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.
Some years ago there was a company called Devil Man Skateboards in El Segundo, California. They put an advertisement in Thrasher magazine asking skate enthusiasts to sign away their souls to the devil and send the certificate in to them. The statement that people were asked to sign read: “I, the undersigned, do hereby give possession of my soul to the devil for eternity, for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”
I suspect that the company was trying to be shocking and edgy for the mainly young skaters who purchased their skateboards. They certainly got the attention they were looking for. Regardless of their motive, it cannot be denied that, in point of fact, that is exactly what the devil would like. He would like for us to sign our souls over to him “for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”
Of course, the devil does not usually tempt us with a blatant certificate to that effect, but that is the ultimate goal nonetheless: the enslavement of ourselves to him. That was certainly what he was after in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. What was at stake in that episode, recorded in Matthew 4, was nothing less than the survival and salvation of the human race. Had Christ bowed to Satan, all would have been for nought and ruin.
Let us consider this amazing scene.
The devil usually tempts first in the area of need/desire fulfillment.
One way to approach the temptations of Jesus is to see in them the devil’s strategy for temptation in general. Of course, with Jesus the devil was punching above his weight, so to speak, but a strategy for his approach with all mankind is discernible nonetheless. We begin with the first temptation which most likely reveals the devil’s first efforts to attack all of us: temptation in the area of need/desire fulfillment.
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.’”
Let us note, first, that the Spirit of God “leads” Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. The Spirit of God does not tempt, rather He leads the Son into that place where He would be tempted. This is significant. Here, Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will will be tested and proven.
Let us notice also that the devil is called “the tempter” in verse 3. This is a title that bespeaks what he does: the devil tempts, seeks to waylay, seeks to sidetrack, seeks to destroy. This title is also used by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3 when he is expressing his concern for that body of believers.
5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
And where does the tempter first strike? In the area of need/desire fulfillment. And what was Jesus’ need and desire? Simply put, food. Why? Because He had fasted for forty days and nights and “he was hungry.”
Here we find one of the clearest statements concerning Jesus’ physicality, concerning his body. Early in Christianity’s history there arose a heresy, a false teaching called Docetism. Their main error was in asserting that Jesus did not actually have a real body but only appeared to have one. Functionally, what this meant for the Docetists was that Jesus actually walked a bit off the ground, as it were, that Jesus was not truly physical. For these people, Jesus’ hunger after His fast was not real hunger. It was feigned hunger for teaching purposes. Fortunately, the church rejected Docetism and affirmed the real body of Jesus!
No, Jesus hungered. He was really and truly hungry. And, as a result, he desired and needed food.
The devil first attacks us, it seems, in the area of need/desire fulfillment. Obviously these desires need not be sinful. The desire for food certainly is not sinful. But the desires the devil addresses in our lives as fallen human beings sometimes are. Even so, for Jesus, this was a normal and natural desire for a hungry man. He wanted food. So it was precisely in this area that the devil launched his first attack. John Chrysostom put it well when he said:
In this way the devil begins his temptation with the necessity of the belly. Mark well the craft of that wicked demon. Note at what precise point he begins his struggling and how well he remembers what he does best. For it was by this same means that he cast out the first man and then encompassed him with thousands of other evils. Now by the same means here he again weaves his deceit: the temptation to indulge the belly. So too even now one may hear many foolish people say their bad words by thousands because of the belly.
Yes! The devil begins with “the necessity of the belly.” And, truth be told, for most of us, he rarely has any need to go to his next level of temptation. For most human beings it is sufficient for the devil to tempt us in the area of what we want. Note that Chrysostom points out that this is the tactic the devil first employed against Adam as well. Our first parents were tripped up by a “level one temptation,” we might call it, and thereby brought ruin onto and into the world.
Yes, it is true that there is another dynamic at play in the turn-the-stones-to-bread temptation, and it has to do with the popular expectations of the people concerning the Messiah. Craig Keener points out that “[m]any Jewish people were…hoping for a new exodus led by a new Moses—complete with new manna, or bread from heaven. The devil wants to conform Jesus to contemporary expectations.” This is true, and it is an important point. But even more fundamental is this: the devil tempted the hungry Jesus with food.
If he did this with Adam (successfully) and with Jesus (unsuccessfully) will he not try this with us as well? This raises an important truth: we need to know ourselves, especially our weaknesses! To know your weakest point is to be fortified in that area against the devil’s attacks. And how do we know our weakest point? One way is through the painful practice of asking those who know us to tell us what it is. Usually, they know even if we do not. Greg Peters makes an interesting and helpful point in this regard:
Virginia Woolf once wrote that there is a spot the size of a shilling at the back of one’s head, and that “one of the good offices” that men and women can perform for one another is to describe that spot. There are, she suggests, things about us that we just cannot see for ourselves.
So who can you ask to tell you about the spot the size of a shilling at the back of your head? To know your weakness is to be prepared. The devil will usually attack there first!
The devil usually tempts next with spiritual or moral obfuscation and disguise.
His next tactic is as surprising as it is brazen: the devil tries to engage Jesus in the spiritual realm by quoting scripture.
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.’”
Now this temptation is truly an act of spiritual/moral obfuscation and disguise. By obfuscation I mean that the devil will traffic in spiritual things—the bible, theology, the words and ideas of the faith—but will do so with an eye toward creating confusion, toward manipulation, toward blinding his victims. And by disguise I mean that the devil may come in the form of a Bible teacher, a lover of scripture, but his goal is always our destruction In 2 Corinthians 11:14, Paul writes “for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
In this instance he seeks to engage Jesus on a scriptural point. Specifically, he takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple and tells him to throw Himself down since the scriptures say that He, Jesus, will be protected from harm. Michael Wilkens observes that while “[t]he identification of this ‘highest point’ is debated,” it may be referring to “the southeast corner of the temple area, where it looms some 450 feet high over the Kidron Valley, or to a high gate of the temple.”
Imagine, then, the devil and Jesus standing some 450 feet above the Kidron Valley looking down into that long drop below and the devil quoting scripture to Jesus! He quotes Psalm 91, the relevant section of which reads:
11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91 is about God’s provision for His people. It is intended to instill peace and confidence and courage. It is extolling the faithfulness of God! But in the hands of the devil it becomes the basis for a test, for manipulation. It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Prove it!” Had Jesus jumped He would have been doing the devil’s bidding on the devil’s terms. But Jesus will not do this.
Why on earth would Satan dare to tempt Jesus in the area of scripture? Surely this is an act of foolishness like no other! Surely he had to know that this was a waste of time, right? We might wonder why the devil would not try a more subtle temptation after the failure of the first. However, Frederick Dale Bruner has offered a very helpful explanation of what is likely going on here:
The first technique is to aim at our weak spot, where obviously it is easiest to make a person fall. But the second technique, surprisingly, is not to aim at our next weakest spot; for cleverly it is to aim at our strength. This is a kind of spiritual jiu-jitsu. For if it is easiest to get us where we are weakest, it is next easiest to get us where we are strongest. This is so because our strength is not such an obvious problem. Perhaps we sin as often through presuming on our strengths as we do in succumbing to our weaknesses.
That is helpful indeed: we sin as often through presuming on our strengths as we do in succumbing to our weaknesses! We might see the second temptation as therefore a well-thrown curveball, an attempt to hit Jesus at a surprising angle to see if He would take the bait.
He did not.
There is a powerful and telling formula that Jesus uses with each temptation.
4 But he answered, “It is written…”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written…”
10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written…”
Jesus responds with scripture to each of the devil’s temptations. “It is written…it is written…it is written…” Notice that in verse 6 the devil also uses this formula, but the difference is one of integrity and purpose. Jesus quotes scripture in harmony with God’s intent for His word. The devil quotes scripture for his own purposes. Jesus’ interpretation is true and God-honoring. The devil’s is self-serving and God-defying.
Beware and test those who are quick with a verse! The devil is a Bible salesman! The presence of scripture on the tongue does not mean the absence of guile from the heart! It may be a friend and servant of God who opens the word and seeks to apply scripture to your life and circumstances. It may also be Satan!
Many a Christian has been duped and misled because he or she was less versed in the Bible than the one who sought to lead him or her astray. Cults proliferate because Bible reading does not. Jesus was quick with his It is written’s! He was quick because He knew the Word. He spoke the Word in the first place! But make no mistake: in His humanity He also studied and knew it.
Do you? Do I? Should the devil tempt you with a verse out of context are you prepared with a true interpretation in response?
The devil sometimes makes a desperate appeal to base greed with the hope of enslavement.
The third temptation has the feel of a desperation hail Mary pass into the end zone at the end of the game. Throwing caution to the wind, the devil next asks Jesus to straight-out worship him in exchange for the kingdoms of the world!
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.
This is fascinating and absurd. Were the kingdoms Satan’s to give? Well, the devil is described as having a king of authority over the fallen world order (Colossians 1:15—“the rulers and authorities”— and Ephesians 2:2—“ the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience”), but of course he has no authority in an ultimate sense. He certainly has no ownership. Jesus made the earth itself! Consider the audacity of Satan offering to give to Jesus that which He already owned.
Jesus, of course, responds with scripture saying that God alone is to be worshipped. Then He demands that Satan leave and, tellingly, the devil immediately obeys and leaves! He has too. And this is the great point: Jesus has authority over Satan. Satan must do His bidding. The devil is a defeated foe. He is dangerous still, to be sure, and he thrashes about in his death throes awaiting his ultimate judgment. But the devil is no equal for God. They are not on the same level.
In Colossians 2, Paul writes that Christ on the cross defeated and shamed the devil.
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Jesus laughs at the devil! He submitted to these temptations but when He decided it was enough the devil had to scurry away like the rat he is. Even more telling, Paul writes in Philippians 2 that the devil himself will one day have to bow his knee to Christ and confess that Jesus is Lord.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I say the devil himself will have to bow the knee and confess because Paul takes great pains to stress the universality of this reality: “every…in heaven and on earth and under the earth…every…” This certainly includes all satanic powers. The devil himself, as a created being, will have to bow and confess before he is consigned to everlasting judgment.
And this is key: Jesus is stronger than the devil and temptations can be overcome in His name! If the devil has shown us his strategies in our text then so has Jesus. His strategy is this: quick obedience to the will of the Father and a complete rejection of Satan and all of his insinuations and efforts.
Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
Run to Jesus and He will give you victory of Satan!
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. March 1997.
 Manlio Simonetti, ed. Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. ed., Thomas C. Oden. New Testament Ia (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.59.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 1993(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.54.
 Peters, Greg. The Monkhood of All Believers: The Monastic Foundation of Christian Spirituality (p. ix). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen ed. Clinton E. Arnold. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.28.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.1. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.86-87.