“I can resist everything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde wrote the play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, and it’s a great example of not making too many assumptions when you don’t have all the information. It turns out that Lady Windermere thinks her husband is having an affair. The woman she thinks he’s cheating on her with turns out to be a model of virtue, as is her husband. And the man that she enlists to help her prove her husband’s supposed unfaithfulness, Lord Darlington, winds up being a man who no one would ever ask for council when it comes to ethical concerns. He has no real ethical principles. At one point he says, “Life is too complex for hard and fast rules.” “Situational ethics” is his creed. Everything is flipped on its head. And in one conversation with Lady Windermere, as they are discussing the suitability of “hard and fast” rules, that is when he tells her, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Contemporary ethics treat temptation more like a joke than a threat, much like Oscar Wilde does in the words of Lord Darlington. But if we truly understood the nature of temptation, it would prove itself to be no joke but to be the poison it actually is.
Scripture has much to say about temptation, to include how destructive giving in to it can be. Temptation makes its first appearance in the garden, in the very beginning, in Genesis 3. The tempter, later identified to be Satan, the devil, the dragon, that ancient serpent, presents a compelling argument for why obedience to God’s word is not in their best interest. Up until the entrance of Satan into the garden, Adam and Eve had lived in perfect obedience to God. They lived by faith, which is living in obedience to the revelation given to us by God.
It’s mind-boggling to think that the simple presence of Satan did nothing to bring about a curse or human sin. When Satan presented his vision of God’s unfair, unnecessary limits on human experience, Adam could have resisted and continued to live by faith—living in obedience to the revelation given to us by God. It was only when Adam was faced with temptation and began to believe the word of the tempter over the word of the Creator that God issued a curse on the land for his disobedience and lack of faith.
This makes Jesus overcoming the temptations he faced in the wilderness all the more meaningful. As we’ll see, the temptations Jesus faced from Satan were intentional and targeted; they weren’t random. Since the fall of man, through the history of Israel, up until the time of Christ, all people everywhere were held under the power and curse of sin.
The apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:12-14).
There are two men under whom all of humanity is placed. There is no equivocation, no gray area, no third way, no comprising. You are either in Adam and dead in your sins or in Christ and alive in the Spirit. Where the first Adam, a type or a shadow of the one who was to come, faced temptation and caved to the false promises of the enemy, the second Adam, Jesus Christ, faced temptation and believed the word of the Father.
Jesus overcame Satan’s temptation by living faithfully to God’s revelation.
If faith is living according to and trusting in God’s revelation in his word, then living according to every temptation is thinking that I have a right to whatever I want. While that’s the mantra of these last days, it stands in stark contrast to the biblical worldview. Caving to desire is the path to destruction. It is the way of rebellion against God. That was the way of Adam. But the way of Christ is glad obedience and submission to the word of the Father. And in that glad obedience, Christ did what Adam would not do and what none of us are capable of.
4:1-4, The Temptation to Satisfy Self
Jesus began his public ministry with his baptism. As Jesus came up out of the water, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16b-17). Seemingly immediately, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by God the Spirit with the express purpose of being tempted by Satan.
The wilderness is a repetitive theme in Scripture. Adam and Eve are cast out into the wilderness, east of Eden, after the fall. Jacob, one of the patriarchs, wrestles with God in the wilderness. Moses and the Israelites are sent into the wilderness for forty years because of their idolatry, but it is in the wilderness that they will receive the teaching of God and build the tabernacle for worship. And now, Jesus is sent into the wilderness, so we should expect to see Jesus faced with the same struggles.
As Israel fasted in the wilderness for forty years and proved faithless, as Moses fasted for forty days and nights, so Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and proved faithful. It’s little wonder Satan’s first temptation was food. Satan says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” You might ask yourself, “What’s the problem? Why shouldn’t Jesus feed himself? Doesn’t Jesus miraculously create food at other times?” Yes, Jesus does make food, but never for himself. Anything miraculous that Jesus does is done for the benefit of others.
Jesus’s response shows his absolute devotion to the Father. He says, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (v.4). This is not the first time these words have been spoken in Scripture. Jesus is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy 8:3. That book is a look back at the time spent wandering in the wilderness. Moses is reviewing that period as the Israelites are about to end it and enter into the promised land for the first time.
As the Israelites were first learning to live in the wilderness, they began to hate it. They had just been set free from slavery in Egypt after 430 years. They were finally their own people, being formed into their own nation, given their own laws. They were no longer slaves in Egypt. But people are never satisfied. They quite literally just crossed the Red Sea, witnessed the Egyptian army drown in the water, and they begin to complain about…the quality of the food. They are not living by faith, trusting that God would fulfill his promises to them, even though they had just participated in the greatest act of deliverance the world had known.
Moses then remembers this event and interprets it for the children of those who had grumbled in the desert. Even in their grumbling, their outright complaining against their Redeemer, God feeds them. He sends them food from heaven. When they see it, they ask, “What is it?’, which is the word “manna”, hence, manna from heaven. They knew it came from God, but they weren’t sure exactly what it was.
And Moses tells them in Deuteronomy 8, “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (vv.1-3).
They ate bread from heaven that day, and the next day, and until the end of their forty years in the wilderness. God never stopped supplying their need. Sometimes, like he did with Israel, he will let you hunger so that you know how fleeting physical hunger really is and how far more essential is your spiritual hunger. And so Jesus fasted for forty days, not even eating manna from heaven, but relying entirely on God’s provision—whatever it would be. Jesus proved himself to the the faithful Israelite.
Sometimes we can’t see past our need for food so we neglect our most important need—the word of God. Of course we need food, and our heavenly Father knows what we need before we even ask. “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matthew 6:25)? If you live your life, if you make decisions, if you plan your days ahead of time, believing that you have a right to whatever you want, you are easily destroyed by temptation. If you trust in the provision of God at every step in the wilderness, even if it’s in contrast to what you want, you have rule over your sin.
4:5-7, The Temptation to Protect Self
All of these temptations are ultimately a single thinly-veiled attempt by Satan to prove God is untrustworthy. But in a fallen world that’s full of threats and dangers, we are prone to run from God and take matters into our own hands instead of running toward God in childlike dependence and trust, hence why Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he says for the second time, “throw yourself down.” If Jesus really was God the Son, then what better place to prove it than the temple.
Satan somewhat changes his tactics. Since Jesus is quoting Scripture, so will he. He uses Psalm 91 to justify his charge that Jesus should test God in his ability to provide for his people. The full passage from the Psalm reads, “For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (vv.11-12). It’s difficult to know if Satan knew the passage as well as he should have, because the very next verse reads, “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (v.13). This is the very condemnation made by God to the serpent in the garden of Eden. The promised Redeemer would crush the serpent’s head with his foot. So yes, God promises to guard his people, but he also promises to destroy the enemy.
Satan tempts Jesus by telling him to prove that God will protect him. It’s not enough that God has said it; you need to test him and be sure yourself. It’s not enough that God will care for us in the way he knows to be for our good and his glory; you need to force God’s hand to work to your benefit. There is perhaps no greater, clearer rebuke of the prosperity or the health-and-wealth gospel than this, which preaches that with just your word, with enough faith, God will do whatever you ask. His greatest desires for you are more money, better situations in life, more status and power, less strife, no enemies, and quick and painless recoveries from illness—you know, just like the crucified Jesus. God’s glory and his jealousy for his own name plays no role in their belief. Jesus only died to break the curses of all those things. There’s no cross to bear, no temptation to overcome, and no place for death and resurrection. Men and women like Stephen Furtick, Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Todd White, Creflo Dollar, Joseph Prince, Joyce Meyer, and many other vipers like them should be marked and avoided. It’s not just television preachers anymore. It’s all over the internet, and it takes biblical discernment and a willingness to to call evil evil to turn away from them. They sound more like Satan than Satan, and their messages have sent as many people to hell as Satan.
Jesus responds to Satan again with the word of God. Again quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus likens the attitude and ungratefulness of the wandering Israelites to the voice of Satan. “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (v.7). When the Israelites had left Egypt when they were grumbling about their food, they also grumbled about their water. Because they didn’t have it yet, they gave up trust in God to give it to them at all. They didn’t have what they needed when they wanted it, so the only natural conclusion was that God was withholding it from them. When Moses has to deal with the grumbling Israelites again, he asks them, “Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17:1-2). The people were planning to stone Moses because they were so angry. But again, like with the manna, God provided out of his mercy toward them. God even did so in a miraculous way. Moses struck the rock, and water poured out. And as Moses is later retelling this story to the children of the wilderness wanderers, he tells them, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus, though, makes no demands upon the Almighty. Every step of the way, he lives by faith.
The child of God makes no demands of God. In Luke 17, Jesus tells a parable of unworthy servants where he says, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (vv.7-10).
Our duty is to receive the word of God and respond to it in faith and repentance. It’s true, Jesus paints a complex picture of what it means to be a child of God. We surely are his children who have access to his very throne, but we are not his equals who speak to him as though we can make demands of our Creator and Father.
Jesus is tempted to satisfy himself apart from God, he is tempted to protect himself on his own terms, and now he faces:
4:8-11, The Temptation to Glorify Self
The temple itself was built on Mt. Zion, so it was elevated above the rest of the city. Now Satan takes Jesus beyond the temple to another high place. Like the wilderness, high places held special meaning in Scripture. Most often, high places were areas where people offered unwarranted sacrifices beyond the temple, or where God had ordained sacrifices to be offered. These places were considered to be nearer to the heavens, thereby nearer to God. The good kings had to repeatedly tear down these altars on the high places that Israelites had made. There was one place to go and offer your sacrifices if you were an Israelite. The high places, beyond the temple, were unsanctioned and idolatrous.
So now, Satan takes Jesus to a high place and tells Jesus that if he will worship Satan there, then all the kingdoms of the earth will be his. It’s difficult to consider the idea that Satan would actually be able to give Jesus anything, nevertheless several kingdoms. By no means is Satan’s an absolute power, but it is a power, temporary it may be, exercised only by God’s permission.
We read in 1 John 5:19, “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” And he writes again in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
We should not think for a moment that Satan has any power over us, but we shouldn’t be so naive to think he exercises no authority at all. And what he offers to Jesus on the mountain is only a temporary, fleeting kind of kingdom. This world is passing away. But Christ’s kingdom, the one prepared for him by his Father, is eternal. The apostle Peter reminds us, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11).
Satan can offer us nothing that is not a mockery of the goodness of God. It is a forgery, nothing like the real thing. Our fallen disposition or nature tempts us to move into idolatry and worship anyone or anything except our Creator. But Jesus again turns our focus back to Scripture, himself quoting Deuteronomy one more time, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (v.10).
Satan may offer a counterfeit kingdom, but his power and authority is itself a childish imitation of Christ’s power as God the Son. In a single word, Jesus says to Satan, “hypagō”, “Be gone”, and Satan has no other option but to leave. Whatever authority or power Satan has over this world, he has no power, no authority, and no ability to withstand the command of God. Jesus was under no compulsion to heed the words of Satan. But with just a word, Satan had no option but to heed the word of God the Son. We’re told in verse 11, “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.”
The miracles that Jesus performed showed that he had all power over nature, the body, and evil spirits. If Jesus cast a demon out of someone, he didn’t put in a request and wait for an answer. The unclean spirit could not resist the word of God. In the same way, Satan could not resist Christ’s command to leave him. We can be assured that all temptations, all evil spirits, all works of the devil, are squarely under the sovereignty of God.
Temptation is all around us. God told Cain after murdering his brother, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). So often, what must change is our minds. From a changed way of thinking comes a changed belief, and changed behavior follows. To think we deserve to have every impulse and desire satisfied immediately will inevitably lead us to self-destruction. Do we even need to comment on how such a way of thinking runs amok today?
What was Jesus really offered in these temptations? If he turned the stones to bread, he could have impressed people with his ability to provide. If he had bobbed off of the top of the temple, he could have impressed people with signs and wonders. If he had accepted the kingdoms of the earth, he could have impressed people with with his royalty.
But Christ came and died not to impress but to save. Jesus regularly told those he healed and exorcised not to tell anyone about what he had done for them. He was not going to distract from his true mission—to seek and save the lost. He would not seek a kingdom that was not from his Father. Jesus did indeed provide for his people, he did many signs and wonders to prove his divinity, and he did of course assume a throne in his ascension. The book of Matthew ends by confirming that Jesus did truly inherit all authority in heaven and on earth. But the book of Luke also tells the story of the temptations of Jesus, and he ends with this important note: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
One of the greatest dangers when it comes to temptation is to think that it goes away. Temptation was not gone. Satan was not done. This passage seems to have been in James’ mind when he wrote, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Cain had to be told to rule over sin in Genesis 4, and James had to repeat a similar command thousands of years later. We need to hear that truth as much today as in the past.
Do not get tired or complacent in the fight against the common temptations of lust, greed, and anger. Be prepared every day to fight against pornography, covetousness, and rage. Each morning, commit to taming your desires, having just one more degree of mastery over your appetites, and seeking the holiness of God. Don’t be fooled into thinking that temptation has been mastered or erased.
Don’t get lulled into thinking that the Christian life is lived in an armchair, just waiting to die or for the second coming. The fact that you are justified by Christ’s righteousness and his righteousness alone motivates the believer to seek to put your sin to death, knowing that in Christ’s death you, too, died. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). You will be tempted until the day you die, but because of Christ’s perfect righteousness, no temptation will come upon you that you cannot bear, and no temptation will come upon you that will be able to take you away from his hand.