The Temptation of Christ

  • Author: Ray C. Stedman
Read the Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew 4:1-11

1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."

4Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6"If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9"All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

10Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

11Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

New International Version
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I would like to begin a brief series of messages looking at some of the significant moments in the life of the Lord during His time among men on earth, attempting to see these perhaps in the light of our own circumstances, that we might realize the tremendous practical import of these moments of crises in the life of Jesus Christ.

We begin this series in the first event of his ministry following his baptism by John, when he was led of the Spirit in the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. We turn again to Matthew 4:1-11:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him 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 give his angels charge of you, and
        On their hands they will bear you up,
        lest you strike your foot against a stone.‘”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them;  and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”  Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. (Matthew 4:1-11 RSV)

There is nothing more important for us than to understand the earthly life of Jesus Christ. There is a very mistaken concept among Christians today that Jesus came to show us what God was like and how he would behave among men. This is far from the truth, for Jesus did not come to show us how God behaves. It is true that he came to reveal the Father in his character, but in his activity he came to reveal man as God intended man to be. In everything he did we see man acting as God intended man to act, from the very beginning.

At the very heart of that manifestation is therefore the key and secret of human life. The principle on which he lived is the principle on which God intended man to live and by which we are to live. This is what makes life makes sense as nothing else does. Throughout our Lord’s ministry he reminded us continually of that great principle, not only by his words, but by his deeds. He declared it again and again, and stated this is the greatest of all truths:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)

This is the expression of the trust and the dependence that makes human life make sense. As we have said from time to time, it takes God to be a man as it takes Christ to be a Christian. You put Christ back into the Christian and you put God back into the man.

This is the revolutionary claim of Christianity. Unfortunately, it is often obscured in our day. This is why there are so many false claims and so much attempt being made to substitute something dramatic, something eye-catching, something which would appeal to the human heart to distinguish Christianity from any other religious faith. That is because we have lost the vital claim that is already part of Christianity if we preach it as it is in scripture. The great and radical claim of Christianity is that Jesus Christ offers to live his human life all over again in you, in your circumstance, in the midst of the situations that you daily face. Now we shall that principle put to the test.

In this account of the temptation of the Lord Jesus we see him going out into the wilderness, driven of the Spirit, to be tempted as a man. He was tempted as a human being; therefore his temptations are our temptations. That is why this account is so tremendously fascinating, so gripping, so practical for us, because this is exactly the form of temptation we are continually facing, day-by-day. If we discover the secret of how Jesus met it, we shall know how to meet temptation in our own lives. I think it is important to point out three additional facts about this account before we examine it in detail.

The first is that temptation does not come to us because we are sinners. It comes to us because we are human beings. It was not as a sinner that Jesus was tempted, and our being sinners does not add anything to the force of temptation. He felt the full force of it simply because he was a man. It is our humanity that makes us subject to the power of temptation. During this temptation you will notice that twice the devil said to Jesus, “if thou be the Son of God.” Immediately following the baptism where you have the account of the heavens opening and the Father crying out, “This is my beloved son”, then the devil comes and says, “if thou be the Son of God.” That “if” does not mean doubt. The devil is not trying to cast doubt on this fact. He knew that Christ was the Son of God, and the Lord Jesus knew it and there was never any doubt in his mind that he was, but the “if” here has the force of since. Since you are the Son of God, why not do this or that. The whole thrust of the temptation of the devil here is to get the Lord Jesus to move off the principle of dependence and trust in the indwelling Father. This is always the thrust of temptation with us as well. The devil attempts to get us to act on our own, independently of God. That is the nature of temptation. We shall see more of that as we go into this account.

One other introductory matter here is to take note of the fact we are particularly told that when Jesus was led of the Spirit to be tempted, he was taken into a wilderness. This may sound a bit strange to us. The first temptation of man occurred in a garden, but this temptation of the second man, the second Adam, occurs in a wilderness. Usually we don’t think of a wilderness as a place of temptation. If we want to avoid some of the problems of the temptations of life, we sometimes retreat to a wilderness. This is where the hermits have always gone, attempting to escape the world, thinking to find relief from temptation in the wilderness. We think of the city as the place of temptation. If you want to put a young man or woman under pressure, send them to the city. That is where they will be exposed to the full power and allurement of evil.

But this account comes to correct our false impressions and to show us that temptation does not come from without, but from within. It is not the outside force that creates temptation, or outward circumstances or situations, but temptation arises from within. Jesus said it is not what goes into a man, but what comes from within, that defiles him.

You can see how this strikes at a very common misconception we all have. We think that our failures, faults, and follies are due to certain outward pressures. If you listen to people talking you can hear someone explaining why he did such and such. He will say, “Well, there was nothing else I could do under the circumstances.” Or we say, “Well, he/she talked me into it.” Or “I simply got carried away.” I wasn’t I who was at fault, you see, it was just that the pressures of the situation were of such a nature that I could not resist. I was carried away by it; it’s to blame.

It’s amazing how ingenuously children sometimes reflect this. I remember a number of years ago one of my children had engaged in a little conflict with her cousin and we were trying to settle the matter. I said to them, “Now who started this?” The cousin said, “She did; she hit me back first.”

 As Jesus says, it is not our circumstances, but some weakness within, some allurement to which we yield, some inner urge. Jesus, therefore, was driven into a solitary wilderness where nothing outside could allure him, no pressure from without, into a highly waste desert, there to experience the full force of human temptation, to show us it comes from within.

Now let’s look at these temptations. In the first one the tempter came and said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I think we will not understand the power of that upon Jesus unless we realize that he had been going without food for forty days and forty nights. It is written, in what is perhaps the greatest understatement of the scriptures, “afterward he was hungry.” I don’t think any of us have been in a position to understand what that word “bread” must have meant to him. The very sound must have made him drool from the urge of his body to satisfy this need. It is indicative and important to note that this temptation arose out of a normal, natural need — out of his basic humanity. It isn’t something wrong with him that caused his temptation, but simply that he was a human being. Temptations come to us in the same way.

Now notice particularly the force of this temptation to him, for we will quickly recognize it in our own lives. What the devil really was saying to Jesus was, “Look, God doesn’t really care for you, does he? If you were the Son of God would he leave you in a wilderness without food for forty days and forty nights? Surely he has made some way of providing for your need to be met, if he loves you. So why don’t you act upon your innate powers of deity and turn these stones into bread — if you be the Son of God? His suggestion is that God is either too busy at the moment, too unconcerned, or too something, to take care of him. There is a subtle pressure here to act upon his own, independent of the Father, on the basis that after all human life is important, after all he has got to live. The devil’s attempt is to reverse the priorities of life and to make the physical life the most important thing of all.

A couple of Sundays ago listening to a radio broadcast, I heard a report of a random survey taken house-to-house among some of the people of Philadelphia. The question was asked: what is the most important lack in your life at the moment? What is it that you want or need more than anything else? One lady of the house said they had no hot water available, and that was her greatest need. Another said her greatest need was for more room. Always it was based on some material need.

This is an example that we have as a race succumbed to the brainwashing of the tempter. We have believed the lie that the physical life is the most important thing, and that if God doesn’t take adequate care of us, it is proof that he doesn’t love us. Who hasn’t heard that temptation? You hear it in those who point out the injustices of life, who say if God is a loving God as you Christians say, what about these disabled people, and how come he allows death, war, disappointment, tragedies? If God is a God of love, does he not take care of his own? This is the force of the temptation of our Lord, and the power of temptation millions face today, perhaps many right here.

Now see how the Lord answers. Immediately he comes back to a proper estimation and understanding of the nature of man. The devil’s work is always to twist and distort things and make them look different than they are; and particularly to twist our perspective so that we see life out of proportion. But our Lord immediately returns to the proper perspective of life, puts things back on the right basis, in focus, by quoting this word: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.” That is, the deepest need in human life is not the physical — never was, never will be. Man is more than animal, more than simply an animated piece of beefsteak, a hunk of meat with a nervous system whose principle need is physical supply. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Our Lord is saying, it is better to die of hunger in a wilderness in right relationship to the God who made us, than to satisfy it at the cost of that relationship. With that thrust, he ended the first temptation, putting life back into focus, reminding us that we have deeper needs than the physical, and that the temporary lack of physical supply does not in any way indicate that the God who made us, and who is deeply concerned in all areas of our lives, has forgotten us or is unconcerned.

Now look at the second temptation. The first is on the level of the physical. This is on the level of the soul. The devil took Jesus into the holy city, set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Then he pulls his trump card: “For it is written, he will give his angels charge of you, and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” This is most interesting. The first temptation was thrust at our Lord’s weakness as a man, his basic need for physical supply, his hunger. And in his utter weakness, the devil cruelly tried to exploit that weakness and make him violate his most important of relations: trust in the Father.

Now this is a typically diabolical move, to the exact opposite extreme. The devil is saying, “You trust in God, do you? I tried to get you to move apart from that trust, but I see you really do trust him. Well, that’s excellent — best thing you could ever do! Now I suggest how you can manifest that trust. If you really want to show how much you trust God, put yourself in a place of danger. Cast yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, and by that everyone will see that your trust in God is so implicit that you dare put yourself in any dangerous circumstance. And remember, it is written, “he will give his angels charge over you.” He will hold you up, and keep you in all your ways.

Now you see what a powerful, subtle temptation that was. And it thrusts right at the most vital need of humanity — on the level of the soul, our need for wisdom, our need to know the balance of life, how to avoid the extremes. The devil’s tactics are always the same. If he can’t push you off on this side, he’ll push you off on the other. It doesn’t matter to him which one. This is why we so frequently find ourselves vacillating from one extreme to the other. If someone has been reared without moral standards, learning to live in lust and self-expression, when they become a Christian it very often happens they switch to the opposite extreme and plunge into prudery of a most obnoxious sort. They begin to act as though there is something basically evil about sex. It happens also that if one has been reared according to a strict moral code, then oftentimes when they come into manhood or womanhood, there is a temptation to kick over the traces and throw away all the standards, throw out the rulebook and live as you like. This is a phenomenon one frequently sees when they go away to college, and it’s simply the ancient tactic of the devil, that when we resist him in one area he quickly tries to get us to act in the opposite extreme.

 It’s all the more subtle and powerful, of course, when he bolsters it with scripture. Here he quotes Psalm 91, and says, “You trusted God — wonderful. Use your trust now to the full, and remember you have scripture for it. The angels will bear you up in their hands…what do you say to that?” Have you ever felt the force of that temptation? Has anyone ever said, “Look, I can show you from the scriptures that you can do so-and-so.” And you say, “How can I argue? After all, the Bible says so.” And here are all those many arguments based upon that claim: “the Bible says so.” It is said you can prove anything by the Bible. That is true — if you read it the way the devil does. We shall see more about that in our Lord’s answer.

But now notice the force of that temptation. The devil is saying, “Look, you want to demonstrate trust in God, I see. This is the way to do it. If you really would like to show people how thoroughly you trust God, here’s the pinnacle of the temple. There they are waiting below, the whole crowd. Leap off it, and you will demonstrate how fully God is with you, and you are a man of God.”

This reveals one of the most common misconceptions, especially as Christians: the idea that the greatest display of faith is in some spectacular demonstration. You hear this philosophy from healers, those who speak in tongues, snake-handlers, all who are looking for miracles. They are saying if you really want to show faith in God, you have to do some kind of miracle. The mark of a man of faith is that he is able to do something supernatural. He can do dangerous things, pick up snakes, speak in tongues, drink poison, heal the sick, raise the dead; ah-h, this is the mark of a man of faith.

But the Lord Jesus puts life back in perspective when he reveals the truth. He said, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” The greatest display of faith is not in some spectacular demonstration, but in the quiet trust of the heart that rests upon what God has said. Not just what is said in one place, but balanced truth. Perhaps the most important word in the whole of scriptures in many respects, is this one word that he adds, “It is written again.” Truth does not come to us in capsule form. It is a complete account, and one truth needs to be balanced against another. We never have arrived at the whole until the complete account is laid out and we see it in its total revelation. This is of course the answer to all the cults and -isms and -asms and spasms, who rest upon one scripture quoted from this book and one from another. They can produce impressive volumes filled with many quotations from Scripture to bolster their arguments and seemingly support their “truth”. But the answer always is: “It is written again.” Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer used to say, “If they persecute you in one verse, flee into another.”

There is one further thing in this account. If we are under temptation to demonstrate faith by some spectacular display, we must ask ourselves the question: why do you want power in your life? To what purpose; what do you want to use it for? The Apostle Paul, writing in the book of Colossians, prays for them that they might be filled with power. In Colossians 1:11 (RSV), he says, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might…” That is something we would all like prayed for us. For what purpose? In order that we might do spectacular things? Marvelous, crowd-arresting activities that will make people see God is powerful? Listen to the rest of the prayer: “for all endurance and patience with joy.” Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But that takes power! Patience and longsuffering with joy, the quiet life of faith, is the greatest life.

Now look at the third temptation:

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him: ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”

Then Jesus said to him:

  “Begone, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Now the devil moves into the essential, basic part of the human life, the realm of the spirit. Now he removes all his pretenses, masks and disguises, and comes up with a direct, sheer, naked appeal to the deepest desire in the heart of mankind, placed there by God, that his life might be worthwhile. That he might invest it in something of value, and make an unforgettable mark in this world. Who doesn’t want his life to be worthwhile? Who does not fear wasting his life? Or to live in such an unexciting and meaningless way that when he is gone he is immediately forgotten? Who does not want to be remembered, and feel that he has done something eminently worthwhile? That is simply basic to our humanity.

And the devil quickly picks this up, in a moment of time taking Jesus to a high mountain, in some wonderful way showing him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. Night before last, coming from the city of Guatemala we came up over the mountains through a heavy storm, the plane buffeted about, and breaking through the storm we came down over the vast metropolis of Mexico City populated by some four-million people. Breaking through the clouds we suddenly saw this tremendous city spread out before us, sparkling with lights gleaming like jewels in the dark. What a beautiful, glorious sight it was! In some sense, Jesus saw all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory. All that has attracted human hearts, causing men to sometimes leave their families and possessions, in order to win the power and place of exaltation and authority of such kingdoms. And the devil said to him, “you can have all this if you will fall down and worship me.”

Now think of the force of that. For these kingdoms were exactly what Jesus Christ had come to earth to get. He came in order to win the world, that he might be Lord of all, that he might be exalted, as man, to the highest position in the universe; that every tongue should confess and every knee should bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God. This is why he came. Now the devil is offering it to him. But I like the suggestion of Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, who says it is very interesting that the devil only showed it to him in a moment of time, just a quick glimpse. Almost as though afraid to let the Lord look at it very long, that he might not see the worthlessness of it, the fact that all of this is only an illusion, a sparkling, shimmering bauble. It looks very solid, dependable and alluring and significant, but when grasped it becomes dirty cobwebs.

But you notice how Jesus immediately sees through it? His reply is almost contemptuous: “Begone, Satan!” Get thee behind me, for the truth is that “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Notice the conjunction of words, there: worship and serve. To worship is to serve. To serve is to worship. And only God can give the value to life that you are suggesting. The kingdoms and glory of the world will never give it. What you are striking at is the deepest desire of a person’s life — to have a life that is worthwhile. That only God can do, therefore you shall worship and serve only the Lord your God. And immediately the devil left him, and angels came to minister to him.

Now it is important to notice that in this account, as our Lord meets these temptations on the levels of the physical, soul and spirit, each time he used the same weapon. It is the same weapon available to us all. He retreated immediately behind the Word of God. He didn’t argue; he didn’t debate. He took refuge in the Word, in utter dependence upon the fact that God had spoken. The minute he did so, the battle ceased. The moment Satan was confronted with the Word of God and saw Jesus was taking refuge upon the written statement of God, there was no longer any struggle.

This is very important. Our continuing struggle comes because we are so reluctant to take our stand on God’s revelation. We feel the force of the devil’s alluring lie that we will gain something by this action or thought or attitude that is tempting us. We think if we don’t do this thing, life is going to pass us by — we’re going to lose something. And if we do it, we will gain a hidden kingdom which will be a satisfying and blessed experience. That is the force of the temptation. But when we retreat to what God says is the truth about it, then we discover immediately the end of the struggle. You see, when it looks as though we are going to gain by disobeying, our one retreat must always be into the Word of God, for here is the revelation of things as they really are. This is the way to confront temptation, not with our weak, failing humanity, but with the power of the Word of God himself. When Satan finds himself up against that, he turns tail and runs.

I have a sign hanging on the wall in my study that captures three truths that have oftentimes been a source of deliverance for me in times of temptations that come daily, as they come to you.

  • The first of the three: “It is written. Proof enough.” God has told us the facts about life.
  • The second: “It is finished. Provision enough.” On the cross, the Lord Jesus has done all that needs to be done to break the power of temptation in our lives.
  • The third: “It is I. Presence enough.” His indwelling life within us is constantly available to us in order to break temptation’s power.

This is a radical, revolutionary thing. There are few who seem to step out into this kind of living. But wherever it is attempted, strange things begin to happen. Not that the life becomes suddenly spectacular and people go around doing miracles and other wonders. But in the quiet, daily experience of life, in the decisions that commonly come every moment to everyone, there is a quiet trust in the wisdom of God to meet each decision, and things begin to work out in unexpected ways, with unusual results that follow usual decisions. Extraordinary things follow ordinary activity, as God begins to work in human life. This is the secret of human life, as our Lord is demonstrating it, making it available to us as we by faith receive Jesus Christ, that his life may be lived again in us.

Prayer:

Our Father thank you for this mighty revelation of the basic secrets that make life make sense. We pray we may make ourselves aware of these, that we may give ourselves to an understanding of them, that you will open our minds to teach us these things that are so different from what we have learned in the world. Here in thy book, O Lord, thou hast set forth the facts about life, things as they really are. Deliver us from the shimmering illusions and fantasies, the phoniness and emptiness of the devil’s lies. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

Title: The Temptation of Christ Author: Ray C. Stedman
   Date:August 8, 1965
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