Jesus’ Battle in the Wilderness for Our Good (Part 2)

It’s amazing to consider that Jesus did not have to go into the wilderness and do battle against Satan’s temptations. He goes, in part, to fulfill his role as the messiah. He also does battle in the wilderness, in part, for our good. In this series we are working our way through each of the three temptations that Satan offers Jesus. Today we will consider the temptation to test God. Jesus refuses to test God both in our place and for our good.

The second temptation focuses primarily on abusing spiritual power for the purpose of a show. Satan tempts the Lord Jesus to perform some miraculous power as a way of simply showing off that power. We read:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:5-6)

It’s important to note that the first two temptations begins with a similar phrase: if you are the Son of God. The phrase is intended to cast doubt or to raise question. It echoes Satan’s tactics from the Garden, “Did God really say.” Jesus, however, does not feel the need to prove His messianic role.

Notice also that here Satan advances in his attack. This time he quotes Scripture directly to Jesus, specifically parts of Psalm 91. Satan knows the Word of God and is not afraid to use it, but like a spiritual abuser he twists it to meet his own agenda. He is not interested in the Word of God as the authoritative truth, but as a means to manipulating Jesus into playing his game. The objective: get Jesus to abuse his spiritual power and put God to the test.

Israel had a long line of putting God to the test. In Numbers 14 we read that Israel “put [God] to the test” ten times:

Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. (Numbers 14:20-23)

Of course, their disobedience supersedes ten occurrences, but “testing the Lord” specifically was a common enough occurrence for the people of Israel. They did not trust the Lord nor respond in obedience to His commands. Often they believed the reality of their circumstances more than the promises and track record of God. We, of course, are not any different.

In the New Testament others had sought to use Jesus’ powers for their own end too. They had sought to make Jesus perform signs and wonders for their own pleasure and gain. In John 6 Jesus rebukes the crowd who comes not because they are genuine seekers but because “they ate their fill of bread” (John 6:25-27). Jesus’ signs and miraculous works are not a vending machine of goods and services for our own delight. The works of Christ serve a greater purpose, one given to Him by the Father. And Jesus knows, you are not to put the Lord to the test.

Once again Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation with Scripture; replying to the Tempter’s misuse of God’s Word with an appropriate use. He says:

“Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Matthew 4:7)

Jesus knows what Satan is doing and how he is twisting Scripture and tempting Jesus to misuse both truth and power in order to play games. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 back to Satan in order to demonstrate that He knows what the Tempter is trying to do, and to prove that it won’t work. Jesus will not play games with truth and power. He will not test the Lord.

We are not so good at resisting this temptation. How often do we pray in order to spend what God gives us on our own selfish pleasures and pursuits (James 4:3). We ask with an intent to manipulate and use God’s power and kindness to serve our agendas, to get what we want. How sinful are our hearts that we can use even spiritual gifts like prayer for selfish purposes! How often do we use truth and power for wicked ends. We are prone to twist Scripture to justify our sins and behaviors. We are prone to use God to get things that would allow us to escape our dependency on Him. We fall prey to Satan’s temptation and we put the Lord to the test. Jesus did not! He used truth and power righteously, in our place, because we would not!

The author of Hebrews illustrates Christ for us in this type of temptation. In Hebrews 3 he references Israel’s testing of the Lord, building an entire case for the ways in which the present generation (and us too) can repeat their sin. We read:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
    on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
    and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
    they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
    ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God (Hebrews 3:7-12)

The author quotes Psalm 95 and points out that despite having every reason to believe and to trust the Lord, Israel did not trust. They had seen signs and wonders in the Exodus event, but now they wanted more. Now those signs and wonders were insufficient for their needs. They put the Lord to test. The point for us, however, is that if Israel saw signs and wonders and still sought to use the Lord, then what hope is there for us who have not seen these same signs? How can we evade the temptation to manipulate God’s grace and power? Hebrews 4 begins by warning us “let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach” God’s rest.

Our only hope is that we would “rest” from our works (v. 10), and turns to Jesus our Great High Priest. This famous passage in the end of Hebrews 4 is built off of this comparison between Israel’s testing the Lord and our own proclivity to repeat that sin. Our only hope is Jesus:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (v. 14-15)

Jesus has been tempted in every way as we are. He was tempted to abuse truth and power for the wrong purposes; back in the wilderness Satan tried to get Him to do this very thing. Yet, Jesus never gave in to that temptation. He was without sin! Christ fulfilled what Israel could not, and what we cannot.

Yet, He fulfilled it for our righteousness and to empower us to fight that temptation now through Him. When James warns us about not praying with a bent towards selfish gain, the temptation to manipulate and use God’s power for our own agenda, he adds a hope to the warning. We can, he says, “resist the devil” and “he will flee from you” (4:7). When we submit to God instead of Satan, James says, we can resist temptation. As Christ resisted Satan on our behalf, so we can now too resist the enemy. We do not have to fall prey to that temptation to test the Lord.

The battle of the Christian life is hard. We are tempted on every side to sin against the Lord. To disbelieve, disobey, and even to abuse God’s Word and power. Thanks be to God that Jesus not only overcame every temptation on our behalf but He also empowers us to do battle! Because of Christ you too can resist the devil!

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