Old Testament Template: Chapter 17

We Need Biblical Strategies: The Wilderness Temptations

 “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.”
1 Corinthians 10:13

“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.”
Hebrews 4:15

Jesus faced three temptations in the wilderness. The incident in His life is important enough that three of the four writes of the gospels include it in their account.1 For many years I have looked at these three temptations, asking for greater personal revelation of how they work themselves out in my life. Jesus said that every temptation is common to everyone and that He suffered them all, just as you and I do.2 It seems to me, then, that the biblical emphasis in His life on these three temptations must mean they are significant for you and me as well. If we are to regain our Christ-like influence in our communities, it is essential that we understand the temptations we face.

Three Temptations – Three Strategies
In the Matthew 4 account we are given a setting, a word of temptation from the devil, and God’s word that Jesus uses to counter the attack. Each of the three elements is vital in understanding the text and the temptation. We begin with, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit…” vs. 4:1. This opening shocks me. It plays with my preconceived ideas of what it feels like when the Spirit of God is active in my life. No matter how often I read to the contrary in scripture, I think being led by the Spirit will feel great! It will take me to wonderful places.

Matthew says that He was led “into the desert,” vs. 4:1. Into the desert? I thought God’s Spirit was supposed to lead us into the Promised Land, into peace, love, joy, and the abundant life. Well…the Spirit also led Jesus into a wilderness. I hate it, but that is what God’s Word says.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose in taking Jesus there was “…to be tempted by the devil” vs. 4:1. He was not tempted because Satan had it in for Him. He was not tempted because He had sin in His life. God lead Jesus into purposeful strategic temptation to prepare Him for the call on His life. The devil was involved, but God was the active agent in this situation.

“After fasting for forty days and forty nights…” vs. 4:2. After! When He is hungry, weak, isolated, and vulnerable in every way, that is when the attack comes. The Spirit of God has led Him to fast, led Him to the wilderness, led Him to vulnerability and then allows, even initiates, the accuser of His soul coming at that moment? This tests our understanding of the character and ways of God. Even though we say His strength is proved in our weakness, we still think attacks will come when we are strong. Even though we say we must decrease so that He may increase, we think spiritual maturity will mean we are stronger.

Matthew goes on to say, “He was hungry” vs. 4:2. The simple, infuriating humanity of Jesus. It rebukes us when we want to be more than human. It stares back at us when we would have the world see us as invincible and strong. The shear human need He suffered humiliates our desire to have no needs.

Temptation One: His Identity In The Face Of Physical Need
In this setting of severe and abject physical need in the wilderness, “The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’” Be careful here. What is the temptation? Can God turn stones into bread? Of course. That does not tempt the power of God. Does God want to provide for His children? Yes! Does He care about their basic physical needs? Of course. A child does not ask for bread and a loving father give a stone. Neither God’s power nor His love of His children are being tested here. But something much more subtle. Something far more human.

The key here is the word “If…” “If you are the Son of God…” vs. 4:3. Jesus is being tempted to doubt His identity. In the face of desperate physical need, legitimate need; when Jesus does not have what every human being needs and must have to survive; needing what God himself has created every human being to have; in this desperate and destitute state, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God….” Meaning, “Are you the Son of God?” You hungry, thirsty, bag of bones, heap of filth. Really? You are the beloved, full of power, Messiah? You? Well, if you are, prove it! Do a little miracle for me, dude. Demonstrate a little of that galactic power. Feed yourself. Produce a little miracle bread…if you can.”

Later in His life of ministry, at least two of Jesus’ public miracles are creating miraculous amounts of bread. But that is not the test of the moment. Neither is whether or not He can, or will go a little longer in the face of physical need. The test here is to doubt who He is in God, to doubt His Sonship, His inheritance, His acceptability to the Father in the face of physical need. That is the first temptation.

Jesus does not fall for this subtle test of His identity. He responds, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone…’” vs. 4:4. Jesus does not deny that He is hungry. He does not deny that He, like every other man, needs bread. He does not fall into debate over God’s ability or willingness to provide what is needed. He simply acknowledges that bread is not our only need. And He goes on to quote more scripture, “… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” vs. 4:4. Every word! Not just some of God’s truths, but all of them, including God’s word recorded just four verses earlier, “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased,” Matt. 3:17. The word had been spoken through the prophets, the angels, the wise men, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, a voice from Heaven. Jesus would not doubt the truth of these words because He was facing physical need. The enemy is defeated by Christ standing on the truth of His Father’s words about who He is. End of round one!

Temptation Two: Identity And The Need To Demonstrate Spiritual Authority
Round two! A new setting. The devil takes Jesus to the Holy City and stands Him on the highest point of the temple. How did he do that? Was it a vision? Was it transport of the kind Philip experienced in Acts 8:39- 40? We don’t know. Jesus is experiencing a manifestation of some sort. He was in one place, the wilderness, and now He is on the pinnacle of the temple. What a heady sensation that must have been. What an adrenaline rush. The setting has been transformed now from one of physical need to one of spiritual heights. Satan has taken Him to the holy city, the holy temple, the center of religion, and the heights of earthly “spiritual” symbols.

Here Satan says: “If you are the Son of God…” vs. 4:6. The same words! Is it the same temptation? Yes! But this setting is no longer in the context of physical need and weakness. Now Jesus is in the midst of spiritual exaltation. He is high and lifted up, looking down on His Holy City from the pinnacle of the temple, tempted to doubt His identity in the Father, tempted to doubt that He is the Son, and if He does believe that He is the Son, tempted to prove it. This is His chance to demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction who He is. He can show them now.

This is a powerful temptation. If you have ever served God, you have experienced this temptation. Somehow, the hand of God or the hand of Satan has raised you to a place of prominence, a place of being “seen” by others in ministry. On one hand, you experience joy that you can serve God in a great way. You have a genuine desire to use this exposure to help people more effectively. But there is always something else stirring inside, an inner dialogue that prods, challenges, and nags. “How did you get here?” “Do you really think God can use you?” “Others probably think you are a fool.” “Hey, you got the goods? Prove it! Do something spectacular…” The temptation is to try to prove yourself powerful in ministry.

Subtly, but surely, the temptation moves us from focus on the Father to focus on proving our spiritual authority. We begin to need to pray “bigger” prayers, preach more amazing sermons, see more miracles. Soon, the need to see the spectacular becomes the focus. The emphasis is drawn away from the Father and simple, secure obedience to His will to our performance and the need to prove we are His heirs.

At this point on top of the temple Satan challenges Jesus to, “throw yourself down…” vs. 4:6, off the Temple and he gives Him a “scriptural” reason: “It is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you!’” Whenever we are tempted in the spiritual/religious arena of life, Satan will help us along with a scripture of his choosing. He helps us justify our insecurity by making us believe we are really doing this for God. This is really not about proving my spirituality, we think, this is giving God the chance to prove Himself. But that is the point; God does not need to prove Himself!

Now Jesus responds with His own scripture, “It is written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus knew that He was not on earth to defend His Father, but to obey Him, carry out His will, demonstrate who the Father is. It was not His role to create difficult circumstances for God to then prove His power or faithfulness. Jesus was not here to test and prove God but to serve Him.

Common To All: Identity
For anyone called to follow Jesus these are basic and common temptations. In insecurity we begin to doubt what the Father has already said is true – that we are accepted as heirs of His Kingdom. When we doubt that position, the enemy moves us into striving for demonstrable proof. “If you are a child of God, heal that baby, heal your body, see that money come in, etc. If you are an heir of God’s Kingdom take this risk, do this impossible thing, prove this scripture,” the enemy taunts. The key to discovering the enemy’s devices is not found in questioning God’s ability to actually do any given thing we might ask, the key is in the word if. “If you are the Son of God…” It is an identity question. Who are you? And if Satan discovers that we do not accept or grasp God’s embracing of us as His heirs, acceptable in His sight because of His grace extended, then Satan has found fertile ground for temptation and deception.

Jesus knew who He was. When the Father spoke at His baptism, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased,” Matt. 3:17, Jesus believed the Father. For the Son of God, the identity question was settled. Seeing this, Satan moves on to the next temptation.

Temptation Three: Right Identity, Right Vision, Wrong Strategy!
Round three is a shift in the enemy’s strategy. When Satan discovers one temptation is not working in our life then he will try another. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” vs. 4:8. This is a very different setting. First, Satan tempted Jesus through physical hunger and need. Then he tempted Him with religious desires, and now, with the nations. This reminds me of the picture that John describes in Revelation where Jesus, restored to His throne, has the glory of all the nations paraded before Him.3

Satan shows Jesus a vision. He sees all the nations in all their splendor. What a sight that must have been. The enemy must have thought that this surely would lure the Son of God. Wanting the riches of the nations and the power that they represented was not Christ’s temptation. The essence of this temptation is found in these words, “All this I will give you…if you will bow down and worship me.”

Here is the strange thing: the nations and all their splendor already belong to Jesus. They are His rightful inheritance and the Father has assured Him they are His. So what is the temptation? What is Satan offering? This is not an identity question; Jesus knows He is the Son of God. This is not a question of misguided direction; the nations and their splendor are His. It is the right position and the right vision. What then is the temptation?

Wrong method! The enemy says, “All right! You know who you are. You know you don’t need to prove it and you know what belongs to you. I will make you a better offer than the Father. I will give you the nations…now!” No waiting, no ridicule, no opposition, no trial, no jail, no beating, no cross, no death. Jesus can go straight from the quiet life of a carpenter to ruler of the universe. All He has to do to simplify the cost of obtaining His vision is change His allegiance from the Father’s method to Satan’s method. Whom will He obey? “Bow down and worship me,” vs. 4:9, Satan says.

We Are The Largest Church In History
Is it possible that at strategic moments in church history, this third temptation has delayed God’s purposes in the nations? Did the crusaders grasp their identity in Christ and the vision of the nations, but pollute God’s purposes by bowing to a “power” methodology? Did they embrace the vision of God and the strategy of the enemy, the sword rather than the servant heart of Jesus? As we look over the historic landscape of the church, trying to grapple with the mandate to “disciple all nations,” is it possible that this last temptation has been our greatest hindrance?

Jesus is unwilling to be swayed and He rebukes His enemy by name for the first time. “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!’” vs. 4:10. I wonder if Jesus knew for sure that He was dialoguing directly with Satan prior to the last temptation? We often interpret Jesus’ life as though He had the benefit of reading the books as we have. It was the Spirit who led Him into the wilderness. Does he think the first two temptations are from the Spirit? We don’t know. Jesus does not respond by name in the first two temptations. But we do know that Jesus clearly identifies whom He is speaking to when a painless, fast, and easy road to the vision of nations based on a simple shift in allegiance of power is proposed. Jesus is dealing with Lucifer himself.

What can we learn from this important season in Jesus’ life as we contemplate our desire to disciple the nations? First, identity will be a struggle for the body of Christ. Who are we to talk about building nations in the face of such physical need, hunger, poverty, and disease? Who are we, and what do we hope to accomplish in the nations if we cannot perform the simplest of miraculous feats? Finally, the subtlest of all temptations, the fast, painless, power strategy to inherit the goal?

I worked in Washington, D.C. for several years. Christian groups were coming en masse with a renewed vision for discipling America. The “power” of this capital city was and is tangible. As new people arrived in the city you could see the environment begin to work on them. Whether they were politicians, activists, lobbyists, Christian or not, the shift from “national service” to “national power” as an objective was dramatic. I saw few who were able to resist the temptation.

When we study the lives of Daniel, Esther, and Joseph, men and women who greatly influenced nations, we are studying slaves and servants. God used them in their weakness. From their servant positions they gained greatness for the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus strategy is always a servant strategy!

1. Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13
2. 1 Corinthians 10:13; Hebrews 2:18
3. Revelation 7:9-10; 21:26