The Three Temptations: There’s More to the Story

SATAN’S TEMPTATION, GOD’S PLAN

What’s the most important story of the Christian faith? Without a doubt, the answer is when Jesus took the punishment of death, the heartbrokenness of rejection, the torture of thirty-nine lashes, the throbbing of the nails, the agony of the crown of thorns and the burden of generations of sins with the triumphant celebration of the resurrection that followed. And how could anyone choose a story more important? I would never argue away the importance of this story; it’s where the Gospel message rests. But, what if there’s more to the story?

There’s a passage in Matthew, Mark and Luke that details a moment where everything could have ended before it started. It’s a brief story that most of us know, but rarely dissect. Without it, the Gospel message would never have gone forth. One tiny slip up, and salvation would have not been possible. There would have been no eternal life, only eternal death. Jesus was human, and Satan knew it. The devil got what he wanted with Adam and even Israel. His goal was to do the same with Jesus. Since Jesus was God’s Son, Satan knew it wouldn’t be easy. He had to tempt Jesus at His weakest point.

In this passage, Jesus was given three chances to take the easy road, but He courageously said no. What Satan didn’t realize is that God the Father orchestrated this entire event. He led His Son to fast via the Holy Spirit and allowed Satan to bring his juiciest temptations. The Father knew that only through the biggest test at the lowest point could He make the Gospel message relevant to humans. It was crucial that He first endure Satan’s best effort before God’s ultimate plan would be fulfilled.

My grandfather, Bert Allbritton, had an experience of his own when Satan was trying to end his life but God was just getting started with him. Bert lied about his age, escaping his hometown within Louisiana and the Great Depression, and enlisted in the Navy at age sixteen. He had an attitude and was always getting into fights. Even though his grandfather was a preacher and he had heard about God, he never developed a personal relationship with Jesus. During World War II, he was diagnosed with a fatal Japanese blood disease. Given six months to live, he had to decide how to spend the rest of his life. One day, after receiving treatments back in San Francisco, he was walking down a street trying to decide how to spend one of his last nights on earth. This is the part where the devil’s temptation lined up with God’s plan.

Satan tried to kill Bert, but God wanted to use the suffering as a miracle that would save lives. At the corner of Market and Ellis street, he looked right, and saw a strip club. He had been there before, many times. He knew the pleasure he could get there, but also was familiar with its emptiness. He looked left, and saw a church. He wondered if what his grandfather taught about was true and maybe he could find peace in God before he died. It turned out to be a literal crossroads for this young, Navy Sailor. As he stood there trying to make a decision, a van pulled up and a fellow sailor jumped out and invited Bert to church. He conceded and gave his heart and life to Jesus Christ that night. He was healed, too. He went on to be a pastor of many great churches around America. Bert was involved in full time ministry for sixty-three years until he went to be with Jesus in 2011.

There’s many details to share, but to sum it up – millions have come to Christ because of this one decision. Satan truly does “come to steal, kill and destroy” but Christ came so we “may have life, and have it more abundantly.”[1]

So, what’s the connection between this story of my grandfather and the Son of God?

  1. They both have had human desires
  2. Satan was at work to stop their futures
  3. God called them both to go through the temptations of Satan.

Bert could have gone right, but He didn’t. And since he was weaker (as a sinner) than Jesus, God called another man to help him make the right decision.

LED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT TO BE TEMPTED

One of the most fascinating verses in the Bible must be Matthew 4:1, which states that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.”[2] People don’t usually think that God, Himself is leading us into our trials. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes it is. Satan had been preparing for this moment since he was cast out of Heaven. He was determined to turn the chosen Messiah into nothing more than a powerful emperor. While Satan was preparing for his biggest victory yet, God was doing the same thing.

In the last verse of Matthew 3, God announces how proud He is of His Son, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.”3 The very next verse, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus to be tempted by the devil. There’s a pretty harsh contrast between these two experiences. One is among His Father, the other is among Satan. One involves a large crowd, the other involves solitude. One has the Holy Spirit come down like a dove, the other has the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. He goes from anointed to attacked. He goes from being baptized to temptation.4 Why did this celebration have to turn to lamentation?

If the Father was already well pleased with His Son, why did He have to go through a torturous wilderness experience? The answer is three-fold. First, through the temptation He faced, He is able to understand our struggles. Hebrews 4:15 says, “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings’ we do, yet he did not sin.”5 Second, to demonstrate His holiness as God’s Son.6 Isn’t it interesting that Jesus demonstrated His holiness – a divine attribute – through a persistent “no” to divine requests? His divinity was exposed through His humanity. Third, Jesus did what Adam and Israel could not do. He resisted each temptation that He faced and defeated Satan. He is the second Adam and the successful Adam.

Just as Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tested, the Israelites were also led into the wilderness to be tested.7 It didn’t take long for the Israelites to question why they were there and end their trust in God. “In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.”8

THE TEMPTATIONS OF SATAN

“2 For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’” Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’” Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. “I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.” 10 “Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil went away, and angels came and took care of Jesus.”9

THE FORTY-DAY FAST

When I was in my early twenties, I felt a strong urge to fast. I was seeking direction and desperately needed an answer in multiple areas of my life. I decided I would eat nothing but fruit and drink nothing but water. Once I realized that the fruit was making me hungrier than fixing my hunger pains, I decided to throw dairy into the mix. I started drinking milk, eating yogurt and before I knew what happened, I was eating Cheez-It’s. I found myself scarfing down unhealthy, cheesy crackers but not allowing myself to eat salads. It was easy on me to make excuses for my fast because my hunger was so great. Finally and eventually, I made it through seven days by only consuming water, but my humorous struggles to get there made me appreciate what Jesus achieved even more.

Jesus fasted and prayed for forty-days and forty-nights. Experts have concluded that no human can go without food for more than forty days. There’s Jesus, a co-equal person of the Trinity, now a human, on the brink of death. He was weak. His strength was minimal. He needed food. He was desperate for it and Satan knew it. But He was on a mission to accomplish what the Israelites failed to. Just as they were given forty years, Jesus was given forty days. Everything in the Bible is intentional and symbolic. If we read it as such we will uncover astonishing order, beauty and love from an infinitely brilliant creator.

THE FIRST TEMPTATION

As we read above, the first temptation from Satan is all about food. He’s getting right to the point. Jesus needs food to survive and Satan uses that in an attempt to make Jesus fall like Adam. Satan did not bring food, though. He knows that Jesus would not be dumb enough to take food from him. After all, Jesus knows what happened in the Garden of Eden. Instead, Satan asks Jesus to turn the stones into bread. This isn’t just a random food that Satan chose, it’s strategic. Jesus loves bread. His birthplace, Bethlehem, literally means “House of Bread”10 “Jesus probably remembered what it was like to come back from an exhausting day on the work site with his father and smell bread baking on a fire outside his parents’ hut. As Satan spoke, Jesus might have even imagined it there before him, the sensation of breaking open the crust to the hot yeasty stuff inside. That is human in the most basic sense of the word.”11

This is also symbolic to the people of Israel. God provided bread (manna) for them in the wilderness but they did not accept it as they should. While He provided, they craved for more. They did not have a heart for God, they just wanted to fill their cravings.12 God was waiting for them to crave Him more than the bread. They couldn’t do it, which is why most of them never saw the Promised Land. Jesus was changing that with this temptation when He responded with scripture, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”13 Notice that Jesus admits man’s need for bread; just not “alone”. Man lives by God’s Word!

Later in the Gospels, Jesus used bread quite a bit. He multiplied the bread at least two times for thousands of people, He broke bread and feasted on it among His disciples at the Last Supper. He even gave a slice to the man who was betraying Him. However, in this moment with the prince of darkness, He knew it wasn’t time to feast, even though it would have been the hungriest time of His life.

One thing we have to ask ourselves is: how much do we love God? When faced with temptation, are we more willing to give in or give it to God? For Jesus, His Father’s words were just a little bit stronger than His hunger pains. Temptations are hard to overcome. They have a convincing pull. It’s easy to justify sin and tell ourselves, “Just this one time. I’ll be fine. God will still love me.” While God will definitely still love us, each time we give in to sin, we give Satan more confidence in how to attack and give God one more reason to use someone else. Shouldn’t we love God, other people and even ourselves more than this one, fleeting moment of pleasure? What if one more person goes to hell for each sin we commit? Will that straighten us up? Obviously, we’re going to fall because we are completely human. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to give in next time. Our future is as bright we are determined to make it. So, do we love God enough to say “no”?

THE SECOND TEMPTATION

After Jesus amazingly denied the bread temptation, Satan took it to the next level. He took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was not just the highest place Satan could find. There were people everywhere! He asked Jesus to prove that He truly is God’s Son by jumping off and being rescued by the angels. Remember, the Temple is where God the Father Himself dwelt.

Satan knew that Jesus wasn’t going to just jump off a cliff because he said so. Proving to Satan that He was truly the Son of God was not the full temptation. Satan was not daring Jesus, taunting Jesus or threatening Jesus, he was preaching to Him.14 “He recited a Psalm from memory, and recited it with accuracy. Moreover, Satan didn’t just know the proof text- he knew the larger canonical context.”15 Psalm 91 is all about the protection of God over our fears. It discusses God’s deliverance of His anointed, with zero uncertainty, knowing that the angels have His back. In this horrible, gloomy, scary forty-day experience for Jesus, hearing about His Father’s deliverance would have resonated well. I’m sure He craved an ending to His suffering.

Jesus was in the desert in the first place because He loves us. With one jump, He would not only end this horrendous affair in the wilderness and confrontation with Satan, but the busy crowds would see Him as the miracle worker, sent from God. The people that He loved would worship Him, live for Him and the relationships He so desperately desires would increase rapidly. If this would have happened, we wouldn’t have verses like, “‘He’s just like a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And His sisters live right here among us.’ They were deeply offended and refused to believe in Him.”16 This could have all been avoided if He would have just jumped. But He didn’t. It was not yet the right time.

Peter also tried to take Jesus away from God’s master plan. Jesus told the disciples many times that He was going to be taken away and crucified. But Peter tried to stop Him. I would be flattered if someone tried their best to keep me from harm; but for Jesus, He had to be crucified. Jesus experienced this aggressive combative nature before; it was Satan in the wilderness. Why else would Jesus react so harshly to Peter? “Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”17 Wow, just a few verses beforehand, Jesus praised Peter. Now, though, Peter is naively trying to stop the world’s salvation. Jesus was now a veteran in detecting the enemy’s wants. He could not lose an ounce of focus; His mission was greater than any mission in the history of mankind, and He had to treat it as such.

Jesus said no to Satan, not by defending Himself, but by returning the favor with another verse, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”18 The Israelites kept looking for signs of proof in the wilderness, and God kept giving it to them. Satan was asking for something similar, but Jesus came for a greater purpose.

THE THIRD TEMPTATION

Here it goes, the final temptation in the wilderness from Satan. It must be a good one. He’s got one more chance. It’ll either be a strikeout or a grand slam. “Fall down and worship me.” Wait what? How would worshipping Satan be tempting at all? Let’s look at the context. Satan takes Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world and their majesty, beauty and glory. It’s quite the view. Instead of asking Jesus to jump, Satan offers it all if Jesus will just worship him.

There has to be more to this offer, right? God did indeed promise His Son the Kingdom and the “ends of the earth”19 but the offer was by word, not vision.20 The earth truly was ruled by Satan and he had the ability to offer it up, but only temporarily. If Jesus accepted and worshipped Satan, the earth would be taken back and given to Jesus but the Gospel message would have been nullified. No longer would the earth be full of sin, problems, and pain because Jesus would see to it that it would not be the case. However, salvation would be impossible. Each person who died would be sent to hell.

This temptation meant even more than that. Satan was on a mission to adopt Jesus, not  just be worshipped by Him.21 “Satan, in all three temptations, is assuming the role of a father –first in provision, then in protection, and now in the granting of an inheritance. Satan didn’t just want to be Jesus’ lord; he wanted to be his father.”22

In the wilderness, God had an amazing place in store for the Israelites, but they kept getting sidetracked by their own passions. Satan did not want them to experience the Promised Land. They could have had the best of both worlds, if they just would have surrendered to God’s plan. Thankfully, Jesus did what the Israelites could not, telling Satan to “Get out of here! For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”23

KING JESUS

Thankfully, “where Adam and Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.”24 The long line of human failure made an opportunity to set us free of our failures. Because of Jesus’ astonishing strength in the wilderness, He was able to begin His ministry and set out to go to the cross to die for our cross, which turned out to be the most important story to the Christian faith.

In this experience in the wilderness, it’s important to point out that Jesus never stopped being a King. “Jesus was born a King, He was introduced as a King, He was baptized as a King, and now we have seen that He was tested as a King. All the way through Matthew’s Gospel He is a King.”25 You don’t usually think of King’s over the course of history that are willing to go through excruciating things for their people, but God’s Kingship is different. Through the words and actions of Jesus, we know that a King has to first be a servant – exactly what Jesus was. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”26 James wrote, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.”27 God’s requirement to be raised up is the same requirement He has for every other teaching – love for God and love for others.

CONCLUSION

There’s a message in this temptation story for all of us, and it’s powerful and effective if we adhere to it. Russell Moore sums it up beautifully in his book, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ:

The satanic powers are watching you. They’re peering into your life to see what catches your attention, what puffs up your ego. They’re evaluating what kind of Babylon you want to build for yourself, and they’ll make sure you get it. Satan is as ambitious for your goals as you are, maybe more so. He’ll give you the power you want, the glory you crave, as long as you will fall down and obtain it his way. The powers don’t care if we are respected or influential or moral or conservative, as long as we’d rather be magnified than crucified. Satan doesn’t mind if our values are right side up, so long as our crosses are upside-down.28

 

 

 

1 The Holy Bible. John 10:10

[2] Ibid. Matthew 4:1.

3 Ibid. Matthew 3:17.

4 Guzik, David. Bible Hub Commentary. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/guzik/commentaries/4004.htm.

5 The Holy Bible. Hebrews 4:15.

6 Guzik, David. Bible Hub Commentary. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/guzik/commentaries/4004.htm.

7 Moore, Russell D. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.

8 The Holy Bible. Deuteronomy 1:32-33.

9 Ibid. Matthew 4:2-11.

10 Moore, Russell D. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.

11 Ibid. Page 66.

12 Ibid. Page 67.

13 The Holy Bible. Matthew 4:4.

14 Moore, Russell D. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Page 100.

15 Ibid.

16 The Holy Bible. Mark 6:3.

17 Ibid. Matthew 16:23.

18 Ibid. Matthew 4:7.

19 Ibid. Psalm 2:8.

20 Moore, Russell D. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Page 132.

21 Ibid. Page 137.

22 Ibid.

23 The Holy Bible. Matthew 4:10.

24 Sweet, Leonard and Frank Viola. Jesus: A Theography. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. Page 128.

25 McGee, Vernon J. Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983. Page 23.

26 The Holy Bible. Matthew 20:26-27.

27 The Holy Bible. James 4:10.

28 Moore, Russell D. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Page 162.

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