Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my family and those whom God loves:
Following His Baptism where Jesus takes upon himself the curse of our sin, Jesus is then “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). This is the same Spirit whom Jesus had received at his baptism (Matthew 3:16) and who now leads him to face off against the devil, whose name means “slanderer” and in v.3 will be called the tempter; the one who is our enemy also and the source of all temptation.
The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, a place associated with demons (Matthew 12:43) and the same place where many centuries earlier Israel also wandered for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2). In that wilderness Israel was tested by God and over and over again they fell to various temptations (Exodus 22:15; 20:20). As part of God’s eternal plan, God now sends His only Son into the same wilderness to be tempted in the same ways. The devil is the tempter, not God, and through this series of temptations Satan is used by God to reveal His coming victory over Satan. As true man, Jesus experienced genuine temptation and yet as true God, for our salvation, He overcame every temptation without sinning (Hebrews 4:15).
And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry (4:2). Paralleling the hunger of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16:3; 24:18), Jesus is set up for the devil’s first temptation which is focused on one of those basic human needs: food. The temptation is not only framed in terms of the opportunity to miraculously fill Jesus own hunger, but also the physical hunger of others: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3). Later on, after being fed by Jesus the people wanted to make him their king because of the physical bread he offered them (John 6:15). Jesus would walk away from this temptation also.
The devil’s temptation also puts into question what God the Father had declared at Jesus’ baptism: If you are the Son of God… (Matthew 3:17). In this temptation the devil appears to challenge Jesus to repeat the same miracle God performed in the wilderness. “If God miraculously provided manna for Israel why don’t you?”
Jesus’ response to this temptation is based on Deuteronomy 8:3 and he says: “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Three times (4:7,10) Jesus draws his defense from God’s Word. In this case, Jesus is quoting Moses’ explanation to Israel of why God had let them hunger in the wilderness. Using this quote Jesus reminds Satan that life does not depend on food alone but on the Word of God. Rather than exhibit his own glory by performing a miracle Jesus trusts in the Word of his Father.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple (4:5). Each of these temptations leave us with the impression that the devil is in charge, but this is only an illusion. Instead, it is the same Spirit who filled Jesus at his baptism and led him into the wilderness who now sustains him in this time of temptation.
The temptation takes place in Jerusalem, at the highest point of the temple where the devil says: “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, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (4:6). The devil once again questions Jesus’ relationship to God (If you are…) and challenges him to risk his own life to prove his loyalty. However, this temptation is based on a misuse of the Scriptures, with the devil quoting only part of Psalm 91:11-12 to support his temptation while conveniently leaving out “in all your ways.”
Jesus’ response to the devil is to return to the Scriptures as they accurately speak: Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (4:7). This verse is part of Moses’ warning to Israel against testing God as they had done at Massah (Exodus 17:2– 7). Whereas Israel had tested and sinned against the Lord by questioning whether he was with them, Jesus did not deem it necessary to prove God’s power by jumping from the temple pinnacle in an attempt to gain personal glory and fame.
The devil is down two strikes and Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (4:8). From the vantage point of this unidentified mountain top the devil tempts Jesus with power over all the kingdoms of the world. It appears a ridiculous temptation to the Son of God who already holds power, and yet to the human side of Jesus, this might had some attraction. The devil says to Jesus ,“All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Although Satan has some dominion in this world (Colossians 1:13; 1 John 5:19), what he has to offer is not his to give. Satan is demanding that the Son of God worship him rather than do His Father’s will.
Jesus’ response is authoritative and on the mountain top he offers the devil the pinnacle command: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (4:10). Here Jesus not only shows the devil his true authority as the Son of God but in this third quotation from Scripture he draws on similar words to what Moses used to admonish Israel for their fear, calling them to serve the Lord rather than idols when they enter the Promised Land. This was none other than the First Commandment!
Having struck out, the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him (4:11). This would be Christ’s first victory, but not his last challenge or his final victory which would come later in his death on the cross.
The end of this story reveals the toll that this time in the wilderness, of fasting and temptation had taken upon the human Jesus. Jesus was exhausted and hungry and now miraculously, the angels come to serve him and minister to his human needs.
To summarize: The devil tempts Jesus to seek His own glory. Jesus refuses this path in order to walk the way of the cross. In love, He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6– 8). He did all this for the sake of Israel, who had failed God’s test. He did all this for our sake, because we, too, have failed God’s test. Jesus is our substitute who defeated Satan for us, setting us free from sin, death, and the devil’s power.
Prayer: Mighty Lord, though devils fill the world, we do not fear because You have won the victory. Amen.
The following hymn captures the essence of the Gospel text: “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” (LSB 418):
O Lord, throughout these forty days
you prayed and kept the fast;
inspire repentance for our sin,
and free us from our past.
You strove with Satan, and you won;
your faithfulness endured;
lend us your nerve, your skill and trust
in God’s eternal word.
Though parched and hungry, yet you prayed
and fixed your mind above;
so teach us to deny ourselves
that we may know God’s love.
Be with us through this season, Lord,
and all our earthly days,
that when the final Easter dawns,
we join in heaven’s praise.
Grace be with you,