After his baptism and anointing by the Holy Spirit as the Messianic King, Jesus is immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. Here at the beginning of His ministry the question of what kind of Messiah Jesus would be are answered. How will He use His powers and privileges as the anointed Messiah? Would He use them selfishly or sacrificially? Would the One who calls others to faith and submission to His Father do the same?
Jesus’ response to this test demonstrates His superiority to both the nation of Israel and the first man, Adam. Whereas, Israel spent forty years in the wilderness that were characterized by rebellion against God, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness demonstrating His submission to God. Whereas, Adam failed to obey God in the Garden of Eden when tempted by the Devil, Jesus fully obeys God when tempted in the wilderness by the same Devil. In Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus proves Himself to be both the new Israel and the New Adam who fully obeys God the Father.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
The same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus at His baptism now leads Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Compare Mark 1:12 which says that “the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.”). The fact that Jesus was led by the Spirit into His encounter with Satan demonstrates that this event is not a defensive struggle, but an offensive assault upon the rule of Satan. The wilderness is sometimes associated in Scripture as the domain of demons. In this chapter, Jesus enters into the devils domain and defeats him on his own terms.
Although this is the first time the devil is mentioned by name in the gospel of Matthew, it is not his first appearance. He was clearly behind the scenes inspiring Herod to murder all the male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem in chapter 2. But here Jesus faces His ancient foe face to face on a barren battlefield. The name “devil” means a slanderer and accuser. He is also called “the tempter” in verse 3 for temptation is one of his chief activities.
All three of the temptations brought by the Devil against Jesus are aimed at His Messianic position as the “Son of God” (see 3:17). But Jesus responds to each volley with an attack of His own from the Word of God. Jesus, the man led by the Spirit, uses the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God against the Devil (cf. Eph 6:17). He quotes three passages from Deuteronomy 6-8 in response to Satan’s temptations.
I. The First Test, vv. 3-4.
In the first test, Jesus is tempted by the devil to use His Messianic powers selfishly. After forty days with no food, this would have been very tempting indeed. There were probably stones lying close by that resembled loaves of bread in both their shape and size. Surely, the Messiah could turn these stones into bread and satisfy His hunger.
You need to understand that the “If” in “If You are the Son of God” is not a question of doubt by Satan. Instead he is challenging Jesus to a particular action in light of the fact that He is the Son of God. It is a first class conditional in the Greek and assumes the positive rather than the negative.
Jesus responded with the words of Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The words of this verse were originally spoken in reference to God’s provision of manna in the wilderness for the children of Israel. By quoting this verse, Jesus clearly identifies His 40 days in the wilderness with Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. The verse in context reads in Deuteronomy 8:1-3:
Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers. And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
But whereas Israel did not keep God’s commandments, Jesus will. Where Israel grumbled at God’s provision, Jesus would rely on the Word of God even without the manna. When tempted to provide for Himself rather than trust for God’s provision, Jesus chose to trust in the provision of God.
II. The Second Test, vv. 5-7.
In his second temptation, the Devil attempted to use Scripture against Jesus. It’s as if Satan sees how Jesus responds with Scripture and says, “Oh, so you want to play that way. I know Scripture too!” So, he quotes Scripture in order to tempt Jesus to do what he wanted Him to do. But Jesus does not fall for Satan’s trap because He recognizes that the Devil has misused Scripture. He had quoted very selectively in order to communicate his own message rather than the actual message of God’s Word. There are many preachers on the radio and TV today who communicate their false messages using exactly the same method which the Devil used: misinterpreting Scripture!
Satan misinterpreted Scripture in two ways that we must avoid. First, he took it out of context. By leaving out the phrase “To keep you in all your ways.” from Psalm 91:11-12 which implies that the promise for protection is made in the normal activities of life, not the dramatic death-defying stunts. Second, Satan misinterpreted Scripture by interpreting one passage in a way which conflicted with the clear meaning of another text of Scripture. Since all Scripture is given by inspiration by God and God cannot lie, then Scripture can not contradict itself. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) states that:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture it self: And therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold but one) it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. (2:9)
Jesus knew His Bible well enough to recognize that Satan’s use of Scripture was misapplied. He responds with the words of Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”
The rest of the verse indicates the historical circumstances in which these words were originally spoken: “as you tempted Him in Massah.” Again Jesus contrasts Himself with Israel in the wilderness. Whereas, Israel doubted and grumbled against God’s provision at Massah in Exodus 17, Jesus is completely confident in His Father’s provision, but will not test God’s patience.
III. The Third Test, vv. 8-10.
In the third temptation, Satan quits beating around the bush and pulls off his mask to reveal his true intentions and desire: worship. He is willing to give up all his dominion over the earth in order to receive worship from the Son of God. Note that Jesus does not question Satan’s claim to have authority over the world’s kingdoms. Until the cross, Satan was the temporary “ruler of this world,” but when Jesus prepared to go to the cross he said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31). Satan’s offer then is for Jesus to receive all the kingdoms of the world without having to go to the cross. This is why Jesus came, to recover the world from Satan’s clutch. Here was a golden opportunity without all the blood and agony of the cross. Very tempting indeed!
This was always the Devil’s strategy: to keep Jesus off the cross! Despite what you may have heard or imagined Satan was not standing by at the crucifixion gleefully rubbing his hands. No, Satan tried everything in his power to keep Jesus from going to the cross! This was what was happening in the Wilderness Temptation. Satan was attempting to divert Jesus from His mission from the Father. Ever since God promised that the Seed of the Woman would crush the head of the Serpent, the Devil has been trying to stop that seed from accomplishing His purpose. He was behind Pharaoh’s murder of the infants in Egypt. He was behind King Saul’s attempts to kill David. He was behind Herod and his scheme to eliminate the children in Bethlehem. He would later even be behind one of the disciples when Peter rebuked Jesus for His description of His own impending suffering and death. Jesus Himself recognized Satan’s voice as He said, “Get behind me Satan!” This same voice was heard on the cross as the unrepentant thief said, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” (Luke 23:39). Likewise the Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders spoke from the same evil source, “If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.” But He didn’t come down! Satan could not keep Him from the cross and Satan could not get Him down from the cross!
Without the cross the power of Satan could never really be broken. The power of Satan is the bondage of sin which leads to death. To defeat Satan, Jesus had to “break the power of cancelled sin” by dying on the cross to forgive that sin. This broke both sin’s power and penalty and set free those who believe in Christ. In this way alone do the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our LORD and of His Christ (Rev 11:15).
Even though Satan does not use the phrase “If you are the Son of God . . .” on this third temptation, he is still playing off Jesus’ messianic status. In the enthronement song of Psalm 2:8, God promises His Son the nations.
I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. 8 Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession. Psalm 2:7-8
Thus, the Devil’s temptation was an attempt to cause Jesus to distrust the promise of His Father to give Him the nations, by seeking an alternative to His eternal plan. But Jesus was not a pragmatist who believed that “the ends justify the means.” He knew that there was only one way to conquer sin, death and Satan in order to redeem the world for Himself and that was to go to the cross. Therefore, He did not give to Satan that which belongs to God alone: worship. Jesus replied to Satan’s final temptation with the words of Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.”
The result of Jesus’ courageous counterattacks with Scripture to Satan’s advances was victory for the Son of God! Verse 11 states “Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.” Warren Wiersbe summarized Christ’s victory over the Devil in the Wilderness as follows:
Just as the first Adam met Satan, so the Last Adam met the enemy (1 Cor. 15:45). Adam met Satan in a beautiful Garden, but Jesus met him in a terrible wilderness. Adam had everything he needed, but Jesus was hungry after forty days of fasting. Adam lost the battle and plunged humanity into sin and death. But Jesus won the battle and went on to defeat Satan in more battles, culminating in His final victory on the cross (John 12:31; Co. 2:15).
One of my former teachers very helpfully summarizes the import of this text for showing what kind of Messiah Jesus was to be. Dr. Robert H. Stein writes:
At his temptation Jesus settled once and for all the kind of Messiah he would be. He would not use his messianic powers for his own ends. Jesus rejected all political concepts of messiahship and especially the path of the Zealots. Instead he would accept the path of the suffering servant that God had ordained for him. He would trust God for his daily needs, even as he taught his followers to trust God. He would experience hunger, hostility, sorrow and frustration like others. As he faced the cross he would not use his messianic powers to rescue himself. Even if twelve legions of angels were at his disposal, he would not call on them (see Mt 26:53). He would trust instead in the providential care of his Father (Robert Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 110).
Not only does Jesus pass the test that both Israel and Adam had failed and show us that He will be a Messiah who is the Suffering Servant always obedient and submissive to the will of His Father, He also provides a model for how we should face temptation. In Hebrews 2 and 4 we read that Jesus was tempted in order to sympathize and aid fallen human beings who experience temptation.
Hebrews 2:17 – 18 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
Hebrews 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Jesus has been tempted in all the same ways that we are. Yet, he never yielded to temptation. Not because He relied upon His inherent divine power or even His privileges as the Messiah, but by dependence upon the Word of God. He faced Satan armed with nothing more than every believer possesses: the Sword of the Spirit: the Word of God.
All of us are tempted to not trust in our Father’s plan and provision for us. Like Jesus, we often face the temptation to receive what God has promised through alternate means. We are tempted to misuse our privileges, powers and positions. We are tempted to live by our own resources rather than dependence upon God and His Word. When we face these temptations we must remember that we’re not alone! Jesus has faced and triumphed over these same kinds of temptations with the Word of God.