This is a familiar scene to anyone who knows the Gospel, the baptizing and official start of Jesus time of ministry here on earth. Surely the event itself would have been amazing to witness. But, perhaps even more dramatic is the scene that unfolds immediately afterward.
No, in our earthly minds we would assume that, filled with the Spirit of God, Jesus would use this opportunity to launch into a powerful evangelical message, or perhaps perform some miracles. The Jews of his day assumed he would storm the armies of Rome in a triumphant victory against earthly rulers. Surely, Jesus could, at least, have started gathering some disciples, maybe amongst those who were witnesses to his baptism.
If it were up to us, that would have been how the story unfolded; but that is not how God works. While He stays always true to His nature and His promises, He also always manages to act in ways we could never anticipate. Which is at is should be, if we want a true God to serve. If you find yourself becoming more imaginative than your god, then you need to find a bigger god.
So, immediately after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. There are many writings on the purpose of this, and I will not venture to repeat them. But let me pose this: prior to his baptism, Jesus was a carpenter. He was a member of a Jewish household with an occupation and a roof over His head. But now he was about to become a traveling rabbi, with “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
Anyone who has ever taken more than a short walk through the neighborhood knows that there are physical demands to roughing it on the road. There were no tour buses in His time, no public transportation. His vehicle was the body his heavenly Father had given Him. The wilderness was a harsh contrast to his earthly life till then, but it would have been a powerful teacher. Aside from the spiritual implications, it is entirely reasonable that Jesus simply needed some experience of physical endurance to prepare him for what his ministry would entail.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate how long 40 days really is. When is the last time you waited for anything for 40 days? How about for 4 days? 40 minutes? There was really quite a long time where Jesus wandered in the wilderness, sustained and protected by His Father. Long enough to feel secure in His communion with the Father. Long enough to get bored. Long enough to be eager to move into the ministry that was beckoning Him.
Only now, when the flush of excitement from the baptism is long worn off, when whatever temporal sense of commitment and resolution has faded, when all defenses have had time to slack off and become drowsy, when the body starts to demand care and there is no end in sight, this is when Satan begins the temptation. We need to remember this; because it is a pattern we can expect from Satan. He is crafty and without shame; he will wait for the time when we are most vulnerable to strike.
Satan starts with his first and oldest trick – and his most reliable. His first goal is always to question the Word of God, to try to paint God as the liar and himself as the speaker of truth. In the Garden, the words were slightly different: “Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” The lie there is blatant, but the real hook there is in the question. “Hath God said…?” Are you SURE you heard God correctly? Are you sure you heard Him at all? Are you sure you can believe what He said?
The first Adam fell to this trick. So Satan volleys it at the second Adam.
Where is the lie here in the wilderness? It goes back to the chapter before. Just three short verses ago God had declared “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” A more clear and direct statement, issued from heaven itself, could not have been stated. But here is the enemy, contradicting. He does not say “Since you are the Son of God….” He is questioning Jesus’ identity, which the Father had so recently declared. Jesus’ hungry body, in its weakened state, was a vehicle for temptation: but what is at stake here is not bread, but the Bread of Life.
Satan is not challenging Jesus to use His powers of creation to feed Himself. As inappropriate as that would have been, that’s a superficial concern. He is challenging Jesus to justify Himself, to openly question His Father’s words by using His own power to verify the Words of God. He is asking Jesus to add to the Words of God by His own cleverness.
But Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Do you see what Jesus did here? He answered the challenge against the veracity of the Word of God with…..the Word of God. He calls to nothing within Himself. He justifies nothing. He argues nothing. He simply and clearly states the words of His Father. That those words address the correct spiritual principle here—prioritizing the spiritual above the physical—is brilliant. The fact that He replies with Scripture is crucial.
With those words, Jesus undid the fall in Eden. The second Adam replied as the first should have done. Millennia of sin and corruption was turned deftly aside with the ease and authority that the first Adam could have utilized.
With those words, satan’s string of victories over the human heart shattered. A new pattern was being laid out, one that brought us back to where we began.
Confronted with failure, Satan swings right back into action. Mustering his considerable power, he sweeps Jesus off to the highest point of the temple. Perhaps he thinks to intimidate the Son of God with fear for his physical safety. Perhaps he is afraid to wait too long to try again. Never before has he met any man who has withstood his primary course of attack.
The interesting thing about Plan B is that it is essentially the same as Plan A. In this temptation, Satan dares Jesus to use His divine authority in a public demonstration, to satisfy the expectations of the people and to gain admiration for Himself. It is a different hunger that Satan tempts this time, but it is still hunger, and it is still not the deeper issue.
This time, Satan anticipates a Scriptural response; so he attempts to head off the Son of God with a quote of his own. He even consents to quote the Scripture correctly:
Mind you, this psalm does not even remotely suggest that this provision will be granted to those flinging themselves from high places, but the wording Satan uses is essentially correct. But that still isn’t the deeper issue. Look at how he begins: “If thou be the Son of God…”
It’s the same temptation as the bread in the wilderness. He is still attacking the truthfulness of the Father. That he correctly quotes Scripture is of no matter; with that phrase preceding it, he nullifies its effectiveness. We would do well to remember this lesson: the enemy can and does accurately quote Scripture. But he will always quote it in a way that demeans its meaning. The accuser can lay no truthful accusation at a believer’s feet; he can only lash with words. Because Jesus IS the Son of God, and because His victory over Satan was completed on the cross, Satan can never accuse with authority – only with corruption.
So here, again, is a more trumped up version of the first temptation: “Doubt the words of your Father. Here’s Scripture to back up why you should believe me instead of God.”
Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Jesus calmly exposes the discrepancy and says no more, because there is no more to say. God’s Words stand under their own authority, and even the Messiah need not defend them. Again, he answers not with cleverness but with Scripture, leaning on the veracity of God’s Words.
Satan, for the first time in his history as a tempter, is now out of tricks. He has failed twice, and in doing so shows how limited his repertoire really is. In the absence of doubt, Satan’s temptations cannot find a toehold. So, this time, he resorts to the only option Satan has left: he puts on display all the physical wealth within his grasp and begs Jesus to worship him.
Because he has nothing left to do. He has already tried to undermine God’s authority. And he has utterly failed. He began with his most powerful weapon: and bereft of that he is utterly disarmed. Notice, he does not launch into an argument against the reliability of the ancient writings, he doesn’t attack the character of the men who were God’s instruments in recording those writings, he doesn’t appeal to philosophy or science or logic – because they are weaker arguments. He has nothing to fall back on except outright bribery.
And now, for the first and only time, Jesus issues a command:
Now He may answer the challenge and the Accuser directly. Because the question is no longer against God’s absolute authority or nature, now Satan is requesting something that is not his to ask by offering something that is not his to give. Now Jesus can rebuke him without rising to the taunt. Jesus knows precisely how empty this offer is: it is by Himself that all these things were made. Satan has no claim to earthly wealth, so Jesus rebukes him.
And Satan leaves. It’s as simple as that. Satan must obey the command of God when the target of his temptations stands firm on the Word of God. And now the angels may come to attend to Jesus’ needs, provided by the Father in His timing and manner, with no underlying deception to corrupt or to diminish the holiness of the provision.
We need to realize the limitations of Satan’s attacks. He will always do one of two things:
1) Tempt us to doubt in the authority of God’s words, or
2) Offer us something that is not his to give in order to bribe us to follow him.
Of the two, the first is by far the strongest; because if he can shake our faith in the veracity of an absolute God, then he can twist our thinking into the same greed and pride that evicted him from heaven. In our fallen state, we are easily bribed if we have already succumbed to the seductive idea that we are wiser than God.
But on the authority of God and by our faith in His certainties, we have everything we need to withstand satanic attacks. Jesus set for us a new pattern: first, we rest in the strength of our relationship with God, knowing that He is immeasurably good and kind and trustworthy. Second, we wait for His timing and provision, trusting that He will never forsake us. And third, when the time is right we have authority through Jesus to rebuke the enemy; and the enemy must always flee before a well-timed rebuke: