Temptation: Led by the Spirit

Little is known of the first 30 or so years of the Lord’s earthly life or of what temptations He faced during those silent years. Was there a certain restraint on the part of Satan, owing to the fact that Jesus was living and serving “under the radar,” with no public discourses, miracles or disciples? Or did those years, even then, include a constant malicious onslaught by the tempter?

Whatever the case, there was nothing coincidental or restrained about the timing and ferocity of what has been called The Temptation of Jesus.1 The three synoptic Gospels all record it, with varying and complementary detail. Jesus the Nazarene emerged from Galilee as the Coming One John had been announcing and, suddenly, jarringly, presented Himself for baptism at the Jordan. John’s protests were quieted, and he complied with the Lord’s request, simultaneously setting in motion his own exit from and the Lord’s entrance onto the stage of public service. The sequence of events which occur immediately after the Lord came up out  of the water gives us reason to back up and re-read these sections. The Son is in the act of praying, the Spirit is descending, and the Father is speaking. “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Mat 3:17)2 is no sooner uttered than the Spirit, who had just come upon Him, “straightway… driveth [cast] him forth into the wilderness” (Mar 1:12 RV). The Man proclaimed publicly will also be proven privately. Temptation in the life of a believer, if nothing else, will demonstrate in private the spiritual realities of the heart’s condition.

The Lord’s clothes apparently hadn’t even dried yet as He was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. Both Mark and Luke indicate the temptation was ongoing over a period of 40 days, while Matthew and Luke record the three-part climax at the end. Here, remarkably, we have the perfect Man being both led by the Spirit and tempted by the devil. Let every believer take heart. While Satan seizes the opportunity to target the carnally- minded, he will take special note of the Spirit-led believer. It is not the presence of temptation that indicates the strength of one’s dependence on God but the response to it.

If Christ is impeccable (that is, He cannot sin) – and we believe He is – was the temptation real for Him? A believer finds temptation to be much more difficult than it ever was as an unbeliever, for he has the power to withstand more since the Spirit resides within. Imagine, if we could, how much more pronounced, then, would be the weight of temptation faced by a perfectly holy Person. In Him there isn’t the slightest shadow of darkness to cooperate with temptation’s wiles and, consequently, reduce its weight. I can remember a school bridge-building assignment in which each team was given the same dimensions but freedom as to how the wooden structure would be built. The time came when each in turn was tested over a span by adding more and more weights. Some failed early on, with very little weight added. In the end, only the strongest bridges bore the heaviest load. Christ has felt and borne far more weight from temptation than we ever could.

Satan paid close attention to the Father’s commendation at the baptism of Jesus: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” It is by cunning, intelligent design, then, that he begins the final showdown of this 40-day episode with the taunt, “If you are the Son of God …” The temptation was for Him (and is for us) an issue of identity (Are you really His Son?), of affection (Are you really loved by Him?), and affirmation (Are you really pleasing to Him?). He would later level the same mocking taunt at Calvary, as four different groups of people would hurl stinging variations of “If you are the Son … the King … the Christ … save yourself … come down from the cross!” Because his goal is to make us forget what God has made us, “we must be clear about Satan’s goal in temptation. It’s not merely to get us to do something bad. His goal is to turn us away from our true identity as God’s people.”3

In the Temptation, we note the devil’s constant attempt to direct His gaze downwards, each time. Firstly, the urging inference is “Look down,”then, “Throw yourself down,” and finally, “Fall down.” In turn, He directed the devil’s attention upwards, to the “Lord your God” and to His written Word. What a different outcome there would be if in the midst of our every temptation we remembered to first redirect our gaze upwards and then respond with the holy Scriptures!

Although He was tempted in “the middle of nowhere,” it was by no means in a vacuum or without context. That is, He wasn’t just resisting temptation because it was evil; He was resisting temptation because He loved something (Someone) much more than what was being offered. His love relationship with His Father meant that obedience to Him and fellowship with Him meant always saying no to anything that challenged that relationship. While Matthew gives the chronological order of the temptations, Luke gives what we might call the moral order, corresponding with the progression of Eve’s temptation and with John’s three-fold description (1Jn 2:16). The devil urged the Lord (and urges us) to act, to have and to be, independently of God’s will and provision. He was tempted as to His appetites, His acquisitions and His aspirations. We should expect the same.

“When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time” (Luk 4:13). Satan held nothing back nor did he give up, but his purposes were frustrated, for as the Lord later noted, “he has nothing in Me” (Joh 14:30). In the desert, the One who would bear away the sin of the world has proven Himself “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb 7:26 KJV). “The first Adam was tested in the God-blessed garden and fell. The [last] Adam was tested in the God-cursed desert, and won.”4

1As per Luke 22:28, it is clear this is only one episode of what was an ongoing reality for Him up until His death.

2 Bible quotations in this article are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

3 Tim Chaddick, The Truth About Lies (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015), 69.

4 Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried (Crossway, Wheaton, IL: 2011), 41.