“And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil.”1 — Luke 4:1-2
There is a pattern that encompasses the history of all mankind: the first Adam and the second Adam.2 That first Adam fails a temptation, and by his failure condemns all his children to death. When the test is offered a second time to the Second Adam, he passes and saves all his children. That is the great glory of Christ’s temptation by the devil, but we have to ask, is there also an example there to help us? Can we find any strength there for our daily temptations?
It’s difficult for us to grasp how closely Christ is identified with us, his children. Hebrews 4:15 tell us that he was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin.3 What consolation! He knows what we suffer because he has suffered all the same himself, in flesh like ours. For that reason we can come boldly to the throne of grace for mercy, because Christ our elder brother and high priest sits there, well knowing our weakness.
BEADS WITHOUT A STRING
Is the whole Bible just unrelated incidents and wise sayings, without any relation to one another? Or does some theme thread all these beads together?
That thread is Christ. In his very name, Jesus—Jehovah saves—we find the meaning of the Scriptures. The love of God in Christ toward mankind strings all the beads together. And since the Bible is the perfect revelation of God, every story there must serve some necessary purpose.
But how does the bead of Christ’s temptation fit in? It’s a cosmic make-up test. Christ passes the test that Adam failed. Without the temptation, Christ's sacrifice would not have been possible. To become the perfect sacrifice for our sins, he had to face and overcome them himself.
THE FIRST TEMPTATION
After forty days without food, we are told, Christ became hungry. Yet Satan’s temptation didn’t aim at his hunger but at his faith in God.
“You’re hungry by now. You deserve something to eat, but God is stingy. God is holding out on you. God is not paying attention, so you’ll have to take matters into your own hands or starve.” Satan attacks Christ’s faith first, so that after destroying his faith he could drive him into unlawful methods of getting his food.
And there we are. Whenever we distrust the secret providence of God—unseen but always acting—we are driven to prostitute ourselves in all sorts of wicked ways: fraud, theft, lies, usury, violence, oppression, adultery, murder. But the sin begins with doubting the providence of God: He has forsaken me.
Rather than yield, we ought to answer with Job, “Yet though he slay me will I trust him.” For what is life worth if to sustain it we offend God and condemn ourselves for all eternity? Better a lingering and painful death by starvation.
Oh, you may answer, but all men have their price. Yours is just higher than most. No, by the power of the Holy Ghost we have no price, because we have been redeemed with the price no man can pay, the precious blood of the Lamb. That blood has freed us from the logic of unbelief, the wisdom of “practical men” who whisper, ‘Why do you cling to your principles? Go along to get along.” That is our daily temptation.
Think about Christ’s answer. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is as if he had said, “You tell me to devise some expedient, some trick God doesn’t permit, or else I’ll starve. But that would be to distrust God, and I have no reason to doubt he will keep his promises. You say his favour is confined to physical bread, but he says even if I have nothing to eat, his blessing alone will nourish me, and I believe that and rest on it. I will live or die by that promise.” There is no other answer.
Note that Christ responds, “It is written.” If we want to overcome temptation, we can fight with no other weapon. Paul calls it “the sword of the spirit” which we are to use with the “shield of faith.”4 In obedience to God’s word lies our only safety. But every weapon requires exercise and training. Can you or I fight with Satan without training ourselves daily in his word? Hardly.
Where did Christ find this written? Deuteronomy 8:3. When no bread could be found, God fed his people with miracle bread, manna. Real food for real people, as the Lord’s Supper. 5
But God’s “word” here embraces more than just the express words of the Bible. It includes the active will and good pleasure of God, his expressed will to uphold all his creation and his people. “He upholdeth all things by the power of his word.”6 The universe is not on autopilot. God is actively, attentively flying the plane.
We confess that fact every time we ask him to bless our food. We confess that although we live on bread, it is not the bread itself, but the secret kindness of God that makes the bread nourish our bodies. Otherwise we might as well eat so much sawdust.
THE SECOND TEMPTATION
Having failed with food, the devil now tempts Christ with power. The only catch is, he has to worship Satan to get it. “You can obtain the inheritance God has promised you in some way other than the way he decrees. Step lively there! Become ‘the master of your fate and the captain of your own soul.’ Think of all the good you can do with that power.”
As usual, the Devil begins with a lie, and how daring is his insolence. He steals from God the government of the whole world! But is his lie worse than many Christians today, who claim that the Devil is the “prince and ruler of this world”? Is the earth really Satan’s, and the fullness thereof?
If they really believe that, how do they differ from the rest of the world? Most men believe everything good comes from Satan. And even we, who know we depend on the blessing of God, still allow our senses to seduce us to seek Satan’s help, as if God alone were not enough.
How do we know this is true? If men did not believe it was in Satan’s power to bestow good, then why would they resort to every wicked scheme—murder not excepted—to get what they want? Why use Satan’s methods unless they are convinced Satan is in charge and more powerful than God? With their mouths they may ask, “Give us this day our daily bread” but in their hearts they believe Satan distributes all the goodies in the world.
Once again, Christ uses the same weapon, the sword of the spirit. Only God is to be worshipped and served. Whether we give our devotion to wife or husband, house or lands, animals, food or drink, or Satan himself, whenever we give the glory due God to any creature, we hideously profane his rightful worship.7
THE THIRD TEMPTATION
Satan then tempts Christ to exalt himself against God, to rise up against God and dare him not to help. As a denial of the providence of God, the first temptation tempts Christ to use unlawful means. This temptation, however, twists providence another way. It refuses to use the means at hand while simultaneously demanding other and better means from God.
Satan tempts Christ to neglect the ordinary, unglamorous means which God has provided and to throw himself unnecessarily into mortal danger. In other words, to act like a lot of Christians who tempt God by refusing to use—and for the time being satisfy themselves with—the means which God has provided at hand. They demand other means more to their liking, and foolishly put themselves into unnecessary danger.
Notice that Satan quotes Psalm 91, but he twists it. We ought to remember that. Satan never plays fair. He knows no out of bounds. He never attacks where and while you are strong, but where and while you are weak. Here is yet another reason we must exercise the sword of the spirit, to recognise and parry every false thrust. Otherwise Satan will take the very tool of our salvation and use it to destroy us.
But Christ refuses to give up his weapon to the enemy. He doesn’t say, “Well, you have a Ph.D. in theology and a string of degrees, so I guess I can’t argue with you.” No, he quotes the plain Scripture right back at him to refute his lie. We have no other weapon. Even when wicked men cover their fraud with Scripture, we still have no defence other than the Scripture.
What did Satan leave out in his quotation? Yes, it is true God sends his angels to guard us, but not if we walk outsides the bounds of God’s commandments. Satan says to Christ, “If you will expose yourself to death, contrary to the will of God, the angels will protect your life.” What would you think of a Christian who robs a bank, gets shot in the robbery, and then complains that God didn’t protect him?
Christ answers, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Can you rely on his promises without obeying his commandments? By what right do we expect his help if we refuse to humbly submit ourselves to his guidance?
Whoever leaves the means that God, in his Fatherly goodness, provides and recommends, and decides to test God’s power and might, tempts God. It’s as if you cut off a man’s legs, then ordered him to run. But whenever we tempt God by subjecting him to an unfair trial, we will shortly find out who is really in charge.
THE DEVIL LEFT
But note, only for a while. In the same way God so orders our lives so that after we have suffered an exhausting trial, he gives us a breather, a chance to gather our strength and wits and courage for the next battle. Matthew and Mark both report that angels waited on him. Think of that. Angels, the whole host of heaven, mighty angels, waited on him.
And they wait on you.
What do you need that God has not provided, and will not provide? And what has God provided, that you do not need—even the temptations? “Ignorance of the providence of God is the cause of all impatience.”
If we can just keep before our eyes, in our present knowledge, this truth—that God our Father provides everything we need, never more nor less—that he upholds us moment by moment by the power of his Word—that he guards us with a power even greater than his holy angels, and more, that he has provided a Great High Priest who has already tasted our sorrows and temptations and overcome them all and will at the last wipe away every tear from our eyes—then how can we ever doubt that Christ is leading us from victory to victory?
1 The parallel passages are Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13
2 Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-50
3 Hebrews 4:15
4 Ephesians 6:16-17
5 1 Corinthians 10:1-4
6 Hebrews 1:3
7 Romans 1:18-32
Originally published March 2001