Alfred Place Baptist Church

4:1&2 The temptations of Christ in the desert

Luke 4:1-13 “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. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man does not live on bread alone.”’ 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 splendour, for 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.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”’ 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.”’ Jesus answered, ‘It says: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”

One of the mysteries of this event is the question how could our Lord have been tempted? Can God be tempted to sin? We know that our Lord was sinless; our great High Priest was unlike every high priest of the line of Aaron. They had to offer sacrifice for their own sin as well as for the people, but Jesus had lived in Nazareth for thirty years without a fall. Never had temptation overcome him. He had no repentance at the end of any day in his life. He had no imperfection or bias to sin in his nature. How could someone without sin be tempted?

We ourselves know what it is like to be conflicted, to love the good and to simultaneously find ourselves seeking after which is evil. I know there’s a certain substance which is harmful to me, and yet I take it! Paul himself, the total Christian, speaks of this in Romans chapter 7. He knows what is good and he loves it, and yet he finds himself also longing for that which is evil. He wants to do which is good, and yet he finds himself not doing it. There is this conflict of opposing desires and no Christian can ever ultimately be delivered from it before we meet with Christ, but in our Lord Jesus Christ there was none of this.

So the question is how could Satan tempt someone in whom there was no foothold to be had? We know that our Lord was impeccable. He was morally incapable of sin. He was wholly given over to his Father. He was in love with the Father, and he was in love with the will of the Father; he was bent and determined and focused in one direction – to do the Father’s will. How could a person like this be tempted? I don’t know. But the Scriptures tell me that he was tempted.

1. THE TEMPTATIONS OF CHRIST WERE REAL.

We are told that plainly enough, “for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (v.2). The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Christ can help those who are tempted only because he himself has been tempted (Heb. 2:18). The same writer also tells us that Christ’s temptations, although without sin, were exactly like those of his brethren (Heb. 4:15), that is, those who are bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Whereas at his baptism the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit are saying to us, “This is God the Son,” his temptations in the desert are saying to us, “This is a human being.” It was as a man that Mary’s son Jesus had to face the devil. There are three important questions to answer about Christ’s temptations:

i] Were they real temptations that Christ faced? In other words, did he feel the appeal of the sinful proposals that were being put to him? Did he smell the scent of illicit power? Did the hint of the taste of forbidden fruit make his saliva ducts start to flow? Did he have to struggle, and fight with all his might not to receive these propositions? One of the old church fathers said that Jesus could dispel the assault of the devil ‘like vapour’. Would that it were so! Certainly it is not so for us. To switch off that television programme, to delete that wretched pornographic advertisement that comes unsolicited onto the monitor, to resist the pride that comes from praise – oh how hard! How often men succumb with scarcely a fight, but we are affirming that even the Lord Jesus himself didn’t win his victories effortlessly. There were forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert. “When Peter becomes the devil’s mouthpiece, the Lord’s rebuke (‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’) is so sharp as to suggest that the temptation had struck a raw nerve” (D. Macleod). In Gethsemane the resistance was such that his sweat was as drops of blood. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of his “strong crying and tears.” In the end, God’s will was done, always done, but the struggle to resist the temptation was immense. Jesus stood only by the power of the Holy Spirit: “not by some effortless, Samson-like omnipotence, but by the power of a relationship with God which was moral and personal and which meant that he was invincible in faith, hope and love” (D. Macleod). We must not misconstrue the effect of Jesus’ sinless integrity: it was not a series of short, painless struggles with temptation. Rather it involved our Lord in a lifetime of protracted resistance. Because he did not yield easily (unlike us), and was not an easy prey, the devil had to deploy all his wiles and use all his resources. “The very fact that he was invincible meant that he endured the full force of temptation’s ferocity, until hell slunk away, defeated and exhausted. Against us, a little temptation suffices. Against him, Satan found himself forced to push himself to his limits” (Donald Macleod, “The Person of Christ,” IVP, Leicester, 1998, p.228).

ii] What did the devil work on when he tempted Christ? James tells us that when men fall it is because they are dragged away by their own evil desire and are enticed. So it was with King David. So it is with all of us, even the Christians here, though sin no longer dominates us yet it remains in us, and will do so for the rest of our days, always to be resisted and mortified. There is a law of sin in our members that opens its arms to embrace its own. Not so with the Lord Jesus: he lacked any predisposition to sin. There was no love of sin in his heart, and no affinity with sin. The prince of this world had no foot-hold on him. There was no evil passions to mortify. There was no sinful proclivity to which temptation could speak and find an encouraging response.

“What, then, did the devil work on? Part of the answer is that although Jesus had no vices he did have sinless human weaknesses. He could be tempted (and he clearly was) through hunger, through the fear of pain and love for a friend. It is not a mark of fallenness to feel any of these, and yet each of them could generate strong pressures to deviate from the path prescribed for him. Jesus also had holy affections, feelings and longings which, in the course of his work, he had to thwart. Foremost among these was the longing for communion with God. Is it any wonder that in the Garden of Gethsemane the prospect of losing this communion with God almost overwhelmed him? He was not being called upon to mortify a lust. He was being called upon to frustrate the holiest aspiration of which man is capable. What he wanted, and what his Father directed were in conflict. Hence the loud cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7)” (Donald Macleod, “The Person of Christ,” IVP, Leicester, 1998, p.226).

So the Lord Jesus had his humanness with basic desires for companionship, a life of peace, family affections and unity, food and drink. There were times when he had to choose between obeying God and satisfying those desires. In that choice lay the temptation. He was sent into a family of sinners, and lived for thirty years in a small town of sinners and then for three years engaged in close personal outreach to sinners. He must live amongst them. In his baptism he identifies himself with them, and at the end he dies the death a sinner dies. How his holy heart would shrink from all of that. It was in such areas that Satan tempted him.

iii] Did Jesus always know that victory over temptation was certain? If he were conscious that the dice was always loaded in his favour, and that he couldn’t possibly lose, then those temptations would have been only a charade wouldn’t they? Of course, the word of God which he knew, as well as the inward witness of the Spirit, persuaded him that he was God’s Son, accomplishing God’s task, upheld and kept by God in all the dangers and difficulties of his mission. It was impossible for him to fall. God cannot sin. But there is a difference between knowledge and the certainty that that knowledge is true for me. There is a difference between trusting in God keeping me and the assurance that God will keep me at this time of high and hot temptation. We generally know that we are Christians, and so we are going to persevere to the end, but that doesn’t mean in the midst of loss and guilt that we’re never afraid and anxious. Before the cross and on the cross the Saviour is wrestling with particular temptations. When he prays on Golgotha he addresses the Lord for the only time by the word, ‘God.’ Everywhere else when he prays he addresses God as his ‘Father,’ ‘Holy Father,’ ‘Righteous Father.’ But he does not when he is in the midst of the dereliction. It is ‘God.’ But even then it is ‘My God.’ So though he knew, as we know,

“Yes I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given,
More happy but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heaven” (Augustus Toplady),

yet in our temptations we do not always enjoy the comfort of that truth. Ultimately for Christ there was victory. Ultimately! “He was almost overwhelmed, almost broken, so that he had to cry with strong crying and tears. Far from being the one who escapes temptation because he is sinless, he is the one who precisely because he is sinless alone experiences temptation in its full intensity. He alone took all the devil could throw at him” (Donald Macleod, “From Glory to Golgotha,” Christian Focus, Fearn, Ross-shire, 2002, p.47).

2. THERE WERE THREE PARTICULAR TEMPTATIONS THE LORD JESUS FACED.

i] Jesus’ patience was tempted. We are told that Jesus, “ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man does not live on bread alone.”’ (vv.3&4). Jesus was being tempted concerning his patience, and as this is so we should not be surprised that this will always be one major area in which we are going to be tested. We are going to be irritated by delays; we are going to turn on people who keep us waiting; we are going to blurt out angry and frustrating words often hurting people that love us. We see it all around us. Our fellow men want things done here and now, and we are affected by that mentality. The Lord Jesus was ravenously hungry and on the verge of physical collapse after almost six weeks of fasting and praying. The tempter came to him at that time, when Jesus was so weak, and the devil urged him to use his power to make food for himself. “Just speak the word and it will be bread.” What is the devil saying? “Save yourself!” It was the temptation that later came to the Lord so powerfully when he hung on the cross. One of the thieves shouted at him, “Save yourself and us if you are the Christ.” In other words, “How can you save us unless you first save yourself?” Wasn’t bread legitimate? Didn’t the Saviour himself teach his disciples to ask God, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

This is the first temptation and it is based on the lie that the end justifies the means. The end will be the life of Jesus, that he will live and help many people. You hear it so often, “A man has to live doesn’t he?” Students cheat writing their papers for their degrees using material from the Internet, taking the work of others without acknowledgment. Men lead girls on to believe they intend to marry them. Women terminate an unwanted pregnancy because they have to maintain a certain standard of living. “I’ve got to live. A man has to live hasn’t he?”

The real issue is the impatience of unbelief that makes us resentful and causes us to challenge the wisdom and goodness of God. Who took away your wife in death? Who gave you the brain-damaged child? Who allowed the ulcer on the palate to be cancerous so that half the cranium has had to be removed in seventeen operations? Who drove Jesus into the wilderness? God did it all. Suffering Job knew it, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” Not fate, not bad luck, and not the devil. Ultimately it is God – of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things.

Israel wandered in the desert and murmured in their unbelief: “Is God here or not? Is God with us in this wilderness or not? Then why is there no daily food? Something must be done to end the pain.” At times like that Satan comes and tempts us to use the power at our disposal to make a Golden Calf, to try another god, to end the weakness and frustration and poverty and hunger. “Make bread,” he tells Jesus, “and use it for yourself,” not for mankind. The devil turns our thoughts inwardly. Two prominent politicians both of them married, are disclosed as having a long affair. They didn’t think of others while they were cheating. They did not talk about their partners while they were together. They simply talked about themselves, “Look after number one, and his desires and hungers and feelings.”

How does Jesus answer Satan? Does he erupt in a magnificent display of glory that blows away the devil and puts him down on the planet Pluto? No! Christ does not use his miraculous powers at all because he does not need to. He has a miraculous book, the Word of God. He takes a truth from Deuteronomy 8:3 and he tells the tempter, “It is written: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:4). Food may keep us biologically alive, but life that is abundant and purposeful and blessed and eternal is more than the finest food. It is sustained only as we obey God. When the Lord says to us, “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” then we go to him. Those words came from the mouth of God, and life is found in doing what they say. That is where life starts. There’s no life without going as a heavy-laden sinner to Jesus Christ. Then life continues in absolute obedience to the will of God. If he says, “Not yet . . . wait a while,” then we are patient. You see, a man doesn’t have to live. That is a lie, but a man has to obey the Mighty God, and be obedient unto death.

God put Christ in a wilderness, and if bread doesn’t come then Christ will die. But he’ll die in obedience to the will of God. Better to die than defy God. Better to die than refuse God. Better to die in the will of God than live outside the will of God. Life consists of depending upon the provision of God, trusting God to provide at all times. Have you learned this, that God never leads in one step that is not absolutely necessary for you? So you start trusting, and being patient where you are today.

Many people around us are looking for an Aladdin’s Lamp kind of Christianity. Remember the story, how you gave the lamp a little polish and a genie turned up and granted you your wishes. That is not how Jesus lived. He knew that God had led him to the wilderness and in the wilderness he trusted God. In the desert Jesus was patient when tempted. It was not more difficult for God to provide for him in a wilderness where he had been set by God’s will than in green pastures and by still waters.

ii] Christ’s expectations were tested. We are told that, “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 splendour, for 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.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only”’” (vv.5-8). Again, we believe that if this was an area of perceived vulnerability in the Son of God then it is bound to be a weakness in us where we are going to be tempted by Satan. What do you anticipate from your conferred status as being made a child of God, because to all who receive Christ God has given the right to become children of God, to everyone who believes in his name? What do you think is going to be the life of a son of God? It is in the area of the expectations that flow from this that Satan tempts Jesus.

God has sent his Son into the world promising him that the great result of his humbling himself in this way is that he is going to be enthroned as King on his holy hill of Zion: in other words, that all authority in heaven and earth will be his; the Lamb as if he had been slain is going to reign over the cosmos. “Ask of me,” the Father has said, “and I will give you the nations for your inheritance and the uttermost parts of the world to be your possession.” That is the glorious end of the coming of Christ into the world; the cradle will be followed by the cross; the cross will be followed by the crown. But for thirty years, the thirty long years of childhood and early manhood, Jesus has been living in total obscurity in an insignificant collection of houses in Nazareth, and now that his ministry is beginning the first steps are firmly led by the Spirit into . . . a wilderness . . . to remain there for weeks, and to be tempted by Satan. Jesus is starving, and what is the prospect of a home in his future? “And Thy couch was a sod, O Thou Son of God, in the deserts of Galilee:” not much splendour there!

So in this temptation Satan comes and tells Jesus that he’s the one with the real power down here. He is the god of this world. Who is in charge? Who runs the world? It certainly looks to many folk as though the devil has got far more influence than the people of God. Look at the moral state of Europe today. Look at the scarcity of gospel Christians everywhere. Look at the threats of militant Islam and resurgent Hinduism in India. Where is wealth to be found? Where are the people who have their billions with unimaginable influence. Who walks the corridors of power? Who runs the media and the publishing houses? They are not the sons of God are they? Consider the weakness of Christians. “Give it up, that delusion, and follow Satan. What has following the Lord ever done for you?” says the tempter. “I can do this for you,” he says to Jesus. “I can give you splendour. You can become the King and rule the world without waiting. No need to go to the cross. Let’s do a deal now, and you will get instant deliverance. Just give up following God and you can become the greatest.” Do what the world does. Believe what the world believes. Talk like them. Rave like them. Be cynical about Christianity like them. Many have been bought by such words and abandoned Christ for the world. Satan has done his work.

I saw a woman being interviewed in a gathering of Christians and she gave her remarkable testimony. She had been converted in 1961 and a few months later she was working late alone in her office and a man came in, overpowered her and raped her. She became pregnant through that vile act. She did not have an abortion; she carried the baby full term and gave it up for adoption immediately. She later married and then they discovered that they could have no children. The interviewer said to her, “But how could you keep trusting God if after being a Christian for only a few months he allowed this to happen?” “How could I have got by without the Lord?” she said immediately. She went on to say that one day – it must have been some 25 years after the rape the phone went and a woman introduced herself to her, asked some questions and then revealed that she was this women’s daughter. They soon met and were immediately at ease with one another. Then we were told that that daughter was in the audience and she came up on the platform with her birth mother. They were so alike. The daughter also followed Jesus Christ. It was intensely moving and a great demonstration of God honouring that mother’s submission to him.

So how does Jesus answer Satan’s temptation that he bow down and start to follow him? Once again Christ takes Scripture and he repeats these words to the devil, “Worship the Lord you God, and serve him only.” How are we going to attain real glory and authority? Jesus says that the saints will judge angels. Moses in the book of Deuteronomy says, “Set you eyes upon God. Worship God alone!” Have you learned the lesson? Who overcomes temptation? The man who has seen the greatness and glory of God: the man whose heart is full of the love of God. It is worship that quenches temptation. You have gone to church on many a Sunday full of discouragement, doubts and disasters, fightings without and fears within. “Shall I keep going? Shall I stop following Christ? How attractive life without God can seem.” Then in worship God comes near and Satan’s lies are seen for what they are. It is only by worshipping God that sweeping passions are subdued, the sweet dews of quietness descend and all our strivings cease. We are turning away and looking on the Lord. How great God is! In fulfilling our chief end of glorifying and enjoying God our lives are sorted out. Satan may not be so blatant next time he comes to us, but he never gives up tempting us, not even on our deathbeds. We are not ignorant of his devices.

iii] Christ’s assurance that his Father loved him was tested. We are told that, “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.”’ Jesus answered, ‘It says: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’” (vv. 9-12).

The first temptation of the devil began, you can see, with the words, “If you are the Son of God . . .” and the third temptation begins with the same refrain. The first was saying, “If you are the Son of God, why are you so hungry? Should the true Son of God suffer hunger?” The third temptation says, “If you are the Son of God why are you so poor? You have so little of this world and its goods.” Our Lord himself was tempted concerning an assurance that God loved him, then certainly we shouldn’t think it strange if there come times when our problems and poverty make us doubt whether God exists and whether he is our loving Father.

So what was Satan’s suggested counsel for dealing with the pain? The devil took Jesus to the house of his own Father, the temple, in Jerusalem, God’s holy city. He sets him down on the pinnacle and says, “What about a little test?” quoting to him from Psalm 91. That is a Messianic psalm, and it is all about Christ. “Find out once and for all if you are the Christ,” says Satan. “One little test will prove it, just like a bungee jump without any rope and elastic; a parachute jump without a parachute. Dive off the pinnacle, go into freefall and if you are God the Son your Father’s angels will be sent to catch you. They know you have a work to do and it must be done. Then as they wrap their arms around you and take you gently to ground you’ll know that God is and that you are in a special relationship with him.”

How many times have you heard people say that if only they could know, yes or no, whether this Christianity were true, whether Jesus really did rise from the dead, if only they could settle it here and now, once and for all then they would become believers. What do you want? What would tell you? What are you listening for? Norwood Russell Hanson taught philosophy at Yale in the middle of the last century. He was an atheist, that is he didn’t believe in God, but he said, rather as Dr. Dawkins has said, that he would be willing to change his mind under certain circumstances. If another god appeared then he would believe, he says. This is what Hanson wrote; “Suppose that on next Thursday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from the trees; the earth heaves and buckles; buildings topple and towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light. Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open – the clouds pull apart – revealing an unbelievably immense and radiant Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays across the features of his Michelangeloid face. He then points down – at me – and exclaims for every man, woman and child to hear, ‘I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, N.R.Hanson, that I do most certainly exist.”

Hanson went on to say, “Please do not dismiss this example as a playful irreverent Disneyoid contrivance. The point here is that if such a remarkable event were to transpire I for one should certainly be convinced that God does exist.” That would be the sort of evidence Dr. Dawkins also requires to believe in God. Both men are asking for another Jesus to appear from heaven, but Hanson’s Jesus is “an unbelievably immense and radiant Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightning plays across the features of his Michelangeloid face.” These men say that if this happened they would become believers. I am saying to you that God has appeared from heaven, not Zeus-like, but one who is approachable full of grace and pity. You want someone to speak from heaven in order to believe? Someone has spoken from heaven and he said to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son.” You want someone to walk on water, turn water into wine, rise from the dead? There’s been such a person. You want a man with an extraordinary message to tell us what life is all about and where happiness can be found and how we can be saved? Someone has come and preached the Sermon on the Mount. You want someone to return from the dead and tell us that there is a heaven to win and a hell to avoid. Someone has come back and told us that, and indeed one day he will come again as N.R. Hanson describes so that every eye will see him.

What more are you looking for than what we’ve already got? Act on the knowledge you now have. Deal with the Jesus who is found here in his Word. Don’t put God to the test. Don’t say, “If you tore that blue curtain behind the pulpit from top to bottom right now then I’d believe.” A curtain has been torn from top to bottom and you still don’t believe. We don’t set the tests for God. We don’t lift some hoops and then ask the Lord to jump through them. God has come in his Son Jesus Christ. He has lived that extraordinary life. He has taught such profound and simple, humbling and exalted truths. He has given his own life to make atonement for our sins. He has risen from the dead and is now exalted in power. He is putting us to the test. We don’t lay down the conditions for knowing him, he has laid them down. We don’t tell God what he must do. He tells us what we are to do. He says, “I have said all this through prophets and apostles, and done all these signs through my Son, and yet you still don’t trust me? I’ve always been wise and caring and loving to a hundred generations of my servants. I don’t need to be tested, but you do.”

What good reason can you give for not reading the life of Christ, hearing his claims, being taught by his sermons, overawed by his miracles, encouraged by his promises, overjoyed by his invitations and worshipping the God whose name is Jehovah Jesus? Then come to him. That is how Christ conquered the temptation. He wouldn’t jump. He wouldn’t test the merciful gracious God. “Worship God!” he said. Grace never comes to us too late. God is faithful and he provides.

God provided for his Son in the desert. Our great Representative fulfilled all righteousness for us. He went right up to the devil in the place of testing and did so as a man and overcome Satan by the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We were in him in that fight. He was not simply the man resisting Satan but our man. And we are told that Satan left Jesus until an opportune time. The defeated one slunk away and the conqueror
was left there in solitary triumph, ministered to by his angels. By him we shall be more than conquerors.

3rd February 2008 GEOFF THOMAS