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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Tempted, Tried, but Never Failing

February 17, 2015 •

The temptations of Christ are recorded in three out of the four Gospels, so clearly they are meant to highlight a significant component of Jesus’ mission to save. But, despite their prominence in the Gospels, they have been subjected to a range of interpretations – some of which tend towards misinterpretation.

The most common misinterpretation – or at least one that manages to shift the main focus of this episode away from its central significance – is to regard Jesus as model of how to deal with temptation. So, when Satan tempts us to sin, like Jesus we should have a suitable arsenal of Bible verses at our fingertips with which to resist his overtures.

Although there is undoubtedly some truth in that approach, it fails to do justice to the passages that record this incident and the weight they attach to it. The Gospels present it as an integral part of what Jesus had to accomplish to secure redemption. Each Evangelist deals with the event from a slightly different angle, but with a view to highlighting the far-reaching import not only of what Christ was exposed to in his encounter with Satan, but what he actually proved and achieved through it all. Far from being forced into a defensive mode through the devil’s advances, he showed himself from the very outset to be the One God had promised to send to fulfil his promise to Adam in the protoevangelium (Ge 3.15).

Luke’s account in particular provides some penetrating insights into the way this episode in Jesus’ personal history becomes a vital component of redemptive history. A number of little details in particular bring this into focus for us.

Luke (in line with Matthew and Mark) points to the fact that Jesus went into the wilderness because the Holy Spirit led him (Lk 4.1), but he adds two significant details. The first is that Jesus was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’.

Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, has a special interest in the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Christ. From the moment and manner of his miraculous conception (1.35) through the source of the prophetic pronouncement by Zechariah (1.67) and the encounter with Simeon in the Temple (2.25-27), the Messianic promise of John the Baptist (3.16) and the graphic revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’ baptism (3.22), the Holy Spirit is intimately involved with the mission of Christ through all its stages.

So here, as Jesus is about to be led into the wilderness, for Luke to note that he was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (4.1) signals that he is about to face something of a different order than anything he has faced so far during his earthly life. More than that, the fact Luke glosses the preposition used by Matthew and Mark to say that Jesus was not merely led ‘into’ the desert by the Spirit (as though to be abandoned there) but, rather, was led ‘in’ the desert points to his ongoing support throughout the wilderness ordeal.

Another significant detail in Luke’s account is his choice of ‘the devil’ diabolos to identify the tempter (4.2). The name ‘devil’ carries the connotation of  ‘slanderer’ and suggests that the evil one’s intent through this encounter was to discredit Jesus on the very threshold his mission and so sabotage the mission as a whole. The reference to Jesus’ being in the desert ‘for forty days’ in this context would also not have slipped the attention of a 1st Century reader of the Gospel – certainly not one who was familiar with the Hebrew Bible, as Theophilus, the first recipient of this Gospel almost certainly have been. The recurring references in the Old Testament to ‘forty’ periods of time – either days, years, or even the ten 40’s of the Egyptian captivity – almost always pointed to a significant chapter in God’s programme of redemption. So at the start of the most significant chapter of all in his redemptive programme, it is hardly surprising to see that marker being laid down once more.

But perhaps the most significant detail of all that Luke gives to help us make sense of where the deeper drama lies in the temptation of Christ is found on the lips of the devil himself and the question he twice puts to Jesus: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ (4.3,9). Whereas a common mistake for those who read this statement in its English translation to assume Satan is tempting Jesus to doubt who he really is, the opposite is actually the case. If he had wanted to call Jesus’ true identity into question, he would have reached for a different grammatical construction. Instead he uses a form of words that fully acknowledges who Jesus really is: the Son of God in human flesh. Indeed, the clause is better translated, not ‘if…’ but ‘since you are the Son of God…’, do these things.

So the devil’s warped intent in this exercise was not to undermine Jesus self-understanding, but to try to induce him to violate all that was bound up with his unique identity. And this unfolds in the very specific nature of the temptations to which our Lord was subjected.

In the temptation to turn stones into bread (4.3) Jesus was being tempted to violate his humanity. Like Moses in the desert of Sinai, Jesus had gone 40 days without food and was not surprisingly ‘hungry’ (4.2) and therefore also weak and vulnerable. His hunger was as real as Moses’ had been. And it was in that context the devil planted the idea that – unlike Moses – ‘since he was the Son of God’ and not a mere human, ‘Why not use your higher power?’

There would have been nothing inherently wrong in his using his supernatural power to alter a material substance to provide bread. (Jesus would later multiply loaves on at least two occasions to feed vast crowds.) But it would have been a violation of his unique Person as the God-man to use his divine power to override his human weakness merely to gratify his own needs. It would have negated the necessity ‘for him for him to be made like his brothers in every…to help those who are being tempted’ (He 2.17-18).

Hence Jesus’ response to the tempter, quoting from Deuteronomy: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone…’ (2.4). The omission of ‘…but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Dt 8.3) is not an oversight on Luke’s part, but an ellipsis, since the complementary clause would have been self-evident for all who were familiar with the quotation’s source. Jesus’ point in this response was to remind the devil there is more to life than bread. Indeed, he was saying there is something far more basic than bread at the most basic level of human existence. Namely, that we are upheld by the word of God. Which, as Geerhardus Vos points out, is the providential word by which God upholds all things (He 1.3).[1] If the man Christ Jesus to step outside that orbit, it would have been a breach of his true humanity.

In the second temptation (in Luke’s order as opposed to Matthew’s) when Satan ‘took Jesus up’ to show him ‘all kingdoms of world in a moment of time’ (4.5), Jesus is tempted to violate his calling. The temptation was tantalising. The devil claimed he was both able and willing to give Jesus ‘all their authority and splendour’ on condition that Jesus should worship him (4.6-7). The power of its attraction lay in fact that Jesus’ mission was ultimately to save, not just Israel, but the world. And here was a route to receiving the kingdoms of the world that would avoid the anguish of the cross.

Satan’s claim was not devoid of truth. He had indeed, in a limited sense, been granted power and authority over this world. (Paul calls him ‘the prince of the power of the air’ [Eph 2.2] indicating his sphere of influence.) But Jesus knew that to accede to his demand would have literally turned the order of creation on its head. It would have meant the Creator worshiping and serving the creature. Hence his retort from Deuteronomy, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’ (Dt 6.13). Jesus refused to waver in his confidence that however painful and challenging his calling would be – requiring ‘obedience to death, even death on a cross’ (Php 2.8) – that calling was underwritten not only by the wisdom of God, but also his perfect love.

The final temptation – when he was taken to the highest point of the temple and urged (with a distorted quote from Scripture) to throw himself down from there (4.9) – was designed to make Jesus violate his divine Sonship. Satan’s twisted logic as he reaches for the words of Psalm 91.1-12 infers that if God had promised the protection of angels to mere men, then how much more to the Son for whom he had so recently declared his love (Lk 3.22).

In one sense he was quite right to make such an argument. Jesus himself would tell his captors in Gethsemane that, if he so chose, he could summon ‘a legion of angels’ to rescue him (Mt 26.53), but he chose not to. To do so would have been an abuse of his Sonship at that critical moment and would, at a stroke, have negated his entire role in redemption.

So when Jesus responds for the last time, there is a double edge to his final quotation: ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ (4.12 cf Dt 6.16). Speaking with a profound consciousness of his being Son of God in human flesh, he looks his tempter in the eye and reminds him he is not merely testing the unseen God in heaven, but God-made-visible on earth. Little wonder it was at that point that Satan slinks away and leaves him (4.13).

What, then, are we to make of this strange, but significant episode in the life of Christ? Can we only be spectators who look on from a distance and wonder what difference it can make to us? The words of J. Wilbur Chapman’s hymn, Jesus, what a Friend for Sinners, may answer that for us. Speaking of our own experience as believers he says though we are, ‘tempted, tried and sometimes (many times) failing, He, [our] strength, [our] victory wins’. How so? Because he like us was tempted and tried; but was never failing! And because he was acting as our covenant head and representative – the ‘second man’ and the ‘last Adam’ – he was securing our deliverance and guaranteeing we will finally stand. So too in his office of our Great High Priest – being tempted in every way as we are, but without sin – he is able to sympathise with us, extend mercy when we fail and provide the strengthening grace that helps in our time of need (He 4.14-16). How else can we respond, but with the refrain,

Hallelujah, what a Saviour! Hallelujah, what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving; He is with me to the end!

[1] Vos, G. Biblical Theology (W.B. Eerdmans; Grand Rapids MI) 1980 pp 336-337


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