The King Tempted


Introduction: Jesus has just come from his baptism, the forerunner’s announcement of his superiority and the finality of his sacrifice. He has been visited by the Holy Spirit and empowered for his Messianic work as a man dependent on the support of the Spirit (1 Timothy3:16; Hebrews 9:14), one whose fellowship he enjoyed eternally in the excellent exchanges of love within the Trinity. He has been given audible approval for his role by the words of the Father, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Now we enter into the first testing, controlled by the will and Providence of God, immediately prompted by the Spirit, using the crafty, murderous, lying angel of darkness to attempt an overthrow of the Messiah’s obedience to his covenantal assignment at the very beginning of his earthly ministry. This is a manifestation of the enmity prophesied in Genesis 3:15 and a necessary element of the seed of the woman crushing the serpent’s head.

I. The circumstances of the temptation – verses 1, 2

A. His fellowship with the Spirit and the Father

1. “Then” – after the initiation into ministry through the means of the messenger, John the Baptist, by both announcement and engagement with the leading symbol of the message of the kingdom, a baptism that is administered on the basis of repentance; after the Holy Spirit gave a visible manifestation of his hovering presence with and in Jesus; after the Father sets forth the uniqueness of the Messiah’s relationship with him, the claim to which, on the part of Jesus, led to his trial for blasphemy (Matthew 26:63, 64: John 5:18)

2.  The Spirit leads him to a place far from the possibility of any human company. Jesus’ awareness of the presence and the holiness of his purposes was never diminished. Even though this leading (according to Mark, the Spirit “drove” him) consisted of physical deprivation and eventual spiritual conflict, the Spirit’s purpose was to effect a blameless life in this one that would be the perfect sacrifice for sin. Fasting was not just to engage in a self-denying abstemiousness, but for the purpose of prayer, a seeking of the presence and pleasure of the Father for the task that lay before him. Here he says, in essence, “Father, into your hands I commit my life unto your will and glory,” and when, three years later, he had said, “It is finished,” he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

B. Upon completion of his solitary preparation for the task that none else could do, the adversary to holiness, righteousness, life, and the glorious purpose of God came to derail the Jesus project at its beginning. As Jesus said about thieves, clearly referring to this vicious opponent, his purpose is “to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).

II. The first temptation and its outcome. (Verses 3, 4)

A. The attack of Satan on what is perceived to be an immediate vulnerability

1. He took advantage of the assurance of divine Sonship. Having heard the voice of the Father affirming the real and natural Sonship of Jesus, Satan asks for some demonstration of that relationship. Jesus himself will give such demonstration many times in his ministry, so Satan is not asking him to do something that is intrinsically evil. The evil in it will be pointed out by Jesus’ answer. This is the subtlety of the temptation, to move Jesus in a direction that Jesus himself would go in showing that he was indeed the Son of God. Even the manner of his death would demonstrate to those who crucified him, that he was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).

2. He took advantage of his hunger.- Jesus would have to eat soon. Why could he not call upon his divine power to provide for his very real human needs? What would be wrong with that? The temptation, therefore, falls within a path of tremendous plausibility.

3. Note the testimony this provides to the mystery of Jesus’ person. He in truth was the Son of God, of the same nature with God the Father, still essentially united with him in the fellowship of the three-personed God. Nevertheless, in this same person we find the necessity of meeting an essential need of humanity—eating. The one who was independent of any need for sustenance from created things must have bread or perish.

B. Jesus’ submission to the Scriptural view of divine providence

1. Jesus showed his willingness to live and reach decisions on the basis of Scripture as it stood at that time. He could have thrust a new revelation before Satan of a special knowledge that he had about the final issue of this trial. He must, however, be content with,  as he clearly demonstrated his utter confidence in, the Scripture as his full and sufficient guide for his life of obedience to the will of his Father. In writing of the temptation of Eve, Andrew Fuller made an interesting and pertinent observation: “It was this impression which he [the Serpent] aimed to efface by his devilish question, ‘Yea, hath God said it?’ And when once she began to doubt of this, all was over. Let us learn to keep God’s words in our minds, and hide them in our hearts, that we may not sin against him. It was with—Thus and thus it is written, that our Lord repelled all his temptations.”

2. His submission to God’s decreed word of providence – Jesus quotes a passage from Deuteronomy 8:3. The “word” here is a word of decree, a circumstance in which we find God’s providence a wise and effectual means of establishing trust in him. This concerns the necessity of the Israelites remembering how God provided for all their needs while in the wilderness. They had manna, their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell; they would now come into a land of plenty. “Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord our God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son” (Deuteronomy 8:5). Jesus saw this circumstance as paralleling that of Israel, God’s son, and he was to await the divine provision for his needs and not to supersede God’s purpose. His knowledge of Scripture in its redemptive historical context and his understanding of his place in that narrative were profound and kept him from running ahead of the purpose of the Father for him. Satan was foiled.

III. The Second temptation and its outcome (Verses 5-7)

A. In the first temptation, Satan came to Jesus where he was. Now the text says, “The devil took him.” Some say in a vision, but it is not impossible to conceive that he took him physically.

1.This would have been a place of public visibility and the feat would have been spectacular. Jesus, according to Satan’s narrative, would show himself under the special care of the Father. Thus opening his ministry, he would draw attention and supposedly convince the people of his messianic status.

2. Having perceived that Jesus’ stronghold was in the Scripture, Satan manages his own way of setting before Jesus an authoritative word. Seeing that he would be guided by Scripture, the tempter quoted Psalm 91:11, 12, which in the immediate wording seemed an appropriate promise for this occasion. This was a highly deceitful handling of Scripture, as well as a lame and pedestrian attempt at interpretation. The entire Psalm shows that the godly person—preeminently the Messiah—lives with such confidence in the divine arrangement of his life and of God’s covenantal faithfulness to him that he need not fear the massive changes that occur and the variety of dangers that infest this fallen world. It has nothing to do with a deliberate attempt at self-destruction as a foolhardy test of biblical words taken out of context.

B. Jesus clearly perceives the nature of the temptation and the false premise upon which the tempter worked.

1. Jesus response also draws from Deuteronomy, as had his first response. The passage cited related to the murmuring of the people against Moses, showing great impatience and abandonment of any faith in God. Their murmuring for immediate relief was called tempting God (Exodus 17:2, 7) saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” In surveying the abundance of blessing that God would give the people in the land they were to inherit (Deuteronomy 6:10-12), Moses related the event at Massah in his warning not to tempt the Lord.

2. Jesus quoted, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” which goes on to say “as you tempted him at Massah.” This was precisely appropriate for his situation of waiting for God to prove his presence through his own plans of providence and not seeking to provoke some sensational intervention. Sensational, or miraculous, interventions would occur (preeminently the resurrection), but Jesus was to wait for the Father’s will on those occasions.

3. Some suggest that Jesus is rebuking Satan for seeking to tempt him since he, Jesus, is the Lord. Surely that is not how Jesus handled the temptation, but took the temptation in his humanity as a test of his unbroken desire to achiever a perfect righteousness through his knowledge of the word of God and his desire fully to accomplish God’s will and word. Also a rebuke for the reason of his own deity would not serve us as an example of how to endure and quench the fiery darts of the evil one (Ephesians 6:16).

IV. The Third Temptation and its outcome (verses 8-11)- Satan again takes Jesus to a place. This could be a combination of both a physical action and a vision since it involved a sight of “all the kingdoms of the world.”

A. Finally, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ (Revelation 11:15). Satan owns nothing and has no right to give the kingdoms of this world. He is the God of this age (Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4) only in that it presently groans under God’s curse because of Adam’s sin, a sin to which Satan had seduced Eve by deceit and Adam by imitation and sympathy. His opposition to God and his deceit of the woman gave him no right of ownership. The allurement to gain the glory of this age continues to be one of the chief hooks by which Satan snares his prey.

B. Satan now foregoes all subtle formalities and submits a promise based on the ultimate  betrayal.

1. Such a bold and direct temptation, “Fall down and worship me” is almost unimaginable, but it seems to be a common tactic in extreme circumstances. How do people become atheists apart from the bold implantation in the mind this thought, “There is no God.” How does suicide take place without the hater of life suggesting, “Cut your throat; shoot yourself; take an overdose; you are better off dead than alive.”

2. He had failed in the more subtle attempts, so he went with astonishingly rapidity and arrogance with a promise of ultimate world-wide power and glory for the small price of changing the entire order of reality. Treat as God the anti-God. Do the moral impossibility and cease to find your complete satisfaction in the one who is the only source of existence, joy, and blessedness. Impudent and completely nihilistic, but perfectly consistent with the tempter’s character are all such irrationally audacious commitments desperate sinners make in efforts to avoid the knowledge of God (Romans 1:28)

3. John A. Broadus made a helpful observation: “Here also, as in the former cases, the temptation of Jesus seems to have been twofold, appealing to a natural feeling—the love of power, the desire to rule over others—and at the same time suggesting a way in which his Messianic mission might be expeditiously carried through.”

C. Accordingly, the response was abrupt, absolute, and without hesitation. “Begone, Satan!” The temptation was against the most fundamental duty and the only rational posture for the seeker of righteousness and life—as Jesus was for us. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” This is the proper duty for elect angels, for fallen angels, for all mankind. This will be the occupation of heaven and none will ever find the exaltation of God to lack in substance. This was the only proper and righteous posture for Jesus, the Son of Man, in his pursuit of redemption for his people.

D. Having failed in this first attempt and in this most vulnerable moment, Satan left; he would wait until other opportune times presented themselves. Now, according to the purpose of the Father and in harmony with the trust that Jesus exhibited in the word, angels came and ministered to him. Rather than take the matter into his hands according to his own power, he waited for God’s servants to come.

V. Principles

A. Satan’s most urgent and fervent desire is to destroy the plan that God decreed for the manifestation of his own glory. Though Jesus ultimate victory is prophesied throughout the Old Testament and the very reason for his birth was the “Save his people from their sins,” the temptations, nevertheless, were real. Not only by prophecy was the success of the temptation impossible, but the constituent factors of Jesus’ person made his sinning impossible—the eternal Son of God assuming into his own personhood the true and full nature of humanity inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. Because of the unity of the person and the impossibility of moral darkness ever coexisting with the divine nature (1 John 1:5) Jesus was impeccable, incapable of sinning. The assault of temptation, however, from the outside and the suggestions destructive compromise was more than the severest any fallen creature has ever experienced. That these temptations did not meet with an internal disposition to sin (James 1:14, 15) does not diminish the reality of Satan’s scheming, subtlety, brazenness, and energy in setting before the God-man destructive and sinful options (Hebrews 2:18; 4:14-16)

B. Satan will attack God’s people at their most vulnerable time and appeal to their sense of self-preservation or self-exaltation. He also will learn varieties of temperaments and use unique personal traits to lead us to sinful actions or attitudes.

C. God will not allow us to be tempted beyond that which can be borne but will provide a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:12, 13). The way of escape is a thorough knowledge of the revelation of God in the Bible. We must learn to wield this sword of the Spirit with deftness. We cannot hope to escape if we remain ignorant of God’s purpose.

D. A deep sense of divine providence is necessity for an accurate assessment of God’s will for us as we compare our circumstances and gifts with revealed truth.

E. Jesus passed the test that Adam failed; he passed the test that Israel failed. He gained a perfect righteousness even though he was tempted in all points like we are. He is not just an example of obedience, though he is not less than that, but he is the Savior whose testing was endured on our behalf and in our stead. Eternal life is the reward of perfect unalloyed obedience unto righteousness. Eternal life is in union with Jesus only (Hebrews 7:28)

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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