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The Temptation of Jesus

February 26, 2023 |The Temptation of Jesus|Matthew 4:1-11

JD Cutler

This morning will serve as a kind of juxtaposition of sorts for us with what we saw last week in the transfiguration. You remember the scene, Jesus transfigured before his disciples, high up on the mountain, face shining like the sun, clothes radiant white, talking to two great OT giants of the faith, the glory cloud descending and God the Father declaring ‘this is my beloved son, with whom I am pleased, listen to him.’

This is as close in Jesus’ earthly ministry as we come to seeing the divinity of Jesus on full display. The event we will be looking at today comes closely after the other time God declared that Jesus is his beloved son, with whom he was pleased, at his baptism. I say it is a juxtaposition because rather than his divinity on display like in the transfiguration, today we will look at a time where his humanity is on full display.

This event of course is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

All three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke give an account of this event, today we will be looking at Matthew’s account, which we find in Matthew chapter 4.

I say this is Jesus’ humanity is on full display because to be human is to be tempted, right? Like I don't know about you, but I don’t know what it feels like to command the sea to be still and it happen, I don’t know what it is like to walk on water, to miraculously increase fish and loaves, to heal bones that developed incorrectly leaving someone lame from birth, to give sight to blind eyes, but to be tempted, that I can understand.

Temptation is present from the very first moment a child sees a toy they want that someone else has. The moment what we want or desire goes against what we have been told by our parents. Certainly from our experience, we know it doesn’t get any easier.

This I can confidently say without any hesitation, we all know what it is like to be tempted, and furthermore we all know what it is to have given in to the temptation and sinned. You’ve heard the story of the man who said, “Lord I haven’t lied to anyone today, Lord I haven’t lusted after anyone today, Lord, I haven’t covetted anything today, but Lord, I'm about to get out of bed and I’m going to need your help for the rest of the day!”

This is the human experience, so to know that Jesus faced temptation and more importantly that it is recorded for us ought to cause us to lean in and look closely at his experience. It is to that we turn now. The account is rather brief and straightforward, we will start at verse 1 of Matthew chapter 4.

Matthew 4:1-11 (ESV) 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

One important thing to note before we get into our text is that although we see Jesus being tempted by Satan here, we are given a look into whose will this is. Matthew says Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark uses an even stronger word in his gospel, he says the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. That there was an overwhelming need for Jesus to go into the wilderness.

For what purpose? To be tempted by the devil.

Herein is one of the more difficult doctrines for us to wrestle with as believers, we know God is not the author of evil, nor does he approve of it, but it does serve his will and his purposes in a way that is hard for the created to wrap our minds around. This encounter is for God’s glory. The Bible clearly states that God does not tempt us to evil, but here we see that he will allow us to be tempted, although as James says, we have all the temptation we need in our own sinful desires.

James 1:13-14 (ESV) 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.

Perhaps because Jesus possessed no sinful desires, God had to providentially create this situation in order to allow Satan his best shot. I don’t have an answer to that, it is just a thought. Either way, that is not our focus today, but lest it remain like a thorny thought preventing us from getting to where we need to go, I thought it prudent to take care of it at the beginning, so we may set it aside to wrestle with another day.

This morning I want to focus not on the situation that led to this encounter but to the reality that it happened. I want you to write at the top of whatever you are taking notes on this sentence.

Jesus was ___________ tempted.

I want to give you three adverbs that help us understand and appreciate the temptation of Jesus. My hope is that they will be a simple reminder and memory tool to aid you in understanding this encounter.

They all relate to that one simple sentence, Jesus was tempted.

Jesus was Actually tempted

That is to say, it is really easy to look at this and either try and reason away the reality of this temptation or to minimize it, I mean after all this is Jesus!

The reality is that scripture here and in other places we will note today treats this temptation as very real, not just an appearance or mock temptation. The very logical question that may be bouncing around in your mind this morning is, how?

How was Jesus tempted if he was God? How can the same man we saw in all of his divine glory last week be tempted to sin?

The answer is in understanding what scripture teaches us about Jesus. That he was one man with two distinct natures. Divine and human.

The temptation is always there to try and minimize one and maximize the other.

There was an early heresy that developed that said Jesus only appeared human, that he wasn’t really human, this is one of the heresies that John the Apostle wrote against in his gospel.

The implication is that if he wasn’t really human, then he couldn’t really be tempted to sin.

Another fifth century controversy and heretical teachings was to unite the two natures into one. To say that his divine nature swallowed up his human nature and therefore he had one nature, the divine. Again, you can see how this would lead someone to think that Christ could not be tempted.

However, Orthodox Christian faith has always confessed that- Jesus is truly man and truly God and that the two natures of Christ are so united as to be without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, each nature retaining its own attributes. Something we may not fully comprehend but we can certainly apprehend. That is we may not fully understand it, but it is what scripture teaches and therefore we hold it to be true.

Additionally, as we have noted, scripture teaches that Jesus was tempted, because he was human.

Hebrews 2:17-18 (ESV) 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 2:10 (ESV) 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Hebrews 2:14-15 (ESV) 14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

To deny either the humanity of Jesus or that he was actually tempted is to deny scripture.

Why does this matter? There is a subtle temptation here to look at this story as purely an example for us to follow, a pattern to resist temptation. You may have even heard sermons like that, that emphasize the example of Jesus here, with applications to hide scripture in our hearts so we can resist temptation like Jesus did. That holds this up as some divine model of battling satan, and that may be a fine secondary application, but it misses the forest for the trees.

Jesus is experiencing temptation in his humanity. He is really being tempted. Now can we fully explain that? I can’t. Does it leave us with more questions? Yes. Could Jesus have sinned in his humanity? I feel like it wouldn’t have been a temptation if he couldn’t. What would have happened if he did?

I don’t know. Here is what we have to do, we have to affirm that scripture teaches that Jesus was fully God and yet he was fully man, and we have to affirm that scripture also teaches that Jesus suffered in his temptation in the same way that we do and yet remained without sin.

It is the very reality of his temptation the author of Hebrews appeals to when he says that he suffered when tempted, and because of that, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

That is an encouraging thought in and of itself, that Jesus understands what temptation is, that in his humanity, he has wrestled with it like we do. However, another temptation for us is when we think that yes, Jesus was tempted like me, but having a divine nature as well, he could not experience the depth of my particular temptation. That his temptation was somehow lesser because he was the son of God. But not only was he actually tempted…

Jesus was Fully tempted

I believe his temptation in the wilderness represents the totality of human experience.

You say, how can that be, he faced three temptations and Satan left him, ‘I face that many before I get out of bed!’ But do we really understand the depth of his temptations?

Let me show you why I think that Jesus was tempted beyond anything you and I have experienced.

Each temptation he faces shares three factors.

external prompting (directly from satan)

environmental factors (perfect)

internal desire (not sinful)

Temptation #1

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Let’s first note the three factors.

External prompting- directly from satan

Environmental factors- fasting for forty days, rocks shaped like bread

Internal desire- he was hungry

We may be tempted to minimize this temptation because it is so outlandish. I mean if Satan said this to me, there wouldn’t be much temptation, because as hungry as I was, I don’t possess the ability to turn stones to bread. It would be a ridiculous thought, but Jesus could.

Jesus could turn water into a solid so that he could walk on it, he could turn regular water into wine, right? This would be an easy feat, and surely eating isn't sinful. What’s the temptation here?

In taking on humanity, Jesus submitted himself fully to the will of the father. He repeatedly says that he came to do the father’s will and that he did nothing apart from him.

The Spirit had led him into the wilderness to fast and God had not called him to break it yet. To do this miracle would be to exercise his power apart from the direction of the Father. To exercise his power for his own benefit and self-satisfaction.

How did Jesus answer?

4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus quotes scripture from Exodus 8. The immediate context is…

Deuteronomy 8:3-4 (ESV) 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

Jesus is saying, God’s desire is that man would know that he needs more than physical sustenance, but life comes from relationship and obedience to the Lord. Jesus held fast to this truth and resisted the temptation to meet a physical need apart from God’s will.

Temptation #2

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Let’s first note the three factors.

External prompting- directly from satan

Environmental factors- Jerusalem before him, on top of the temple

Internal desire- reveal he was the messiah

Responding to Jesus’ use of scripture in withstanding the first temptation, Satan now quotes some of Psalm 91 as if to say. If you believe scripture then prove it. Doesn’t scripture say that the one who makes God his refuge and his fortress, and who put their trust in God have a promise that God will protect them?” Don’t you believe that?

But there I think there is a deeper meaning here. From what I understand, in some Jewish traditions they thought that when the Messiah came he would stand on the pinnacle of the temple. As Jesus stood there, do you think he thought, if I do this, everyone will immediately recognize that I am the messiah, and having witnessed this receive me in my Father’s name?

That’s the temptation, right?

If you are the Son of God, prove it. Exalt yourself and you can take your rightful place.

Satan essentially tempts Christ with a crossless ministry. No cross, no betrayal, here and now all of the Jewish nation would embrace him as Messiah. Doesn’t Jesus desire this, even a little? I mean don’t we find him agonizing in the garden asking for the cup of God’s wrath to not be poured out on him?

I mean this would certainly put him on a very different path of revealing himself as the Messiah.

But, what does Jesus say?

Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again he quotes from Deuteronomy, this time chapter 6.

Deuteronomy 6:16 (ESV) 16 “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

Exodus 17:7 (ESV) 7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

The implication is to put God to the test is to display doubt about his goodness.

Notice, he doesn’t say that God wouldn’t do just that and the angels wouldn’t catch him, he says, God has not commanded that and I will not put him to the test.

Temptation #3

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

External prompting- directly from satan

Environmental factors- the whole world before him in a moment, all the kingdoms

Internal desire- step into his role as king of kings and Lord of lords

Jesus, you don’t have to keep on this path of humility and service, you don’t have to go down this road of emptying yourself and being obedient, even to the point of death, just bow to me and I will give you rule over all the kingdoms of the world.

Two things make this temptation particularly tempting. One, according to scripture, Satan is the prince of the power of the air and has been given authority on the earth for a time, so he could in some way make this promise good.

Second, think about how much good Jesus could do as king of the world. Right?

No more wars, no more famine, no more poverty. A benevolent and holy king. All he would have to do is recognize the authority Satan had been given.

How did Jesus answer?

“Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, chapter 6 again.

Deuteronomy 6:13-15 (ESV) 3 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— 15 for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—

God will not share his glory or his worship.

Seemingly, for Jesus and since Satan left it would stand to reason for him as well, this is the final straw.

Jesus will not compromise in order to shortcut God’s redemptive plan, he will not violate God’s word in order to gain anything for himself. God alone is worthy of worship and service.

Think for a moment with me. Is there anything further Satan could have tempted Jesus with? Jesus could have easily turned water into wine, easily jumped off the pinnacle of the temple, and easily acknowledged Satan as an authority in the world.

He was physically weak, absolutely alone, and in a desolate place.

More than that we are told these weren’t just hypothetical statements, Jesus was for a moment on the pinnacle of the temple, on a mountain seeing all of the kingdoms of the world.

Furthermore, nothing he was tempted with was necessarily evil, all things considered.

Feed himself, reveal himself as messiah, and rule the world. These are all things that were part of God’s plan. The temptation was to do it apart from God’s power and timing. To separate himself from God’s direction and will.

Can you say you have endured that level of temptation? Of course not. Most of us would have said in response to make these stones bread, pass the butter! I mean we are baptists!

I believe the temptation Jesus experienced here is greater than any man has ever experienced.

But not only was he actually tempted, not only was he fully tempted…

Jesus was Unsuccessfully tempted

To say Jesus was unsuccessfully tempted another way is to say Jesus conquered the temptation. Right? Where every human being has given in to temptation and sinned, Jesus resisted to the point of victory. Why is that important?

What I believe we are supposed to see here, as Matthew often does, is how Jesus is the greater fulfillment of the Old Testament. What is the most memorable temptation in the old Testament? Immediately we think of the fall.

Think of the contrasts first.

Garden vs Desolate place, Perfect relationship vs Alone, Perfect provision vs fasting for 40 days.

Adam was given everything he needed to resist temptation. Paradise on earth, a perfect help-meet, all the food he could eat, purpose, fellowship.

Jesus was given everything seemingly to increase his temptation. Desolate place, alone, starving.

Now think of the similarities. Satan is the tempter, he tries to separate the one being tempted from God, and he uses the same three core methods.

Look at the record of Eve’s (and Adam’s) temptation.

Satan calls into question what God has said and his motives for saying what he said. This is the woman’s response to his words.

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food (bread), and that it was a delight to the eyes (see all these kingdoms), and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (jump), she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Sound familiar? Why? Because this is the way Satan operates, the apostle John tells us why.

1 John 2:16 (ESV) 16 For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and (satisfy your hunger) the desires of the eyes and (rule the world) pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. (reveal (glorify, exalt) yourself)

Where men fail, Jesus succeeded. He was tempted as we are, yet without sin. He is the perfect, blemishless lamb of God, and it is in this temptation account we are reminded that this Jesus did what we could not and lived a perfect sinless life of obedience, which makes his voluntary and substitutionary death for us possible. This is the greatest truth we can see from this account, we can have faith in the sacrifice of Jesus because he was the sinless and perfect sacrifice.

The lesson is not ‘ resist temptation like Jesus’, it is behold the spotless lamb, spotless, not because he was not tempted to sin but because he was victorious over it! Amen?!

Jesus was actually, fully, and unsuccessfully tempted.

Are there any further implications for us based on what we have learned this morning? Absolutely.

There is a verse that is sometimes misunderstood in scripture that I want to show you the relation to what we have been talking about.

Hebrews 4:16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We make this verse about all kinds of things, but the context is temptation. Listen to it in its context.

Hebrews 4:14-16 (ESV) 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The author of hebrews says that because Jesus was actually and fully and unsuccessfully tempted, he can sympathize with our weaknesses, and because he is without sin, he is our great high priest who is seated at the right hand of God, because of that, in our most desperate times of temptation, when we need mercy after we have failed, grace when we have chosen our things over God’s things, and help in our time of need to be obedient to God, we can draw near to his throne of grace. Not confident in ourselves, but confident in him and that is a beautiful truth indeed.

What temptation are you struggling with today?

The temptation to fulfill your inner desires apart from God’s provision and will?

The temptation to have what has not yet been given to you? Or what is not yours to have?

The temptation to exalt yourself, in your own power, apart from God? To be your own god in your life?

Know that Jesus understands what you are facing.

Understand that he has been victorious over temptation.

Hold fast to the truth that there is grace and mercy and help when you come to him in your need.

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