Lessons from the Temptation of Jesus


By Brian Knowles



he unknown author of the Book of Hebrews addresses what is a most important issue for Mankind: How can sinful man approach the purity of an utterly holy God? His answer is that we approach God through Christ, who himself lived a sinless life. Jesus is our High Priest and the only mediator between man and God (I Timothy 2:5, 6).

            After explaining how Jesus is superior to both Moses and Joshua, the writer of Hebrews says this: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

            Jesus is sympathetic to the sinful plight of mankind because, to use modern parlance, he’s been there, done that, and got the tee-shirt. Jesus, during his relatively brief lifetime, faced down every kind of temptation with which any human could be tempted. He knows how hard it is to resist temptation. He, like our heavenly Father, knows the frailty of man, for he experienced it.

            King David, who was himself a type of the Messiah, once wrote, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13, 14).

            God is Spirit but man, though created in his image, is mere dust. Man has a spirit (I Corinthians 2:11), but he isn’t yet one. Every human being who has ever lived, with the exception of Jesus Christ, has sinned (Romans 3:23; Proverbs 20:9 & I John 1:8, 10). Sin is a major defining component of the “human condition.” The natural condition of man is to be “dead in sins” (Ephesians 2:1-2).


The Two Impulses

Sin occurs because man is saddled with two competing impulses; one to evil, the other to good.             In Hebrew, the former is known as the yetzer hara, while the latter is the yetzer ha tob. “Ra” is the Hebrew word for evil. “Yetzer” means “inclination” or “impulse.”

            Sooner or later, every human succumbs to the dark side of his or her nature – to the yetzer hara. Associated with the yetzer hara – the evil impulse – is Satan the Devil, the Adversary. Abraham Cohen explains: “’Satan’ is the personification of wickedness. A significant remark is: ‘Satan, the Jetzer Hara and the Angel of Death are all one’ (B.B.16a). It indicates that the prompting to evil is rather a force within the individual than an influence from without. It also explains why God permits Satan to be active and does not destroy him”- (Everyman’s Talmud, p. 54).

            Cohen also points out that “Since he [Satan] is only able to be in one place at a time, he must necessarily have emissaries to do his bidding. As pointed out above, good angels accompany the righteous and evil angels the wicked” – (ibid. p. 55).

            Ha Satan, demons, sin, sinners, and death are all a bundle. The wages of sin is death. The death angel administers the death penalty. He was, according to tradition, the angel that passed over the Israelites in the Exodus because they had blood on the lintels of their doors. Collectively, all of this represents the dark side, the side that leads to death and destruction. Most of mankind lives in a state of spiritual darkness. The bitter fruit that is born every day in this world is stark proof. Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and God’s true people, together represent light, hope and life. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (I John 3:8).


The devil’s works

The devil’s works are manifest: sin (I John 3:8); death (Genesis 3); sickness & disease (Luke 4:40-41; 13:11); lying, deception, hatred and murder (John 8:44; I John 3:15) and spiritual darkness. John wrote: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” – (I John 3:10).

            Evil is as evil does. Those who do evil are evil. Those who are evil are of the devil, who is the personification of evil. He is their father, they are his children. What could be plainer?

            Jesus came as mankind’s Redeemer. He is the centerpiece in God’s redemptive plan. He came with good news for mankind. There is hope in Him. We don’t have to languish in darkness, waiting for eternal death. Jesus came to rescue us from the devil, and from ourselves. Apart from the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah, there is no hope for mankind (cf. Ephesians 2:12b). He is the mechanism by which God has chosen to save the world (Acts 4:12). If Jesus had not been sacrificed as the Lamb of God to pay the penalty for our sins, we would have nothing to look forward to except “fiery indignation” that will devour God’s adversaries, the chief of which is Satan (cf. Hebrews 10:26-27; Revelation 20:10). Were it not for Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we would have to pay the full penalty for our sins. But God, fortunately for us, is not willing that any of us should perish (II Peter 3:9). Consequently, he has provided a way out in Christ, but Jesus, in order to qualify as the sinless Lamb of God, had to live a perfect life. Furthermore, he had to overcome the devil and destroy his works.


The Temptation of Jesus

Once Jesus came into his own at age 30 (Luke 3:23; Mishnah Aboth 5:21), he began his ministry. The very first thing the Holy Spirit led him to do following his baptism was to face down the devil: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” – Luke 4:1-2a).

            Note that Jesus was tempted over a period of 40 days. Yet, only three of the temptations are specifically described in this account. We will address those shortly. We don’t know anything about the temptations that Jesus experienced during the 40-day period, but perhaps this explains the verse we cited earlier from Hebrews: “…who has been tempted in every way, just as we are…” – (Hebrews 4:15).

            During this period of concentrated temptation, administered personally by the devil, Jesus was sorely tried across a broad spectrum. All of this occurred while he was physically weakened through fasting (Luke 4:2b). At the end of 40 days, Jesus, as might be expected, was ravenously hungry. This provided Satan with an occasion for yet another temptation: “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread’ – (Luke 4:3). Satan knew perfectly well that Jesus was the Son of God. Even rank & file demons know who Jesus is (James 2:19; Luke 4:41).

            At the end of 40 days of fasting, Jesus was relying upon God to sustain him. We know that he had the power to multiply loaves and fishes, and turn water into wine, because later he accomplished both of these things; but Jesus wasn’t about to do anything Satan advised him to do.

            It is interesting that the devil pointed to a stone, is it not? Now consider Jesus’ response: “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4). There are several interesting things about this statement. First, the NIV, which I’m using here, leaves out a part of the verse that is included in the KJV, and that is also in the earliest Greek manuscripts of Luke: “…but by every word of God.” The quotation is from Deuteronomy 8:3 which reads in the Jewish Translation: “He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”


A rabbinic approach

When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 to the devil, he was using a rabbinic technique known as remez = “allusion.” Jesus was alluding to a larger context – the testing of Israel in the wilderness. Where was this temptation of Jesus taking place? - In the wilderness (Luke 4:1). And who had led Jesus to this desolate spot? The Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). And to whom was Jesus looking for his sustenance? –to God who had led him there.

            The significance of this is quite startling: God is recycling in Jesus the tests he gave Israel in the wilderness! The Israelites murmured and complained. They asked Moses if they’d been led into the wilderness to die there (Exodus 14:11). The people complained bitterly about God’s provision for them. They wanted the kind of food they’d eaten in Egypt: cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic (Numbers 11:5). The faithless Israelites grumbled about the lack of grains, figs, grapevines pomegranates and water (Numbers 20:1-13). Moses and Aaron went to God about the matter and God instructed Moses to strike a rock, out of which flowed an abundance of water.
            The point is, the faithless people failed to trust God to provide food and water for them during their trek in the wilderness. Jesus, in contrast, was willing to live on “whatever the Lord decreed.” At this point, that meant nothing in 40 long, hot, dry desert days. Jesus could have preempted God by turning the rock into bread, but he chose to trust God to take care of him. In so doing, he passed a test that the Israelites of Moses’ day had failed. Unlike them, he trusted the God who had led him into the bleak, dry wilderness to be tempted by the devil himself. Satan, like the predator that he is (I Peter 5:8) sought to prey on Jesus’ hunger. He failed. Jesus passed.


The Second Temptation

Failing the first of three concluding attempts to get Jesus to sin, the Slanderer (that is the meaning of diabolos translated “the devil”), made another attempt: “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor, for so it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:5-7).

            We could label this “the test of idolatry.” Again, it is a test that the Israelites failed. You will recall the story of the golden calf found in Exodus 32. The Israelites succumbed to the temptation to worship something other than the one God who was worthy of worship. Jesus responded quickly and decisively to the devil’s proposal: “Jesus answered, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only””- (Deuteronomy 6:13).

            Again, Jesus passes a test that Israel had failed.


Putting God to the Test

“The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” – (Luke 4:9- 11).

            Satan was citing Psalm 91, but he was misapplying it. Jesus’ response is most interesting: “Jesus answered, ‘It says: Do not put the lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12).

            Jesus again quoted Deuteronomy, this time Deuteronomy 6:16.

            In effect, Satan tried to get Jesus to commit suicide. Had Jesus taken the bait, we would have no Savior. If you go to Deuteronomy 6:16, you will again discover that Jesus is again using the remez technique: quoting a part of a verse and allowing the listener to fill in the blanks. The rest of verse 16 reads, “…as you did at Massah.” The story of what happened at Massah is found in Exodus 17. Again the people were grumbling about the lack of water: “They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’

            Moses responded, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” – (Exodus 17:1b – 2).

            The people continued to complain and grumble and the Lord instructed Moses to strike a rock and water came out. Moses named the place “Massah” (Testing) and “Meribah” (Quarreling) “…because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7).

            It is to this incident that Jesus alludes in his response to the devil’s third test. To do something to provoke action by God, just to find out whether he’s with you or not, is to “put God to the test.” To deliberately throw oneself off a cliff just to see if God will send angels to protect you, is testing God.

            Fear and anxiety can weaken a person’s ability to believe. God had already proven himself to the Israelites. He had also clearly demonstrated that Moses was his true servant. The people of Israel should not have doubted or questioned God or his servant Moses. A way to understand the incident at Meribah is explained by Jewish commentator Abraham Chill: “Once a prophet has been so designated, we are forbidden to ask him for continuous signs and miracles to validate his prophetic utterances. Even though one may acknowledge unhesitatingly the existence of God, he may not address himself to Him and demand that His promises in the Torah or through his prophets should be brought to fruition forthwith, or even in the foreseeable future” (The Mitvot, by Abraham Chill, p. 381).


Insights from Judaism

The famous Medieval commentator, Nahmanides, said of this commandment: “One does not need to test God’s Omnipotence by questioning the validity and efficacy of the Torah and mitzvot, for He has already established beyond any shadow of doubt the binding worth of His word in the incidents of Egypt and the desert. Whatever emanates from God is obviously perfect.” (ibid. p. 382).

            To question whether God can perform specific deeds, or to demand that he do so, is putting him to the test. Another rabbinic commentator adds this insight to the discussion: “Do not ask God’s prophets to show you heavenly signs and miracles at your every whim and fancy. It is God’s own decision when He will show miracles and not the prerogative of the prophet. If this were in the power of the prophet he would be open to ridicule when he could not perform miracles at every call and behest” -- (Hinnukh, ibid. p. 382).

            Radbaz, another sage, adds one more comment to the verse: “Once it is established that a man has fulfilled the requirements of being a prophet of God and a sage, we have no right to test him or question him, just as we have no right to test God himself” (ibid. p. 382).

            Moses was well-established as God’s prophet and the leader of Israel. God had demonstrated his ability and willingness to perform miracles on behalf of Israel. The Israelites need not have questioned whether God would provide water for them at this juncture. Nor should they have challenged Moses’ leadership. Doing so put God to the test, and aroused His anger, and that of his servant Moses.

            It is all too easy for us to put God to the test. When we tell God when to do something, or how to do something, we are taking his prerogatives away from him. When we approach God it must be with humility and utter subservience. If God has made a promise that we are now claiming, then it is up to God how he will fulfill it – or even whether he will perform it at all. God is sovereign. He will do what he has said he will do.


Summing Up

In Jesus, God allowed Satan to recycle the tests that Israel had failed in the wilderness. Jesus, who was without sustenance during this period, was tempted to preempt God in providing food for himself. He refused, trusting fully in God’s provision. God had led him into the wilderness, and God would provide for him there.

            Jesus was tempted to commit idolatry – to worship the devil – in exchange for rulership over the kingdoms of the world. Jesus knew those kingdoms would eventually be his anyway. Submitting to the devil was not the way to obtain them. Defeating the devil by resisting him was. Again, Jesus passed a test the Israelites failed.

            Jesus’ third temptation involved putting God to the test. Unlike the Israelites who had tested God in the incident at Meribah, Jesus refused to do so, thus passing another test that Israel had flubbed.

            Jesus was fully submissive to God throughout this God-induced ordeal, and fully resistant to the devil. Even while starving to death he trusted God to sustain him. In the matter of ruling over the kingdoms of the world, Satan made Jesus an offer he could, and did, refuse.

            Even when confronted by the greatest force for evil in the universe – the devil himself – Jesus relied on God for protection. He refused to challenge God, or put him to the test, unlike his Israelite forebears. Jesus succeeded, where Israel had failed.


Quoting from Moses’ sermon

Significantly, Jesus draws all of his Scriptural references – the ones we know of – from the section in Deuteronomy where Moses is summing up for Israel the lessons learned in the wilderness trials. Jesus uses the technique of merely alluding to certain verses. When the first Jewish Christians heard these stories, they would have instantly recognized the whole account to which Jesus only briefly referred.

            The 40-year Exodus was over. The Israelites were about to come into the Promised Land – sans Moses. Moses was giving them their final instructions before he turned them over to Joshua. Wrote Moses: “Here now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you…” (Deuteronomy 4:1). It is in the section that follows that Jesus draws all of his “it is writtens.” Jesus was tested for 40 days – a day for each year of the Exodus. He succeeded everywhere that Israel failed. In doing so, he defeated the devil and the yetzer hara.

            Instead of weakening Jesus, the 40-day ordeal strengthened him at the level of the inner man. He had won a great victory against a formidable adversary. He did it on our behalf. He showed that it can be done, and that it must be done. If we too resist the devil as Jesus did, firmly grounded in the text of Scripture, he will flee from us too: “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).

            Notice that telling statement: “…until a more opportune time.” The devil is always looking for an opening into our lives – a weakness, a point of stress, a moment of doubt or confusion. He is, as I said earlier, a spiritual predator. He seeks those whom he may devour.


Opportune times

Satan wasn’t through working on Jesus. He continued to launch attacks throughout the balance of his life and ministry. Satan tried time and time again to thwart God’s redemptive plan in Christ. He constantly looked for “opportune” times. Finally, he thought he could administer his coup de grace through Judas, whose love of silver was his downfall. It didn’t work. What Satan had meant for evil, God meant for good (cf. Genesis 50:19-20).


Destroying the devil’s work

Throughout his life, Jesus triumphed over Satan at every turn. He faced down every temptation. He won every battle. The apostle John tells us: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8b). That’s exactly what he did. He succeeded 100 percent in everything he did. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossian Christians, summed up in redemptive terms Jesus’ triumphant life: “When you were dead in our sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature [Greek: sarkos meaning “flesh”], God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15 NIV).

            The “powers and authorities” referred to here are those of Satan, not those of God. Jesus obtained a complete victory over the forces of darkness. Like a victorious Roman general, he paraded his captives through spiritual streets in an open show of triumph. Though he was in all points tempted and tested as are we, he emerged from the battle free of sin. When Jesus emerged from the fiery trial of his life, it was clear that he had built “gold, silver and precious stones,” not, “wood, hay or stubble” (I Corinthians 3:10-15). If we build our lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ, we too will create gold, silver and precious stones. Fiery trials will, as they did with Jesus, simply refine our character, purifying and polishing it to perfection.


Donning spiritual armor

Like Jesus, who is our model, we must clothe ourselves with spiritual armor: “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:12 – 13). The verses that follow explain what Paul had in mind when he referred to spiritual armor. Study them closely.

            The “day of evil” is the day of temptation, or of testing. It is those terrible times of fiery trial that reveal what we’re made of (I Peter 4:12-13). If we put on the full armor of God and use it, we will find ourselves still standing after the smoke of battle drifts over a distant hill. If we are found faithful, we will receive a reward (I Corinthians 3:13-14).

            Each of us is unique, each existentially alone. We all have different trials, at different times, and to different degrees. For some it is the trial of terrible illness or disease. It can be financial reversal. Some have been born with imperfect bodies, or incomplete minds. Others have ordeals of relationship: unhappy marriages; alienated children; oppressive parents, or conflicts with relatives. Some work for bosses who are monsters. Millions of unfortunate souls have been born into Third World tyrannies in which life is cheap and expendable. Hunger, oppression, slavery, torture, rape and untimely death are daily realities. We don’t choose where we are born, or in what condition we come into the world. We don’t choose our parents. For all too many, life is short and painful. For others, it is long and relatively pain free. At our level, it’s the luck of the draw. We have to play the cards we are dealt. We can’t influence the Dealer before the fact.

            Generally speaking, the world is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). It has no awareness of God and it is hell bent for destruction. Those of us who have had the great privilege of being called to God in Christ have a duty to drive back the darkness wherever we can. We are light in a terribly dark, hellish place. We are the salt of the earth. It’s an enormous responsibility. We can accomplish it only in the power of the Holy Spirit. Mere words and intellectualizing won’t get the job done. What Jesus accomplished he accomplished in the power of the Spirit, as we have already seen. When we are confronted with temptations and trials, we must face them the same way. We cannot achieve much in our flesh, no matter how intelligent or talented we may think we are. As Jesus said, “The flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). He was right. Believe it. And the mind isn’t much better: “The heart [mind] is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In times past, we all unwittingly served Satan. We fulfilled the desires of our weak flesh and served the causes of our deceitful minds (Ephesians 2:2-3). Now we are called to serve God and to follow the lead of His Holy Spirit. It is a higher, better, calling.

            As the world descends into a global replica of Dante’s Inferno, keep in mind the example of Jesus who even in death triumphed over the powers of darkness. Nothing Satan threw at him deterred him from carrying out his Father’s business. He was faithful to the end. We must strive to follow his example, and when we fail, the grace of God will pull us through.