The Temptation of Christ - Part I

by Rev. Sterling M. Durgy

Parts and Contents

Part I is contained on this page. Click below to view:

Part I - Overview and Background (this page):

Introduction to Part I

Jesus as High Priest

Temptation as Trial

Jesus as the Second Adam

Jesus' Use of Scripture

Jesus as Representative of Israel

Footnotes for Part I

Part II - The Temptations:

Introduction to Part II

The Temptation to Turn Stones into Bread

The Temptation to Jump from the Pinnacle of the Temple

Footnotes for Part II

The Temptation to Glory and Power

Conclusion and Summary


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The Temptation of Christ

A Bible Study of: Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13

by Rev. Sterling M. Durgy

Language note: In a few cases below the original vocabulary of the New Testament is discussed. In such cases an anglicized spelling is given.

The Temptation of Christ: Part I. Overview and Background

Introduction to Part I

Most of the early life of Christ is hidden to us. The Gospels describe His birth and tell us something about His boyhood. But, little is known of Him before the time when Jesus visits His cousin John at the Jordan river when Jesus is about thirty years of age - the age at which, according to the custom of the time, men were accepted as religious leaders in Israel (Luke 3:23). There, John baptizes Jesus; after which the Spirit of God falls upon Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven declares, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). This begins the public ministry of Jesus Christ. John begins to testify that Jesus is, indeed, the long awaited Christ who shall save His people from their sins. Some of the people John witnesses to will be chosen by Jesus to be His disciples.

However, first, Christ goes into the wilderness where He fasts for forty days and forty nights. He goes there because the Spirit of God leads Him there, and He is led there by the Holy Spirit specifically to undergo temptation. This is clearly an important part of His mission. But why? Does it not seem strange that Jesus would begin His public ministry, only to withdraw immediately to spend a lengthy period of time alone in the wilderness?

Jesus as High Priest

The author of Hebrews indicates that it was important for God, in the Person of Christ, to understand what it was like for human beings to undergo temptation. The fact of Christ's temptation, therefore, means that we can go before Him with the assurance that he understands what we go through when we endure trials and temptations. Not only does this mean that He is fully compassionate when we come to Him for forgiveness, this means that we can trust Him to pray for us to overcome temptation during our trials and to provide us with the spiritual resources that we need to be victorious in them (Hebrews 2:16-18, 4:14-16, Romans 5:6-9). "Let us, therefore, draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).

While this explains why Jesus had to undergo temptation in general, it doesn't fully explain why Jesus had to undergo a special time of temptation in the wilderness.

Temptation as Trial

The word "temptation" suggests to us an inner desire to do evil. Such a definition is in view in James words, "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). If this definition applied to the temptation of Christ, then it would imply that there were tendencies to sin within Christ that Satan appealed to and that Christ had to overcome. It would also imply that God Himself tries to get individuals to commit sin, since it was the Holy Spirit that led Christ to be tempted. But, any suggestion that God tries to entrap us in sin is entirely foreign to the teachings of Scripture. John wrote "God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). James wrote, "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted and He Himself does not tempt any one" (James 1:13). An enticement to sin meant to trip someone up who wouldn't otherwise have fallen would reveal a lack of love by God - and would thus be entirely inconsistent with His nature.

In fact, the word that is the root for the Greek words that we translate "tempt" and "temptation" (peira, peirasmos, peirao, peiradzo) can also be correctly translated "try" and "trial." The secular meaning of these Greek words is to test something by experience, to "experiment" if you will, to make plain the true nature of a thing. From this it becomes clear that testing that appeals to an inward desire to sin, and thus leads to sin, is a special case of a "trial." Not all trials include this characteristic. Many trials, even those discussed in Scripture, are trials that reveal the true nature or value of a person or thing. It is with this meaning that James says, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial" (James 1:12) but denies that this same person has been tempted by God. God tries to make the inner nature obvious, He does not try to lead into sin.

Peter writes that Christians should not be surprised when they go through various trials. Instead, these trials are given that, "the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:7). These trials reveal the faith of these Christians before all the world. In this, they follow Jesus Christ, whose inner nature was revealed by His response to His temptations in the wilderness and elsewhere.

Could Christ have fallen? Could He have sinned? Surely, for this contest to have been real, there must have been the freedom for Jesus to choose sin. But Jesus did not. Adam had the freedom to choose sin and was allowed to do so. Jesus, also fully man, had the same freedom. However, it is important to recognize that God can choose to do wickedness whenever He wants to. What prevents God from doing wickedness is His own nature. The character of God, which is fully pure, will not allow Him to do what is evil. In other words, what prevents God from doing wrong is His own inner character, not outward circumstances or restraints. It was the same for Christ, Immanuel, "God with us," God become flesh to dwell among us (Isaiah 7:14, John 1:14). The freedom to commit sin was always there. But, Jesus' inner nature would not allow Him to choose evil, not because Jesus wasn't fully human, but because in "emptying" Himself to take human flesh (Philippians 2:5-7) Christ's inner character had not been emptied or changed. In this sense, the contest was never in question. On the other hand, had this contest never occurred under conditions where Christ was relying upon His character rather than His physical strength, the nature of His character would not have been completely revealed; nor could He have gone on to challenge the world of men unless He had first established His stature before the spiritual forces of wickedness.

Jesus as the Second Adam

It should not be lost that there is some similarity with the "well-pleased" of Jesus baptism and the "it was good" of the creation as described in Genesis 1. In both cases we have God's perfect creation, and in both cases the individuals created enter a time of trial. In Adam's case, the trial was obedience concerning the fruit of one tree in the Garden of Eden. With Christ, the temptation had to do with His identity and His obedience to His mission.

True, Jesus is not yet, at the time of His temptation, the resurrected Christ, and thus not yet fully representative of the new creation. But, even here, because Christ is the creation of both humanity (Mary) and the Spirit, although fully human, He does not possess original sin, and represents a humanity in the same condition spiritually as Adam was in before the fall.

There are some important similarities in the temptation of Adam and Eve and the temptation of Christ:

Many temptations represent more than one of the categories given above. Whether singly or combined, we can expect them to be present in every temptation.

The author of Hebrews wrote of Jesus that He "has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). It is absurd to think that this means that Jesus endured every single temptation that every member of the human race will ever have.[Footnote 1] Certainly, Jesus was not subject to the addictions or perversions that people bring upon themselves, since His mind and motives were pure. Rather, Jesus faced temptations that were similar in kind to those all human beings face, in a similar sense to what Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:13 that there are no temptations that come upon us that are fully unique. In each case, although there was a struggle, Jesus never sinned.

If Jesus did not overcome temptation as faced by mankind, He could not have become the unblemished Lamb (I Peter 1:19). Further, if He had not been an unblemished Lamb, He could not have died on our behalf as well as in our place. Christ could not have benefited humanity if He had not been a representative of humanity - and only an unblemished sacrifice would have been acceptable to God (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:13-14).

Jesus' Use of Scripture

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of Jesus' response to temptation is His consistent use of Scripture. Since Jesus was led into the wilderness to face temptation by the Holy Spirit, and since it was His character that would not allow room to wickedness, we might expect the "Word become flesh" to have stood in His own righteousness and in the power of the Spirit alone. But He does not. In every case, Jesus' immediate response is an appeal to Scripture.

There can be no doubt that what He is doing is changing the context of the discussion. Satan attempts to place events outside the context of Scripture. Jesus places them in the context of God's Word. By doing so, Jesus places these events in the context of God's sovereignty - in the context of the Kingdom of God. In the context of human experience, the recommendations of Satan can seem very reasonable. In the context of God's Kingdom, their twistedness (iniquity) is revealed.

The promise to confer upon Jesus the glory of all the kingdoms of the world is a blatant, blasphemous attempt at subversion. But, the other two temptations are so subtle that if presented to many people, even many Christians, outside the context of Christ's temptation, they might seem entirely harmless. One of the temptations involves a superficial interpretation of the Scriptures themselves.

It is Jesus' deep understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures that enables Him to overcome Satan. Ignorance leads to folly and failure (Matthew 22:29). Jesus demonstrates that every piece of Scripture must be interpreted in the context of the whole of Scripture, and that some Scripture has deeper, more foundational teaching than other Scripture -- otherwise Satan's use of an isolated part of the Scriptures would have carried as much weight as Jesus' response.

Jesus' use of Scripture also condemns a "magical" use of God's Word. By "magical" we refer to the pagan viewpoint that sees the words themselves as having been endowed with supernatural power, so that the mere recitation of such words in spells, incantations, and rites releases power and meaning.

Instead, Jesus' use of Scriptures is intensely rational, indicating His understanding of a rational body of truth that is delivered to mankind through the Word of God, truth that must be applied rationally, in accordance with each specific situation. Rejected, too, is a Gnostic point of view that contends that each piece of Scripture has a meaning that is not carried by the words alone, and that is only obvious to a special, privileged group that possesses access to the "gnosis." Jesus does not shout Scripture and Satan leaves, Jesus commands, "Be gone!" and Satan leaves. But Satan leaves not only because Christ commands Him to, but because Jesus has opposed Satan with the appropriate application of God's Truth to each situation Satan has presented, and thus exposed Satan's suggestions as total folly. And Jesus' logic here is obvious to all, it is not a logic that is available to a select few with special access to God's wisdom.

The Scriptures are rational because God is rational. Further, in all but one case the synoptic Gospels use the Greek perfect tense for the word that we translate "it is written" (gegraptai), which is correctly translated into English, "It has been written and it stands written." The only exception is in Luke, where in response to the last temptation listed, Jesus says, "It is said." Once again, the word translated "it is said" is in the perfect tense, indicating that what God said in the past still stands with the same authority as it did when God first spoke it.[Footnote 2] Thus we have not only an indication of the authority of the Scriptures, but of the continuing authority of the Scriptures. Their authority continues because the God who authored them is alive and unchanging. In Matthew we also see Jesus' commitment to the entire Word of God in the Sermon on the Mount, a commitment that extends to each part, even to each letter, of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17-20, Luke 16:17).

Jesus as Representative of Israel

Jesus' commitment to the Word of God is deeply related to His identity as a Son of Israel. This important truth is underscored in a number of places in the New Testament.

When Jesus was talking with the Samaritan women in John 4, He plainly says, "salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22). In Galatians, Paul writes, "But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5, Matthew 5:17, 1:1-16, Romans 1:3, 9:1-5, 11:26-27). Luke shows us that it was important to Joseph and Mary to fulfill the Law concerning their Son (Luke 2:21-27, 39). When presented at the Temple, Simeon calls Jesus "the glory of Thy people Israel" (Luke 2:32).

It was in the context of the Law of Moses that Jesus challenged His hearers, "Which one of you convicts Me of sin?" (John 8:46), and no one answered this question. It was concerning His interpretation of the Law that His enemies tried, again and again, to trip Him up, and no one was able to.

Paul's words in Galatians 3:13 indicate that Jesus died under the Law, bearing its curse. If He had not, we would not have been delivered from the full obligations of the Law or the full penalty of not abiding by it perfectly (Galatians 3:10-29).

Indeed, it is this Jesus who will inherit the throne of David according to the promise made to Israel through Isaiah (Luke 1:32, Isaiah 9:6-7).

Not only is it important for Jesus to be the second Adam, it is also important for Him to fulfill what Israel failed to perform. Otherwise, not only could He have no moral authority to call Israel back to God (Matthew 15:24, 10:6), He could not die on behalf of Israel instead of simply in place of Israel. Therefore, where Israel failed in its time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus must succeed.

All three Scriptures Jesus quotes against Satan are from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy was Moses' charge to the Israelites before he died and they entered the Promised Land. Deuteronomy contains information about Israel just prior to entrance in to the Promised land and there is a review of the history of Israel in the wilderness. Large parts of Deuteronomy are restatements of the Law, including the Ten Commandments, although there are some new additions. Law and history are restated and emphasized here because the generation that left Egypt died in the wilderness. The Israelites who are about to cross the Jordan are, for the most part, their children, and did not experience many of the events described in the earlier books of Moses, including the giving of the Law. Therefore, Moses writes to remind, summarize, and challenge.

Deuteronomy says, in effect, "Israel, this is what God expects of you."

Deuteronomy contains the Shema, which devout Jews recited at least once each day, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). These words were also written on small pieces of parchment inserted into phylacteries which were worn by devout Jews during times of prayer, and a mezuzah that was mounted on the door frame of the home of the devout Jew. The second part of this was quoted by Jesus as the greatest of all the commandments in the Law (Matthew 22:37).

Moses wrote, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

All of the subsequent history of Israel must be seen in the light of this book. Therefore, Jesus, as a son of Israel, born under the Law, would find the book of Deuteronomy a key part of the Scriptures.

But there is more. A denial of the Law of Moses would be a denial of the mission and the ministry of Christ. Jesus said, "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me . . . Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?" (John 5:39, 45-47).

[1] The author of Hebrews indicates that Jesus was tempted "in all (ways or things or in everything) according to the likeness" (Greek kata panta kath homoiotetah), in which the author uses the second person accusative of Greek word homoiotes. This use of "likeness" indicates that, although the temptations were similar, there was also a difference between the temptations Jesus endured and the ones endured by other men. This difference not only stems from the unique mission of Jesus as Christ, it also stems from His perfect nature. Because He was untouched by the inward corruption of original sin, He could not be tempted by anything that appealed to a perverted character. Nevertheless, the temptations were real and they were like all of the temptations endured by mankind.

[2] Luke uses the Greek word eiremenon to indicate "it is said." This word originally derives from Greek rheo which had fallen out of use in the time of Christ, so that in New Testament times the Greek word eiremenon is generally associated with eipon. The perfect tense translation would be: "it stands in a state as a result of having been said," or to put into more modern language, "it has been said and it is still just as true."

The force of the meaning here is the same as gegraptai used by Matthew for all three of Jesus' reponses and by Luke to the other two, namely, what has been written in the Scriptures has an authority that does not diminish or pass away. The main force of the meaning should not be disregarded in the attempt to understand why Luke changes vocabulary.

However, it is interesting to consider that Luke may have used a different word here because Jesus changed His response slightly to emphasize the Divine origin of the Scripture He quoted. The context of Jesus' response is that Satan had just quoted Scripture to Christ, and in both Matthew and Luke, Satan introduces the Scripture with gegraptai, "it is written." In the Old Testament, the expression "the word of the Lord" was commonly used to describe the Scriptures. Luke may have been indicating that Jesus was responding to Satan, "you have quoted what was written, but I quote to you God's Word as God meant it to be applied when He spoke it."

"The Temptation of Christ" is Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Permission is granted to reprint "The Temptation of Christ" or any portion as long as all copyrights are included, this statement is included, the text is not altered in any way, and the text or reprint is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 23, 1999.