Before His ministry began, Jesus faced intense temptation by Satan in the wilderness. But why was He tempted? What was on the line?
In the last article in this “Walk as He Walked” series, we saw that after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, He was filled with God’s Spirit (Matthew 3:16; Luke 4:1). Jesus would especially need it for what He would experience next.
After He was baptized, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
What would occur in that wilderness—likely the Judean desert—over the next 40 days would have eternal ramifications. Aside from His crucifixion, this was probably the most critical experience in Jesus’ entire human life.
Jesus confronted His greatest adversary, Satan the devil, at His physically weakest point.
But before we examine the confrontation itself, we have to understand why it was such a pivotal event—not only in Jesus’ life, but for the entire plan of God.
What was at stake during those 40 days in the wilderness?
God’s plan required a Savior
To understand the seriousness of these 40 days, we have to understand this basic truth: God’s plan of salvation required a Savior.
Back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the choice to obey or sin. They could have received eternal life and set their offspring on the path of righteousness and peace . . . if they had chosen obedience. But the serpent entered the picture and tempted them to choose sin (Genesis 3:1-6).
Paul later described the consequence of this choice. “Through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, emphasis added throughout).
“Death spread to all men” because, as Paul wrote a chapter later, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin, as defined in the Bible, is breaking the laws of God (1 John 3:4). God’s laws beautifully define how to live a righteous life (Psalm 119:35, 172).
But those laws have another side—a curse. That curse is the death penalty that hangs over the head of every person who breaks them.
Because Adam and everyone after him broke God’s law and sinned, the death penalty has hung over all humanity.
Jesus had to deliberately decide to resist and reject sin—every second, minute, hour and day of His 33-plus years of life.But God’s purpose for mankind was not for us to commit sin and then die for eternity.
But that couldn’t happen if everyone were to sin and die as the curse demands.
So, God’s plan included a way to address this problem.
The requirements of the Savior
The Savior would take the curse—the death penalty—upon Himself to make it possible for us to be saved from eternal death and live forever.
But, in order for God’s plan to provide a Savior, two conditions had to be met:
- The Savior’s life had to be worth more than the sum total of everyone who would live and die throughout all history.
- The Savior had to live a perfect, sinless life in the human flesh. The Savior could not take on the curse for others if He earned the curse Himself (Romans 8:3).
The first requirement was fulfilled when God the Word willingly emptied Himself of the powers and glories of divinity to come to earth as a flesh-and-blood man, Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-7). Because He was God and “all things were made through Him” (John 1:3), He could die for all humankind.
The second requirement would be determined by Jesus Himself throughout His life. Would He sin or remain sinless?
Could Jesus have sinned?
Becoming flesh meant that sinlessness was not a given for Jesus. He was not a robot, preprogrammed to be mentally and physically incapable of sin. Had He been physically and mentally unable to sin, living a perfect life would have much less meaning.
For His perfect life to be a meaningful example for us, He had to experience temptation—and completely reject it.
Jesus had to deliberately decide to resist and reject sin—every second, minute, hour and day of His 33-plus years of life. With the help of His Father, He set His will to never let the process of sin, later described in James 1:13-14, occur in His mind. He never allowed temptation, the presentation of sin as an option, to grow into enticement or into a sinful act.
God’s plan to establish His Kingdom on earth categorically depended on Jesus’ living a completely perfect life and resisting temptation (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus had to succeed where Adam failed.
That’s why those 40 days of temptation were so critical. Jesus literally carried the fate of the entire world on His shoulders.
Why did Satan tempt Jesus in the wilderness?
The Gospels tell us Satan the devil tempted Jesus throughout those 40 days in the wilderness. What was Satan’s motivation?
First, consider the meaning of his name. Satan, in both the Old and New Testaments, means adversary.
Satan is the adversary—the opponent, the enemy—of God and His plan. The Bible reveals he was created as a beautiful angelic being, one of the most powerful and majestic in all the angelic realm.
But something changed in him. Through pride, his faithfulness to His Creator morphed into arrogance and a lust for power. This resulted in his mounting an angelic rebellion to try to overthrow God and enthrone himself as the Most High (Isaiah 14:13-14).
Later on, he tried to subvert God’s plan by tempting Eve and Adam to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden. Though he did succeed in causing sin to enter humanity, his efforts did not derail the plan—since God already had a provision in place for a Savior if man were to sin (1 Peter 1:20).
Throughout the remainder of the Old Testament, Satan appeared again and again—either by implication or by name—trying to derail or obstruct God’s plan by attacking His people.
Sometimes his efforts failed, but at other times he did successfully lead some astray. Despite his successes, he was never able to completely sabotage the plan.
But when his Creator came to earth as a Man in the first century, Satan saw his greatest opportunity. He understood that if he could influence Jesus to commit just one sin—no matter how seemingly small—he could end the plan once and for all.
He knew that if he could convince Christ to sin, he could squelch mankind’s hope of ever being forgiven of sin. Without the opportunity to be forgiven of sin, no one could be released from the death penalty. Without freedom from the death penalty, eternal life in God’s family would become impossible.
In sum, he understood that without a Savior, there could be no salvation.
Satan’s attempt to destroy his Creator
But there was another, even more sinister, motive behind Satan’s efforts to tempt Christ. His goal wasn’t just to embarrass, weaken or delegitimize the Christ. No, his real goal was to murder mankind’s Redeemer. Satan’s goal was to tempt Jesus to sin so that He would have to pay the penalty of death for His own sin.
Satan is a murderer (John 8:44). His desire was to tempt Jesus to sin in an effort to end His life forever.
As he stood face-to-face with Jesus, Satan was, in a sense, making a second attempt to overthrow his Creator, this time by tempting Him to sin and earn its wages—eternal death. If Satan had succeeded, Jesus would have died for eternity and the Father would have remained alone for eternity . . . without His Son, without a family.
Without the Christ as King over the Kingdom of God, mankind would have no hope of salvation. By trying to tempt Jesus to sin, Satan was trying both to murder humanity’s Redeemer and to maintain his authority and freedom.
The highest possible stakes
When we read about those 40 days through this prism, the confrontation becomes more momentous. Jesus would emerge either disqualified as Savior or sinless and spiritually ready to take on any temptation that would be thrown at Him the next 3½ years.
God’s plan, which required Jesus to be a sinless Savior, hinged on the outcome of this monumental confrontation.
In the next article in this series, we’ll examine the clever temptation tactics Satan used—and how Jesus dismantled and defeated each one. We’ll see how His example can help us defeat the temptations we face as we strive to . . .
Walk as He walked.