The Tempting of Christ

Matthew 4:1-11 contains the account of Satan tempting Christ. When we talk about “tempting” or “temptation,” we need to realize that there are two different uses for these words in the Bible. The first refers to a testing – that which comes from without. An example of this is when the Israelites tested God in the wilderness: “Where your fathers tried Me [tempted me, KJV] by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years” (Hebrews 3:9; cf. Psalm 95:9). The second use denotes a desire for sin – that which comes from within. James talked about this type of temptation: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (James 1:14). So not everything you are tempted with is a temptation to you. That is, not everything you are tested with produces or reflects a desire to sin on your part. The action of the one acting as the tempter is the same, but the difference is our desire or lack thereof. Failure to make a distinction between the two can lead to confusion.

As is the case with the tempting of Christ. Jesus was tested by the devil. Nowhere is it ever stated or implied that Jesus desired to sin. Some may question this and point to the Hebrew writer’s statement that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But again, tempted is used two different ways in the Bible. If “tempted” here means a desire to sin, then all sins would have to be included since it says He was “tempted in all things.” Does this mean that Jesus had the desire to murder people, rape women, engage in homosexuality, or other heinous acts? Who among us would affirm this? But this would be the necessary conclusion of this interpretation. And what of the desire to commit fornication? Jesus taught, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Here Jesus says that not only is the act itself wrong, but the desire to do so is wrong. If we interpret “tempted” in Hebrews 4:15 to mean a desire to sin, then we have condemned Jesus as a sinner per Matthew 5:28. No, Jesus did not desire to sin. But He was tested in all the ways that we are, yet without sin.

Jesus is our perfect example (1 Peter 2:21). He not only resisted sin, but did not even have the desire to sin. What lesson is there for us? Not only should we strive to commit no sin, we should strive to overcome the desire to sin. But even then, we will be tested. The tempting of Christ shows us how to endure these trials. But the beauty of Christ’s example here is that not only does it provide an example of how to endure the testing we go through, but the principles here also help us deal with temptations that result from or appeal to our desires or lusts.

Satan’s Three Tests

Turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:3-4) – Jesus was in the wilderness and had been fasting for forty days when the devil came to Him. Satan used the natural human appetite to test Jesus first: “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (Matthew 4:3). He tempted Jesus with something that was not wrong in itself – food. (This again shows that the tempting here did not include a desire to sin since it is not sinful to eat. This was simply a test.) But God was going to provide for Jesus later. After Satan departed, “angels came and began to minister to Him” (Matthew 4:11). Jesus did not have to follow the devil’s way. He was relying on the Father to provide.

Some things may not be inherently wrong, but wrong in certain circumstances or situations. The temptation with Jesus related food, so let us notice a couple of examples that also relate to food. Paul condemned the corruption of the Lord’s Supper and turning it into a common meal (1 Corinthians 11:22). Was it wrong to eat a common meal? No, but it was in this situation. Earlier Paul instructed them “not even to eat with such a one” that was a “so-called brother” who was living in sin (1 Corinthians 5:11). Is it wrong to eat with others? No, but it was under these circumstances. In Romans 14, Paul addressed the subject of personal liberty. He explained that there was nothing wrong with one eating meat (Romans 14:3, 14) but we should avoid it if it would cause our brother to stumble (Romans 14:15, 21). But with the example of Christ, there was nothing sinful about eating. He was just waiting for God to provide instead of doing things Satan’s way.

Jump from the pinnacle of the temple (Matthew 4:5-7) – For the second test, Satan took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and told Him to throw Himself down. In order to tempt Jesus here, Satan quotes Scripture. “For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). What Satan actually did was twist Scripture in order to tempt Jesus to sin. Not every interpretation of a passage is right, even if it may sound good. What was wrong with Satan’s interpretation? It violated the fundamental rule of hermeneutics – “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). That is to say, we cannot interpret one passage in such a way that it contradicts another passage. This is what Satan’s interpretation did. Jesus pointed this out by quoting another passage: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Following Satan’s interpretation would cause one to test God and thus commit sin.

Some today twist the Scriptures in order to teach error (2 Peter 3:16). One example of this is when one cites John 3:16 to teach the concept of salvation by faith alone. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Is this passage teaching salvation by faith alone? No. It says we must believe, but not believe only. In fact, James said, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Interpreting John 3:16 to mean we are saved by faith alone would put it in contradiction with James 2:24. Therefore, that interpretation cannot be correct. “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Instead, the truth of God’s word says we are saved by faith and that faith is demonstrated by our obedience or works. Some may try and twist the Scriptures to teach salvation by faith alone, but they are using the same tactic that Satan employed here with Jesus.

Worship Satan (Matthew 4:8-10) – In the final temptation, Satan took Jesus up on a high mountain and showed Him the kingdoms of the world. He then offered to give Jesus all of them if He would fall down and worship him. In this instance, Satan tempted Jesus to sin in order to obtain a positive outcome. Man could reason that Jesus could do much good if all the kingdoms of the world were under His control. He could dictate what they would do and rule over them in righteousness. This is the old “the ends justify the means” concept. As long as good is accomplished, it does not matter how the result was obtained. Some were claiming that Paul taught this idea. “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8). Paul did not teach that the ends justify the means. In fact, he said that those who claimed that he taught such were worthy of condemnation. God expects us to fulfill His plan through the means of the pattern He has given us.

Some today fall for Satan’s claim that the ends justify the means. They set out to do “good works” but fail to do so in the manner God authorized. An example of this is institutionalism. God has ordained that the works of evangelism, edification, and benevolence be done using authorized methods by individuals and collectively through the local church. But some do not follow the New Testament pattern for this. They establish man-made institutions to do these things. But doing good works through unauthorized means amounts to sin. Those who disagree fall under the same condemnation of those Paul mentioned in Romans 3:8. We should want to do good works, but we should limit ourselves to the pattern God has given us for doing these things.

Satan’s Appeals

One of the things to which Satan appealed in the tempting of Jesus was pride. Twice he prefaced his temptation with the challenge: “If You are the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3, 6). Certainly if Jesus threw Himself from the temple and angels saved Him it would cause many to take notice of Him. Jesus was important. He was the Son of God. Surely He was entitled to these things anyway. Satan wanted Him to start thinking this way. Often we find ourselves in trouble when we start thinking we are important or entitled to certain things. But the Scriptures warn us not to think too highly of ourselves. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Proverbs 16:18). Satan will appeal to pride when he tempts us, just as he did with Jesus. We need to have the humble attitude of Christ so we will not be deceived by this.

A second thing to which Satan appealed was the desire for instant gratification. Our society is filled with the mindset that we want things now and do not want to have to wait for anything. Satan came to Jesus when He was hungry and suggested a way to get food now: “Command that these stones become bread” (Matthew 4:3). But Jesus was relying on the Father to provide. This He did, but Jesus just had to wait a little while longer (Matthew 4:11). Many today do not want to wait for a reward. We need to overcome this mindset as Christians. God has promised us a great reward, but we must wait for it. Paul wrote, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).

Finally, Satan made an appeal to follow the easy way. He offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:9). However, Jesus was already promised a kingdom that would never be destroyed and would consume all the kingdoms of the earth (Daniel 2:44). But before Jesus received this kingdom, He would have to suffer and die on the cross. Satan offered an easier way. Many do not want to face hardships. They do not like the idea that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Therefore, they are more susceptible to Satan’s temptations.

How Jesus Overcame the Temptations

As was stated at the beginning, Jesus example here not only shows us how to patiently endure the tests Satan throws at us, but also provides principles that will help us deal with our desire to sin in certain areas. Let us notice briefly how Jesus overcame the temptations.

  • Quoting Scripture – Every time Satan tempted Jesus, He responded by quoting the word of God. We need to study to know the word (2 Timothy 2:15). The word of God teaches us the difference between right and wrong. In addition to that, we need to know the word of God well enough to recognize when it is being misused. Remember that Satan even quoted Scripture on one of these temptations. Jesus warned of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). We need to be diligent in our study and application of the Bible to overcome temptation.
  • Patience – Jesus was going to receive a kingdom, but Satan offered Him kingdoms without any suffering preceding it. All He had to do was fall down and worship Satan. Jesus demonstrated patience here. We need to learn to exercise patience in order to resist temptation. Impatience can often lead to sin when patience would produce no sin. One example of this has to do with having sexual relations. There is nothing wrong with this within the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4). But if we are impatient and do not want to wait until then, we commit fornication by engaging in this act. We need to learn from Jesus’ example of patience.
  • Trusting in God’s Plan – God had a plan for making Jesus king and for satisfying His physical hunger. Jesus simply had to trust in God’s plan and not follow Satan’s way. We need to realize that God knows better than we do. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). We need to put our trust in Him, rather than ourselves (Proverbs 3:5).

Conclusion

Doing these things will help us overcome whatever temptation the devil throws at us. We need to recognize the things to which Satan appeals and develop the mind of Christ so we will be able to handle whatever may come. The challenge for us is to be like Christ. Not only should we strive to commit no sin. We should strive to overcome even the desire to sin. The more we do this, the harder we make it for Satan. Let us learn from the tempting of Christ so we can serve the Lord better in the future.


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