v.1 Though it was a temptation from Satan’s viewpoint, the initiative for what follows clearly lay with God. The Spirit led the Lord into the desert. As the Lord was alone during this time, the source for the information recorded in the Gospels must be the Lord Jesus himself. The word “tempted,” as you know, can just as well be translated “tested.” It all depends on what the purpose is of the one who initiates the circumstances. The Spirit had one purpose, Satan another.
v.2 We misread the Gospels at no point more regularly or seriously than when we allow ourselves to think of Jesus as a kind of superman. He lived his life as a man and had to be righteous as men have to be, with the resources available to men. He was hungry and was as susceptible to the temptations of hunger as any other human being would be. Omniscience and omnipotence never comes in to rescue humanity. He had to live his life as a man and he did so. It is a great mystery how the two natures are kept separate in the single person, but that mystery is the foundation of everything in our faith. Our Savior lived a truly human life in our place, not merely the appearance of one.
v.5 The main building of the temple was 180 feet high.
v.9 The last temptation is effectively to allow the end to justify the means. The Lord’s mission was to enforce his rule upon the world, but only in the way appointed by his Father.
v.10 The three texts from Deut. 6-8 that Jesus uses in making reply to Satan recall the teaching that the Lord gave to Israel in the wilderness before her mission of conquest in the Promised Land. These were the lessons Israel failed to learn, but Jesus, in himself a new Israel, learned them and practiced them. There are a number of allusions in this text to OT history and figures of that history, such as Moses and Elijah. Jesus is once again set forth here as the fulfillment of all that history.
v.11 The angelic help that the Lord would not call for when Satan challenged him to, is now sent in the proper way from heaven. The Son of God had passed the test, had proved himself faithful to his father and ready for the work that had been given him to do.
Lord Macaulay, the author of the immortal History of England, in an article in praise of John Bunyan wrote: ‘Though there were many clever men in England during the latter half of the seventeenth century, there were only two great creative minds; one of those minds produced Paradise Lost, the other the Pilgrim’s Progress. Now, that is a most remarkable statement, not least because, while John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, may well have been the most educated man in the world of his day, John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress, at least if value to mankind be any measure of the worth of a piece of literature, is incomparably the greater work, had virtually no formal education to speak of.
I’m tempted to expand on Lord Macaulay’s observation as a way of encouraging all of you to read, to learn, and to master Bunyan’s immortal and everlastingly helpful allegory of the Christian life. But, that is not my charge this morning. So, instead, let me draw your attention rather to Milton, the author of the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost. In that great work Milton tells the story of the fall of man into sin. Indeed, he tells the story so magnificently and his characters are so full of life and drama that one criticism often lodged against the work is that Milton makes the Devil too grand, too imposing, too interesting, almost too heroic a figure. But, it is not about Paradise Lost that I want you to think, but its less famous but also brilliant sequel, Paradise Regained. This is Milton’s epic account of the recovery of man from sin. Now do you know what story Milton told as he recounted the story of a lost paradise regained? We might have thought he would have put the gospel account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ into his epic poetry. Or, if not that, perhaps he would have told of the birth of the Lord and all the wonderful circumstances that surrounded that. But, as a matter of fact, he did neither of those things. Paradise Regained is an account of the forty days of temptation which the Lord endured in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry.
Milton’s reasoning was that in this terrible contest, at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, we discover who the winner would be and who the loser. The battle is not over, but, following upon the Lord’s conquest of the Devil in the wilderness, his victory, and thus the regaining of paradise for God’s fallen people, was assured. In this sense, the temptation is akin to D‑day (the Normandy invasion) in World War II. The war would last for another year and much blood had still to be shed, but once the allies were safely established on the beachhead and were beginning to push the enemy back, the eventual victory was certain. So with the temptation. The Lord’s ministry was just beginning. Great battles were still to be fought and much suffering yet to be endured; but, the Devil had done his worst already, and it hadn’t been enough ‑‑ not nearly enough. The Lord had shown himself ready for the great work for which he had come into the world.
That is one way to study the account of the Temptation. But, Scripture tells us that it serves another purpose as well. It is not only a defining moment in the Lord’s own life and work as our Redeemer; it is not only a crisis point in the history of our salvation. It is also, as the author of Hebrews says twice, a point at which the Lord’s life touches our own. It is because of his experience of temptation that he is so able to sympathize with us in our struggles and is able perfectly to help us in our own temptations. Which is all to say that his temptations — true man that he was — were like our own. We learn from the account of his great temptation both how to surmount the temptations we face each day from the world, from our own flesh, and from the devil, and to turn to him and to trust in him as one who has proven that he is both able and willing to help us.
And that is how I want us to consider the account of the Lord’s temptation in the wilderness. I want us to learn from his temptations some lessons regarding our own. This will help us, I’m sure, both to appreciate to a greater extent what our Savior accomplished for us when he bested the Devil on our behalf and how absolutely necessary it is that in facing our own temptations we both face them as he did and turning from any confidence in ourselves learn to pray over and again every day: ‘In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me.’
- First, our temptations here are, as the Lord’s, the inevitable, the inescapable calling and challenge of our lives.
Were you arrested by that statement in the very first verse of chapter 4 that the Lord Jesus ‘was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the Devil’? Now, it is true that we are to avoid, if at all possible, all temptation to sin. A very large part of spiritual wisdom in the warfare with sin is to avoid its occasions. And we can do that; we can avoid many temptations. We can refuse to watch certain things, close our eyes to them. Job said he made a covenant with his eyes not to look lustfully at a girl. Or we can refuse to hear certain things. We can refuse to keep certain company, to go to certain places, or to do certain things. All of that is important and to the good. But as many temptations as we should avoid, we cannot avoid them all, any more than Jesus could.
Jesus did not seek out himself a battle with the Devil. He was led to it by the hand of God himself. He was led into this test. When we pray in the Lord’s prayer ‘Lead us not into temptation…’ we are not asking the Lord that we not be tempted to sin, but that we not be tempted so as to fall into sin. It is a petition which has as its basis the promise God has made to his children that, as Paul puts in 1 Corinthians 10: ‘God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.’
As a matter of fact, as the Scripture often says, God leads us into the path of temptation in just the same way he led our Savior into its path. It is in this way he exercises our faith, he destroys our pride, he teaches us to wage spiritual warfare, he makes us to prize the help that Christ alone can give us, and he teaches us to hate sin.
Think of how God’s providence over and again led Joseph into great temptations, or David, or Elijah, or Paul. We have only to remember that the Devil, after all, could not so much as lift a finger in this world were God not to allow him to be impressed all over again by the fact that God is always leading us into the same wilderness and leading us through the same wilderness into which and through which he first led his beloved Son.
Some of you may be in the depths of that wilderness even now, hungry, thirsty, weary, and under direct attack from the evil one. Can you not find a great comfort in the fact that the Holy Spirit has led you there; that it was his good purpose that you should be where now you are? The Savior was not tempted beyond what he could endure, and his temptations – because he was a real human being who had to resist his temptations just as we must resist ours – are like yours. If he wasn’t tempted beyond what he could endure, neither will you be. You will discover this yourself if you both follow the Lord and depend upon him in the face of your spiritual trials.
- Second, our temptations, as the Lord’s, must be resisted alone, with no one but the unseen God to stand beside us and help us.
I think this is a most important lesson. Why after all, did this temptation take place in the depths of a deserted wilderness? Why did the Spirit lead him there for the great temptation of his life? Why were there no disciples around him? Perhaps there were several reasons, but surely among them was the lesson thus taught that, at the deepest level, no one else can trust God for us or resist our temptations in our place. It was necessary that this battle, these temptations, be resisted by Jesus alone, when he was alone. Christ met the enemy alone with only his faith to bring God near and with which to wield the weapons of the spiritual war.
It is true, of course, that we draw much help from others in the spiritual warfare. Jesus himself did. At certain moments of high temptation, he sought the help, encouragement, and the company of Peter, James, and John. And we can do much for one another to help in the battle with the temptations of our lives. We can pray for and hold one another to account, we can urge one another on, we can show one another sympathy and understanding, and we can share the lessons the Lord has taught us about doing battle with spiritual powers.
But, all of this notwithstanding, finally, we must ourselves wield our faith in the battle with sin, with the world, and with the Devil. We ourselves must set the Lord before us and walk with him through the wilderness. We ourselves must take in hand, as our Savior did, the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and wield it with the same cunning and the same elan as he showed in putting the Evil One in his place with a few well‑chosen texts from Deuteronomy.
The Lord has left us an example that we should follow in his steps. He has left us an example in the social aspect of his faith and godliness and he has left us an example in the solitary aspect of those same things. How often, in the Gospels, we find the Lord alone. Alone with himself that he might be alone with his Father in heaven. No doubt many times before this, the Lord Jesus had descended into himself and found communion with his heavenly Father there. No wonder then that in the desert, alone and undistracted, he found the Lord and all the spiritual help and strength he required for besting the Prince of this World in mortal combat.
No one should doubt the importance of this! If you want to know from whence came Christ’s power in the face of temptation, his presence of mind, his ready wit, his sharp eye, his firmness of resolve – all that we so often lack when temptations strike – it came from a sight of the unseen world, a sense of the Father’s presence and of the Spirit’s leading, a sensitivity to spiritual reality, a living knowledge of the Word of God, and an exercise and strength of faith which is best gained, and to a degree can only be gained in the solitude of a single heart. Christ Jesus is often found alone for just this reason; he needed what he could get only when he was alone before God and alone with God.
And you and I need this as well. In our hectic lives, full as they are of other people – husbands, wives, children, sisters, brothers, friends, workmates – it is too often just this solitude which is missing, with all that can be gained in it – thinking, meditating, praying, being with God.
You may be in your own wilderness, fighting your own battle to the death with the Evil One, but, unlike the Savior, you are not alone, clear‑headed, cast clearly upon the Lord whom you have got a clear sight of. No, you are trying to do your battle in the midst of a crowd with a thousand distractions scattering your thoughts and intentions.
Well, you cannot leave your responsibilities behind, but you can take a page from our Savior’s book and seek to be alone. A spouse who cares for you will help you find the time for you to descend into yourself, and consider your ways, and gain a clear sight of what your temptation is and how it must be answered. And parents, teach your children to seek and to treasure solitude with God and with one’s own heart, and teach them how to use that time to the same advantage our Savior put it to.
For none so lone on earth as he
Whose way of thought is high and free
Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud,
Beyond the clamour of the crowd,
Moving where Jesus trod,
In the lone walk with God.
Some of you have no idea how ‘high and how free’ your thoughts and your life could be, if only you might seek a true solitude and in that solitude seek and find the Lord and gain a clear view of the temptations of your life and how you must and for what reasons you must resist them. You young people, how immensely important it is for you to take time to be alone with God and alone before God and to speak to him about your life and to consider his Word in regard to your life. You love the company of others, as is right; but you must learn to love the company of God alone. That is where your life will find itself!
Every Christian should seek the company and help and encouragement of other believers. But, at the same time, following in our Master’s footsteps, he or she should seek to be alone. It is in the solitude of faith that the battle, especially the great battle, is usually won! It was so in the Bible so often – Jacob at Peniel; David in the wilderness; Elijah at Mt. Horeb; Jesus in the Temptation; and it will be often so today.
Down to Gehenna and up to the throne;
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
- Third, our temptations, as the Lord’s, are of great force and power, and thus must be taken with a deadly seriousness.
There are several ways in which the force of temptation, its weight and its danger are illustrated in the temptation of our Savior in the wilderness. Notice, for example, how the Devil’s temptations are so craftily designed to take advantage of the Savior’s circumstances and to gain strength from them. He was hungry from his fasting and so the Devil went after him with the suggestion of bread. He had no more heard, at his baptism, his heavenly Father declare him to be his beloved Son, than Satan turns that statement of fact into a ground for sinful action: ‘If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down.’
All temptation holds out to us what is attractive and pleasurable; but the subtlest and most powerful of temptations are those which suggest what appears to be good or necessary. In each case the Devil appeals to Christ in exactly that deceptive way; as if he were really interested in seeing Christ demonstrate his divine sonship or rule the nations. For each temptation there were good reasons; biblical reasons, indeed, which could be advanced; if only the motive and the time and the method which God had chosen for the Messiah’s work were not considered. Evil is always twisted, corrupted, perverted good; the taking of God’s good gifts and making something bad or ugly or impure of them.
As Calvin once put it: ‘Satan is an acute theologian.’ And Jonathan Edwards went further, “Satan was trained in the best divinity school in the universe.” Satan knows how to turn even the most sacred truth into an argument for betraying God and one’s calling in life as a Christian. Only a sharpsightedness and a watchfulness and a determination to do only what pleases God is enough to turn away fiery darts like these! No wonder Jesus was fasting under such temptations, learning in that way to control his desires; no wonder he sought in that way the most complete concentration of all his spiritual powers so that he would not be the Devil’s dupe.
And take careful note. Not one temptation; not two; but three in a row. It is in the wearying, unrelenting onslaught of temptation that we often feel its force most keenly. Will it never leave us alone; will it give us no peace, no rest, no relief? Not in this world; not anymore than our Savior, who conquered every temptation completely, got no peace from it while he lived in this world. If he, who resisted successfully to the end of every bitter temptation thrown at him was, nevertheless, attacked from start to finish, how much more we who have far too often shown ourselves an easy prey and who have in that way as much as invited the Devil to return and have at us again.
Surely temptations as forceful as these our Savior faced and which are like those we must ourselves do battle with every day should put us on our guard, and make us willing to follow our Savior whether in solitude, or fasting, or the mastery of Deuteronomy and the rest of the Word of God. To face such foes should steel us and nerve us for the fight.
The trials that those men do meet withal,
That are obedient to the heavenly call,
Are manifold, and suited to the flesh,
And come, and come, and come again afresh;
That now, or sometime else, we by them may
Be taken, overcome, and cast away.
O let the pilgrims, let the pilgrims, then,
Be vigilant, and quit themselves like men.
But all that said and all of that earnest guarding of the heart and resisting of these constant suggestions to sin, and furnishing our mind with the Word of God that we might use it as Jesus did, all of this notwithstanding, temptations as forceful and as subtle as Jesus’ temptations were and ours will be should forever banish the idea from our minds that we could stand this test in our own strength. Even as we pledge ourselves to resistance in imitation of the Lord Jesus, we must, still more, forever fix in our minds the absolute necessity of turning to Christ in every moment of temptation in our lives. To do less is to surrender to them. And no Christian can see our Savior do such glorious battle here and not feel to the bottom of his or her heart that, he alone can assure us of victory.
Ye tempted souls, reflect
Whose name ’tis you profess;
Your Master’s lot you must expect,
Temptations more or less.
Dream not of faith so clear
As shuts all doubtings out;
Remember how the Devil could dare
To tempt even Christ to doubt.
‘If thou’rt the Son of God,
(Oh, what an IF was there!)
These stones here, speak them into food,
And make that sonship clear.
View that amazing scene!
Say, could the tempter try
To shake a tree so sound, so green,
Good God, defend the dry!
Think not he now will fail
To make us shrink and droop;
Our faith he daily will assail,
And dash our very hope.
That impious ‘If’ he thus
At God incarnate threw,
No wonder if he cast at us,
And make us feel it too.
To cause despair’s the scope
Of Satan and his powers,
Against hope to believe in hope
My brethren, must be ours.
‘Buts,’ ‘ifs,’ and ‘hows’ are hurled
To sink us, with the gloom
Of all that’s dismal in this world,
Or in the world to come.
But here’s our point of rest;
Though hard the battle seem,
Our Captain stood the fiery test,
And we shall stand through him.
And there is our last and best and finest and most helpful and sustaining thought. That after all, sinners that we are, we would, long before this, have sunk under the force of those temptations – powerful and subtle and so well‑suited to our weaknesses as they are – and would have utterly forsaken our Lord, had not our High Priest, who knows how to deliver from temptation, supported us and kept us and preserved us time and time again.
We began with the one genius in later 17th century England. Let us finish with the other. Here is Bunyan’s Christian, after passing through a particularly fierce temptation, looking back and seeing so clearly what he had not seen so clearly earlier in his pilgrimage.
‘O world of wonders! (I can say no less)
That I should be preserved in that distress
That I have met with here! O blessed be
That hand that from it hath deliver’d me!
Dangers in darkness, devils, hell, and sin,
Did compass me, while I this vale was in:
Yea, snares and pits, and traps, and nets, did lie
My path about, that worthless, silly I
Might have been catch’d, entangled, and cast down;
But since I live, let JESUS wear the crown.