Early in the Gospels we come across a most meaningful story. Considering what Jesus had just experienced in the Jordan, what happened to Him next stands in stark, nearly mind-blowing contrast. To recap, Christ began His public ministry by leaving His safety zone in Nazareth and traveling to where John was preaching in order to get baptized. Despite His kinsman’s mild protest (John thought Jesus should baptize him, instead) our Savior allowed Himself to be submerged in the cool waters of the river just like everyone else was doing. When He came back up He was greeted by none other than the voice of His Heavenly Father who announced, “…This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight” (Matthew 3:17). He couldn’t have gotten more convincing evidence of His true identity! On top of that, the third person of the divine Trinity, the Holy Spirit, then descended upon Him “…like a dove”. Thus Jesus received all the confirmation for His mission on earth He’d ever need. Yet whatever elation He felt was to be short-lived because immediately afterwards He was “…led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). What followed is as widely-known, even to unbelievers, as the name of Jesus is. Christ faced not only the rigors of the unforgiving desert climate but He also had to spar with the wily, poisonous snake called Satan.
To fully absorb this infamous scenario we have to pose a few pertinent questions. First off, how did this true tale manage to end up in the pages of the Bible? After all, only the Son of God, the devil and the observing angels were “on the scene” and the latter group ain’t talking. (Of course, Satan would prefer the episode be forgotten altogether.) It was basically our Lord out in the badlands all by Himself. This was before the apostles were on board so no one even knew He was out there. Nobody was even looking for Him. The fact is Jesus was utterly alone in the middle of nowhere for 40 long days and nights. Therefore we must conclude that the detailed story of what went down between Him and the devil in the wilderness came from Christ’s very own lips and then faithfully passed on by His disciples. This begs a second question, though – Why did Jesus deem it important for the world to know exactly what occurred? He wasn’t a braggart or a time-waster so the tale must serve a more profound function. Else He would’ve never brought it up. Common sense would indicate Christ revealed it for His followers to contemplate in order to help them deal with the inevitable temptations they’d encounter in their own lives. In the Celebrate Recovery ministry those who’ve achieved victory over their hurts, hang-ups or habits are encouraged to share their testimony for the benefit of those new to the program. There’s a bounty of comfort and reassurance in knowing someone else has defeated the same temptation they’re battling. And it’s especially uplifting to discover the greatest overcomer in the Bible is the one and only Son of God. It’s also likely that Jesus talked about His desert ordeal because it was a unique and wholly unforgettable personal experience He went through. It no doubt affected Him immensely and for His disciples to know all about Him and His purpose was always crucial. It was imperative they have it permanently stored in their minds so they could write it down for posterity later on.
It must be emphasized that Christ’s temptation was real and not some kind of metaphorical illustration. Too many regard it as being such, rationalizing that because Jesus was God Incarnate He was never for a nanosecond in danger of succumbing to the devil’s enticing offers. James S. Stewart wrote, “It may be glorifying Jesus to say He won His victory always without effort. But surely it is glorifying Him far more to say He marched to it through an agony of sweat and blood.” Our Savior can therefore identify completely with our own faith-straining ordeals. “For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And we should refrain from imagining that Christ was confronted by a cartoonish Satan in a scarlet onesie, complete with horns, pointed tail and pitchfork. That’s not how the devil approaches you or me with his lures so it’d be unrealistic to suppose he approached the Lord any differently. Think about it. Jesus, drained of stamina and strength (both physical and mental) stemming from a severe dearth of food and water for nearly six weeks, was at the nadir of His ability to put up a fight. In a spiritual sense, I’ve been there and I suspect you have, too. Jesus knows how that feels. He can commiserate with us and give us courage. “For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
Bear in mind that any doubts Satan had about Jesus’ being the promised Messiah had evaporated instantly when he heard God audibly give Him His official stamp of approval. Perhaps the devil decided it’d be wise to test Christ’s devotion pronto, before He had a chance to fully digest the words He’d heard spoken to Him by His Heavenly Father. Still, Satan deliberately waited until starvation became a serious threat before tempting Jesus to use His unlimited power in a self-serving manner. (“Hey, dude, since you think you’re the ‘Golden Boy’ and all, why not prove it by turning these rocks into crescent rolls?”) He tempted Christ by appealing to His sense of duty. (“My man, if you die out here from lack of nourishment won’t you be thwarting God’s plan to save the world? Eat already! Your dad’ll surely approve.”) He tempted Him by calling into question His love for all human beings, the hungry in particular. (“If you won’t manufacture bread for yourself, at least do it for the poor, destitute masses! They’d crown you king in a heartbeat. Think how grateful they’d be!”) What if Jesus had caved in? Well, for one thing, He would’ve lost credibility as being one who’s been tempted as we are and yet was able to emerge victorious. Besides, Christ didn’t come to bribe souls but to win them. His desire that the free will of all men and women remain inviolate was paramount. He’d gladly lead folks to the well of living water but He’d never force (or bribe) them to drink thereof. Jesus intended to meet the spiritual hunger that mere loaves of rye would never satisfy. He told Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
The devil didn’t quit. He simply retreated to devise another attack strategy. He does the same to us, does he not? Plan B was to tempt Christ into doing something spectacular that’d force even the most stubborn Pharisee to relent and acknowledge His divinity. Consider that one of the main reasons Jesus wanted to go off by Himself was so He could map out how He was going to proceed with broadcasting the plan of salvation and the methods He’d use in presenting it to the common people. Would they respond favorably to hearing the truth being preached? Would it take more than that to grab their attention? He knew for sure there were no guarantees when it came to human fickleness yet failure to establish a new covenant wasn’t an option. So Satan whispered in His ear, “You do know there’s a surefire way, don’t you? Folks always love supernatural extravaganzas so why not fling yourself off a tall building and let the invisible angels catch you in the nick of time? The crowd would go bananas! They’d be putty in your hands!” This ploy didn’t work, either, for several reasons. (A) Jesus trusted His Father’s plan completely so taking a short cut to notoriety was out of the question. (B) Jesus knew that while a jaw-dropping stunt like that would produce short-term gains, in the long run it wouldn’t pay dividends. Stewart wrote, “Men may acclaim something that stirs the imagination, but they can be saved only by something that touches the heart.” (C) Jesus refused to kowtow to the public’s “fascination with sensation” because He knew such things were utterly bereft of spiritual value. And (D), as in the first temptation, Jesus would do nothing that’d unfairly influence an individual’s free will choice to – or not to – love and obey God. Christ’s response left the devil frustrated once again. Jesus said “…You are not to put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7).
Say what you will about the detestable Satan but he’s definitely a persistent little jerk because he wasn’t through baiting the thoroughly-fatigued Jesus just yet. To say there was a lot at stake is a gross understatement. This was a showdown with eternal ramifications. Seeing that full capitulation wasn’t going to happen, the devil next enticed Christ to compromise. He suggested Jesus could put a quick end to his tiresome hassling if only He’d back off His outrageous demands for full sovereignty over the planet that he, Satan, had been the prince of for eons. “…The devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me” (Matthew 4:8-9). Jesus didn’t budge. Not one millimeter. Now, the devil has thick skin but he can’t stand to hear the Word of God used against him. “Jesus said to him, ‘Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ Then the devil left him and angels came and began ministering to his needs” (Matthew 4:10-11). It’s worth noting the little nugget Luke adds to the story: “So when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until a more opportune time” (4:13). We all should heed that ominous warning.
As it is with those who choose to surrender to Him, the Son of God wasn’t about to accept anything less than everything. No compromising. With God it’s all or nothing. While our precious Redeemer’s early church was far from perfect it did get one thing right: It insisted no other god but Jesus be worshiped! That’s why, out of all the novel religions that seeped into Rome from the East during the first few centuries A.D., Christianity was the only one that met with fierce, government-sanctioned persecution. Osiris, Cybele and a host of others were okay but not the gentle rabbi from Nazareth. No way. This Jesus was a bona fide threat to the establishment because with Christians it was His way or the highway. They deemed all other gods impotent imposters. His followers actually believed Jesus hadn’t lied when He announced, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Furthermore, they had the audacity to proclaim that one day “…at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11)! History shows that the brave Christians who remained steadfast in the faith usually paid a horrible price for their fidelity to the Father, as our Savior did on the cross. Stewart wrote, “For the road which Jesus faced when He refused to compromise is the hard road, the long road, the sacrificial road; but it is the royal road to the Kingdom.”
There are two important aspects of the temptation story worth chewing on. For one thing, it assures us that being tempted to sin is not the same as committing a sin. The Bible (and the New Testament in particular) is sated with saints who openly admitted they had to wrestle with temptation so often they started wondering if they really “had what it takes” to faithfully and consistently serve God. We can almost hear the angst in Paul’s voice when he groaned, “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!” (Romans 7:18-19). Yet it was for his sake and others just like him our Lord narrated the story of His personal defeat of temptation. We know for certain that, since the sinless, perfect Son of God Himself was subjected to the most severe temptations under the worst conditions imaginable, being tempted is no sin. Thus we can all take comfort in Paul’s honest conclusion: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). Because of our blessed Savior, we have a future to look forward to when temptations will torment us no more.
The second aspect is found in the Scripture verse I cited earlier: “For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). John, Peter and the rest of the apostles knew for a certainty their beloved Master would stand by their side through thick and thin because they’d heard Him promise, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). When temptation reared its ugly head, whether it was to curse and despise their enemies or to harbor resentments towards folks for the inhuman way they were being treated, they knew they could depend on Christ to supply them with the strength to react with love instead of hate. Via prayer and sincere worship they were able to maintain contact with Jesus’ radiant, dynamic personality and thereby conquer their volatile (and reliably sinful) human nature. By ourselves we’re far too weak to withstand temptation. Most of us have learned that lesson the hard way. Only with the power of the Christ-bestowed Holy Spirit who lives in us guiding our steps can we avoid falling into the sinkholes of sin. We must never forget the Son of God didn’t have to put up with the devil’s temptations, but He did – for us. Philip Yancey wrote, “When I feel temptations rising within me, I return to the story of Jesus and Satan in the desert. Jesus’ resistance against Satan’s temptations preserved for me the very freedom I exercise when I face my own temptations. I pray for the same trust and patience that Jesus showed.”