The Temptation of The King

The Temptation of The King

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. This is the fourth of his selected expository studies in the Gospel of Matthew. Have you ever entertained questions about the impeccability and tempt-ability of Jesus Christ? If so, this study will provide you with some thoughtful and practical teaching on these vital issues.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 4:1-11


Against the backdrop of the wilderness, with its “wild beasts” (cf. Mark 1:13), two solitary figures wrestle for a gigantic prize, the kingdom of God and the souls of men. One is subject to the Spirit of God, the other is the infernal spirit, Lucifer himself. The one, the Last Adam, must retrace the history of Adam the first. Paradise lost must become paradise regained. It was Augustine, following Paul, who said that the entire moral and spiritual history of the world revolved around two people, Adam and Christ. The temptation is a decisive movement in history.

The circumstances of the temptations of the first Adam and the Last Adam are in sharp contrast. For example, Adam was tempted in a garden, while Christ was tempted in the desert, “that great and terrible wilderness” (cf. Deuteronomy 8:15), as Moses described it. Adam the first was well prepared for the tempter physically; he was strong and food was plentiful. But Adam the Last, having fasted for forty days, was weak and hungry. Finally, Adam the first was the object of Satan’s initial seduction in the history of man, but Christ was attacked after His opponent had had four thousand years of practice. The odds were all on the side of a fall, humanly speaking.

Many questions come before us as we meditate upon our Lord’s conflict in the desert. They are theological questions, and they cry out for discussion and solution. The principal question is this one: Is Jesus Christ impeccable? We are not asking: Is He sinless? This is generally admitted by students of Scripture, of course. The holiness, however, of the God-man is more than sinlessness.

The real question is: Was He UNABLE to sin? Was He not only able to overcome temptation, but also unable to be overcome by it? The answer, of course, has to be, “yes”. It is not that He is able not to sin, but He is not able to sin.

If we remember that Jesus Christ is a divine person, we shall have no problems. He is not a human person raised to the power of deity by virtue of the incarnation, because He existed before that incarnation (cf. Micah 5:2; John 1:1). He is a divine person who at a point in time took to Himself human nature as an additional nature. His impeccability is guaranteed by the union of the divine and human natures in one the anthropic person. As Shedd says, He is “as mighty to overcome Satan and sin, as his mightiest nature is.”1

The temptation account, since the temptation was not observed by any other person than our Lord, is a bit of intimate autobiography told the apostles by its subject, Jesus Himself.

The occasion of the relating of the experience is more difficult to find, but an appropriate occasion is found in chapter sixteen of this gospel when, after Peter’s confession of His Messiah-ship, the Lord Jesus begins His instruction concerning the necessity of His death and resurrection. Immediately Peter rebukes Jesus and receives this stinging reply, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou are a stumbling-block unto me: for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men (16:23). At this very point, it seems to me, it would have been most fitting for Jesus to remind the apostles that the attitude of Peter was strikingly similar to that of Satan as reflected in the temptation, and to relate and expound the force of that wilderness experience.

The Personal Temptation

The request (4:1-3). The baptism of John the Baptist had marked the inauguration of the Messianic ministry of Christ. By this the Lord’s conviction was confirmed that He was “born to suffer, born a king.” The voice from heaven had been the coronation formula of the King, while the vision had been the visible counterpart of the voice. The Spirit’s coming had identified Him as the King (cf. Isaiah 42:1, 61:1), and the form of the dove had reminded Him of His suffering work.

All three of the tests are variations of the one great temptation to remove His Messianic vocation from the guidance of His Father and make it simply a political calling. Manson in essence is right, “It may be put in this way, that what Jesus rejects in the Tempttations are methods of ‘bringing in’ the kingdom of God: (a) the economic with all that apparatus so well known to us in these days of ‘five year’ plans and the like; (b) the game of political intrigue backed by military force; (c) propaganda which would eventually create an artificial nimbus for the national leader.”2 And yet there are different emphases in the tests. The first has to do with the body, the second the soul, and the third the spirit. The first looks at Christ as the Son of God, the second as the Son of David (not out of harmony with the divine sonship), and the third as the Son of Abraham. The first test is directed toward the lust of the flesh, the second toward the pride of life, and the third toward the lust of the eyes (cf. 1 John 2:16).

The “then” of verse one, one of Matthew’s favourite particles, makes the connection with the preceding account of the baptism. As Scroggie said, “After the testimony the test; and after the Dove, the devil.”3 Shortly after the baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for the temptation experience. Thoroughly weakened physically he faced the arch-enemy of His vocation, Satan.

The opening question of the tempter is related to the words that came from heaven at the baptism. We might paraphrase it in this way, “If, for the sake of argument, as the voice at your baptism intimated, you are the Son of God, then demonstrate your Messianic office by providing a kingdom of bread” (cf. v. 3). The test was a very shrewd thrust. Is it really true, Satan asked, that the God who said, “Thou art My Son” (cf. Psalm 2:7), has also said, “Thou shalt not eat” (cf. Genesis 3:1)? A hungering Son of God! Could this be of God, especially when one remembers that one of the features of the kingdom the Messiah will bring is that of the Messianic banquet (cf. Luke 14:15; 22:29-30)?

There are some interesting things about this first temptation which bear brief comment. Satan, it will be noted, does not begin with a point-blank denial of the truth. That would be too obvious. As in much of our contemporary theology, the unbelief is more subtle and deceptive. The virgin birth is not denied; it is simply considered an unnecessary doctrine. The deity of Christ is not rejected openly; it is explained away. Jesus is not the object of our faith, but its founder and classic example. As Forsyth remarked of these apostates, “We must learn to believe not in Christ, but with Christ, we are told.”4 But if we take only one aspect of His teaching, we immediately see that this theology is bankrupt. He affirmed, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (cf. Luke 13:3, 5). Search His religious experience as deeply as one will, and there is no trace of repentance in it. The fact is that the church has always known, and rightly so, that Jesus is not only a man, but more than a man. He is “my Lord and my God,” as Thomas affirmed. He does not ask only for devotion to His example, His actions, or His words; He demands devotion to Himself. The contemporary unbelief, spearheaded by the passing fancies of “process theology,” “revolutionary theology,” and other heresies, is simply an echo. of the ancient serpent’s skeptical query, “Yea, hath God said?” (cf. Genesis 3:1).

The reply (4:4). The reply of our Lord, a quotation from Deuteronomy, as is each reply, alludes to the manna. He proves His Sonship by a reply worthy of a son! Man (notice the word) lives by God, not by food alone.

The National Temptation

The request (4:5-6). That this request is slanted toward the national aspect of the Messianic ministry is indicated by the mention of “the holy city” (Jerusalem; cf. 27:53), “the temple,” and the quotation of the Messianic Psalm ninety-one. The Lord is urged to demonstrate His Messiah-ship by a spectacular sign, a thing the Jews loved (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22). And Satan has learned something from the first test, namely, the importance of Holy Scripture to the Lord Jesus. So, this time he supports his request by the use of Scripture. But, in so doing he makes several mistakes.

1. First, there is the mistake of tempting Jesus to presumption, or the forcing of God’s hand. The promises of Scripture ate valid always, but they are valid for us only at God’s time. It is always wrong to put God to the test at our time.

2. Second, there is the mistake of opposing Scripture to Scripture. Psalm 91:11-12, Satan’s citation, probably is a Messianic passage and may refer properly to the Lord, but the text must not be used in such a way that it contradicts other valid passages. One must compare Scripture with Scripture, not oppose Scripture to Scripture. The latter is Satan’s method here, for in our Lord’s answer He cites Deuteronomy 6:16 and uses it to contradict Satan’s use of the Psalms passage. Scriptura ex Scriptura explicanda est! Scripture is to be explained by Scripture. The devil puts Scripture against Scripture, not beside Scripture. So does the Lord here —but against Satan’s!

Now, we must not overlook an important spiritual point here. Satan is very knowledgeable in Holy Writ, knowing far more of the text apparently than many of the saints. His ministers also know Scripture. They pose as “ministers of righteousness” (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:15). As Morgan wrote, “Every false teacher who has divided the Church, has had an ‘it is written’ on which to hang his doctrine. If only against the isolated passage there had been the recognition of the fact that ‘again it is written,’ how much the Church would have been saved!”5 Every Christian who has had to deal with representatives of the false cults knows the truth of this. The heretical teachings of baptismal regeneration, soul sleep, universalism, and denial of eternal punishment, to name a few, are all supported by their adherents with the misuse of the Word of God. Acts 2:38 is wrenched from its context and made to bear the weight of entire denominations, without even a cursory examination of its related passage in Acts 10:34-48. Oh! if they would just remember, “it is written again”!

The reply (4:7). The reply of our Lord indicates that He will not pander to the Jews’ love of a sign, nor will He burgle the house of a man’s soul. He will realize His Messiahship by dependence upon God, not by force. He will not dazzle into submission by carnal sensationalism.

The Universal Temptation

The request (4:8-9). The third test has universal aspects, relating to the Abrahamic promises of world-wide blessing apart from the cross. Question has sometimes been raised over this offer by Satan. It has been thought that he had no real right to offer the kingdoms to Jesus Christ. Billy Bray used to say, in his quaint way, that the devil was wrong, adding, “The old rascal, to offer Christ the kingdoms of the world, why he never possessed so much as a ‘tater skin.’” But, as Denney points out, “This saying, which in Luke is put into the lips of Satan, is not meant to be regarded as untrue. There would be no temptation in it if it was untrue.”6 The right apparently belonged to him by virtue of his victory over man, the rightful heir to creation, in Eden.

The reply (4:10-11). If Satan thought he would be successful, he was sadly mistaken. Our Lord is not a Jesuit; the end does not justify the means. He will not sue the world, nor its methods, to attain His destiny. He must not become the Messiah of the world, nor of Satan, but of God. As Horatius Bonar wrote:

“The Kingdom that I seek
Is Thine; so let the way
That leads to it be Thine.”

The reply, a third citation from Deuteronomy (6:13), is the final thrust of the sword of the Spirit. The citadel is held, and the foe is vanquished. But does our Lord march from the battlefield as other conquerors? Let us listen to Thielecke’s answer, “By no means; how different is this victory from those of men! He rises to his feet, and immediately sets forth on his via dolorosa. He, too, goes forth into the world. Once again he will have to contend with the powers of evil which rise against him. He goes through this world, which is a theatre of war and a battlefield between God and Satan. By winning his first victory he has entered this world. Christ will fight for the souls of the men he meets, whether men, working-class men or lords of industry, the hungry and thirsty or well-fed and safe — he will fight for the souls of all these men alike, and he will die for all of them.

Thus does the victor in this fight take his way hence (Matthew 26:46), going straight towards his cross, as though God had forsaken him (Mark 15:34).

“Is he not after all really the loser —a bankrupt king who has gambled away his crown — as he sets forth on his path from the desert to the cross? Has he not won a Pyrrhic victory? He travels the path beset with pain which leads to the cross, and not the way of glory and triumph which is also the way of God (for how can God’s progress be other than triumphal?).

“Perhaps this contest in the desert was after all a drawn game. Perhaps in the long run the dread opponent will prove to have won the victory and regained his power over the world. Is there any man alive in the twentieth century who does not think that all the evidence points in this direction?

“But something more happens in the desert when the two go their ways: ‘The angels came and ministered unto him’ (Matthew 4:11). He must after all have won the victory.”7

There is one practical lesson that we must not miss. It is the supreme need of a knowledge and use of God’s Word. Jesus defeated the devil by the application of Scripture to his temptations. The three fold “it is written” highlights the victory, and points the way to victory for the saints. And, it must not be overlooked that His citations were from a book that is often overlooked in Bible study, Deuteronomy. How many texts from this section of Scripture have been hidden in the hearts of the saints? If victory depended upon its use, would the prize be gained?

We shall conclude this study with several general observations concerning the doctrinal significance of the temptation. In the first place it is important to observe that the temptation marks Jesus Christ out as one perfectly qualified morally to be the promised Davidic sovereign. Manson comments, “In the Temptations the Messiah is being invited to take the centre of the stage in one role or another. It is significant that each time the response of Jesus puts God in the centre of the stage in one role or another. It is significant that each time the response of Jesus puts God in the centre of the stage; and each time the implication is made perfectly clear: even the Messiah is only God’s servant —indeed, just because he is Messiah he must be pre-eminently God’s servant.”8 This victory is one in a series that shall find a thrilling consummation in this book in the exultant declaration, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth (28:18). And that, too, is a further step in the process that shall be crowned with the climactic utterance of the voices in heaven at the sounding of the seventh trumpet of the Apocalypse, “The kosmos-kingdom of our Lord and His Messiah has come, and he shall reign unto the ages of the ages (Revelation 11:15).

In the second place, in the experience of the victory of the temptation Jesus Christ is seen to be perfectly qualified morally to be the Savior. The cross was anticipated in this conquest. Milton indicated this by concluding Paradise Regained at this point. In the temptation there was, then, a pledge of the crucial victory of Golgotha, which Paul describes in these words, “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15).

Finally, in the wilderness experience Jesus Christ is seen to be perfectly qualified to be a sympathetic high priest. This is the principal use which the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes of the incident. He writes, “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted (2:18). And again, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). To those related to this High Priest there is no more appealing note upon which to conclude a study of the temptation than the exhortation which naturally follows, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).

1 William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Grand Rapids, n. d. [reprint of

2 T.W. Manson, The Servant-Messiah (Cambridge, 1953), p. 56.

3 W. Graham Scroggie, The Gospel of Mark, The Study Hour Series (New York and London, n. d.), pp. 29-30.

4 P.T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, n. d. (reprint]), p. 35.

5 G. Campbell Morgan, The Crises of the Christ (London, 1905, p. 155.

6 James Denney, Jesus and the Gospel (London, 1908, p. 189.

7 Helmut Thielecke, Between God and Satan, p. 2.

8 Manson, p. 57.