QUESTION: Why was Jesus led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil?
ANSWER: The temptation of Christ by Satan is described in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, as well as being summarized briefly in Mark 1:12-13.
You ask why the Lord Jesus was tempted. Certainly God had a purpose in it, as we shall see. But so did the devil. I’m sure he wasn’t certain what he was dealing with. The incarnation was a new thing, and utterly unique. That “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), that God the Son could become Man, is a great mystery.
Did it mean He had become something less that God? No, it didn’t–but perhaps Satan didn’t know that. What if, as Man, the Lord was less powerful? What if the devil could defeat Him, hinder the work of God, and prevent the salvation of multitudes of people? The devil was experiencing temptation too, arising from his own wicked heart!
Notice the devil’s three “if’s” in Matthew 4, verses 3, 6, and 9. And see how, each time a temptation comes, the Lord Jesus defends Himself from the attack by quoting from the Word of God.
1) “If You are the Son of God?” (vs. 3). Satan questioned Christ’s identity. “If You are who You claim to be, You should have the power to meet your own needs–by turning these stones into bread.”
Of course Christ was fully able to do that, but He would only act in such a way if it was the Father’s will (vs. 4; quoting Deut. 8:3). It’s the same for us. We should not act to please ourselves in something outside God’s Word and will.
2) “If You are the Son of God” (vs. 6), again questioning Christ’s identity, but this time suggesting, “If You are whom You claim to be, then God the Father should be willing to protect and care for you.” In essence, "If You are committed to doing Your Father's will, surely He will act to protect You."
But this would have involved a frivolous demand upon the Father’s care, a “tempting” of God. It would be like us walking out in the traffic on a busy street just to prove God can protect us--something we already know, by faith. This Jesus refused to do (vs. 7, quoting Deut. 6:16).
Before we move on, notice that the devil quotes Scripture here (Ps. 91:11-12). The passage assures us that nothing can touch the life of one who trusts in the Lord apart from His will. And when there is a need, He will send His angels to guard and protect us (vs. 11; cf. Heb. 1:14).
Incidentally, the Bible records a literal fulfilment of the promise, “A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you” (vs. 7). After Israel’s fierce battle with the Midianites, the army’s officers reported to Moses, “Your servants have taken a count of the men of war who are under our command, and not a man of us is missing” (Num. 31:49).
Satan likely knows Scripture better than we do, and he’s ready to twist it to serve his own malicious purpose. However, as many of cults do, he lifts Scripture out of its context (the surrounding verses) to do it. It’s very interesting that he stops his quotation with Psalm 91:12.
The next verse says, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra, The young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot” (vs. 13). Satan in Scripture is pictured both as a lion (I Pet. 5:8), and a serpent (Rev. 12:9), and an early promise to Adam and Eve declares that the seed (descendant) of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Thus, the devil avoided a verse that points to his own doom!
3) “If You will fall down and worship me” (vs. 9)–there the devil boldly assumes Christ is not who He claims to be, nor can He count on the Father’s help. That His only recourse is to adopt a new god, Satan himself! The Lord turns this temptation aside also (vs. 10, referring to Deut. 10:20).
Indeed the Lord will one day rule over the kingdoms of the world. But His exaltation to reign will come from God the Father, not Satan. “Ask of Me,” God says, “and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession” (Ps. 2:8; cf. Dan. 7:13-14).
Further, the assumption of His throne will come in the Father’s time. Something very important had to happen first. The cross lay in between. This was a temptation to take a short-cut to Christ’s reign, without going through the agony of the cross. But if that had happened, we could not be saved.
We too can sometimes try to hurry the accomplishment of a goal, or try to short-circuit the Lord’s plan, and not have the patience to await His timing (cf. Jn. 6:15; 12:24). Before the summit, there comes the struggle of the climb. As poet John Donne put it:
No pain, no palm;
No thorns, no throne;
No gall, no glory;
No cross, no crown.
The temptation of Christ was part of God’s purpose for Him. He was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (vs. 1). Mark uses an even stronger word. “the Spirit drove Him [thrust Him forcefully] into the wilderness” (Mk. 1:12). Why?
For one thing, as Man, Jesus provides an example for us of how to deal with temptation. We are to "resist" the devil’s lies and destructive promptings (I Pet. 5:8-9), by turning instead to the truth of the Word of God, and trusting in what He has said.
Also, we are assured that in His temptation Christ was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Christ’s victory over the devil is an evidence of who He is. But it’s also a great reassurance to us that He will understand what we are going through, when we call upon Him to help us (Heb. 4:14-16). “In that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
Matt. 4:13 says the devil departed from Christ, but Luke adds, “When the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” (Lk. 4:13). He looked for another opportunity to attack, and it wasn’t long in coming.
Victorious over the temptations, the Lord Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14). In Nazareth, He entered the synagogue, and taught the people (vs. 17-27). But His teaching so angered His hearers that they “thrust Him out of the city” and tried to throw Him off a cliff (vs. 28-29).
Jesus, perhaps miraculously, simply walked through the midst of the crowd and went on His way (vs. 30). But the similarity if the incident to the second temptation recorded in Matthew suggests the devil was behind this attack. However, in it all Christ won the victory!
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).
And His resurrection, His final conquest over death and the grave, assures us of our ultimate victory too. “But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Cor. 15:23).