The Credibility of the Bible

The temptation of Christ is a study that will take us to great depths. Satan’s strategy was complex, and Christ’s answers were subtle and multilayered in meaning. Someone might question whether it is appropriate to delve into such matters in an introductory course on the Christian life. But this lesson will be worthwhile for at least two reasons. 1) It will warn us not to take Satan lightly, and 2) it will build our confidence that the Bible is true.

When new converts are exposed to Biblical teaching, they hear much that contradicts what they have learned before from sources like the public schools and the media. They then must decide which to believe—the old version of truth or the new version? Sad to say, some cling to what they have learned before and turn away from the church. To prevent such defections, the church should give new converts a good grounding in so-called apologetics (the methodical survey of the abundant evidence that the Bible is true). As we said, one reason we have included this lesson on the temptation of Christ is that it strongly supports the credibility of the Bible.

The Baptism of Christ

Christ's temptation immediately followed His baptism, the event marking the inception of His prophetic ministry to the Jewish nation. His mission as a prophet "like unto" Moses (Deut. 18:18) was to challenge the nation's self-righteousness, which was no better than hypocrisy, and to show the way to true righteousness through repentance and faith. But it was a mission destined to fail. Many Jews would reject Him and applaud His crucifixion.

Before His conception, Jesus had existed from eternity past in heaven. But He left His heavenly abode and assumed human form. To become a true man, He emptied Himself of His divine attributes (Phil. 2:7; in the KJV, the phrase "made himself of no reputation" can be rendered "emptied himself"). He did not give up the possession of these attributes, but rather their exercise. Therefore, in His prophetic ministry He could not use His own divine power and knowledge. To reach beyond ordinary human knowledge, He had to rely on the Father’s instruction during times of communion as well as on Scripture and on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. To perform miracles, He had to depend on the Holy Spirit's power.

The Father's purpose at His baptism was to prepare Him for His ministry by supplying all that He lacked in His reduced condition (Luke 3:21-2). The Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and lit upon Him, an outward sign that He now had full access to the Spirit's supernatural resources. Also, Jesus needed certainty as to His calling, so the Father spoke from heaven, assuring Him that He was indeed His Son and authorizing Him to proceed in His prophetic ministry. For Jesus, as for us, the knowledge that He was the Christ rested on faith in the Word of God. One of Jesus’ purposes in becoming human was to give us an example of how we should live. Therefore, as we should, He lived by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Long before His baptism, Jesus had known His identity. God first revealed it to Mary and Joseph through angels. Then in a lifetime devoted to meditation upon Scripture and to fellowship with the other members of the Trinity, Jesus had seen it confirmed in many ways. Now at His baptism, it was confirmed again.

The Temptation of Christ

After His baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted. Scripture says that the Spirit led Him there so that the devil might test Him (Matt. 4:1). His purpose in coming to this world was to die in our place. Therefore, it was necessary that He undergo the full experience of being human, so that the writer of Hebrews might be able to say, "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" (Heb. 4:15). Going through temptation Himself taught Jesus to sympathize with our predicament, as we cope with a world full of temptation. As a result, He can represent and defend us more effectively before the Father.

Liberal critics pass off the account of Jesus' temptation as a preacher's story. But anyone trained in literary criticism (like my wife) or in psychology (like me) or in any other field requiring critical interpretation of complex narratives can see in this account a depth and a subtlety certifying that it tells of a real battle between great minds. It is obviously not just a nice little piece of religious fantasy.

In school we learn about the Civil War, World War II, and other great wars in human history. But these were all trivial events in comparison with the battle that took place at the temptation of Christ. Of all battles in the history of the universe, His temptation had a significance second only to the cross. The future of mankind, the future of the universe itself, and indeed the integrity of the Godhead were at stake.

The Gospel writers relate that for forty days Jesus ate nothing (Matt. 4:2). It was not His intent to harm Himself, nor was that the effect. Men can live without food somewhat longer than forty days. Hunger strikers have been known to survive sixty or seventy days. The number forty symbolizes a purging or refining, as when the waters of the great Flood fell forty days and nights upon the earth, and as when Israel wandered forty years in the wilderness. The purpose of Jesus' fasting was not to gain merit through self-denial, but to withdraw from mundane things so that He might have closer fellowship with the Father.

First Temptation

After forty days of fasting, Jesus was racked with hunger. Satan came to Him and made an appealing suggestion. "If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread" (Luke 4:3). Jesus could have done it, now that the Holy Spirit empowered Him. And He needed food desperately. To make food to meet a real need was surely not a sin.

Satan's strategy: Satan calculated that he might find three weaknesses in Jesus.

  1. Jesus had become as hungry as a man can be, and a stronger fleshly desire than He had ever known before was urging Him to eat. Satan reckoned that He might yield to this desire, even at the expense of doing wrong.
  2. The Father had just told Jesus that He was the Son. But what an incredible proposition to believe! How could Jesus believe that He, a mere man born of a woman, was really the eternal God? This revelation told Him nothing that He did not already know. From early life He knew His identity. Yet His identity had always been a learned fact requiring faith. Satan reckoned that Jesus' faith might be imperfect. He hoped to discover softness in Jesus' confidence that the Father had told Him the truth.
  3. Satan's own fault in the beginning had been pride. It was therefore only natural for Satan to assume that if Jesus had any fault, it was pride also, especially after He had been told by direct revelation that He was somebody special—indeed, the most special person who exists, namely God.

From his analysis of his chances in tempting Jesus, Satan concluded that the best course was to invite Him to do something seemingly innocuous but clearly wrong, and to provoke Him to wrongdoing by capitalizing on His hunger, as well as on possible defects in His faith and humility. He decided to propose that Jesus turn stone into bread.

The course that Satan adopted is reminiscent of his approach to Eve. Then also he had offered food as bait. Moreover, his opening gambit on that occasion had been the question, "Hath God said?" (Gen. 3:1-5). Likewise, he began his temptation of Jesus by sowing doubt, saying, "If thou be the Son of God" (Luke 4:3)—implying that even though Jesus might choose to give Himself this exalted title, Satan was not convinced. Satan's intent in expressing skepticism was to wound Jesus' pride, if He had any, as well as to make Him uncertain and anxious as to whether He really was the Son of God. Satan was hoping to put Him on the defensive, so that He might feel constrained to prove Himself through a display of supernatural power—specifically, through an improper display that He might not recognize as wrong.

Why would it have been wrong for Jesus to follow Satan's suggestion? How was turning stone into bread different from turning water into wine, as He did a few weeks later with the Father's approval (John 2:1-11)? It was different for three reasons, leaving no doubt that to make bread for Himself on this occasion was improper.

  1. Relieving His hunger by means of a miracle was contrary to the Father's will.
    1. It was not yet time for Jesus to quit fasting. The Father still wanted undistracted fellowship with the Son.
    2. Jesus had been granted the ability to do miracles for the limited purpose of furthering His prophetic ministry. They had the double benefit of meeting human needs and showing the people who He was. But He was never authorized to make food for Himself. Throughout His ministry, as an example for us, He trusted the Father to supply Him with the essentials for life. Even when He multiplied a small amount of food to feed 5000 on one occasion and 4000 on another, it is likely that instead of consuming the food He created, He was content with eating the few loaves and fishes donated by people in the crowd.
  2. His motive would have been to reassure Himself and to show Satan that He was the Son of God—a fact He was expected to believe by faith.
  3. This motive would have been rooted in pride, and making the bread would have been an act of pride.

In summary, to comply with Satan's suggestion would have been a threefold misuse of the power He had just received. The miracle would have proceeded not from love of the Father but from weariness with His presence and unwillingness to wait for His provision, not from faith but from lack of faith, and not from humility but from pride.

Jesus' defense: To fend off the temptation, Jesus quoted from the Book of Deuteronomy, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Luke 4:4; Deut. 8:3). On the surface, His answer was a simple refusal to do Satan's bidding. He rejected the temptation to turn aside from the Father’s words in order to make a meal. But at the same time, His answer was a subtle rebuke of all the accusations implicit in Satan's attack.

  1. By setting the Father's words far above bread in value, He was denying that hunger or any fleshly desire could induce Him to violate His Father's will.
  2. In two ways He cleared Himself of the suspicion that He was weak in faith.
    1. He expressed utmost confidence in "every word" of the Father.
    2. He boldly repudiated any doubt as to His identity. "Every word" is a self-reference. Jesus Himself is the Father's Word personified (John 1:1). To deflect the "if" in Satan's thrust, "If thou be the Son of God" (Luke 4:3), Jesus alluded to His own place in the Trinity. The Word that issues from the Father's mouth is the Son.
  3. Jesus adroitly proved Himself free of pride by reminding Satan that He, Jesus the Word, would bring life to lost mankind. To accomplish man's redemption required great humility. He had to leave heaven's glory, assume human form, and die a gruesome death on a cross. Jesus was drawing a contrast between the proud angel who rebelled and the humble Son who obeyed.

Second Temptation

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke disagree on the order of the last two temptations. But because Matthew's organization is frequently topical rather than chronological, whereas Luke's is invariably chronological, we will follow the order in Luke. "And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, 'All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine'" (Luke 4:5-7).

Satan's strategy: In the first temptation, Satan probed for weaknesses in Jesus and found none. Therefore, he shifted ground. Instead of continuing to look for chinks in Jesus' armor, he sought rather to turn one of Jesus' strengths against Him—in particular, the strength that, with telling results, He had just used to defend Himself. That strength was His confidence in the Father.

Accordingly, the next ploy Satan attempted was to represent wrongdoing as the Father's will. The proposition he offered Jesus is exactly the sort of thing we would expect from him. It contains both truth and falsehood, and the two are hard to separate.

The true part is that he is indeed prince of this world, a title Jesus Himself recognized (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). To make his claim of supremacy more credible, Satan performed an amazing feat. He whisked Jesus to a high mountain and gave Him, within a mere moment of time, an aerial survey of all the world’s kingdoms.

The false part was to state that power was "delivered unto me," presumably by the Father. He was implying that the Father, in an act of divine favor and blessing, appointed him to his position of princely authority over the earth. In reality, Satan obtained his power by seizing it while in rebellion against the Father. The one who originally possessed dominion over the earth was Adam, but Satan wrested dominion from Adam by drawing him into sin. In effect, the first Adam yielded to the same tempter that the second Adam, Christ, resisted. By consenting to eat the fruit, the first Adam bowed down to Satan and gave Satan preeminence over man and over all creation under man’s authority.

What was the purpose of Satan's lie to Jesus? He was trying to make his proposal seem legitimate. If he could persuade Jesus that Satan's regime had the backing of the Father, then Jesus might believe that Satan had the Father's approval to claim the homage of all human beings including Jesus and to dispose of the world's kingdoms as he sees fit, even to offer Jesus all the world's kingdoms in return for worship and service.

The temptation assumed that Jesus was interested in becoming world ruler. Satan knew that Jesus regarded Himself as the Christ, the man prophecy identified as future king over the earth. Therefore, Satan calculated that Jesus might accept a quick and painless road to what He regarded as His certain destiny. How much easier to fawn on Satan than to endure the cross!

But yielding to the temptation would have put Jesus in the position of committing two grievous sins: (1) accepting the archrebel Satan as His leader, and (2) avoiding the cross, which the Father had appointed Him to endure (Phil. 2:5–8).

Jesus' defense: Jesus was not fooled. He knew that Satan was a rebel. Jesus’ first reply was, "Get thee behind me, Satan" (Luke 4:8). The twofold message was, "You are out of line," and, "The proper leader here is me." In reply to Satan’s presumption in setting himself above Christ, Christ was asserting His superiority to Satan. To reinforce His words of rebuke, Jesus quoted again from Deuteronomy, "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (Luke 4:8, Deut. 6:13). The intended meaning was not simply that worship belongs to God alone. The "thou" was a pointed reference to Satan. Also, Jesus’ previous words, commanding Satan to follow Jesus, left no doubt that He, Jesus, was "the Lord thy God" whom Satan was obliged to serve. Whereas Satan wanted Jesus to worship him, Satan should have worshiped Jesus.

Third Temptation

Satan had one more ploy. "And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, 'If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone'" (Luke 4:9-11).

Satan's strategy: Since in the previous temptation Jesus had pointed to His own exalted identity, Satan evidently decided that Jesus was not above pride after all, and he designed the next temptation to provoke a prideful act—a foolish act of self-vindication. He tried to needle Jesus by accosting Him, "If thou be the Son of God." Again, he adopted a tactic that he hoped would exploit one of Jesus' strengths. Twice before in defending Himself, Jesus had quoted Scripture. Therefore, Satan brought Scripture into his argument that Jesus should cast Himself into the Temple courtyard. Satan referred to two different texts, and, as we would expect, he distorted both.

  1. In urging Jesus to start His ministry by making a dramatic descent from the sky into the courtyard of the Temple, he was assuming that Jesus was familiar with Malachi's prophecy, "The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in" (Mal. 3:1). Yet this prophecy concerns the Second Coming of Christ, not the first. It will be at the Second Coming that He executes judgment on the nations (v. 2) and purifies the sons of Israel (v. 3).

    But many Jews in Jesus’ day did not understand Malachi’s prophecy. They took it to mean that the Messiah would make no appearance to the nation before He suddenly manifested Himself in the Temple (John 7:27). If Jesus had in fact floated down to the Temple courtyard from one of the pinnacles, the crowds below would surely have hailed Him as the Christ. It would have been another easy road to popularity and power.

  2. Satan tried to persuade Jesus that if He refused to cast Himself down, He would be guilty of a cowardly lack of faith in God's promises—particularly, in the psalmist's promise that the angels of God would allow no harm to befall God's favorite (Ps. 91:11-2). Satan quoted the passage correctly, but lifted it out of context, omitting verse 13. This is a promise that God's favorite will triumph over the serpent and dragon, who is none other than Satan (Rev. 20:2). Ironically, in seeking to defeat Jesus, Satan called Jesus' attention to a passage that encouraged Him to resist. Yet to suppose that Satan overlooked the relevance of verse 13 seriously underestimates him. He must have known perfectly well that Jesus would remember the next verse in the psalm. Why then did Satan quote the previous two verses?

    Perhaps, in seeking to enhance his credibility, he was still posing as the legitimate prince of this world with no evil agenda. By quoting Psalm 91, he was implying that he was not any sort of evil tempter like the serpent who tempted Eve. He hoped Jesus would assume that Satan would not refer to this psalm if he regarded himself as the serpent and dragon.

    Whom then did Satan want Jesus to identify as the tempter? He must have hoped that Jesus would be willing to blame another being in the universe for man’s fatal step into sin—perhaps some evil spirit like the demons who, in Jesus' day, harassed the people of Israel. As conceived in the popular mind, they were ugly beings, nothing like Satan, who came to Jesus doubtless as a glorious angel (2 Cor. 11:14). Satan would never have gambled on escaping blame for man’s fall except that the Old Testament never actually names him as the tempter.

Jesus' defense: For the third time, Jesus answered from the Book of Deuteronomy. He said, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" (Luke 4:12; Deut. 6:16). His defense had meaning on three levels.

  1. Jesus said "thou." In other words, "You are indeed a tempter, the same tempter who snared Adam and Eve." Again, Jesus was rejecting Satan's claim to be not a usurper, but a rightful prince.
  2. Who on this occasion was he tempting? It was Jesus. Therefore, Jesus was unmistakably identifying Himself as God. In the first two temptations, His claim of deity had been somewhat muted. But this time He left no doubt. The devil had said, "If thou be the Son of God." Jesus retorted, in essence, that He was not only the Son in relation to the Father, but also the Lord in relation to Satan.
  3. Jesus was informing Satan that he would not be allowed to go further in tempting Jesus. No more temptations would be tolerated. The third was the last.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.