Who is Jesus Christ?
We should have a fairly complete answer to that question by now, because we have been given several clear answers to it in the first three chapters of Matthew.
The first verse of Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham,” and the verses that follow prove that combination of titles from Jesus’ genealogy. The account of Jesus’ birth reveals him as the one who will “save his people from their sins” (1.21) and as “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (v.23). In the second chapter, Gentile Magi seek Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (2.2) and then worship Him as God (v.11). In chapter 3 John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the messianic King. Most impressive of all, at Jesus’ baptism the voice of God is heard from heaven declaring boldly, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3.17).
Son of David. Son of Abraham. Immanuel. God with us. King of the Jews. Messiah. Son of God. What an impressive list of titles! Ah, but is Jesus really God’s Son? Is he really the Messiah? Those are questions worth asking, because not too long after this even John the Baptist will have doubts. He will send his disciples to Jesus, asking him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (11.3). Is Jesus really God’s Son? That is the question answered in this section of the Gospel, where we read of Jesus’ temptation by Satan.
Ch.4 begins by saying, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt.4.1). Since the initiative in this account is with God—the verse says, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted”—the necessary starting place for this study must be the nature of the “temptation.” In English the word tempt has come to mean almost without exception “tempt to do evil.” But the word for tempt in Hebrew & Greek means “to test or prove.” This can include a tempting to do evil, but it often means only a “testing to prove the value or good quality of,” just as a person might test gold by submersing it in acid. If the gold is pure, nothing happens. If it is not, the impurity is burned off.
It was in this sense that Abraham was “tested” by God when he was called to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Job was tested by the things that happened to him. When the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan, the act was a test designed to show that Jesus really was God’s Son and that he would follow the path God had laid out for him.
But that is only from God’s point of view! It was God’s purpose. From the point of view of the devil and his purpose, the temptation was evil, for it was an attempt to get Jesus to question God’s word, misuse God’s promises in Scripture, and try to win the world for himself by linking up with Satan rather than by going to the cross.
How did Satan go about it? Was it an internal struggle within the mind of Jesus only? Or was there an actual appearance of Satan in some form? This is not an easy question to answer. Aspects of the temptation seem to be physical, such as the suggestion to turn the stones on the ground to bread. In fact, when Satan says, “Tell these stones to become bread,” he seems to be pointing to them. Similarly, when he tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the temple, part of the temptation at least seems to include a spectacular public display. On the other hand, there is no mountain anywhere in the world, let alone in Palestine, from which the tempter and Jesus could literally see all the kingdoms of the world. That temptation seems to have been visionary. Therefore, it is difficult to say exactly how these temptations were expressed or what physical form Satan took.
What is clear from the account is that the temptations came to Jesus from outside of Himself, for we are told that the devil “came to” Jesus, “took Him” to the holy city, and “took Him” to a very high mountain. This is not unimportant, for the only way Jesus could have been tempted was from an outside force and not internally. When we are tempted, we are assailed by an enemy within as well as by temptations from without. In fact, as James says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Ja.1.14). We are tempted by our fleshly natures, as well as by the world and the devil. Jesus, who had no sinful nature, could only be tempted from something outside himself, which is what happens in this account.
But what a setting for it! We cannot miss comparing the circumstances of Jesus with those of Adam and Eve in Eden when they were similarly tempted. Adam and Eve were in paradise; Jesus was in the vast, desolate wilderness of Judah. Adam and Eve were physically content and satisfied. They were free to eat from any of the trees of the garden, save the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Jesus was hungry, having fasted for forty days and forty nights. Adam and Eve were together. They had each other for company and mutual support; Jesus was alone. Yet Adam and Eve rapidly succumbed to Satan’s wiles, carrying the entire human race into (evil and suffering) sin, misery, destruction, and both physical and spiritual death, while Jesus stood firm as the Savior who was to bring life and salvation to the race.