Temptation and the Gospel

Read Matthew 4:1-10

Here’s the situation. You are away on a business trip; you are lonely and want some company. And, it is far too easy to locate such company just down the corner. So you go to your room, thinking yourself noble to have resisted temptation. Then you turn on the TV, and the movies on only serve to further arouse your lust. You know you’re being tempted. So how do you handle it? Or do you even try? What do you do when you’re in a situation, in which you feel yourself over your head in a temptation? You’re reeling from a quite potent seduction. These happen from time to time.

At first, you repel the immediate impulse and conquer those lusts. Then a little while later there is more of the same. How do you handle these temptations, when you know that they are possibly larger than yourself? Do you ever recognize certain temptations as being larger than your ability to handle? If you do not, then you are probably either overestimating yourself or else underestimating your temptations.

This early gospel passage tells us both how to handle such temptations as well as Who to look to in the midst of those temptations. This is a primary passage that tells us about how our Lord Jesus dealt with temptation. I want to point out three angles:

                (1) Satan’s techniques - so we can be prepared for his stratagems;

                (2) Our Lord’s own method of handling temptation;

                (3) How we can follow this example in our own lives.

In v. 1 this passage begins with a clear theological affirmation—that even temptation comes under the umbrella of the plan and purpose of God. Matthew 4:1 says, “then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. From this we can deduce that it was no accident that Jesus was led into the desert. On the contrary, Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit. Does the Holy Spirit do things like this? At least on this occasion he does. And whenever you are led into temptation, know this: you are not alone in that temptation. The Christian has the presence of the Holy Spirit, even while in temptation. We’re not tempted apart from the providence of God.

Perhaps a clarification of one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer can help at this point. Two chapters later, Jesus will teach his disciples to pray that God will lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. We often pray the same petition. Doesn’t that look on the surface like God is not ever to lead us into temptation? Yes, it does on the surface. But look deeper than that. At the heart of that petition, as taught by our Lord, is not that the disciples will necessarily be removed from all temptation, but from a certain kind of temptation. What our Lord’s model prayer is actually saying is that we should pray that God will not lead us into a temptation which will cause us to fall into evil. The last phrase-- “Deliver us from evil”--explains what is truly meant by “lead us not into temptation.” So the disciple is nowhere promised that he/she will be immune from temptation. In fact, just the opposite is meant: we will have temptations.

And here in this passage at the opening verse, we are shown that it is God who is in control--even of temptation. The Lord Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, specifically the scripture says, “To be tempted by the devil.” So we have it on the best authority that God even superintends the temptations which are included in his plan. Is God evil in this? Certainly not. He is working to strengthen his people. And he knows how much heat his chosen vessel can take. The next time you face an unusual temptation, know that God is not somehow off the Throne and unable to help you. In fact he is squarely on the throne, able and willing to help his child, and even directing the entire play. Never forget that it is the Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is leading Jesus into this severe temptation. The Christian will take comfort, at least in the fact, that no matter where we are, no matter how severe the trial, even in those crucibles, the Spirit is with us.

Now consider the Enemy’s Manual of Operations. He definitely has what we would call a Standard Operating Procedure.  For it is very clear from this passage that we see Satan’s best strategy put forward. This is not his second best. Satan, you remember, fell himself prior to the human Fall in Genesis 3. And he was effective in luring Eve and Adam to fall and sin. Further, throughout history he has had a number of pyrrhic victories in leading many to succumb to temptation. But now in this contest, this clash of the titans in the wilderness, Satan, takes on his roughest foe. He knows it. Satan has prepared for centuries for this grudge match. He has honed his diabolical cunning to a fine tip. He knows, better than anyone else in the world—better than the Pharisees, even better than Jesus’ own disciples—who his opponent is. Satan is taking on the Lord God in the flesh. A victory now would be so strategic as to guarantee, eventual victory. A loss would put the decision beyond question.

The wily serpent waits in the desert grass. He will not lurch too soon. He knows exactly what he is doing and will seek to take his unsuspecting opponent off-guard, at his weakest moment—as he had so many. He looks for you the same way—at your weakest moment. You don’t expect Satan to be fair do you? To play by the rules – fair and square, with the best man winning? He carefully calculates when Jesus would be the weakest. Jesus had been fasting as v. 2 says “forty days and forty nights.” The redundancy makes the undeniable point that the period is forty entire days, not parts of days. Any human being would be famished, and Jesus was, according to the Scripture, “hungry.”(4:2) Satan, first attempts a physical seduction. This is the weakest of his ploys, but still, sometimes it is effective. You should be on your guard, expecting Satan to seek to tempt you in this manner, many times first. Often Satan will attack in this area first, to see if we’ll succumb to this sort of temptation. And many times Satan is effective in this broadside. Believer in Christ, watch for the first attacks of Satan to be lodged at you in one of your weak physical areas. Then if repelled, he’ll seek other areas to attack. From this passage, if we’ll observe, we can learn our enemy’s best attacks. Be wise and expect them. If Satan attacked Christ this way, rest assured, you’ll have the same kinds of temptations—until you become greater than Christ.

As Satan comes to Jesus, he speaks to the Lord, just as the serpent of old, spoke to Adam and Eve. In fact one thing to remember is to read this passage as an exact contrast with the Genesis 3 passage describing the Fall. At every point where Adam and Eve went wrong, Jesus does not. At every point of our first parents’ failure, Jesus succeeds. This is the reversal of the Adamic sin. It is Eden Corrected, Paradise Found—out there, with Jesus alone with that crafty, hideous Murderer—in the dust of the desert, with a temptation beginning over food. Jesus faces, not the Last Temptation, but one which will reverse the First Temptation. Jesus, our new Adam, succeeds where the first Adam failed. So Satan speaks, and in this first temptation he taunts Jesus with an insult, calling even into doubt the divinity of him who Satan knows to be God: “If you are the Son of God”—is spoken with a crackling, raspy skepticism which could only be so coarsened after centuries of practicing unbelief. If you are the Son of God,” tell these stones to become bread.” That is Satan’s first temptation. Like in Eden, that first of three temptations is over food, something physical. Be on your guard against physical temptations. None of us are immune.

Also in this is subtle doubt that Jesus has the power to change these stones into bread. Satan’s attempt is two-fold. First he seeks to draw Jesus into a debate about an indisputable fact. Jesus is the Son of God. But Satan will not even grant that from the outset. He insults and mocks God-in-the-flesh . Second, he appeals to a genuine physical weakness. Jesus was fully God, but also fully man. He had gone without food for 40 days. And he really was hungry. Bread would have tasted great.

Joseph A. Alexander discerned that this sin, however, is not gluttony: “The only sin, which satisfies the terms of the whole context, is that of dis-trusting God and refusing to rely upon his providence, by undertaking to supply one’s own wants and sustain one’s own life, in the exercise of an extraordinary power.”[1]  

Now notice how Jesus handles this temptation, by noting what Jesus does not do. From our Lord’s responses we can learn much about how to defeat temptations. Jesus did not get into an argument with Satan. He did not speak to Satan on his own terms, nor allow Satan to set the rules. Jesus knew better. You should know better. Whenever you are being tempted, don’t seek to do battle with Satan on his own turf and according to his guidelines. If so, he’ll beat you every time. The Christian must fight Satan in the same manner that the Lord Jesus does here. That is, we’re to fight Satan, not with our own strength, ideas, or methods. We’re to—the sooner the better—re-orient the fight to an entirely different level. We must, in fighting this adversary, do as our Lord does and fight Satan with the Word of God. Jesus quotes Scripture to Satan, and it is Scripture, the Word of God, which according to Eph. 6:17 is the sword of the Spirit, the offensive weapon to battle Satan. God’s Word is not just some old dusty book. It is “alive and active and sharper than a double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).

Jesus quoted from the OT—Dt. 8:3. Jesus, let’s face it, might be criticized today as being overly fond of the OT. He read, studied, and fed on the OT scriptures. Since all 3 of the OT quotations in this passage are from Dt. 6-8, we might even assume that Jesus’ reading or meditation that day of his wilderness fast was from those chapters in Scripture. Jesus relied on the OT scriptures (the NT was not even written yet) to wage this battle for him. And it was the very Word of God—not a quote from a Christian leader, author, or pastor (as helpful as those sometimes may be) that was potent enough to win this first round and repel the attack. Nothing else is stronger than the Word of God in fending off the attacks of the Evil one. The next time you are tempted, make sure that some strong promises of Scripture are stored in your memory to hurl at the evil Seducer. That’s how Jesus handled extreme temptation, and that is how we should follow his example. Nothing else will work. We must admit our inability and turn to God’s word as our ammunition against so great a Foe.

Jesus’ answer in Mt. 4:4 is, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Christ’s answer is to point out that humans are far more than food-consuming machines. We do not live only by physical food and there are some things more important than the next meal. We are not—as some behaviorists teach—just a sophisticated machine which is programmable by Stimulus/Response. We need more than food, and one of those absolutely important things is to feed on the words that come from the mouth of God. Nothing else will satisfy our parched throats and malnourished bellies—especially during temptation.


This article is the first in a series on Jesus' temptation. Read the second and third parts.

[1] Joseph A. Alexander, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 80.


David Hall