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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 3

Satan tempts Jesus in the desert

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 4:1-13
Mark 1:12-13
Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus spends 40 days in the desert. A biblical perspective of Satan is given. The 3 temptations are real but Jesus uses scripture, Holy Spirit and angels to overcome them. We have the same resources today.

Jesus spends 40 days in the desert. A biblical perspective of Satan is given. The 3 temptations are real but Jesus uses scripture, Holy Spirit and angels to overcome them. We have the same resources today.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 3. This is the episode in which 'Satan Tempts Jesus in the Desert'. We're going to take up the story from Luke's account in Luke 4, at the beginning of that chapter.

Introduction and Recap

Let's set the scene for a moment by going back to things that happened in the episodes leading up to where we are now. First of all, in Episode 1, we looked at the way that John the Baptist started preaching and baptising down by the Jordan - calling people to a life of repentance. He caused quite a sensation in Israel. He attracted huge crowds; he preached that they should change their lives and it provoked a tremendously strong response with many people being very touched by John's message and feeling that something important was happening. He was pointing the way to the coming of Jesus and as we described in the last episode (Episode 2 of Series 2) Jesus then came down to be baptised by John - which was a rather surprising event; John wanted it to be the other way round with Jesus baptising him but Jesus said, “No, we must fulfil all righteousness.” In other words, “We must obey what God wants.” He identified with the human sinful condition by being baptised in the water. If you read that episode, you'll remember that there was a remarkable, miraculous sign as soon as Jesus came up from the water: the Holy Spirit came down on him in power, as represented by the form of a dove which could be seen visibly. Then, audibly, people could hear a voice - as if from nowhere, as if from the clouds - speaking, and it was God the Father identifying Jesus as his Son and saying that he was well pleased in him. That's what happened in the immediate period before this event.

Jesus' Preparation for His Ministry

Jesus, in going down to the Jordan, was very consciously putting himself in the public domain for the first time. This was the beginning of his public ministry - thousands of people would have seen him there; thousands of people would have seen the baptism and the dove, and heard the voice what John said as he clearly indicated that this was the Messiah (and John was going to continue to say that for some time to come, as we'll see in subsequent episodes). From that point what was going to happen next? The thing that one might have expected to happen is that Jesus would just start going round preaching, teaching, healing, and delivering people from evil powers - the things that we see him doing for a long time through all the Gospels and is described in great detail. We would have thought that would have happened immediately: he's ready to go; he was equipped; he was commissioned; he was called; he'd declared his hand; and he was in the public domain. What was to stop him? Something very surprising happens, when you think of it from the point of view of the likely development. Something that we need to reflect on very carefully because there was another step that was necessary. The stakes were very high in what Jesus was intending to do in launching his mission and bringing salvation to the world (dying on the cross, rising again from the dead in due course) and he was not without real opposition and enemies - and not all of those enemies were human enemies.

This is the context for our reading and this topic. We're going to read in Luke 4: 1- 13. There's a parallel account in Matthew's Gospel which you can access as well - but we're going to take the story as Luke describes it:

‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.’

Luke 4:1-13, NIV

This story raises a number of very important questions and some important perspectives too. Let's start with considering the significance of the Holy Spirit. It's very noticeable at the beginning, that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness and Jesus was ‘full of the Spirit’. The fact he ended up in this difficult situation wasn't an accident; it was part of a divine plan. The wilderness was a particular area of southern Israel, Judah, called the Judean Wilderness. It was a localised semi-desert area that was very close to the River Jordan - the same area where John the Baptist had spent a lot of time before his ministry had gone public (as we discussed in a previous episode). It was quite a short distance from the River Jordan. Jesus could enter into the Judean wilderness area (quite a hilly area, a lot of remote places, and a dry area, of course) where he would experience this remarkable temptation. It is interesting that Luke says at the beginning that he was ‘full of the Spirit’ when he went into the desert and he came out of the desert (in Luke 4: 14) ‘in the power of the Spirit’. So there's something divinely significant about why Jesus had to go there.

Biblical Perspective of Satan

Luke, innocently, introduces a character to the narrative - a spiritual being, the devil, without any significant explanation. To us in the 21st century, for some people listening to this, you might think, ‘Well, actually, this needs quite a lot of explanation!’ Some people in today's world don't believe in any personal deity or God or any personal incarnation of evil at all. Some people feel more comfortable describing evil as a kind of impersonal force - a dark force - that affects humanity and some people just see evil as human nature gone wrong and we have the capacity as humans, having gone wrong morally, to do some very evil and terrible things to one another. People have a variety of different views but Luke picks up a biblical view that's well established in the Old Testament and continues in the rest of the New Testament. Let's sketch out what that means, in case we're not familiar with it.

The Bible describes an original creation in Genesis, at the beginning, that was perfect and that functioned in a perfect way. It describes early mankind as living in a perfect paradise in perfect relationship with God and then describes a spiritual being, represented by the form of a snake, infiltrating that world and corrupting mankind and turning them away from God. As the rest of the Old Testament unfolds, we find indications that God not only created the heaven and the earth but created spiritual beings (not humans, or any of the organic creatures in this world) called angels who worshipped him and served him in the heavenly world and that some of these rebelled against God in the same way that, later on, humanity was to rebel against him. The leader of those rebelling angels is named in the Bible - Satan, or the devil, and there are other names as well. We're talking about a personal being and many other personal beings with him - demonic forces - that are entirely hostile to God, fixed in their hostility against him and against any of his purposes, particularly his purposes to redeem mankind, to save mankind, to offer grace and love to mankind, and to bring mankind into relationship with him. These evil forces don't make a big appearance in the Bible; they just appear from time to time. They're not the main characters. The focus isn't on them but when they appear, they appear entirely hostile to the purposes of God.

With all that in mind, it's no real surprise that at this particular point the devil, Satan himself, makes an appearance to Jesus and seeks to communicate with him and to steer him away from his determined purpose. I think the strategy of the demonic forces here is to prevent the mission of Jesus from the very beginning; to abort the mission by diverting Jesus away from the right approach and the right action. This is the biblical perspective and we'll see some more evidence of it as we study the Gospels (and if you study the letters or the New Testament or the book of Revelation and elsewhere) you'll find plenty of evidence of these spiritual forces - although we know that their power is defeated through the cross of Jesus, and we'll allude to that later on when we see what Jesus says about Satan being overturned by his death on the cross.

Real Temptation

Jesus was tempted and we have to understand that temptation as a real one. Jesus, in his humanity, was vulnerable to thinking or doing the wrong thing. The fact is, he never did and that's because of the divine nature of Jesus as well but the feelings of vulnerability and the thoughts of doing something that could be different from God's will were undoubtedly genuine and real and are referred to in the Bible in a number of different places, as if they are very real events. The period of time that Jesus is in the wilderness is about six weeks, 40 days, and he is going without food during this time. This is remarkable. The human body can only sustain about six weeks worth of total fasting and abstinence from food without some negative effects on the body so this is an endurance test of significant proportions; not only is he doing without food, he's in a hostile environment - both in terms of the physical geography of it and also in terms of the spiritual environment, with satanic forces ranged against him.

I want to reflect, for a moment, on the pressure of the wilderness. Jesus is away from his customary support in his family and his home in Nazareth. He's away from the big exciting experience of being with John the Baptist, down by the River Jordan, and his baptism and the remarkable appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of his Father. He's away from the worshipping community of the synagogue in Nazareth, which he was familiar with. He's away from home comforts and so he's vulnerable, in a human sense.

Resources to Overcome Temptation

Jesus has a number of resources. Let's think about what resources he had with him. You'll notice that in the temptation process he uses biblical quotations from the Old Testament - they happen to be from the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6 and chapter 8) which are used to counteract the things that are suggested to him. Jesus wouldn't be able to use that resource unless he had actually memorised the text - and that's a remarkable thought! We'll ponder on that for a moment: his number one resource, humanly speaking, was his acquaintance with the knowledge of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and also his memorisation of it. The Jews were very skilful and experienced at memorising a biblical text - it's not a skill that's so well developed in the modern world - and so he could draw on his knowledge of the Word of God to help him. We'll come back to that point later on.

He also had, of course, the presence of the Holy Spirit - after all he was ‘full of’ the Holy Spirit - and so that tells us that the strength within him came from the divine presence of the Spirit, rather than his human strength which was at a very minimal point at this moment in his life.

He could pray to his Father. Mark 1: 13, makes a passing reference to the fact that while he was in the wilderness ‘angels attended to him’ - angels attended him. That, too, is very remarkable and Mark doesn't describe this experience in any detail but he makes that particular point that God's angels were present with Jesus.

Three Temptations

He experienced these three perplexing temptations. The first one is obvious: he's hungry and the devil suggests to him that he can turn the stones of the wilderness into bread. The fact that Jesus had the power to do that is not in doubt, in fact we have the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and then a similar one, the feeding of the 4000, where he multiplies bread in an astonishing way - a miracle not dissimilar to what is being suggested here. The fact that Jesus might have the power to create food that he needs miraculously is not really in doubt. What is under question is whether he should do that at this particular moment. He quotes, “It's written man shall not live on bread alone.” The context here, in the book of Deuteronomy, is a reflection on the fact that by obedience to God he provided the children of Israel with miraculous bread, called manna, for 40 years while they were in the wilderness. Jesus was being tempted to put human needs above obedience to God's specific commands; he was being tempted to avoid the fact that self-denial is a part of the godly (what we now call Christian) life. That's a thought that we need to hold, we'll come back to thinking about things related to that in a moment.

Then the devil led him to a high place and showed him the geography of the area and suggested to him, falsely, that this all belonged to the devil and he could hand it over to Jesus - give him glory and splendour - if he would just worship the devil. This is, basically, offering him another way to authority and glory. The way that Jesus had chosen, through his Father's intention and the intention of the Trinity, was to suffer, to die, to take the place of humanity (which we discussed before), to be raised again from the dead and to find glory in heaven again, having given up all power on this earth and taken the path of a servant. The devil suggests the opposite, saying, “You don't have to be a servant, you can just be a king now. You know I've got the power, I can just give it to you.” Worshipping power and self-importance is a temptation, particularly for those for whom the possibility exists, but Jesus resisted that very clearly. He knew the way he had to go, he knew it was a very difficult path and he knew that he couldn't go the way that was being suggested by the devil.

Jesus then went to the Temple in Jerusalem (so he went out of the wilderness, into the capital city nearby, and into the Temple; then up to a high point on the Temple building - known as the pinnacle) and the devil suggested to him that he throw himself down because, misquoting the context of a particular Psalm, he suggested that God would rescue him if he did that just to create a sensation or to create popularity. This is a real tussle going on here. It's a real battle between a spiritual opponent who wants to do everything in his power to prevent Jesus pursuing the course of action that his mission required. I think the devil knew that this would be a great defeat for him if Jesus died on the cross, because it would open the way to salvation to countless millions of people - including many of us, hopefully all of us, reading this 2000 years later. This Word of God, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross, is spreading across the world and I'm doing this in order to allow the Word to go even further, to every part of the world. I'm following on with the commission given to the Early Church to spread the Word because a great victory was achieved on the cross and the satanic forces cannot prevent people, if they choose, coming into the Kingdom of God and finding real salvation - in this life and in eternity.

The stakes were high at this particular time, but Jesus was completely steadfast. He was patient in these 40 days. He was willing to undergo self-denial. He was focused on obedience. He used the resources he had: the help of angels, praying to his Father, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the memory of the Scriptures and his understanding of God's will through them. He had some considerable resources. It's a remarkable story - a sobering story. A rather awkward story, in a way, because we want to get on to see what Jesus actually does in his ministry but before he gets started, the devil comes and does everything he can to divert him from the task but Jesus shows his complete obedience to his Father and complete resistance to any of the temptations that the devil would bring. It says at the end that the devil will come back ‘at an opportune time’ to continue his attack.


I want to offer some final reflections, so that we can gain something helpful for ourselves from this particular passage. First of all, I want to say to you that these temptations were a very real human experience for Jesus. Although his divine nature ensured that he wouldn't succumb to temptation and fall into sin, his humanity felt the draw of these things in some measure. One obvious dimension of this is he was hungry and he had the power to solve the problem of hunger. You and I know what it is to feel hungry and you and I know what it is to make an effort to find some food, to buy some food in the shop, to go home and get some food, to look for food when you're hungry - it's a powerful driving force for us. That driving force was felt by Jesus and he felt the power of temptation though he did not succumb in any measure at all. This leads us to a wider consideration, or reflection, for ourselves because we're different from Jesus in one fundamental respect - we have a sinful, selfish human nature. Temptation is a real issue for us; temptation to do things, say things, think things, act in ways that are contrary to our Christian faith.

I want to pause and talk a little bit around this before coming back, finally, to this text again - just to take the theme a little bit beyond the immediate context and learn a couple of things which I think will be helpful. I'm going to read to you, briefly, from James 1: 13 - 15:

‘When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.’

James 1:13-15, NIV

In this passage, James describes for us the fact that temptation doesn't come from God. We see that very clearly in the account of Jesus' temptation. It didn't come from his Father. It didn't come from God; it came from the devil. Temptation, in this passage, is described as being based on our own evil desire - on our sinful nature - our sinfulness gives a possibility of us drifting away from the truth. You and I know that; this is our common experience. God doesn't tempt us, but he uses testing times and the temptation we experience - from our own inner self, from other people or from spiritual forces - to strengthen our character. There's a certain sense in which that was what was happening in the humanity of Jesus during the temptation in the wilderness - he was being strengthened. The word for ‘temptation’ can sometimes be translated ‘tested’. It's a testing process. The Christian life has many testing experiences - and you'll be very familiar with that if you are a Christian. Jesus himself had this very testing experience; it strengthened him - it gave his human nature, his human experience, something that shaped his ability to deal with tough issues in the future. He'd dealt with a very tough issue right here at the beginning. When we're going through testing times, when we're tempted to give up or to go into a way of life that is just not consistent with our faith, we should remember that God isn't tempting us, but he will use that experience to strengthen us if we put our trust in him.

One other thing about temptation that I think we need to say at this particular point to clarify what we're talking about, is based on 1 Peter 5: 8 and 9:

‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in (your) faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.’

1 Peter 5:8-9, NIV

It's not just Jesus who faced a satanic opponent. The Church faces satanic forces as well and so there is a battle to be won. As you're reading this, many of you will know what that battle is in your own life and I want to encourage you to use this talk as a decisive resource to help you, and as a means of giving you faith to overcome significant tests that you may face. It may be to do with finance, it may be to do with health and personal circumstances, or the desire to enter into a wrong relationship or something in the area of sexual morality, or something in the area of illegal activities and addictions. Maybe you're tempted to give up on your active Christian faith, maybe you're tempted to not identify yourself as a Christian anymore - there could be any number of things but we usually know exactly what our battles are and so it doesn't need me to persuade you of that. One very important verse to help you - and this is one of the most important things I want to say in this session: 1 Corinthians 10:13, says something very significant about temptation and testing. It says,

‘No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.’

1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV

When difficulty and temptation comes, God wants to help you find a way through. Just like God the Father wanted his Son, Jesus, to find a way through those forty difficult days in the wilderness with the devil tempting him. Angels came and ministered to him; the Father, no doubt, spoke to him; the Scriptures came to mind; the fullness of the Holy Spirit gave him inner strength when his body was weak because of fasting - and so there is a way out of temptation. Later on we'll be studying how Jesus taught us to pray - what we commonly call the Lord's Prayer - and this contains a famous phrase which we can pray. I pray this prayer almost every day, because I use the Lord's prayer virtually every day of my life. I pray through the phrases and one phrase says ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’. Jesus was delivered from evil in the wilderness and we've just read the story of how that happened. That's remarkable! God's power: God the Father's power, God the Son's power, and God the Holy Spirit's power all work together in a wonderful way and Jesus was redeemed; he didn't fall into that temptation. We should, and must, pray ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ - in other words, shield us from temptation and from falling into Satan's trap.

As I conclude this study, I want to appeal to you: if you know in your life there's a battle on and you've fallen into temptation, or into some kind of deception, and you're suddenly realising you're heading in the wrong direction - things are not going as they should be - can I suggest that you pray this prayer and that you read this text again and you ask God to help you. God the Father helped his Son to resist temptation in those forty days in the wilderness and God the Father is committed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help his children today to resist temptation and be delivered from evil.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness - it was planned by God. Can you remember an experience that when you look back you can see was part of God’s plan for your life? Ask God to give you the strength to go through difficult experiences.
    2. What do you believe about Satan? Is that the same as the bible?
  • Discipleship
    1. Jesus was being tempted to put human needs above God’s commands. Can you think of times when you might do that?
    2. How did Jesus overcome the temptations? Do you have the same resources?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How might temptation be useful in a believer's life?
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