“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16, ESV).
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness can be a great source of encouragement and inspiration to all believers as we face temptation. This passage, found in Luke 4:1–13, provides insights that can challenge all who desire spiritual victory.
Christians are often tempted to surrender to defeat in different areas of our lives. We justify sin with the excuse, “Well, nobody is perfect.” When reminded that Jesus overcame sin, we shrug it off by saying, “Yeah, well, he is Jesus and I am just an ordinary person. He never dealt with this problem.”
The Hebrews passage at the top of this article takes all of those excuses away from us. It reminds us that Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are, yet without sin. He faced every temptation you face, in some form or another. Our Lord even faced many of those temptations to a greater degree than you or I can imagine. All of us slip into sin before feeling the full force of temptation and we can immediately ask for divine forgiveness. Many of our sins do not have obvious serious long-term effects on our lives. However, if Jesus had sinned, even one time, his entire mission in life would have failed. He would then have to die for his own sins, and we would still not have a redeemer.
So, he faced every temptation with the added stress of knowing that one failure would derail his entire purpose for coming into the world. If we stumble (or even charge full-speed-ahead with no reservations) into sin, we can always repent with the full assurance of complete forgiveness. However, we have that option only because Jesus was crucified for us as the sinless Lamb of God, without blemish.
Jesus faced temptation with no excuses. Christians who are single can overcome sexual temptation, in part by encouraging themselves that they can enjoy such pleasure when they get married. Jesus did not have that option. Blasphemous as it may sound to some, I am certain that he had to face that same rush of hormones other adolescent males face during puberty. He probably even faced sexual temptation during his ministry. Nevertheless, he overcame, never giving in to sin.
Jesus’ wilderness temptations can remind us of several sources of temptation faced both by the nation of Israel and by individual believers. The temptations Jesus overcame were very similar to those that Israel gave in to during the wilderness wanderings (after the Exodus).
Many articles and sermons will point out how these temptations correspond to the major areas where all people are tempted (the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life—see 1 John 2:16). Since others have addressed this connection so effectively, I will not repeat it here. However, both approaches (the “three categories of temptation” approach and the perspective I offer below) remind us that while times, cultures, and technology change, human nature remains the same. At their roots, the temptations we face in 2011 are very similar to those that Jesus faced nearly 2000 years ago and those Moses and the Israelites faced 3400 years ago.
First, Satan tempted Jesus to command a stone to become bread. Soon after Israel fled Egypt, they murmured against Moses and the Lord, complaining about the lack of food. God provided bread from heaven (also known as “manna”) and quail to sustain them (Exodus 16:1–15). Moses would later tell the people that God fed them in this way so that they may “know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Jesus recalled this scripture and reminded himself that he needed sustenance from the word of God. He spent 40 days in the wilderness, feasting upon scripture and prayer. As he focused on divine truth, he knew his heavenly Father would strengthen him for the fast and meet all his needs (Matthew 6:33). There was no point in giving in to the devil for even a moment.
After this temptation, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offered to give him authority over all of it. In exchange, all Jesus would have to do is worship him.
Two of Israel’s wilderness experiences come to mind here. First, not long after fleeing Egypt, the Israelites gave in to temptation to commit idolatry. While Moses received the law on Mount Sinai, the rest of the Israelites replaced the unseen God who delivered them with a golden idol of a calf deity (possibly reminiscent of Baal or El, two of the chief deities in Canaanite paganism).
Later, Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan to spy out the land God was giving them. Like Jesus, they saw what God would give them to rule over. The Israelites failed the test, looking at the size of their opponents and forgetting that God had already delivered them from the world’s greatest superpower at that time.
Jesus prevailed, remembering the word of God. He knew that it was an abominable sin to worship any “god” besides his Father, the one true God, the maker of heaven and earth. However, I think this may have been the most difficult temptation of all for Jesus. He knew the grueling vicious torture he would face for our salvation. Satan was offering him a shortcut to claim his eternal authority as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Perhaps Jesus reminded himself that the kingdoms of the world were already promised to him. He would have to endure the cross (Hebrews 12:2), but that would bring a far greater joy. The son of God had a choice. He could endure a night of betrayal, torture, and beatings, followed by several hours on a cross and a few days in the nether world. This would enable him to cherish a joyful eternity with the people he saved. Or, he could lower his standards for a few brief moments and avoid the suffering; but then, he would have to spend eternity as ruler of the universe while all humanity burns in hell.
Also, Jesus recognized Satan as the father of lies (John 8:44). Satan may offer wonderful gifts if we obey him, but he is a liar! Even if he does reward his followers with fame, fortune, and fun, he does not tell the truth about everything they may receive for following him: addiction and heartache in this life, and eternal suffering in the next.
When we look at our options from God’s perspective. we can find greater encouragement to resist temptation. Jesus did not focus on the short-term benefits of avoiding pain and suffering. He looked to the eternal joy. Likewise, we should look at our eternal rewards, not settling for the temporary comforts and pleasures of this life.
Satan’s final wilderness temptation of Jesus attacked the human desire for respect and admiration from others. He tempted Jesus to go to Jerusalem and put on a dramatic show of a miracle to impress the people in the temple.
Likewise, Moses was tempted to draw attention to himself. On two occasions during the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites complained about the lack of water. Both times, God instructed Moses to bring forth water from a rock.
On the second occasion (Numbers 20:8–11), God commanded Moses to tell the rock to yield water. However, Moses gave in to his frustration. Instead of following God’s instructions, he scolded the Israelites and asked, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Thus, Moses spoke as if he were giving the water, instead of God.) Then, he struck the rock with his staff, as if his own strength were responsible for providing water.
For this failure, God did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land with the Israelites. Joshua (whose name in Hebrew, incidentally, is very similar to “Jesus”) would lead God’s people. Virtually all of Israel, even its leaders Moses and Aaron, failed the tests of temptation and missed out on God’s blessings.
Praise God that Jesus passed the test! Praise God that, since we have Christ’s example along with the indwelling Holy Spirit and the complete word of God, we can prevail as well!
Jesus overcame, and so can we. Like Jesus, we should meditate on the Word of God, so that we may know God’s will for our lives and withstand temptation. Prayer and fasting are vital tools to pursue spiritual victory as well. We should always rely on these gifts of God and on the strength he provides to win the battle against Satan.