v.2 One of the most interesting features of the account of the Lord’s temptation as we have it reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that the information could have come only from Jesus himself. No one else was witness to the events. But note the important fact that the Lord went into the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit and was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Obviously this event at the headwaters of his ministry was essential to it and to his preparation for his life’s work. God directed him into the path of the Evil One. Jesus had to suffer a supreme temptation right away to clarify the nature of his life and work and to make clear the course that he had to take. Perhaps the sense of what follows is that the first question that had to be answered and decisively was what sort of Messiah would Jesus be. Satan would offer him a variety of options, each of which the Lord would refuse.
Comparing the three accounts of the temptation furnished by the synoptic Gospels we may conclude that Jesus was tempted throughout the period of the 40 days, though the three temptations reported may have come at the end of that period. [Bock, i, 369-370]
There is a powerful understatement here, of course. After 40 days without food he was hungry. We can’t tell from the words used whether we are meant to think that Jesus ate nothing for 40 days and so must have been sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit or only that he was fasting in some significant measure during that time. The 40 days is surely significant. There are many periods of 40 units of time (Moses and Elijah had 40 day fasts; Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days to receive the covenant, Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years, and so on). The 40 days emphasizes then the significance of this period of time. It represents a turning point.
v.4 In the first place the Devil tempted him to employ his powers for his personal use and perhaps for the physical benefit of others, perhaps to become a kind of social reformer and benefactor of the poor. That prospect would have appealed to the Lord’s large heart. [Morris, 121] What is clear already is that Jesus knew, as did Satan, that he had unusual powers. We could not be tempted by the challenge to turn stones into bread, but he could.
His reply is immensely important for at least two reasons. First, what it effectively means is that what is not in agreement with the Word of God, Holy Scripture, cannot be right or true. This will be Jesus’ constant viewpoint. Here Scripture is used to test Satan’s remark and to find it wanting. Second, the Lord’s reply makes clear that there are many things with which human beings must be concerned besides bread. We are not simply animals, some American university professors’ opinion notwithstanding. Jesus will later say, and articulate for all of us this higher interest in life, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” You will sometimes hear Christian people excuse their unethical employment by saying, “Well, I’ve got to eat.” The answer Jesus taught us to give is, “No you don’t; you have to obey God; that is all you have to do.”
v.6 As you know from your reading of the Bible there is a real sense in which Satan is the prince of this world and it belongs to him. Satan was not here claiming an authority he did not have. It is the Bible itself that refers to the Devil as “the ruler of this world.” [e.g. John 12:31; Rev. 13:2]
v.8 The temptation, then, was a messianic ministry of earthly power and rule. This was hardly far-fetched as a vision of the Messiah’s kingdom. It was, in fact, what most Jews were hoping for and expected when the Messiah appeared: a political and military kingdom far greater than that of Rome. The price of such glory and power – with which, no doubt Jesus could have done much good – was that the Son would have to renounce allegiance to his father. The Devil doesn’t say that, of course; he merely asks for Jesus’ worship. Again the Lord replied with Scripture. He was not free to give his worship to anyone but the living God.
Take note of the devil’s guile and craft. He formed his temptations with subtle insight into the Lord’s mind, his loyalties, and his purposes in the world. The devil doesn’t craft temptations that fall on deaf ears. Poorly crafted temptations don’t work. The devil never says to us “Wouldn’t you like to betray your heavenly Father and your Savior and everything that you stand for? Ruin your life? Shame your loved ones?” That may be what he is after, but he tempts us more subtly and hides the consequences well out of sight. All we hear is, “Wouldn’t a bit of this taste good? What’s the harm in a little pleasure? Who will know?”
v.11 In the third case the temptation seems to have been to indulge in the spectacular in order to make people enthusiastic for his rule, his teaching, and to compel their wonder and belief. [Morris, 122] The Devil assures him that if he uses this strategy he cannot fail to build his kingdom and that he has nothing to lose; he will certainly be safe because of the Lord’s promise to protect him. But he does so by taking scripture texts out of context. The Lord replies by reminding Satan of the real meaning of the Word of God.
All three of the Lord’s replies are taken from Deuteronomy and from that section of Deuteronomy – a very important book of the Old Testament, often called the Romans of the OT – from 6:13-8:3, a section that deals with the time Israel spent in the wilderness. The texts cited by Jesus are from 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, a new beginning for the people of God, learned them and practiced them. Where Israel failed, her Redeemer has succeeded; where she fell prey to temptation, he manfully resisted to the end.
v.13 The final phrase reminds us that there would be no freedom from temptation in his life just as there is none in ours. What a wearying, exhausting life he had to live, enduring and resisting every temptation to the bitter end. We hardly know what that would be like because in so many cases we capitulate easily and early to the temptations that come our way. You cannot know the power of a temptation until you have resisted it to the end.
The last time I preached on the Lord’s temptation, some eight years ago as we made our way through the Gospel of Matthew, I drew from the temptation of the Lord instruction for our own battle with temptations every day. It is entirely right to find that instruction in this text for Jesus was a man and he resisted his temptations with precisely the same resources that are available to us and none other. He was a man who knew how to resist temptation. Who better to show us the way to live a godly life in a world beset with temptations of every kind than the one human being in the history of mankind who did it perfectly? As the author of Hebrews twice reminds us, the life of temptation is a point at which the Lord’s own life touches our own and by his temptations he became able to help us in ours. You can return to that sermon if you wish and consider the temptation of the Lord from that viewpoint.
But this morning I want to address from this text another very obvious and highly significant dimension of this episode in the Lord’s personal history. Suddenly, and for the first time, without any introduction or preparation in the text of Luke, a mighty adversary of Jesus appears on the scene. We’ve heard nothing of the devil to this point. We are, of course, as Christian readers of Holy Scripture, used to the name, but imagine someone reading the Gospel of the Luke for the very first time and wondering who in the world this devil is and where did he come from and why was he seeking to undermine and destroy the life work of Jesus? He would ask such questions and we can well imagine what answer would have been given. The devil is the chief of the fallen angels, a mighty being whose rebellion against God, however futile, is intractable. Bereft of any of the influences that keep wickedness in bounds among human beings, the devil is a vicious and malevolent being who seeks the destruction of anyone who might be regarded as friendly to God and so it was inevitable that he seek with might and main to prevent the Son of God from accomplishing his work of reconciling mankind to God, to make a great company of human beings the friends of God. The devil seeks the exact opposite of that for which Jesus came into the world: the destruction of the kingdom of God among the world of men. And so we are alerted here, at the beginning of Luke’s account of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, to the fact that he had a mighty adversary who fought him tooth and nail every step of the way from Bethlehem to Calvary.
It was a true insight that led John Milton – after portraying the devil’s temptation of our first parents and the moral failure of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the fall of the human race through their sin in his immortal masterpiece, Paradise Lost – I say, it was a true insight for Milton to devote his sequel, Paradise Regained, to the account of the Lord’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness at the headwaters of his ministry. Mankind falls and mankind rises in a scene of temptation. In the first case Satan succeeded in ruining the human race; in the second he met his match and the die was cast. The cross was still some three years in the future, but the outcome was never to be in doubt. Paradise Regained begins:
I who erewhile the happy Garden sung,
By one man’s disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one man’s firm obedience fully tried
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden raised in the waste wilderness.
This is the new beginning for you, for me, for the human race precisely because the devil had met his match, the one who holds the world in his power was beaten by the champion of the people of God.
But supremely important as this must be, the place of the devil and his work in the world, both during the ministry of the Lord Jesus and at all other times, remains shrouded in mystery. He will be mentioned a few other times in Luke, but not regularly and when he is mentioned it is in passing. Where was the devil before this? How had he attacked Jesus in the years of his boyhood and young adulthood? We don’t know. Was it the devil who prompted the insane Herod the Great to attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus by killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem? It seems likely, but we are not told. We learn that he kept some people in terrible bondage to him whom the Lord later delivered; we know that he provoked Judas to betray the Lord; and we are told enough to know that behind the scenes he was busily at work attempting to frustrate the Lord’s ministry and bring it to ruin, but we are not told how he did this, we are not even told that he did this except in very general terms. We know that the Lord fought him and defeated him – bound the strong man as Jesus would once put it – but we are never shown another encounter like this one in the wilderness.
Indeed, throughout the Bible the situation is the same. We are told enough about the Devil to know that he is a great power in the world and that he is an adversary of the kingdom of God and so of every Christian believer who is seeking to live his or her life for the sake of the kingdom of God. But we are told precious little about how the devil works. We are told to resist him and that if we do he will flee from us, but we are never told precisely what that means. Luther is supposed to have thrown an ink well at the devil, but, of course, Satan is not a physical being and so wouldn’t be troubled by an object thrown at him. Some Christians today have developed an entire technology of resisting the devil, how a Christian is to talk to him and what he is to say to him, but, while this in some respects may reflect sound biblical sense, such things are nowhere taught in the Bible. Taking the whole of Scripture together, resisting the devil amounts to offering the kind of arguments that Jesus offered the devil here at his temptation; it amounts to prayer and to biblically informed obedience. In other words, there is nothing said about a Christian’s dealing with the devil other than that such dealing is best done by the practice of faith and obedience. “Trust and obey” is how Christians resist the devil.
To be sure, we learn something here of his manner of working. 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 obviously knows how to turn even the most sacred truth into an argument for betraying God and one’s calling in life as a Christian. How many times has he whispered to you, “You can be forgiven for this later.” He uses biblical truth in his attack on Jesus here and only the Lord’s sharp-sightedness and deep understanding of the meaning of Scripture prevented his being deceived into disobedience. Paul will later speak of the devil’s wiles and fiery darts and our need to withstand them and, presumably, we do that by doing what Jesus did so artfully here: to reply to Satan’s deceitful suggestion with the unvarnished truth of the Word of God. You need your biblical wits about you if you would not be the devil’s dupe!
But, be that as it may, we are not told precisely how the devil tempted Jesus later, how he tempts us, or even how much of the temptations we must resist come from him and his minions. Our great impediments to salvation and godliness of life John tells us are “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but we are never told how to know from which of the three any particular temptation comes, or how the devil or his demons suggests a temptation to a human mind. Some have claimed to be able to tell. Some of our own men, good and wise and reliable theologians, have claimed to be able to tell.
The celebrated John Duncan, Scottish Presbyterianism’s “Rabbi” Duncan, was once asked whether the tempting of Satan could be distinguished from the seduction of sin. He replied, “O yes; I’ve caught him at it; I’ve caught him at it.” [Moody Stuart, 173] But as highly as I regard Duncan’s spiritual learning, I don’t know precisely what that means or how one would be able to explain the difference between the source of two temptations to someone else when the Bible does not. How would a Christian know that it was the Devil himself and not one of his demons who was tempting him or her? Has any one of us ever been in the crosshairs of Satan himself the very one at the top of the kingdom of evil? Who can say? Obviously if the Devil did to us what he did to Jesus – engage in a conversation – that would be one thing, but there is no other episode in the Lord’s life or in the rest of the Bible quite like this one. We are not Jesus and, understandably, the devil doesn’t deal with us as he dealt with him.
The devil is a being of great power, but he is not God. He is not omniscient or omnipresent or omnipotent. As Luther famously put it: “The devil is God’s devil.” As another theologian put it, and I think this is right, “No single heart-secret is known to any single devil.” [Duncan, Just a Talker, 56] There are a lot of things about your life the demons don’t know; God does, but they don’t. There are things he can do but many things he cannot; but the Bible never explains in any detail either his powers or his limitations. We are reminded that he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world, but it is with such general statements that we must remain content.
We see the devil here in extended conversation with the Lord Jesus. Did that ever happen again? Did the devil conclude from his defeat in the wilderness that there was no benefit to be gained by such a direct confrontation and try more indirect approaches thereafter? We are not told. We are left knowing that the devil was at work, but we are not shown him at work or are shown very little of his working after this early episode.
So much of both ancient and contemporary fascination with devils and creatures of the unseen world has no basis in the teaching of Holy Scripture and is not morally serious as the Bible’s teaching about the demonic realm always is. The devil doesn’t have a tail or hold a pitchfork; demons don’t look like the grotesque images of the medieval gargoyles. We live in a time of renewed interest in supernatural beings, in the occult, and in the unseen world. Perhaps you have noticed how much of this there is in modern entertainment: from ghosts to vampires, from angels to spiritual aliens, from the dead accompanying the living to out of body experiences by those who have come near to death. Some of this is due to the macro change in our culture from rationalistic modernism to a more irrational postmodernism. People have lost confidence in science and reason and have turned to every manner of opinion about life, about the world, and about the meaning of things. This has opened the door to a new interest in the supernatural, though much of it a Christian would have to admit is pure fantasy and nonsense. Some of this openness to the supernatural is also the fruit of what has become on a more personal level a hard, increasingly violent, and disappointing world. People are looking for help and if science and rationality can’t give it to them, they are quick to look elsewhere. But in virtually every case it is searching but not finding.
In the Bible we find supernatural beings – both good and evil – whose presence in the world is a factor in human experience and human history. But there is nothing fantastic, nothing mythical about the Bible’s revelation of this dimension of existence. There is nothing frivolous; it is part of the Bible’s moral account of the world and human life. Once you have admitted the existence of God himself, a pure spirit who has no body, is not visible, there can be no real argument left against the existence of angels and demons. But there also can be no doubt that we are limited in our knowledge of these beings to only what God has revealed. We know and can know nothing more. The devil will be perfectly happy if we underestimate his powers or if we overestimate them. It matters not to him whether he has his way with us because we are unconcerned and unprepared, we don’t take our Christian life and the spiritual warfare seriously because we have forgotten all about the devil, or if he has his way with us because we live in fear of him because we imagine his powers to be greater than they are. Either way he has the better of us. We must confine ourselves to what we know and be content with that and live according to the Word of God. Jesus himself thought it vital that you and I know of his confrontation with the Devil in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. But he did not choose to go on to give us details of the kingdom of darkness. He did not go on to tell us much more, as he might have done.
So the question posed to us by this episode at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry is this: what is the significance of our knowing that Jesus was tempted in this way by the devil and that he prevailed. Let me suggest briefly three things.
- Surely the first thing is that we are here taught the great and terrible issue of human life. There are vicious beings in the world that are out to destroy human beings, to bring them into their control and keep them there. When the Son of God came into the world to bring salvation to the lost, there was a kingdom and a king ready to oppose him at every turn. If the existence of the devil and demons explains anything in human history, surely it explains the virulence and viciousness and relentlessness of human evil and unbelief. Why do human beings never learn? Why are we in thrall to the same foolishness and moral idiocy to which mankind has always been subject? Why does human evil reach such a pitch and so easily and constantly. The things human beings do to other human beings are so often so much more than merely thoughtless or cruel. They are outrageous in their pure wickedness and yet the perpetrators are blissfully unaware or actually pride themselves on their moral superiority and again and again it is has been left to a later generation of human beings to wonder how supposedly decent people could have been so heartless and so despicable and so inhuman in their treatment of others. It will be left to a later generation to wonder about us in the same way. Is this not evidence of a power at work in the world, of an evil influence capable of bringing the human heart under its malevolent power?
If the devil and demons are real, this world and life in this world suddenly take on a more serious cast. Must they not? If the devil is real, your life and the life of every other human being is part of a desperate struggle for control, part of a cosmic warfare, and to the victor belongs the spoils. And the spoils in this case are the souls of men; your life and mine. Any soldier who has been in combat will tell you what a great difference there is between practice and the real thing, when enemies are trying to kill you and succeeding in many cases in killing those beside you. The difference to human life that the existence of the devil makes and the knowledge of his existence is the difference between sleeping and wakefulness, the difference between a hot tub and a hot seat. On a battlefield a matter of life or death appears as exactly what it is: a matter of life or death. And everything else – your wants and needs, money, taxes, career prospects, relationships, all the rest, appears as what it is: not a matter of life or death. Admit the devil and life immediately becomes much more serious.
So, what we have in this account of the Lord’s temptation is a window on the desperate, life or death struggle into which he pitched himself for our sakes. We could never prevail against the devil, but he could and did for us. It wasn’t his life that hung in the balance those 40 days in the wilderness; it was our life, yours and mine. Great powers were colliding those days in the wilderness but our captain was victorious.
- And that leads us to the second lesson: the magnificence of the Lord’s achievement, the sweeping grandeur of his victory. It would have been, we suppose, terrible and back-breaking and heart-breaking work for him to deliver us from our guilt and from the power of sin had there been no devil. But to add the devil’s relentless opposition to him at every turn makes the Lord’s work and so his achievement only the more staggeringly glorious. His was victory over the greatest conceivable powers united against him. When Christ came into the world he had his work cut out for him. He must not only suffer for our sins and live a perfectly righteous life on our behalf which no other human being came close to doing; he had to do that against untiring opposition and every manner of sinister effort to undo him. Just once; had Jesus stumbled just once, it would all have been for naught. On guard at every moment, he wielded the weapons of his war against a cunning and calculating foe until the battle was finally won. You and I will never fully grasp the greatness of the Lord’s victory or what it cost him to win it, but to know that he had to ward off the devil every step of the way, that an entire kingdom of evil was ranged against him at every step goes some way to teach us what a Savior and what a salvation we have got in Jesus Christ!
- And, finally, we see here the certainty of our salvation. Here in the wilderness we are to find a great confidence, a lightness of step as we make our way through the world, and a sense of security. The devil couldn’t dislodge him, couldn’t deflect him from his calling and his goal, and had to retire from the field beaten. He wouldn’t give up, but the die was cast. The devil is our adversary too. He is working to ruin our faith and to break our connection to the Lord Jesus just as he worked to ruin our Savior. But he failed, and as surely as Israel knew it was victorious when Goliath’s body hit the ground, so every Christian knows himself safe, secure, when he or she has committed himself to our champion, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our enemy, our adversary, has already been conquered; his kingdom already consigned to perdition. has already been judged and given over to perdition. He may continue to rage, but he has met his match and his doom is sure. And we are to live in the knowledge of that fact.
In the account of the Lord’s temptation we are given a window on the world. There is a kingdom of evil that seeks evil for everyone, that desires to draw up everyone into its rebellion against God. But in the event, it must fail and it has failed at the key point to defeat the kingdom of God. Take away from this great paragraph of Holy Scripture and this great episode in the history of salvation the greatness of our Savior, the futility of unbelief and rebellion against God, and the certainty that as we stand with the Lord and follow him we will sooner rather than later find ourselves suddenly amidst the great host marching triumphantly under the banner of the King of Kings through the gates of the city of God.
The devil did his best but it was not good enough, not nearly good enough. The devil’s project no matter how long he continues it is hopeless. He is swimming against the current of God’s universe and must at last be swept away. He wears himself out in a futile attempt to conquer the Almighty who has already conquered him. And so the forces of evil in the world, ultimately already put in their place, are not only destructive and infuriating, they are also genuinely ludicrous. This led C.S. Lewis famously to observe that “the devil is (in the long run) an ass.” [Plantinga, Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be, 123] Compare him to the Lord Christ and he shrinks, look at both of them long enough and the devil shrinks away virtually to nothing; shrinks until every Christian should scoff at him and retake his or her place with Jesus in the prospect of eternal, universal, and unconditional victory.