The King's Temptation

Matthew continues his portrayal of Jesus as King with the description of Jesus' encounter with the Prince of darkness in the desert.
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We are studying the book of Matthew and his perspective of Jesus as Divine King. We began by reviewing the first instance in Matthew where the gospel writer portrays Jesus as a royal or kingly figure, and that was at His birth where He was worshiped by the wise men from Babylon and presented with gifts that represented His royal, divine and sacrificial character. Matthew continues his description of Jesus' life with an unusual episode where Jesus is tempted by the devil. This event occurred immediately after He was baptized by John and confirmed as the Divine Messiah by the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God.

This begins Jesus's public ministry on a lofty note, but to balance out the view, we now see Jesus in the desert being hungry, thirsty, tired and battling temptation. In this scene, Matthew is able to show us that even though Jesus is King, He must face the same attacks from the same opponent as we do. Of course, as Divine King, He is able to demonstrate His mastery over Satan and all of His temptations.

This same story is told in Mark and Luke's gospel, but Matthew's description is the most complete.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
- Matthew 4:1

Mark says that Jesus was "impelled " by the spirit. Later on in His ministry Jesus said that He only spoke and did what the Father told Him to speak and do (John 8:28-29). This guidance, as we see here, was provided through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This was no human desire (to go into the desert to face the treacherous temptation of Satan). Human nature would have avoided a deadly confrontation with such an opponent so early in one's ministry. Human nature would have capitalized on the great events at His baptism in order to start a successful ministry. Human nature would have developed a strong following as well as greater strength and wisdom in ministry before going one-on-one with Satan. But Jesus' ministry was totally devoted to God, and it was God's will that this test be faced at once. Without delay then, Jesus goes into the desert immediately following His baptism.

And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.
- Matthew 4:2

Mark says that during these forty days in the desert Jesus was tempted by Satan and was with wild beasts. The way Matthew and Mark describe it, Jesus' experience in the desert was as follows:

1. He fasted

No food for 40 days. Since He had no weaknesses of the body and soul caused by sin, He only became hungry after 40 days.

2. He was with wild beats

Mark is the one who mentions this and it could be a reference to animals or the continuous temptations He had to endure. The way the passage is written in Matthew suggests that He faced 40 days of continuous harassment from Satan and his allies.

3. He defeats Satan

By the end of the 40 days of fasting He becomes hungry, and at this point Satan himself attempts to destroy Him. There may have been other instances and encounters with the Devil, but this is the one preserved and revealed to us.

4. He is ministered to by angels

I'll speak more about this later, but for now suffice to say that the Father provides for Jesus' needs through angels. Before we go on to Satan's three temptations, let's discuss the nature of these temptations with regard to Jesus. In the book of James, James describes the nature of temptation on an ordinary person:

But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
- James 1:14-15

In this passage James refers to the type of temptation that calls on a corresponding weakness in a person in order to seduce them into sin. That is to say:

  • Alcohol for the alcoholic
  • Opportunity to boast in the one who is conceited
  • Pornography for the urge to lust

So in one form, temptation is a seduction, a luring into the trap of sin and resulting death by using or offering something or someone that corresponds to a forbidden desire within the individual. This was not the nature of Satan's temptations on Jesus because the Bible also teaches that God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13) and Jesus is God.

The temptations that Jesus struggled with, therefore, were tests, were things done to examine and produce His true self. They were ways to reveal weaknesses, inconsistencies and hypocrisies. For example:

  • Humans experience these "tests" or temptations whenever they fill out a form, write an exam or suffer some kind of adversity.
  • These things are tests/temptations that bring out our true character.

Satan's temptations were not allurements to Jesus's sinful nature, He was without sin and so nothing would seduce him. Satan's temptations were tests to measure the claims and person of Christ to see if he could discredit, discourage, or distract Him from His Father's command to carry out His ministry on our behalf. Satan had ruined the first Adam and now would use his full force to try and stop Adam's savior, Jesus.

Temptation #1 – Prove Yourself

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.'"
- Matthew 4:3-4

On the surface this seems like a reasonable request: if you are the Son of God, then give me the kind of proof that only such a person could provide. The "test" here was to see if Jesus would rely on God's word for proof of this or exercise some form of power to confirm this fact. Before entering the desert the Father said from heaven:

This is my beloved Son in whom I am will pleased.
- Matthew 3:17

Was God's "word" enough, or did Jesus need to supply more – for Himself or for others? If Jesus provided the miracle (which He was perfectly capable of doing), He would be doing the same thing the Jews did afterwards: relying on signs and wonders to prove God's word, rather than simply relying on the credibility of His word alone. Jesus' answer (from Deuteronomy 8:3) is at once concise and all encompassing:

  • It is taken from Moses' summary of exhortation to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land.
  • They had been miraculously freed from Egyptian slavery and miraculously sustained in the desert for 40 years with the bread of manna from heaven.
  • An entire generation witnessed great miracles from God, and yet Moses warns them that their lives were sustained by God's word, not by His miracles.
  • In other words, the miracles served the word and not the other way around. For example:
    • God had promised in His word to Abraham and others that He would eventually give them the Promised Land. The miracles simply brought His word to its fulfillment.
    • God told the Israelites that He would save and bless them and that His word was the guarantee that it would happen – not the miracles.

God's word declared that Jesus was the Son of God and that word was the absolute and final proof anyone needed for this to be established. The test was to see if Jesus would go beyond the word of the Father. Jesus quotes the very words of the Father that establish the all sufficiency of God's word. In other words, Jesus tells Satan that God's word says that I am the Son of God, and that is enough proof.

Temptation #2 – Prove the Word

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.'"
- Matthew 4:5-7

Satan is unbowed and unrepentant at Jesus' response to his first attack. He merely follows it up with a subsequent ploy, this time based on the word of God itself. At first he says, "prove yourself" and Jesus replies, "the word proves Me and who I am." So Satan comes back with "prove the word" in a way that would put Jesus' human form in danger.

Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, writes that there was a point on the exterior wall surrounding the temple (Solomon's Porch) where the drop to the ravine below was 600 feet. Satan's suggestion was that if the word is your proof, test it to see if what it says about you is true. The passage is from Psalms 91:11-12 and refers to God's providential care of not only His Divine Son but also all of His children of faith.

  • The deception is not in misquoting the passage. The deception lies in using this passage to prove a false promise.
  • The passage teaches that God uses extraordinary means (even angels) to care for and protect His children.
  • Satan, however, uses this passage to suggest the idea that God will protect and preserve you no matter what you do.

In response, Jesus correctly discerns Satan's intent and answers with a scripture that addresses the true issue: presumptuousness. His scripture reference does not contradict the passage set forth by Satan, it explains it fully so that the meaning is clear. Yes, we are to trust God's promise to care for us, but to foolishly test God's promise with careless actions is presumptuous and full of pride. This type of action is an attempt to force God to prove His promise, and in doing this one shows a lack of trust as well as a proud heart.

The first test was to see if Jesus would provide a sign to prove Himself, and the second test was to see if Jesus would ask the Father to provide a sign to prove His word. In both responses Jesus relies on the word and its proper meaning to meet Satan's attacks.

Temptation #3 – Take The Easy Way

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.'"
- Matthew 4:8-10

In the first two tests, the issue rested upon Jesus' divine nature and His relationship to the Father and His word. This third attempt appeals more to Jesus' human nature and His mission here as the Messiah and King. This is where our theme of Jesus as King shines through in this passage. Matthew has already established Jesus' credentials as Divine King with his description of the wise men's gifts and worship.

Here Satan offers Jesus a position that the Lord already has: King over all kingdoms. Of course, Satan's deceit is evident in several ways:

  • He falsely claims that all of the kingdoms have been given to him. He rules in this world as a rebel leader in disobedience to God, they haven't been given.
  • He also falsely claims that he has the power to crown Jesus Lord over these, but he has no such power or authority from God.

In suggesting that he will do this if Jesus worships him, Satan is offering Jesus a crown without having to suffer a cross.

Jesus is crowned Lord of all because of His victory over sin and death through His cross and resurrection.

who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
- Philippians 3:21

Satan falsely appeals to Him to forgo this route for the easier way of simply changing His allegiance.

  • Why suffer to become king?
  • Worship me and you receive the same thing without suffering.

It was the same lie that made Adam and Eve fall (you shall become like gods if you do as I say). Of course, they wouldn't have, and didn't, they simply lost what they already had! Jesus was king, a king with a mission from the Father. He answered the way Eve and Adam should have responded: "Be gone, Satan!"

Jesus, for the first time, addresses the Devil and rebukes him openly. His command is such for two reasons:

  • He had exhausted his temptations and lost, and it was time for him to go.
  • He had offered the worst temptation of all: to deny God, to break the first commandment by denying the Father. In Jesus' case this would be to try and achieve His mission by denying the Father's plan of salvation.

The test was to see if Jesus would carry out the Father's plan (death on the cross to gain forgiveness for man) or Satan's plan (worship Satan and gain rulership). In His reply, Jesus not only vanquishes the Devil and his schemes, but also guarantees the salvation of all those whose hope rested on Him and His sacrifice.

Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.
- Matthew 4:11

Matthew describes angels ministering to the Lord, the King:

  • Their assistance would have been to provide food and sustenance.
  • To return Him to His home.
  • To celebrate and rejoice with Him this great and desired spiritual battle (who else could understand at this point?).

Satan continued to attack Jesus through others eventually causing His death, but his own power was tested and defeated once and for all at this critical point in Jesus' ministry.


1. Jesus is king of the spiritual world

In the description of the wise men's appearance, Matthew establishes Jesus as a royal figure recognized by worldly leaders, and whether they were friendly, like the Magi, or enemies, like Herod, they both recognized His royal position. Here he shows that Jesus is also king or ruler over the spiritual world as well. He defeats Satan, the supreme spiritual enemy. He is served by angels, the supreme spiritual ministers. Either way, Jesus is the ruler.

2. The word of God saves

It is through the word that we come to save our souls (Romans 1:16). It is also through the word that we remain saved (Matthew 4:1-11, II Timothy 3:16).

Knowing the word, knowing it in context, using it and applying it properly will keep our spiritual lives healthy and safe from the many temptations of the evil one. The purpose of our teaching, preaching and regular Bible reading as well as our prayers is to keep souls strong and safe through the knowledge of God's word.

Discussion Questions

  1. Summarize the events of the temptation of Jesus from the various gospel accounts.
  2. Read Matthew 4:1-11 and answer the following question:
    • What is shown through the temptation of Jesus that we also have to deal with?
  3. How does the statements by James (James 1:2-4; 14-15) and the temptations of Jesus relate, and what is the significance for us?
  4. Review the three temptations of Jesus and explain the nature of the tests.
  5. How does the temptation of Jesus and the temptation of Adam and Eve resemble each other, and how do they relate to us?
  6. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?
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