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Lesson 15: The Temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13)

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To live in this world means that you will encounter temptation. Some, like playwright Oscar Wilde, don’t even try to fight it. He said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” Others want to be delivered from temptation, but they would like it to keep in touch from time to time. But if we want to be godly people, we must learn to resist the temptations that come at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Jesus Christ is our great example and teacher when it comes to resisting temptation. He was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). If we want to be like Jesus, we will be eager to learn from Him how He resisted the devil. This account of Jesus’ temptation must have come down to the disciples and to us from Jesus Himself, since it was a private encounter. Luke uses the incident both to confirm Jesus as the righteous Son of God at the outset of His public ministry and to teach us how to follow Him in obedience to the Father.

Before we examine the account itself, there are two problems we need to deal with. First, if you have a King James or New King James Bible, your text adds some phrases that are omitted by the NIV and NASB. In verse 4, Jesus’ quote from Deuteronomy 8:3 adds, “but by every word of God” (in accord with Matt. 4:4 & Deut. 8:3). In verse 5, your text adds “on a high mountain” (in accord with Matt. 4:8). In verse 8 your text adds, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (see Matt. 4:10, “Be gone, Satan!” [the Majority text of Matt. 4:10 reads, “Get behind Me, Satan]; and Matt. 16:23).

The question with each variant reading is, How did the original text of Luke read? Bible scholars use two criteria to determine which text is probably original. The first, called external evidence, is to weigh the manuscript evidence for the various readings. Generally, the oldest manuscripts are the most reliable, especially if the same reading occurs in different manuscript families. The second criterion, called internal evidence, is to try to determine how the variant may have crept into the text. In other words, is it more likely in these cases that a scribe would have dropped the phrase as he copied the manuscript, or would he have added the phrase for some reason? If the external and internal evidence both line up, you have a fairly strong case that a reading is the original.

In each of the variants mentioned, both the external and internal evidence support the shorter readings. The earlier manuscripts do not contain the added phrases. And, it is easier to explain how a later scribe would have added the phrases to make Luke conform to Matthew than it is to explain how the scribe would have accidentally dropped these phrases from Luke.

The second problem we need to address is that Luke reverses the order of the second and third temptations as recorded by Matthew. Critics accuse the accounts of being in error. But, the accounts are only in error if they both make claim of being chronological accounts, which neither does. Our Western mindset seems to demand that everything be given in chronological order. But the gospel writers did not think that way, and there is no inherent reason that their way of thinking was wrong. To make a theological point or for the sake of literary structure, they sometimes rearrange material out of chronological order to fit their purpose.

In this case, there is debate about which account gives the true chronology. Probably Matthew gives the order as it happened, whereas Luke rearranges things in line with his purpose. As Darrell Bock explains, “Luke presents this temptation last, because it places the climax in the city where ultimately the drama surrounding Jesus’ life will be resolved. Luke makes much of Jerusalem (Luke 9:53; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11)” (Luke [Baker], 1:379).

With those technical problems out of the way, let’s turn to the spiritual lessons that come out of Luke’s account, namely, that …

Jesus’ victory over Satan shows Him to be the righteous Son of God and shows us how to overcome temptation.

Three lessons:

1. We must be wise to the schemes of Satan.

It is clear that Jesus believed in and the Bible teaches the reality of a personal evil spirit called Satan (“adversary”) or the devil (“slanderer” or “accuser”). Evil is not just an impersonal force. The devil and the demons are angelic beings who rebelled against God and now are behind the evil in this world. While the devil is a powerful and intelligent being, he is not omnipotent, omniscient, nor omnipresent. While his final doom is secure, for the present he is a powerful and cunning adversary of the saints. We must not be ignorant of his schemes (2 Cor. 2:11). Here we learn …

A. Satan hits at the opportune moment.

After His baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Some say that Jesus went there deliberately to engage Satan in this conflict, but I believe that He went there to commune with the Father so that He would be clear regarding His calling as He began His ministry. For 40 days Jesus fasted as He drew near to the Father. This reminds us of Moses who spent 40 days without food or water on Mount Sinai with the Lord before he received the Law (Exod. 24:18; 34:28). Elijah went 40 days on the strength of the food given to him by the angel to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8). Both of these fasts and Jesus’ fast were miraculous events, because no man can go 40 days without food or water, especially if he is physically active, as Elijah was.

The Greek grammar of verse 2 would indicate that Jesus was tempted over the duration of the 40 days, but the three temptations described may have occurred at the culmination of the period when His hunger became intense. It was precisely when Jesus became hungry that the devil appeared with his temptation to turn the stone to bread. By the way, Matthew has stones (plural), while Luke has stone, but there need not be any contradiction. The devil easily could have said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread. In fact, there is a stone right at your feet. Why not command that stone to become a loaf of bread?” We do not know nor can we speculate on whether the devil took on human form, whether he spoke audibly or whether he suggested the thought to Jesus without an audible voice.

The point is, Satan hit Jesus with this temptation at the precise moment that Jesus was hungry. He always works like that—he hits you when you’re down. He bides his time until you are vulnerable, and then he moves in with his subtle suggestion of evil.

I once heard a godly man tell of how he had been ministering in India for a month. On his return flight over the Atlantic, an attractive stewardess was especially kind to him, giving him a lot of attention. Being weary from traveling, he appreciated it. He had to spend the night in Washington, D.C. before catching his final flight home the next morning. As he went to get off the plane, he thanked the stewardess for her service. She responded by inviting him to come to her apartment for the night rather than going to his hotel. He was tired, he had been away from his wife for a month, and here was a very attractive young woman offering herself to him in a situation where no one would know. This was the opportune moment for Satan to hit! By God’s grace, the man declined the offer, but he said that there was a brief moment in which it sounded very inviting. So be alert as to when you are vulnerable. That’s when the enemy will hit!

B. Satan subtly mixes truth and error in an attempt to deceive.

In Luke’s second temptation, Satan somehow shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. Perhaps this was a graphic verbal description or a vision. We know that it was not a literal view from a high point, because no point is high enough to see all the world’s kingdoms. Satan proceeds to offer all this domain and its glory to Jesus, claiming that “it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.” All he asks is that Jesus bow in worship before him.

Satan’s offer, like all his offers, was a mixed bag of truth and error. Jesus later calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Paul calls him “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). But the Bible is also clear, and Satan cleverly alludes to it even here, that God alone sets up kings and grants authority to whomever He wills (Dan. 4:17, 25). Satan’s authority is at best delegated and temporary. The Bible is clear, as Jesus answers, that God alone is to be worshiped and served. But Satan mixes up the truth of his powerful authority with the error of worshiping him.

This is why you always have to be on guard against false teachers. Invariably they present something that is true, but they mix it up with that which is false and unbiblical. One current popular example is a man who does a great job of setting forth who we are in Christ, how we are saints. But then he states that we are not to see ourselves as sinners, but only as saints who occasionally sin. That’s dangerous error, mixed up with truth! Satan baits his hook with truth so that we swallow the whole thing.

C. Satan promises pleasure, but he doesn’t mention the inevitable pain.

Like a clever salesman, Satan sets out his wares without mentioning the price tag. He always shows the pleasures of sin (which are real), but he doesn’t mention the stiff consequences that inevitably follow. “Worship me and I’ll give you dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth.” Sounds good! But he fails to mention that Jesus will then be the servant of Satan, not of the Father, that the holy union between Father and Son will be forever broken and that Jesus’ mission as Savior will be ruined.

Satan still works that way: “Give in and enjoy the pleasures of sex like all your friends are doing! Why deprive yourself? Life is short, this may be your only opportunity.” He doesn’t mention the risk of venereal disease (including AIDS), or pregnancy, or the spiritual and emotional consequences of giving yourself to someone outside of God’s design of lifelong marriage. He dangles before you the good feelings of taking drugs or getting drunk, but he hides the ruined lives of the drug addict or drunkard on the streets. And, of course, he never sets before you the eternal wrath of God!

D. Satan tries to get us to meet legitimate needs or goals in illegitimate ways.

Hunger is a legitimate need, but for Jesus to use His power independently of the Father to meet His need would have been wrong. Being Lord of all the kingdoms of this earth was a legitimate goal for Jesus as the Son of God, but bowing before Satan to achieve that goal was wrong. Throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the temple and trusting God to spare Him from injury sounds like a great display of faith, which is a good thing. But actually it would have been presumption, which is sin.

Satan’s goal in all three temptations was to get Jesus to act independently of the Father rather than to submit to the will of God, which included the cross. It would have been a tempting shortcut to gain the glory of ruling all the kingdoms of this world without the agony of the cross. But the Bible is clear that anything we do apart from faith and obedience is sin (Rom. 14:23). This means that we have to be careful not only to pursue godly goals, but also to use biblical means of attaining those goals.

For example, church growth is a good goal, but if the church adopts worldly marketing and sales techniques or waters down the message to bring people into the church, we’ve fallen into the devil’s trap. We need to be careful to follow biblical methods as well as goals. We should learn from our Lord Jesus how to be wise to Satan’s schemes.

2. We must bow before the superiority of the Son of God.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Father proclaimed, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” Our text shows why Jesus was well-pleasing to the Father. He always lived to do the Father’s will (John 5:19, 30). We also see Jesus living in total dependence on the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), who had descended on Him at His baptism. Jesus thus lived as the perfect man in perfect obedience to the Father as He depended totally upon the Holy Spirit.

Luke organizes his genealogy of Jesus backward, so that it ends with “Adam, the son of God” (3:38). Then, just three verses later we encounter Satan telling Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” In the Greek, there is no doubt in Satan’s challenge. He acknowledges Jesus to be the Son of God. Luke obviously wants us to see a contrast between Adam, who as man was supposed to reflect the image of God, but failed; and, Jesus, the true Son of God who was victorious over Satan’s temptations. Where the first Adam was defeated by Satan, the second Adam triumphed. Also, there is a contrast between the settings of the two incidents. Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit in a garden where they had plenty. Jesus resisted turning the stone into bread in a barren wilderness where He was very hungry.

There is also a parallel and contrast between Israel in the wilderness for 40 years and Jesus, the Messiah of Israel in the wilderness for 40 days. God provided Israel all the manna they needed, and yet they grumbled and tested God by asking for meat. Jesus had no food in the wilderness, but He was satisfied with the food of doing the Father’s will. As Walter Liefeld observes (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 8:863), Jesus was physically empty but full of the Spirit. How often our experience is the reverse! Luke wants us to see the sufficiency and superiority of Jesus the Son of God. He triumphed where sinful man has failed.

At this point we need briefly to address the question, Could Jesus have sinned? In fact, how could the Son of God even be tempted? God cannot be tempted by evil, so in what sense was Jesus tempted? Here we plunge into a deep mystery where ultimately we must back off without total resolution. The mystery centers on how one person can be both fully God and fully man at the same time.

It is helpful to distinguish between temptation and testing. Since the fall, we can be tempted to evil by our own sinful desires from within or by Satan from without. Jesus did not have a sinful nature, and so He was never incited to sin in the same way that we are. God never tempts anyone to evil (James 1:13). But, every temptation is also a test, where God tries us to reveal what is in our hearts (Deut. 8:2; 2 Chron. 32:31). Also, we can sinfully put God to the test, demanding that He prove Himself (Luke 4:12, Deut. 6:16). Here Satan was tempting Jesus from without, but the temptation was also a test that proved that Jesus was the obedient Son of God who would not put God to the test.

But, still, we have not answered the question, “Could Jesus have sinned?” Some say that the temptation was not genuine unless He could have succumbed. No less a theologian than Charles Hodge believed that Jesus could have sinned, but did not (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], 2:457). But most conservative theologians hold that while the temptation was real with regard to Jesus’ human nature, since the total person of Christ contains both a human and a divine nature, the person of Christ could not have sinned. I agree with this view. No matter which view you hold, Jesus’ victory over Satan proves that He is qualified to be your Savior. As Hebrews 2:18 states, “Since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.”

Thus we must be wise to the schemes of Satan; we must bow before the superiority of the Son of God.

3. We must be armed with God’s strategies for the saints.

Jesus shows us five strategies for overcoming temptation:

A. Be much alone with God.

Not only during these 40 days, but also at other times, Jesus would get away from the crowds and even from the disciples to spend time alone with the Father (5:16). If Jesus needed such times, how much more do we.

But be forewarned: Time alone with God can be a special time of drawing near to Him, but it can also be a time of intense temptation. Jesus was alone and fasting when He was tempted. Time alone with God does not prevent temptation, but it will strengthen us to overcome it. If you are consistently in God’s Word and in prayer, you will be forewarned and forearmed for standing against the schemes of the devil.

B. Be prepared to be tempted, especially after a victory.

Jesus was tempted immediately following His baptism, when the Father affirmed Him from heaven and the Holy Spirit descended on Him as a dove. Jerome said, “Baptism does not drown the devil.” If Jesus’ baptism did not prevent His being tempted, neither will ours. We must walk with God every day and be especially on guard after a time of spiritual victory.

C. Be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, and led by the Spirit when He was tempted (4:1). The filling of the Spirit will not insulate you from temptation, but if you walk in the Spirit, you will not carry out the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). It does not say that you will not have such desires, but rather that you will not fulfill them. Each day we should yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and walk in conscious dependence on Him. Again, if Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit, how much more must we!

D. Be armed with Scripture.

Each time Satan attacked, Jesus answered with Scripture, specifically with quotations from Deuteronomy. How many verses from Deuteronomy can you quote? To use Scripture as Jesus did, we must commit it to memory. We will not always have a Bible and concordance with us when we are tempted. But God will bring to our mind appropriate Scripture to ward off the enemy’s attacks.

But, again, be careful! Satan can also quote the Bible for his own purposes! The main rule of biblical interpretation is to compare Scripture with Scripture, letting the Bible interpret itself. Be careful to interpret a verse in its context, rather than just subjectively grabbing a verse and saying that it means whatever you feel it means. You cannot properly apply Scripture until you properly interpret it. This is one good reason to read the whole Bible over and over. It gives you balance, so that you don’t get carried along with every wind of doctrine that blows. I recommend that if you struggle with a particular sin, write down all the verses on it you can find and commit them to memory.

E. Be ready for further attacks.

Note verse 13: Jesus’ victory over Satan was not final, and neither is ours. You can win a victory today, but the enemy will bide his time and return another day, especially when you’re most vulnerable. As long as we are in this body, we cannot claim complete and final victory over the world, the flesh, or the devil. Someone has said, “Temptations, unlike opportunities, will always give you many second chances.” Constant vigilance is required. By the way, the Bible commands us to flee certain sins, but to resist the devil. If we put on the full armor of God, we can stand firm in the evil day. But we can’t relax our guard until we are face to face with our Lord Jesus. He has overcome the enemy, and if we depend on Him, we can resist temptation.


A little girl was asked if Satan ever tempted her to do wrong. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “but when he knocks at the door of my heart, I just pray, ‘Lord Jesus, please go to the door for me!’” “What happens then?” she was asked. “Oh, everything turns out all right. When Satan sees Jesus, he runs away every time!” In her simple faith, that little girl realized that even the strongest Christian is no match for the devil. Only Jesus has defeated him, so we must be strong in the strength of our Lord.

F. B. Meyer wrote, “There is only one way by which the tempter can be met. He laughs at our good resolutions and ridicules the pledges with which we fortify ourselves. Satan fears only One, He who in the hour of greatest weakness defeated him and who now has been raised far above all principalities and powers to deliver frail and tempted souls. Christ conquered the prince of this world in the days of His flesh and is prepared to do as much again for each of us as we seek His aid” (in “Our Daily Bread,” 1980).

Jesus’ victory over Satan proves that He is the righteous Son of God, mighty to save all who call upon Him. If we trust in Him as Savior and walk in His strength each day, we can overcome temptation when it hits, as surely it will.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should Christians fear the devil? If so, in what sense? If not, why not?
  2. Should Christians seek confrontation with Satan and the demons, challenging them to “spiritual warfare”?
  3. Why must Christians use biblical means as well as biblical ends? If something “works” spiritually, is it necessarily right?
  4. How can you help a person who claims he can’t memorize Scripture?

Copyright, 1998, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Satanology, Soteriology (Salvation), Suffering, Trials, Persecution, Temptation, Character of God

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