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Temptation in the Wilderness

Matthew  4:1-11

Lesson audio

The passage is a familiar one. Some think it does not pertain to them; after all, this is the temptation of the Christ. But Christ is human, completely human like the rest of us. The temptations were put in human terms, and we shall see that the defenses used are available to all of us.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." But He answered and said, "It is written, 'MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'" Then the devil *took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 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, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'" Jesus said to him, "On the other hand, it is written, 'YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'" Again, the devil *took Him to a very high mountain and *showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, "All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me." Then Jesus *said to him, "Go, Satan! For it is written, 'YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'" Then the devil *left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

(Mat 4:1-11 NASB)


Let us first examine the preliminary actions of this engagement. We should first note that Jesus is in the wilderness after a spiritual “high” – baptism in the Jordan. Satan has good reason to attack at this time:

  • First, as other accounts make clear, Satan has been working up to this point. We are seeing only the final assault.[1]
  • Next, consider the value of victory for Satan. If he can tempt you successfully after a spiritual victory, it is very discouraging. “If I couldn’t resist then, when could I?”
  • It’s a time when Satan might find his victim overconfident.

One thing is certain: you should expect it.

Physical preparation

Fasting is a spiritual discipline’ it carries with it the slight disadvantage of hunger. If you’re hungry enough, you might just do anything for food. People have turned cannibal before.

But see Satan’s attack; it is indirect. He doesn’t tell Christ what to do, he flatters Him (“if you are the Son of God…) first. Even in the temptation of the flesh, Satan couches his words with flattery, appealing to pride.

Fasting has an interesting side effect: it makes you sympathetic with the hunger of others. It also reminds you of the obligation of the rich (that’s us, American Christian) to feed the poor. You may not think much of this, but do you not see that Satan is tempting Christ to feed himself? “Me first.” If the Son of God were to convert stones to bread (He won’t, but we’ll see that later), surely he should do so to feed the poor.

We are almost immune to this issue in our society. But may I share a passage of Scripture I had never thought through before.[2] It concerns the city of Sodom. Ask anyone in the church today what caused the downfall of that city, and you will be told, “Homosexuality.” But hear the word of the Lord:

"Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.

(Eze 16:49 NASB)

Why the wilderness?

Satan picks his geography well.

  • In the wilderness, yielding to temptation is done without anyone observing it. So we minimize the impact of the sin. Satan, however, delights in the fact that he now has a juicy “guilty secret” – which can only be protected by more sin.
  • It also gives Jesus an excuse – hunger in the wilderness, let’s be reasonable. That sets in motion the sin of self-justification – another handle for Satan.

Christ is training his young wrestlers by letting them see how the Master does it.


What follows now is rather traditional in interpretation. You’ve seen it before (I hope). You might ask why no brilliant flashes of extraneous rhetoric are in this; the answer is that the traditional answers are the right answers. They play Beethoven’s Fifth more than once, too.

Particularly with regard to lust, modern man has been taught that failure to give in to temptation will result in terrible psychiatric problems. Give in, and enjoy, and see your shrink to get over the guilt feelings. (Does not apply to holes in your head due to wife finding out.) Think this through. You experience fear; giving in is cowardice. You experience the desire for more; giving in is greed. All our natural desires are intended to be suppressed (the right word, not repressed) by a self-control which we are to develop. All, that is, except sex – and that exception is broadening into the other seven deadly sins.

The order given here is that which Luke uses; it is the order of the magnitude of the temptation. We shall see that Satan likes to use the lowest level temptation he can.

Sins of the flesh

Satan will use these if he can:

  • Lust – the desire for forbidden sexuality. This produces guilty secrets quite easily. It also leads to a great deal of self-justification and bitter, bitter divorces. It has no saving virtues, and is greatly aided by the physical side of life – male hormones, for example.
  • Gluttony – the ravening desire for more, in the physical realm. This is usually restricted to eating, and in particular stuffing yourself while those around you starve. In a nation where even the beggars are rich, it’s hard to see this. Try fasting, and see if you immune to gluttony.
  • Anger – That furious rage which comes when you believe your own self-justifications. Anger is greatly honored in our society – when it’s used to motivate the voters. Where would environmentalism be without three piece gray vested oil company presidents? Anger is a favorite of Satan’s; things said in anger may need to completed when sober.
Sins of the world

Hormones come and go; age may conquer lust, and doctor’s orders may conquer gluttony. Bitter experience may conquer anger. But there is another class of temptations, greater than those of the flesh. If the flesh won’t work, Satan will try the sins of the world:

  • Envy. Why should that other guy be so rich? It is the principle weapon of American liberal politics. Envy touches many; if allowed to ripen into anger, it produces votes. This also works, usually without the anger, to sell retail items. Why should the cheerleader have a beautiful face while I have acne?
  • Greed. If you don’t have envy, there is always greed. Greed says that I should have more – whatever the consequences to anyone else. It is the principal weapon of American conservative politics. It is the chief method by which we obtain poverty-stricken multimillionaires.
  • Sloth. Yes, laziness. The habit of doing nothing about anything. Usually associated with good intentions, it means that we approve of righteousness in theory, but not so much that we would do anything about it.
The great sin – Pride

The great tool of Satan is pride (also translated “arrogance.”) If you are serious about sin, this is Satan’s chief weapon. Have you ever heard someone use shame as a technique for achieving self-control? “Another chocolate fudge triple syrup banana split? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” We appeal to pride to deal with the other sins – and Satan laughs.

It is the sin of the Pharisees; recall that Christ called all other sinners to repent, but the proud he rebuked in anger. Dealing with pride is difficult, but not impossible.


There are a few lessons we should take away from this incident.

The Christian’s defense

The key thought is this: Christ is human, fully so. He was tempted, as we are. His defenses worked for Him; they will work for us, if we will but use them.

  • First, Christ was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. His life was governed by the Spirit, and therefore He was prepared.
  • Next, His verbal defense comes from knowing the Scriptures. The virtues of frequent reading and memorization are hereby proclaimed.
  • Fasting – denying the body to strengthen the soul – has its desired effects.

Others not mentioned in this context, but equally valuable:

  • Prayer – the life of constant prayer is constantly well guided.
  • Fellowship – Christ took comfort of the angels; we should not neglect fellowship with each other.
  • The obedient heart – you’re not smart enough to outsmart Satan, let alone God. But you can triumph through obedience. I don’t need to know how the air pump works if I’m using it to pump up the tires.
First Adam, Second Adam

It is interesting to note how many writers have made the comparison between the fall of man in Adam and the triumph of Man in Christ. They see in this the fulfillment of this prophecy:

And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel."

(Gen 3:15 NASB)

St. Paul used this concept:

So also it is written, "The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

(1Co 15:45 NASB)

From the failure of Adam in the garden to the triumph of Christ in the Wilderness – what a Savior we have.

Fruits of Triumph

What shall we walk away with?

  • We see that even the greatest of temptations can be overcome – by men. He is human; such temptations as He had are in human terms. He triumphed; we can too.
  • Christ knows what temptation is like. He’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt, as the saying goes. Which means He can assist us in resisting temptation too.
  • It is clear: there is no possible alliance between Christ and Satan. Anything that presents itself that way is a deception of the Father of Lies.

[1] Found in Luke’s account, however, this is one of those “you have to know the Greek” things.

[2] As many would guess, I’m indebted to Chrysostom for the point and for the Scripture reference.

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