Why do we fail at temptations? Why are temptations so hard to have victory over? Temptations can be frustrating because it can seem like it is failure after failure. Sometimes it can even seem like there is no hope for success. One of the reasons we struggle with temptations is that we do not see what is underneath the temptation. We often do not see what the temptation is really about. We can think that we just have these certain desires and this is the ultimate problem. But our failure at temptations goes far deeper than this. Jesus is going to show us what is underneath Satan’s temptations and how he gets underneath these temptations shows us the path to success when Satan comes against us.
One of the important pictures we have been noticing with the arrival of Jesus is that he is tracing Israel’s history. We have seen Herod act like Pharaoh, ordering all the male children two years old and under in Bethlehem and the region to be killed. We have seen Jesus pictured as the new Israel leaving Egypt because, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Jesus has passed through the waters of baptism just as Israel passed through the Red Sea. After Israel went through the Red Sea, God took Israel into the wilderness for a series of trials. God was testing Israel to see what was in their heart, whether they would obey the Lord or not (Deuteronomy 8:2). During Israel’s time in the wilderness, Israel failed terribly. They did not trust God, they complained about their circumstances, they made a golden calf and worshiped it, and refused to enter the promised land so that they died in the wilderness. You will notice that the picture with Jesus tracing Israel’s history continues. After Jesus went through the water, he now is led by God into the wilderness in Matthew 4:1.
Matthew 4:2 says that Jesus was fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. This reminds us of Israel being in the wilderness for 40 years. But the stronger connection is to Moses. Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights and was fasting before he received the law from God.
When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water. (Deuteronomy 9:9 ESV)
So as we approach Matthew 4 it is important to see what is being set up for us. We can read these temptations and feel like these are not the same temptations that we experience. But we are going to see that he actually is being tempted just like us. Jesus is going to take the same path of trials and temptations that Israel took when in the wilderness. Let’s look at how Jesus succeeds where Israel failed which gives us hope for our battle with Satan.
We Do Not Live By Bread Alone (4:3-4)
The first temptation is for Jesus to command the stone to become loaves of bread (4:3). Now as we read these three temptations, we can wonder what is wrong with doing what the tempter is asking Jesus to do. The answers that Jesus provides show us what would have been wrong. This is always our issue with temptations. We look at the temptation and do not see what is wrong with doing it. Why not just make bread, jump off the temple, or bow down? Jesus’ answers show us the problem and help us see how to get underneath the temptation so we can have the same victory as him. So look at the first answer in verse 4.
But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4 ESV)
The quotation comes from Deuteronomy 8:2-3. Listen to what Moses said about Israel’s failure in the wilderness.
And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2–3 ESV)
What did Jesus understand that Israel failed to understand? Jesus understood that life is in God’s hands and not in our physical circumstances. The reason for the wilderness and the reason for Israel’s hunger was to show them that God would take care of them. The people did not have to take care of themselves. They were to learn that even if you were without food for month like Israel was, God was going to provide for them. Jesus has victory over the temptation because he knew that his life was in God’s hands. He did not need to panic because he had been without food for 40 days and was in a wilderness. He did not use his own ability to take care of himself. God was going to take care of him.
Please think about how many temptations boil down to trusting God to meet our needs. We fail in sexual temptations because we do not believe that God will provide for our needs. We fail in controlling our emotions, showing anger, malice, slander, and outbursts because we do not believe that God will take care of our needs. We need to take care of it ourselves. The reason we are anxious and worry is because we do not believe God will provide but we need to take care of it ourselves. What is underneath our temptations is whether we will trust God to provide what we need. We think that we do live by bread alone. We think that our lives depend on our power. But God was teaching that our lives are dependent on God and not ourselves. We will always fail at temptations when we think that we are the ones taking care of ourselves, failing to see that it is God who is taking care of us. God has brought us to this moment. God has us where we are. Do you believe God will give you what you need today? We live because God says so, not because we have bread.
We Do Not Test God (4:5-7)
The second temptation is for Jesus to show himself to be the Son of God by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. Again, we may not understand what is the problem with the temptation. But the answer shows us the problem. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy again.
You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 6:16–17 ESV)
To understand the temptation, we need to recall what happened at Massah as Jesus quotes. In Exodus 17 Israel was fighting with Moses because they did not have water to drink while in the wilderness. Listen to the conclusion of that complaining. The place was called Massah and Meribah “because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7). The test was not really about the water. The test was seeing if the people knew that God was with them. Satan is tempting Jesus to throw himself off the temple and have the angels lift him up so that everyone could see that God was with him. But Jesus responds that he will not put the Lord to the test by having God prove through a demonstration of power that God is with him. The people of Israel put God to the test by wanting a demonstration of power before they would put their trust in him.
Now remember that God had already proved he was with the people through the exodus. He had Pharaoh let the people go and had parted the Red Sea in an amazing miracle. God had already proven he was with Jesus at the baptism, with the heavens opening and declaring that this is his Son. So what was the temptation? The temptation is that we need God to show his power in our lives before we will put our trust in him. We want God to do something. If God will do what I want, then I will give my life to him and trust him. If God will act for me, then I will act for him.
Jesus is getting underneath the temptation so we can see the real temptation. Consider how we can think that the cross was not enough to show me that God is with me. Remember that the apostle Paul said in Romans 5:8 that the cross is the proof of God’s love for you. But life gets hard and we think God needs to do something else to show us that he is with us and loves us. God, you need to fix this. God, you need to change this. God, how could you have let this happen? God, why aren’t you doing something now?
What demands are you putting on God? What do you think God should have to do for your life? What do you deserve God to do for you? Has God wronged you in your life? Think about how many life trials challenge us to want to challenge God. We think our lives should not go like this. God should have made my life different. God should not have had this happen to me, my family, my work, my money, or something else. Trials show that we believe that God is with us or show that we think God needs to show that he is with us. Do you trust God or do you think God needs to do something more for you before you will trust him?
We Only Worship God (4:8-10)
The final temptation has Jesus seeing all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. All of these things will be given to Jesus if he will fall down and worship the devil. Now this temptation seems more obvious to us about why it is wrong. You cannot worship anyone else but the Lord. I think we understand that truth on paper. The problem is that this is easy to acknowledge when we are not in a trial and not being tempted. But the temptation is stronger than we realize when we are tempted and tried. The answer Jesus gives helps us understand what is happening in this temptation. There are many scriptures that tell us to worship God alone. But he quotes from Deuteronomy again. Listen to the quotation.
It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you — for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God — lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 6:13–15 ESV)
Now Moses is giving this sermon to Israel, reminding them of their failures in the wilderness so that they will not repeat the same error when they enter the land. Moses is reminding them of the golden calf incident in Exodus 32 when God’s anger burned against them and the people were going to be consumed. Why did Israel fail with the golden calf when Moses was on the mountain receiving the law? Israel needed to trust what they could see. Remember that the people did not renounce or reject God. They said they were worshiping the Lord. But this was the way for them to worship while still doing what they wanted to do. Worship God and fulfill all your desires at the same time. Say you worship God but get what you want. So the scripture says that the people rose up to eat, drink, and play (Exodus 32:6). They lived with no restraint before the Lord.
This is the temptation before Jesus. Just get what you want. You can have all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory. The temptation is also before us. The temptation is that you can worship and serve the true God while doing what you want to do. God is showing us that you are not worshiping him when you do this, but other gods. You are making priority for your desires. You are making what you want your god. We see this temptation today. I can be a Christian even though I do not change my life at all and do what I want to do. I can be a Christian but never assemble with other people of God. I can be a Christian and stay in my sins. I can be a Christian and reject whatever laws I want and keep whatever laws I want. We are worshiping our gods when we do this. When we suggest that God will be fine or God will accept if I do something my way, we are worshiping another god.
We say that we would never worship another god. But we are worshiping another god like Israel did when we turn to the physical for our hope, our help, our satisfaction, our joy, and our rescue. We worship another god when we do what we desire rather than what God desires. God did not desire for Jesus to receive the kingdoms of the earth and their glory by bowing down to the devil. God was going to give those things to Jesus through the cross. The path to victory over temptation is seeing how often we think we can bypass God’s will for us by doing what will meet our desires but still call it worshiping God.
So Jesus was tempted just like us. But Jesus succeeded where Israel failed. Jesus succeeded because he knew that his life was in God’s hands. We do not live by our power of provision but by God’s help and blessings. Jesus succeeded because he knew that God was with him and he did not need another display of power to prove it. We have the cross to know what God is with us and we do not need to tell God how to run our lives or how to do things differently. God is with you no matter what. God is with you if he leads you through the valley of the shadow of death or if he leads to the mountain peaks of joy. Jesus succeeded because he knew that worshiping God meant doing God’s will and not seeking his own desires. We do not live for our own desires but for God’s glory so that in the end we will be glorified by God.
We can have victory over temptation if we will look underneath our temptations at the root of what the devil is putting in front of us. Every temptation ultimately challenges whether we believe that God is with us, that God will provide for us, that God is for our good, and will deliver on his promises to us. Jesus had victory in the wilderness so that he could set us free from these enslaving temptations and sins. Jesus had victory so that he could stand before the Father on our behalf, interceding for us when we fail. His success shows that he is the King who has come to save us from our sins.