Before the Lord Jesus presented Himself to Israel as the promised King, He must needs pass through a period of testing, which He did for forty days. He met Satan, the strong man armed, and bound him before He began His public ministry and went forth to spoil his (Satan’s) goods.
Why was Jesus tempted? And, being tempted, was there a possibility that He might have sinned, and so jeopardized or annulled the whole plan of redemption? These are questions asked often, and it behooves us to be able to give scriptural answers concerning them.
If we would be clear in our thinking as to this, we must remember that while our Lord was, and is, both human and divine, He is not two persons, but one. Personally He is God the Eternal Son who took humanity into union with His Deity in order to redeem sinful men. He has therefore two natures, the divine and the human, but He remains just one person. Therefore, as Man here on earth He could not act apart from His Deity. Those who maintain that He might have sinned may well ask themselves, “What then would have been the result?” To say that as Man He might have failed in His mission is to admit the amazing and blasphemous suggestion that His holy divine nature could become separated from a denied human nature and so the incarnation prove a farce and a mockery. But if we realize that He who was both God and Man in one person was tempted, not to see if He would (or could) sin, but to prove that He was the sinless One, all is clear. The temptation was real, but it was all from without, as Adam’s was in the beginning. But Adam was only an innocent man, whereas Jesus, the last Adam, was the Lord from heaven, who had become Man without ceasing to be God—in order that He might be our Kinsman-Redeemer (Lev. 25:48). The temptation and His attitude toward it proved that He was not a sinful Man, either in nature or in act, and He could therefore take our penalty upon Himself and bear the curse of the broken law for others—because He was not under that curse Himself. Scripture tells us definitely that He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21); He “did no sin” (1 Peter 2:22); “in him is no sin” (1 John 3:5). He could say, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30). There was no lurking traitor within to answer to the voice of the enemy without. He was tempted as we are, sin apart (Heb. 4:15, literal rendering), that is, there was no sin within to tempt Him. From the moment of His birth, He was holy, not merely innocent (Luke 1:35).
The temptation of Jesus took place, if we may trust tradition, on Mount Quarantania, west of the Jordan, across from Jericho, a very forbidding and desolate wilderness. It followed His baptism almost immediately, in the early part of A.D. 27, shortly before the Passover.
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” (v. 1). As the perfect Man, Jesus was ever subject to the Spirit’s control. Mark tells us the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). He was impelled to go, for it was imperative that His holiness be demonstrated from the very beginning of His ministry. Temptation is really testing. He was tested by Satan, that evil personality who is the foe of God and man. It was he who tested Adam the first and found him wanting. Now he must needs be overcome by the last Adam, the Second Man (1 Cor. 15:45, 47).
“And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungred” (v. 2). Jesus fasted for the full period of testing—forty days. It was not until all this was over that He is said to have become hungry. Then, in the hour of nature’s weakness, came the tempter, endeavoring to overcome Him. The tests were threefold: the appeal to the body, the soul, and the spirit; involving the desires of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, or the ostentation, or vainglory, of living. The order of the temptation is different in Matthew and in Luke. Matthew evidently gives the three points in their historical order, taking them exactly as they occurred. Luke gives the moral order, in accordance with 1 John 2:16. Thus the first appeal was to appetite, the desire of the flesh, physical; the next to the esthetic nature, the desire of the eyes, the soul; and the last to the spiritual nature, the pride of life, or the vainglory of living. The Lord Jesus was impervious to every suggestion of evil. These are the same temptations in character which the serpent brought to bear upon Eve in Eden. She saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (the lust of the flesh), pleasant to the eyes (the lust of the eyes), and to be desired to make one wise (the pride of life). She succumbed on every point, and when Adam collaborated with her in disobedience to God the old creation fell. They were tested in a garden of delight, a most beautiful environment. Jesus was tempted in a dry, thirsty wilderness among the wild beasts, but stood firm as a rock against all Satan’s wiles and blandishments, thus manifesting Himself as King of righteousness, and so the suited One to be crowned King of peace (Heb. 7:1-2). He who triumphed over the enemy after being tested in all points like as we, apart from sin, is now our great High Priest and is appearing in heaven on our behalf, ready to assist us in every hour of weakness and temptation.
“And when the tempter came to Him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (v. 3). Every test was a direct assault upon the truth of His divine-human personality. There might seem to be nothing inherently wrong for Jesus to satisfy His hunger by making bread from stones, but He had taken the place as Man, of dependence on the living Father (John 6:57). As such, He acted only in obedience to the Father’s will, and He could not entertain any suggestion coming from another and an opposing source. He would not act, even to relieve His hunger, upon the enemy’s advice.
“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” (v. 4). Jesus met each temptation with a definite word from God—a quotation from Holy Scripture. In this instance He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses reminded Israel that of far more importance than material food was the spiritual nourishment that is found in the Word of God. When God provides food for His children, He does not give them stones for bread, nor make bread out of stones; but when we get out of the place of dependence upon the Father, we are very likely to break our teeth upon hard, stony bread, which we thought would be better than that which comes from God.
“Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple” (v. 5). Whether the Devil actually did this or it was only in vision we are not told, nor is it important that we should know. The point is that even the sanctuary may be a place of temptation, for pride of grace is one of the greatest snares to which we are exposed. From that elevated place Jesus saw the throngs gathered in the courts below. Satan was about to use this as a reason why He should display His power.
“And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone” (v. 6). Satan quoted only a part of Psalm 91:11-12. He omitted the most pertinent portion: “To keep thee in all thy ways.” It was no part of the holy ways of the Son of God to leap spectacularly from the temple heights in order to astonish the worshiping multitudes below as they beheld Him suspended in the air above them, sustained by angel hands. This would have been a presumptuous use of the promise. When Satan quotes Scripture, look closely at the text and be sure nothing vital is omitted, for it is possible to back up the gravest error with a text from the Bible used out of its connection or only partly expressed.
“Jesus said unto him, It is written again, thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (v. 7). Where God commands, faith can act upon His words, knowing— as Augustine said—“God’s commands are God’s enablings.” But to expose oneself to danger needlessly is to tempt God, and this is contrary to the principle of faith.
“Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” (v. 8). These things belonged to Christ, the Heir of all things; but Satan has usurped the inheritance. He attempted to present to Jesus what might be called a “short cut” to world dominion.
“And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (v. 9). Actually, they were his to give only by God’s permissive will, for “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Dan. 4:25). Satan had robbed Adam of the authority given him and reigned as usurper in the hearts of wicked men; but he had no undisputed title to the kingdoms of the world, which he offered to give to Jesus if He would worship him, that thus He might obtain the kingdom without the Cross.
“Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (v. 10). By another “saying” of God the foe was vanquished. Jesus did not dispute Satan’s word as to his sovereignty of the kingdoms of the world. It is not by debate the victory is won, but by the Word itself.
“Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him” (v. 11). What a glorious consummation to the temptation! The defeated, foul fiend fled away, and holy messengers from the court of heaven came with gladness to minister to their Creator, who in grace had taken the creature’s place. When we think of angels ministering to Jesus, as they did in the wilderness and in Gethsemane, we realize how truly human He had become in that He, who had created those glorious beings, should now be served by them.
God’s King must reign in righteousness. The sinner’s Substitute must be as an unblemished lamb—with no defect outwardly or inwardly. Therefore the Lord as a Man must be subjected to the most searching tests to demonstrate His fitness for the great work He came to do. Had the temptation brought to light any evidence of inbred sin or moral corruption of any kind, it would have been the proof that Jesus was not the Holy One of God, destined to bring in everlasting righteousness and to make propitiation for iniquity. But nowhere was the perfection of Jesus demonstrated more clearly than when Satan made every effort to find some defect in His character, some form of self-seeking in His heart. The King was tested and proved to be all that God the Father had declared at His baptism—the One in whom He had found all His delight.
We read in Hebrews 2:18 that our Lord Jesus “suffered being tempted.” We suffer as we resist temptation, and so are kept from sinning against God (1 Peter 4:1). In this we see the great contrast between Christ as the Holy One and ourselves as sinners with a nature that delights in evil. When born of God, we are made partakers of the divine nature, and so we, too, hate iniquity.
Having been tried and proved to be perfect in all His ways, the King then entered upon His public ministry, accredited by mighty signs and wonders, which should have made it clear to all Israel that He was in very truth the promised Messiah.
Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; the people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say. Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (vv. 12-17)
The quotation from Isaiah differs from that which we find in our Old Testament, because it is taken from the LXX, the translation in common use at that time, instead of from the original Hebrew (see Isa. 9:1-2). As He went from place to place Jesus preached, saying, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This message was the same as that of John the Baptist. “The kingdom of heaven,” as we have seen, is a term used only in this gospel. It speaks of heavens rule over earth. This was now ready to be set up if there had been readiness on the part of Israel to receive it. But it could be set up only on a foundation of national repentance; and for this the people were not prepared. They would not receive the King; consequently, they lost the kingdom, as the sequel shows. Before that kingdom shall be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6), God was to make known another program, which for the time being was hidden from human understanding.
Verses 18-20 tell us of the calling and response of the first of the twelve apostles:
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
These men, as we know, had been attracted already to Jesus (John 1:40-42). Now they left all to follow Him, though little realizing what was in store for them, both of joy and sorrow.
Verses 21-22 give the call of James and John:
And going on from thence, He saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
They, too, were to be numbered among the King’s closest friends, to bear witness to Israel, and later, though James was to die a martyr’s death early in the new age, John was destined to outlive all the rest of the chosen twelve.
The nature and scope of the ministry of Jesus is epitomized for us in verses 23-25:
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judea, and from beyond Jordan.
Everywhere He went He brought blessing and salvation to those who sought His favor; so that many followed Him from place to place, doubtless expecting that at any moment He might declare His royal authority and, overthrowing the Roman power, bring deliverance to Israel. But before this could be done there was another and far greater work that had to be accomplished, even the settlement of the sin question: for this He had come into the world. The King must be the victim before He should take His great power and reign. And so, although for the moment the crowds applauded, and the common people heard Him gladly, He moved on with even tread to the place called Calvary.