What Jesus Taught Us About Temptation

Today’s read includes Matthew 4:1-11, the temptation of Jesus. This happens at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, just after God affirms Him at His baptism by John, proclaiming, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of spiritual preparation. Satan finds Him hungry and tired and seizes the opportunity to attack.

You may have read this story and concluded that our best defense against temptation is to know God’s Word so well that we have an answer and a way of escape…that we need to be aware that Satan can twist God’s Word out of context. And that’s true. But I don’t believe Jesus picked the scriptures He used to respond at random. What can we learn by looking at the context of the scriptures He quoted? What is the overall message He teaching us by taking us back to these particular Old Testament quotes?

Temptation #1 – Satan tempts Jesus to prove He is the Son of God by turning stones into bread. Jesus responds by quoting the end of Deuteronomy 8:3.

You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

Manna came in a time of testing, of discipline. God allowed hardship, hunger, and years in the desert to expose what was in their hearts. Would they trust God and live by His words, obedient to His commands? Or would they turn away and worship other idols and abandon the God who had rescued them?

Satan’s temptation was to fix the physical issue (make bread from stones and satisfy His hunger). Jesus was teaching us that in a moment of temptation, our issue is not physical – it is spiritual. Our circumstances aren’t what’s at stake; it is our relationship to God.

Temptation #2 – Satan tempts Jesus to prove He is the Son of God by throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the temple so that God will rescue Him. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.

You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.

After the Israelites had been provided with manna and quail, after they had seen God make bitter waters sweet at Marah, the people journeyed to Rephidim and camped, but again, there was no water. Instead of immediately, humbly, asking God to provide, they began to grumble and quarrel with Moses, accusing him of taking them out of Egypt only to kill them in the desert. Their immediate fears fueled a wave of anger that was ready to boil over into murdering Moses. In this pivotal moment, God instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb, and He brought water from the rock. They named the place Massah (test) and Meribah (quarrel), because it was there, they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 16:7).

Satan’s temptation was for Jesus to do something foolish and irresponsible to prove whether or not God’s promise in Psalm 91:11 was true. Jesus is reminding us of what true faith is – taking God at His word, even when things look grim. God doesn’t need to prove Himself to us; He is the sovereign ruler of all that exists. He does not owe us a miracle. I’m reminded of a child that continually acts out to get his parents’ attention as if he needs them to prove that they love him over and over; if they don’t give in to his demands, it reveals their love is not real. Jesus knew that His Father would provide in every circumstance, and He is teaching us to trust His character and nature by faith, not sight. God has nothing to prove.

Temptation #3 – Satan tempts Jesus to worship him, in exchange for the kingdoms of the world. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13.

You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you. (Deut. 6:13-14)

Moses was warning the people about their future. God would keep His promises and bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. They would live in cities they did not build, in houses filled with good things they had not gained, and drink water from cisterns they did not dig. They would eat their fill and be satisfied with the fruits of vineyards and olive trees they did not plant. Moses knew the danger that abundance often causes us to forget God, to worship our blessings instead of the One who blessed us. They would live among ungodly people, and if their eyes were not fastened firmly on God, they would be drawn away to worship their empty idols.

Satan’s temptation was to “trade God in” for this world. Satan is indeed able to give us the “things of this world.” God has allowed him a measure of freedom, and he is building his own little kingdoms, deceiving gullible and undiscerning humans by satisfying their flesh. Jesus is teaching us to live for what is real and eternal, and the only way we can do that is to worship God alone. No other gods will do.

What’s our takeaway?

In every case, Jesus pushes us back to faith in God regardless of our physical circumstances. Right now, His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. Our physical needs are only temporary; we are destined for eternity. If we are living for the pleasures, possessions, power, prestige, and positions of this world, we are ripe for temptation. We will be drawn into sin against God and be disappointed in Him when He allows us to suffer the consequences of our foolish behavior. We will never be satisfied with what our own hands produce, and will be left empty spiritually, mentally, and emotionally by the false gods of this world.

The scriptures Jesus chose in the moment of temptation are not random. Unshakeable faith in God is always the answer and will lead us to victory every time.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

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