Jean’s Gospel: Temptation
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Matt 4:1-2)
The temptation of Jesus began under the providence of God: The Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. No temptation of God’s children happens without his knowledge or against his will. The devil can tempt Jesus only to the extent it serves the purpose of God.
No doubt the devil’s agenda is opposed to God’s agenda. Whereas the devil attempted to bring about the fall of the Son of Man, God’s purpose was to break the devil’s power over man. So while the devil acts in temptation, he serves God’s plan of redemption: “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” (1 Sam 2:6) With the devil lies sin and death, but with God righteousness and life.
The devil works in temptation in three ways: (1) He leads men to the knowledge of sin; (2) he allows the flesh to suffer; and (3) he gives death to the sinner. However, the devil serves God’s purpose: (a) sin is brought to light so that it can be confessed and forgiven; the knowledge of sin leads to the return to God; (b) the suffering of the flesh leads the Christian into God’s Word and communion with Christ in prayer, strengthening faith; and (c) only through the death of the sinner can the new man in Christ rise.
“And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ ” (Matt 4:3-4)
The first temptation is against the flesh. The flesh desires pleasure and abhors suffering. Jesus has not eaten in forty days and is hungry. The devil tempts Jesus to withdraw from suffering: Grasp your equality with God, Son of God, and feed yourself! Why put yourself through such needless suffering when you have the power to withdraw from it?
This is a powerful seduction by which man is dragged away (from God’s Word) by his own desire to withdraw from or avoid suffering. The temptation is not a sin unless the desire has conceived – by the union of the desire with the heart. “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:15)
If Jesus had used his divinity to withdraw from suffering in the flesh, then all flesh would be lost. Therefore, Jesus stood under God’s Word, claimed no individual privilege beside the Word, and relied entirely on the Word alone: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ ” (Matt 4:5-7)
The second temptation is against the spirit. Even the devil can use God’s Word to tempt man.
The devil tempts Jesus to demand a sign from God: Son of God, ask God to confirm your Sonship with a demonstration of power. However, a faith which demands more than the Word of God in law and promise is to test God. It doubts the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God in his Word.
If Jesus could not rely on the God’s Word alone, then he would no longer be the Christ and redeemer of men who can only find salvation through faith in that Word. Therefore, Jesus will remain only by his Father’s Word: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)
“Again, the devil took him 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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” ’ Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.” (Matt 4:8-11)
The third temptation is the complete temptation. Satan no longer employed the Word against Jesus, but unconcealed his power as the prince of this world. He matched his power against the power of God. Jesus was tempted in his allegiance to God.
It would be a mistake to imagine Satan as a Halloween character or Scrooge-like figure. St. Paul writes: “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Cor 11:14) Satan tempted Jesus, with all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, if he would bend his knee and worship Satan. Satan’s gifts are immeasurably great, beautiful and alluring, but require apostasy from God. Jesus overcame the third temptation like all the others, by hanging entirely on the God’s Word. Since Satan showed himself completely, Jesus addressed him: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ”
“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.” (Heb 4:17)
The temptation of Jesus was not fictitious or the story of the Son of Man’s heroism in the face of evil. It was the real struggle of “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Man has no native strength or defenses against temptation. God may give man into the hand of Satan in temptation and leave him without help from any man or creature. Satan may rob man of everything he has, as he did with Job. Yet Jesus overcame temptation, not by grasping equality with God, but by clinging to the God’s Word, which robbed Satan of his power: “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.”
Jesus Christ has risen! Satan can no longer tempt Jesus directly. He only can tempt Jesus in his members – in the body of Christ. Thus when the Christian is tempted, it is Christ being tempted in us. Thus, St. Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
And like St. Paul, James encourages us to rejoice in temptation: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3) We should rejoice because in Christ all temptations have been overcome. Moreover, we have God’s Word: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor 10:13b)
His Word alone has the power to guard our hearts and minds in Christ and overcome any temptation, as long as Satan finds no power in us; as it is written: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor 12:9) Amen.