Before Jesus began His ministry, He was tempted by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness. What lessons can we learn from this monumental spiritual battle?
In our previous article, we explored the backstory and importance of the wilderness temptation.
But the temptation in the wilderness is significant not just because of the outcome, but also for the lessons it holds. Jesus’ example is a powerful case study in how we can overcome and triumph over the temptations we face today.
Satan the tempter
First, we must recognize that Satan’s efforts to tempt did not cease after that 40-day confrontation. One of the Bible’s descriptors of Satan is “the tempter” (Matthew 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). Tempting is a part of his nature.
Even now, the tempter is very active. He uses a wide range of methods to entice us to sin and turn from God’s way of life.
The apostle John identified three major human weaknesses Satan exploits in his efforts to tempt us to sin: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).
These three human propensities are almost always Satan’s targets. He even tried to use them against Jesus in the wilderness.
The book of Hebrews records that Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15, emphasis added throughout).
This doesn’t mean Jesus fought urges to commit every conceivable human sin. It means that He experienced temptation in all of the major areas of human vulnerability.
Because we face temptations daily, it’s critical that we study how Jesus was able to emerge from these temptations “without sin” (verse 15).
The spiritual power of fasting
In Luke’s account, we read that Jesus fasted, or “ate nothing,” during those 40 days (Luke 4:2).
The tempter is still busy today. He’s still bombarding us with alluring temptations to sin.Jesus fasted for a specific reason: to strengthen His relationship with the Father by humbling Himself. He understood that in order to withstand Satan’s temptations, He needed to be as close to His Father as possible. Fasting is a powerful tool to help “loose the bonds of wickedness” (Isaiah 58:6). Jesus had no bonds of wickedness to loosen, but He knew He would face intense temptation to do wickedness.
His weakened state added to the meaningfulness of the encounter and victory. Instead of confronting the tempter at the pinnacle of His physical strength and resolve, He faced the tempter at His absolute weakest point—physically famished (Matthew 4:2).
Fasting helps us draw closer to God—a vital key to resisting temptations (James 4:7).
To learn more about the power and importance of fasting, read “How to Fast as a Christian.”
The first temptation: stones into bread
Satan’s first temptation was specifically tailored to exploit Jesus’ weak physical condition.
“Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread’” (Matthew 4:3).
Because hunger was Jesus’ biggest vulnerability at this moment, Satan zeroed in on that and tried to tempt Jesus to use His power and authority to turn stones into bread.
Satan appealed to both the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh by trying to persuade Jesus to desire the bread so much that He’d perform a miracle to get it. Jesus was given the ability to perform miracles, but He was committed to only using that power to serve His Father’s purpose. Jesus’ miracles were done selflessly, with the goal of benefiting others and glorifying the Father.
Would Jesus obey Satan and create bread for Himself?
Jesus answered by quoting Scripture: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (verse 4).
Instead of giving in or simply saying no, Jesus answered by pointing to a scripture on seeking God’s will above all else. Satan tried to divert Jesus’ desires to the physical, but Jesus maintained His focus on the spiritual.
The second temptation: jump off a building and trust God
For Satan’s next attempt, he transported Jesus into Jerusalem and placed Him at the highest point of the temple. Many believe this was the southeast corner of the temple, some 450 feet above the Kidron Valley—roughly the equivalent height of a 41-story skyscraper.
As Jesus looked down at the steep drop, Satan said, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down” (verse 6).
Satan then quoted two scriptures concerning God’s protection (Psalm 91:11-12), goading Christ to jump and trust God to save Him. The problem was that Satan was not only quoting those verses out of context, but completely distorting their meaning. This highlights the reality that Satan knows the Bible and is skilled at twisting it.
Jesus saw right through this gross misuse of Scripture and dismantled it by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”
The scriptures Satan quoted were about trusting God to protect us when we are in dangerous circumstances outside of our control. To intentionally put ourselves in harm’s way and expect God to protect us is testing God.
A Christian should trust God—but never tempt Him. God expects us to do all we can to live safely, while trusting Him to protect us from dangers we can’t control.
The third temptation: I’ll give you everything if . . .
After his first two temptations failed, Satan decided to pull out all the stops and tempt Jesus with more than just bread or God’s protection.
This time he offered Jesus . . . everything. Literally.
Satan took Jesus up to a massive mountain and “showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). This would have included the vast Roman Empire to the west, the sprawling Parthian Empire to the east, and even the Han Dynasty ruling throughout China and central Asia.
He said he would hand over his earthly authority . . . if Jesus would just “fall down and worship” him (Matthew 4:9).
Satan’s final ploy was an appeal to “the pride of life”—the desire for personal power and glory.
Satan could legitimately make this offer because he currently has dominion over this earth (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19). (Since Satan is a liar at his core, one has to wonder if he would have really followed through on this offer.)
Of course, it would have been tempting for Jesus to take that authority and immediately right all the wrongs of the world. Satan’s offer could have also seemed like a shortcut to kingship that wouldn’t require suffering and dying.
Jesus is destined to rule the earth, but He was not to take rule at that time or in that way. Any change He could have made as a temporal king would pale in comparison to the transformation He will oversee as the King of the coming Kingdom of God. To learn more, read “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
So, Jesus commanded, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve’” (Matthew 4:10).
By rejecting Satan’s ploy, Jesus unequivocally defeated His adversary. After offering Jesus the entire earth, Satan had nothing higher to offer.
We are told simply that “the devil left Him” (verse 11).
Three lessons for Christians today
The tempter is still busy today. He’s still bombarding us with alluring temptations to sin.
Here are three lessons we can learn about overcoming temptation from Jesus’ example:
- Grow closer to God by practicing the spiritual disciplines. The four basic spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting, meditation and Bible study. We are told Jesus fasted during this period, but His fasting was undoubtedly combined with prayer and meditation (focused thought) on God’s Word.
Though Jesus was physically at His weakest point, practicing the spiritual disciplines helped Him be at His spiritual peak. The closer we are to God, the stronger we will be when faced with temptation to sin. We can be spiritually strong while being physically weak (2 Corinthians 12:10).
- Jesus had God’s Word in His heart and mind. Jesus answered with Scripture every temptation Satan lobbed at Him. He was able to do that because He had read, studied and internalized the Scriptures. He applied the principle of Psalm 119:11: “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”
The more God’s Word is in our heart, the more likely we will be able to draw on it when we need it.
- Jesus rejected temptation quickly. The Gospel accounts don’t describe Jesus taking time to ponder Satan’s offers. He didn’t linger over His options or dwell on the sin’s possible benefits. He refused to let the temptations linger in His mind. One of the key words the Bible uses when talking about temptation is flee (1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). In other words, run away!
Don’t let the temptation simmer in your mind as an option! Once you identify sin for what it is, flee from it. Physically, that means removing yourself from its presence. Mentally, that means quickly cutting it off as an option.
The wilderness temptation is one of the most important and instructive periods of Jesus’ physical life. Since we all face temptations on a daily basis, we should study this confrontation so we can better resist sin and . . .
Walk as He walked.
Sidebar: What We Should Not Learn From the Wilderness Temptation
It’s important that we consider two lessons we should not draw from this confrontation.
- Though fasting is a major key to maintaining our spiritual health, we shouldn’t attempt a 40-day fast. It would simply be dangerous for people today to attempt to fast this long, and many would do serious damage to their body or die. Most fasts described in the Bible lasted 24 hours, but some lasted longer. If you decide to attempt a multiple-day fast, deeply consider what your motivations are for doing so and, possibly, consult your physician. God wants us to be spiritually strong to serve Him with all our strength and might. We can’t do that if we are famished and have no energy due to prolonged fasting.
- We should never verbally engage with the demonic realm. Though Jesus did answer Satan, His answers were short and directly from Scripture. Jesus didn’t try to reason with or converse with Satan. If you feel you are being bothered by evil spirits, you need to mentally flee from them, pray for deliverance (Matthew 6:13) and seek counsel from a minister of Jesus Christ. Never try to talk to or reason with a demon. The demonic realm is much more powerful and cunning than any of us can comprehend, so we should draw close to God, who is much more powerful.