The Temptations of Christ

By Jason Jackson

After Jesus was immersed by John, he was led into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil (Matt. 4:1; Mk. 1:12; Lk. 4:1). The exact location of the temptation scene is unknown. What is significant is that the Lord was alone, fasting, tempted, and tested. Jesus’ total submission to the will of God was tried from the very beginning of his ministry. How necessary this must have been for the difficult years of ministry and the cross that lay before him (cf. Lk. 12:50).

The temptations of Christ are recorded by three sacred historians, Matthew, Mark (who gives a summary), and Luke. Christ and the Holy Spirit were the only two sources from which the narrative could originate, and these divine persons would agree in every respect. The minor variations in the gospels can easily be accounted for since different writers, by inspiration, often related different details. These never amounted to contradictions between them.
When we read about the temptations of Christ, many questions may come to the student of God’s word.

Textual Questions about the Temptations of Christ

One might ask: “Was Jesus tempted during the forty days, or after the forty days of fasting were completed?” Or similarly, one might ask, “Were there three temptations, or more?”

By reading Matthew’s account, we understand that after Jesus had fasted for forty days, the devil came to him. Then we read of the three temptations that are related by Matthew and Luke. The beloved physician records that the Lord was “in the wilderness during forty days, being tempted of the devil” (4:2).

Some believe that Luke indicates the temptations were ongoing. Others see the present passive participle, “being tempted,” as an expression of purpose, like the infinite term in Matthew 4:1, “to be tempted” (Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, p. 147).

Daniel Wallace writes, “Almost every instance of an adverbial peirazon [tempt] in the present tense in the NT that follows the controlling verb suggests purpose,” and he lists Luke 4:2 as an example. Admittedly, he suggests that Luke 4:2 and Mark 1:13 might be exceptions, but the context “seems to suggest that these, too, should be taken as telic [purpose]” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, p. 636, ft. nt. 60).

Regardless, even Luke represents the three specific temptations as occurring after the forty days of fasting (Lk. 4:2-3). The Lord may have endured many temptations during the forty days, but the three temptations were the culminating, most intense testing, of Jesus’ wilderness solitude.

Luke says that the devil left him when he “had ended every temptation” (4:13). Does this mean that the devil never tempted the Lord again? Obviously, this cannot be the meaning. When Jesus told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die by the hands of the chief priests, Peter “took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.’” (Matt. 16:22-23). Luke 4:13 indicates that the devil’s temptations ended on that occasion “for a season,” or as the ESV reflects, “until an opportune time.”

What is the proper order of the temptations? Matthew gives one order, and Luke another. This is not a contradiction, but it is a good example of how critics operate. Neither Matthew nor Luke claim to represent the chronological sequence. Luke may have reflected on the scene from the standpoint of geography, relating the two in the wilderness first, and then the one on the temple’s pinnacle (R.C. Foster, Studies in the Life of Christ, Joplin: College Press, 1996, p. 328). Matthew records that after the temptation on the high mountain, Jesus said, “Get thee hence, Satan.” Matthew’s order, therefore, may be the chronological sequence, but there is no contradiction between the two inspired writers.

These inquires have to do with “what” happened. Other questions are about “how” this could have happened.

Theological Questions Regarding the Temptations of Christ

How could it be said that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into temptation? If Jesus was God, and God is incapable of being tempted, how could Jesus have been tempted? These questions, and others, arise when one considers the temptations of Christ. How do we reconcile what we know about God, Jesus, and temptation, with what is said to have happened in the gospel accounts regarding Christ’s temptations. Let us consider several questions.

How could the Holy Spirit lead Christ into temptation (Matt. 4:1)? The Holy Spirit did not lead Jesus into temptation. He led him into the wilderness. God knew that the devil, a willing villain, would utilize this moment of Jesus’ physical weakness and exhaustion to tempt him. Satan would consider this “an opportune time,” and he would look for other “seasons” as well. The devil did the tempting.

God sent his Son into a world of trials and temptation, which difficulties are a part of being in the flesh. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit tempted Jesus to do evil, for God never tempts any one (Jas. 1:13). The devil was the direct agent through which the temptation came.

The Holy Spirit did lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, but this is no more alarming than the fact that God sent Christ into the world to die. His redemptive mission involved a sacrificial death, and the road to Calvary was paved with suffering, testing, and temptation, through which Jesus was perfected, or qualified, to serve as high priest for humanity (Heb. 2:10).

If Jesus was God, how could he be tempted? Something that is difficult to understand is not automatically impossible or untrue. First, the Bible teaches the deity of Christ (Jn. 1:1; Col. 2:9). Second, it also teaches that he was tempted (Matt. 4:1; Heb. 4:15). Similarly, God can not die; but Jesus died. How was this possible? The incarnation of Christ — a miracle by which God, the Son, took on the nature of humanity — made many things possible that were not possible of God in his divine essence. By coming in the flesh, Jesus was not only capable of dying, but he was also subject to the other characteristics of being a man — hunger, weariness, etc. Likewise, being in the flesh made it possible for the God-man to be tempted, as the Scriptures testify.

Could Jesus have actually sinned? This is really the previous question, asked in a different way. If we say “no,” we must redefine what temptation means. Jesus could have fallen to temptation, thus it was a real temptation. The Lord would not yield to temptation, because he would not compromise his complete submission to the will of God. Hebrews 4:15 would be meaningless to us, as we struggle with temptation, if Jesus was not really “tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

Christ – Victorious over Temptations

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread,” the devil said. The Lord’s response (Matt. 4:4) provides insight into the nature of this temptation. Jesus knew that it was the will of God for him to fast and be tested. A miracle, to bring his fast to an end, would have reflected upon his absolute trust in God. By quoting Moses’ admonition to the Israelites in the wilderness (Deut. 8:3), Jesus acknowledged his complete trust and dependence on God. Every word from God is reliable, and we shall survive and live if we depend on his promises and meet his requirements.

“If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down.” The devil appealed to Psalm 91:11-12, implying that God would not let Jesus fall to his death. In effect, Satan was saying, “So you trust God completely? Well cast yourself down; after all, he has promised to protect you.” The protection that God affords the faithful is not without conditions. The Lord recognized that such provocation of God is sin, and he would not submit his Father to a frivolous test. Therefore, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:16 to ward off the temptation.

Lastly, the devil promised to give Jesus the kingdoms of the world on one condition. “Fall down and worship me,” the devil offered. How, in any respect, could this be considered a temptation? The temptation lay in the tendency for humanity to avoid the hard way, and for Christ the hard way was unbelievable suffering — both the physical torture for which he was marked, and the spiritual agony that he would endure in bearing the wrath of his Father because of our sins. But the Lord would not be discouraged from fulfilling the will of God, even though it put him through suffering unimaginable (Matt. 26:38).

From the temptations of Christ, we realize that the devil is a liar. Temptations are deceptive. Temptations can not provide what they offer — choices without consequences. Temptations are tailored to our vulnerabilities. We must, like Christ, rely upon the word of God to teach us. We must dedicate ourselves, beforehand, to be completely subject to the will of God, for he alone has our good in mind. And praise be to God, that Jesus never sinned — he never succumbed to temptation. For we do, and we need his merit. We need it desperately.