7). They were insisting that God prove that he was among them by performing a miracle to provide them with water.
They were wrong in trying to force God to act. The Lord doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone! For Jesus to throw himself from that temple roof would be presumptuous and an insult to his Father. Jesus rightly rejected such a proposal. Again, he triumphed where Israel had failed.
This third temptation consisted of immediate acceptance. Satan invited Jesus to force the Father to act in his behalf. It was another attempt on Satan’s part to disrupt the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son had come to carry out his mission in humble obedience to the Father. Unlike Israel, Jesus proved obedient, even under the severest pressures.
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
Satan would come again. This had been an opportune time for him, but there would be others. Satan used surrogates again and again to offer those very same temptations to Jesus. Consider, for example, the test of the bread. After Jesus fed the five thousand, they followed him to the other side of the lake and tried to get him to perform the same miracle again (John 6:25–30). He refused, on the grounds that they had only come to satisfy their physical hunger.
They wanted to live on bread alone, rather than on the words that come from the mouth of God, so Jesus refused their request. He didn’t come to be a magic man, and he refused to work that miracle because of the people’s distorted spiritual priorities.
In the same time period, the test of immediate rule recurred. Because Jesus had fed them, the people wanted to immediately make him king by force (John 6:15). He rejected this alternative to the cross, as he had before.
Even as Jesus hung on the cross, the people taunted him, as Satan had, by urging him to prove his claims by saving himself from crucifixion. They said that if he worked a miracle by saving himself from death, they would believe in him (Matt. 27:42). Thus, the temptation of immediate acceptance was repeated. Jesus never yielded to any of those temptations, in either their original or altered forms.
The Temptations: A Snap or a Strain
Believers sometimes give the impression that such temptations were a snap for Jesus. They seem to think that Jesus felt no strain at all. But think carefully about the temptations he faced. He was asked to make a choice between limitless pleasure and unbounded pain. That’s far more pressure than any of us will ever have to endure!
Christians often speak about the agony of the crucifixion, and certainly it was terrible. But Jesus experienced no more physical pain on the cross than thousands of others who died by Roman execution. The real agony of the cross struck when the sinless Son of God became sin incarnate, by having all the sin of the ages dumped upon him.
Such shame and degradation surpasses our imagination. That was the unique pain of the cross. Satan invited Jesus to avoid such misery by simply bowing down and worshiping him. In this way Jesus was put under pressure far greater than any of us will ever see.
When I am tempted, I sometimes give in. Doubtless, you do the same. In those cases, I never experience the full force of the temptation, because I cave in before reaching that point. But Jesus didn’t have that luxury. He had to experience the full force and duration of every temptation that was ever thrown at him. There was no easy way out for him. In this respect, too, Christ’s temptations far exceed our own.
A third awesome element of Christ’s temptations is that he had the worst possible opponent. I really don’t believe that many of us, if any, are personally tempted by Satan. But Jesus was. Certainly we may face demonic harassment at times, but Jesus was attacked by Satan — the maximum enemy.
So, if you ever find yourself thinking that temptations presented Jesus no problem, consider those three factors. In order to save us, Jesus had to forgo unlimited pleasure and endure unlimited pain. To be the sinless Son of God he had to endure the greatest force and the longest duration of temptation. And, in Satan, he had the worst possible enemy a person can have. In those three respects, Christ’s temptation far exceeds anything we will ever have to face.
Tips for Passing Tests
Use the following applicational ideas to take advantage of what Jesus teaches us in his resistance to temptation.
1. Satan takes delight in seeing Scripture distorted. This could even be done by isolating one verse and ignoring other pertinent parts of God’s Word. That’s exactly what Satan did in the third temptation. Every “Christian” cult uses distortion of Scripture to gain converts. Use these principles to protect yourself from such practices.
Gain a general grasp of the whole Bible; concentrate special attention on the New Testament, but do not ignore the Old Testament. Even a general grasp can give you considerable protection, although the more you know, the better off you will be!
Before drawing a conclusion from a single verse of Scripture, read the paragraphs before and after it. Is your understanding of the verse consistent with its meaning in context?
When verses are taken out of context, they are often given a meaning that God never intended. I would suggest that whenever you read Christian literature and encounter Bible verses, you look each one up and study its context. Don’t be lulled to sleep just because someone throws in a few Bible references.
Avoid interpreting all statements made in the Bible to others as if they had been stated directly to you. Develop a sense for the difference between a general principle to be followed by all believers and a statement having only historical significance.
In many cases, we do this automatically. Let me illustrate by using two commands Jesus gave to his disciples in the upper room: (1) “Love each other” (John 15:17), and (2) “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Did Jesus mean for you to go out and buy a sword? (It was a command!) No, of course he didn’t mean for you to do that. He was speaking about a specific historical situation.
But the command about love is one command that he wants every Christian to obey. How do we know the difference? Partly, it just takes intuition and good sense, aided by the Holy Spirit. A more objective method would be to consider whether another part of the New Testament repeats the command. The apostles do not repeat the command about buying a sword in the rest of the New Testament, but we find the command to love each other restated frequently.
2. Consider the subtle way that temptation often comes. It strikes at our trust in the Father’s concern for our needs. That’s exactly what Satan did in the test of bread. He didn’t come to Jesus to suggest that he go out and rob a bank, as believers sometimes seem to expect. No, Satan approaches in far more subtle ways than that. He leads us to question the Father’s actions and to “cut corners,” by letting the end justify the means; such was the case with the test of immediate rule.
Or, temptation may suggest that we take rash, willful action to end a time of testing; that was the test of immediate acceptance. Satan will probably not try to get us involved in drug-running. Rather, he will try to get us involved in so-called “small” sins.
How about you? What are you doing to resist temptation? Can you affirm the following statements?
I’m trusting God to meet my needs.
The presence of hardship in my life has not caused me to lose confidence in the Lord.
I’m not going to solve my problems by taking the easy, disobedient way out.
I’m committed to resisting rash or willful actions that I think would displease God.
3. Jesus understands and feels your struggles, and he rewards those who seek him. He was hated, rejected, unappreciated, attacked, tired, even moved to tears — just as we are at times. That’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us that, because Jesus suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help us when we are being tempted (Heb. 2:17–18). The same writer tells us that Jesus can “empathize with our weaknesses,” because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are” (Heb. 4:15). So, when you hurt, he hurts with you. He knows what you are going through!
Apply the following questions to yourself.
Have you prayed for strength to cope with your test?
Do you really believe that Jesus knows how it feels to live in constant tension?
What problem or need should you take to him today?
A Final Word
In some ways our lives resemble a college course with its periodic tests. Assuming you are a believer in Jesus Christ, I have some good news and some bad news about your life-course. First the bad news: You’re going to keep on having pop tests. They will keep happening as long as you live.
Now for the good news: Jesus took the final exam in your place. And even though the course isn’t over yet, your final grade has already been posted.
Coming next . . .
In Chapter 5, we listen as Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount during his early ministry in the northern region called Galilee. The subject: judging others.
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 1:304.