The Temptation of Christ: Why?

I’m not simply referring to the reason why God allowed Christ to be tempted. I’m also querying God included the account of Christ’s temptation in the Bible. According to John’s Gospel, 20:30, Christ did many significant things in His lifetime that are not recorded in Scripture. Apparently, the Holy Spirit moved the writers of Scripture to record those events which were most necessary for the salvation of sinners and edification of the church. Since three of the four Gospel writers include the temptation of Christ in their gospel presentation (see Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), there must be a good reason!

That leads us to inquire: Why did the Holy Spirit see fit to incorporate this incident into God’s written Word? What are God’s aims in revealing to us the temptation of Christ? I want to suggest at least two:

The Perfect Pattern

God wanted to provide His people with a pattern, so that they can better understand and respond to the temptations they face. In a previous study, we highlighted how Jesus is the perfect example for successfully resisting temptation.1 We can be sure, therefore, that God gave us this portion of Scripture, so that we might follow in Jesus’ steps.

Moreover, this passage of Scripture teaches us about our enemy.  It brings us face to face with the Tempter himself.  It reveals his character as a deceiver and destroyer. It reveals his stratagems and schemes. And it reveals his limitations and errors.

Furthermore, this passage also helps us to better understand the nature of temptation itself. What do temptations look like? In what form do they appear? Why do they sometimes seem legitimate? By what means can they be resisted? These and other questions are addressed by this passage.

Therefore, as we approach this passage, we can be sure God has something to teach us about the temptations we face. When we study this account, we ought to be crying out to God with the Psalmist, “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your Law and keep it with all my heart” (Ps 119:34).

The Promised Savior

Remember that the burden of Matthew’s Gospel is to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the Savior of the world. How does Matthew attempt to prove that point?

First, in chapters 1 and 2, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus’ ancestral origins, physical origins, and geographical origins identify Him as the Messiah. Then, in chapter 3, Matthew brings two more witnesses to the stand: John the Baptist points to Jesus as the promised Messiah (3:1-12) and God the Father speaks from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, and He declares, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (3:13-17). Finally, here in chapter 4, Matthew is going to call Jesus’ archenemy to the witness stand—the devil. And note what the devil thinks about Jesus:

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God [note that this is a first-class conditional statement and could be translated, “Since you are the Son of God”], command that these stones be made bread” (Matt 4:3).

And [the devil] saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God [again, a first-class condition—”Since you are the Son of God”], cast thyself down…” (Matt 4:6).

As one commentator points out, “the first-class conditional clause … does not imply any doubt upon the devil’s part (cf. Jas 2:19). Rather, what is in doubt is what type of Son Jesus will be.”2 In other words, the Devil does not question Jesus’ true sonship. But he does question whether Jesus will be a faithful Son of God.

That leads us to real theological significance of this passage: Jesus proves that He is God true Son and the promised Messiah by successful resisting the devil’s temptation.

Now at this point we need to do a little Biblical theology and reflect upon two other incidents recorded in Scripture that are analogous to the ordeal of Christ’s temptation. If you think back to earlier stages of redemptive history, you should recall that God had two other sons who went through similar temptations, but who, unlike Jesus, failed to overcome. Matthew has already alluded to one of them back in 2:15.

The Nation Israel as God’s Firstborn Son (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15)

Israel, like Christ, was led by God into the wilderness. Israel, like Christ, was hungry in the wilderness. Israel, like Christ, was tempted in the wilderness by the devil to question God’s goodness and to doubt His providence.  And from God’s perspective, He was testing Israel to see whether the nation would be faithful. Moses calls attention to this ordeal in Deuteronomy 8:1-3:

All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers. And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

Unfortunately, Israel did not pass the test. Unfortunately, Israel did not learn the lesson. But if you’ll look at verses 3 and 4 of our passage, God had another Son who did pass the test and learn the lesson:

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

Obviously, Jesus Himself sees a parallel between His temptation and the temptations Israel faced in the wilderness. In fact, the two other texts, which Christ quotes in his battle against the devil, are also taken from Deuteronomy and are also dealing with Israel’s temptations in the wilderness. So there is a clear parallel between the nation Israel and Christ. They both as sons of God were tested in the wilderness. The difference being that whereas the first Israel failed, the second Israel succeeded.

This is precisely the point Matthew wants his Jewish readers to see! At the very point where they had failed to prove their sonship, Jesus of Nazareth succeeded. He proved himself to be the ideal Israel—He was everything God intended Israel to be. Therefore, Jesus possessed all the qualifications to be Israel’s Messiah and Savior from sin.

But it gets even better! God had another son whose experience parallels that of Jesus. To see this we need to consider Luke’s account of the temptation of Christ (Luke 4:1-13). Luke does something in his Gospel, which at first appears odd. He inserts Christ’s genealogy between His baptism and His temptation. We have the baptism in 3:21-22, then the genealogy in 3:23-38, and finally the temptation in 4:1-13. Matthew began his Gospel with a genealogy, but Luke waits until this point in the narrative. Why does Luke preface Christ’s temptation with His genealogy?

I think that answer is found in the last verse of the genealogy. Luke starts with Jesus of Nazareth in verse 23 and then goes back in time all the way to verse 38, where he identifies Jesus as “the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.”

The First Adam as God’s Firstborn Son (Gen 5:1, 2; Luke 3:38)

Adam, like Christ, was tested by God and tempted by the devil. Had Adam successfully resisted the devil and passed the test, he would have been confirmed as God’s faithful son—both he and his posterity. But as the Scriptures testify and as a cursed world bears witness, Adam miserably failed the test. He succumbed to the devil’s temptation; he became a prodigal son-an alienated son; and by his disobedience, he plunged the whole world into sin and misery.

But there’s good news! There is a second Adam. He too will be tested and tempted. But, whereas the first Adam failed, resulting in condemnation, the second Adam succeeded, resulting in salvation. As the Apostle Paul declares:

For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous (Rom 5:19).

Conclusion

Now do you understand why God has revealed to us the temptation of Christ? God wants the Jews and the whole world to see that where Adam and Israel failed, Jesus Christ has succeeded. Jesus is the ultimate Adam and the ultimate Israel. He is the long awaited promised Seed who would crush the head of the serpent. And as the New Testament writers unfold this awesome conflict between the Son of God and His archenemy, the devil, God wants you and me to witness the Lord Jesus begin to place his heal upon Satan’s head in order to put an end to sin and death.

Doesn’t that make you want to shout, “Hallelujah, what a Savior”!

Furthermore, doesn’t that convince you of the unity and inspiration of the Bible! Take an anthology of English literature and what do you have? You have a collection of various kinds of literature written over several hundred years by various kinds of people about various kinds of subjects. In fact, sometimes the viewpoint of one author may diametrically oppose the viewpoint of another author. However, here we have a collection of 66 books written over a period of 1500 years. And yet, all of those books are amazingly woven together in order to preach one story—Paradise Lost By Adam and Paradise Regained By Christ.

That’s the story of the Bible, and that’s also the story of Christ’s temptation!

B.G.

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  1. See “Impeccable or Peccable? Jesus Resisting Temptation as the Second Adam.” []
  2. Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Broadman & Holman, 1992), 84. []
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