by Joel Beeke
A perpetual state of war exists between Christ, the champion of God, and the Devil, the prince of this world (Gen. 3:15). Matthew 4:1–11 tells of one of Christ’s great victories over the Devil and the power of sin. At the end of a long period of fasting, the Devil confronts Jesus with three temptations.
In the first of these temptations, the Devil uses the same tactic he used on Eve in the garden of Eden. “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (4:3 kjv and hereafter). Satan is referring to the words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). In effect, Satan says, “Yea, hath God said…? Do you really think God means that you are the Son of God? If so, why the hunger pains now? Prove that you are the Son of God by turning these stones into bread.”
The Devil is clever; he knows that hunger is a sharp sword. And he knows how to use truth to his own advantage. After all, God can do all things; He is almighty. If Jesus is the Son of God, He must be almighty too. All He has to do is speak one word, and a table will be prepared for Him in the desert.
Jesus does not yield to the Devil. He refuses to use His divine power to relieve His physical hunger, choosing instead to do the will of His Father and endure suffering. “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (4:4), He tells the Devil. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 and says in effect: “Bread is not sufficient. I am dependent on my Father and His word, not on bread. I live out of His hand. I do not want bread if my Father does not want to give it to me.” Jesus refuses to separate the gift of bread from the Giver of bread, as Adam did. Adam pushed aside the Giver of fruit when he reached out for the gift of fruit.
Next, the Devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in the Holy City — the most sacred place in all the earth. “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down,” the Devil says. He quotes Psalm 91:11–12, saying that the angels will protect Jesus if He jumps (Matt. 4:6). In a moment Christ would then be recognized all around the religious world as the Son of God.
The temptation for Christ is to reveal Himself to Israel in a dazzling display of power and supernatural privilege rather than through the way of suffering and rejection as the Man of Sorrows. The Devil is offering Jesus a shortcut rather than the long route of suffering and death.
This was no small temptation, for Jesus wanted to reveal Himself as the Messiah. Yet He knew that following the Devil’s suggestion would bypass His Father’s will, which said that the Son must first suffer and then be glorified. Christ’s exaltation would come, but only after His work in the state of humiliation was finished. Therefore, He said to the Devil: “It is written again, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God’” (v. 7). This time Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, referring to Israel’s temptations at Massah, where the unbelieving children of Israel demand some sensational proof that the Lord was among them (Ex. 17:7).
Finally, the Devil takes Jesus to a high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9).
“All the kingdoms” — what a tremendous claim! The Devil has the audacity to offer Christ all the kingdoms of the earth on his own terms, as if he were the rightful lord over them all. Luther writes: “He who in the first temptation showed himself as a black Devil, and in the second, as a light, white Devil using even God’s Word, now displays himself as a divine, majestic Devil, who claims to be God himself!”
Still today, we face the temptation to sell our souls to the Devil in exchange for the vain pleasures and treasures of this world. We must resist him as Jesus did, quoting from Deuteronomy: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10). Jesus again refused to obtain the crown without enduring the cross.
What a contrast between Matthew 4 and Genesis 3! Christ is victorious when tempted by the Devil in a barren wilderness, whereas Adam failed when tempted by the Devil in a beautiful garden. Christ is victorious on an empty stomach, having not eaten for forty days (Matt. 4:2), whereas Adam failed on a full stomach, being able to eat freely of every tree in the garden but one. And, as the New England Primer (a seventeenth-century puritan textbook for children) put it, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
But, thanks be to God, Jesus has overcome the Devil, so we can overcome him, too. In Christ, by faith, we are called to live by God’s Word, and to resist the Devil, using the same mighty weapon — the Word of God.