“Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23). John baptized Him, and the Holy Spirit anointed Him for ministry (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18). Luke then adds, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). The Gospel of Matthew puts it this way; “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matt. 4:1-2).
We immediately associate these texts with two Old Testament circumstances. First, Israel was in the wilderness for forty years. God himself states the reason for this wilderness experience. “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” (Deut. 8:2).
The wilderness experience was for testing to expose and reveal the content of the people’s hearts. God already knew the content of their hearts. He wanted the people to see and learn the real content of their hearts.
Second, the word translated “tempted” can also be translated as “tested.” From God’s perspective, He tested Jesus to expose the content of His heart. From the devil’s perspective, he tempted Jesus to sin as he tempted and succeeded with Adam in the Garden.
These two similarities remind us that Jesus is the “last Adam,” or “the second man” (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). He enters the world as the promised seed (Gen. 3:15). He fulfills His covenant responsibilities to His Father where Adam failed. Jesus Christ also represents His people, both Jew and Gentile. Thus He displays His love for His Father and sustains these tests and temptations on behalf of His people. Within this framework, Scripture calls us to understand why the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
When the confrontation began, “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”’” (Matt. 4:3-4). The devil provokes the Savior. “Son of God, indeed! Prove your status here and now. Adam failed long ago in this test and displayed for all generations his true heart. Use your divine power to gratify your fleshly desires and hunger.”
Jesus’ response is direct and straightforward. He quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3. In doing so, Jesus shows that He realizes that His confrontation with the devil is a test of His heart (Deut. 8:2). Will He keep His Father’s commandments or not? Jesus also knows that Deuteronomy is the second iteration of God’s covenant; it is the second law. The heart of the law is love. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5).
In essence, Jesus says to the devil, “No devil, I will not turn rocks into fresh-baked loaves to satisfy myself at your command. Because I love my Father, I will carry out His will. I will live by His word. I will keep covenant with Him.
Satan counters Scripture with Scripture. “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” ‘” (Matt. 4:6). The devil issues his challenge quoting Psalm 91:11-12. He conveniently does not mention verse 13, “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” The devil can quote Scripture as well as we can. He knows the Bible better than we do.
The test is once again to prove His status as the Son of God. God will protect His Son. But Jesus will not take the bait. “Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” ‘” (Matt. 4:7). Once again, Jesus quotes God’s covenant. He references Deuteronomy 6:6. In so doing, He maintains His posture toward the devil. Jesus displays His heart. He loves His Father. He will not compromise. He will keep covenant with His Father. He will keep covenant with His Father and do so for you and me
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matt. 4:8-9). Jesus knew His Father promised Him peoples and nations. “I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). On His part, Jesus must be “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). “Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,” ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10). Again, our Lord declares His covenant love for His Father. “I will not bow to you, devil. I love My Father. I will keep covenant with My Father. I will keep covenant with My Father for My people.”
Ironically, the devil promises Jesus the ministry of the angels if He will obey him. However, as a result of His covenant faithfulness to His Father, “The devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matt. 4:11).
What are we to make of this work of Christ? Merely quoting Scripture is not the answer to combating the devil. Yes, we must know and memorize Scripture. More importantly, we must live according to Scripture. Following Jesus Christ, we must lovingly keep covenant with God, our Father. Admittedly, we will not do so perfectly. And so, part of our covenant love for the Father is to admit our sins and failures and seek God’s forgiveness based on Christ’s death on the cross for us.
At the same time, Jesus Christ maintained true covenant love with His Father, and He did so perfectly. As C. S. Lewis famously observes in Mere Christianity, “Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means” (New York: Macmillan, 1958, 110). Yes, Jesus Christ pressed through every temptation and sustained every test. As the Second Adam, He fulfilled covenant love to the utmost on behalf of you and me. On the one hand, Adam’s sin and covenant failure becomes our sin and covenant failure (Rom. 5:18a, 19a).
However, on the other hand, Christ’s covenant-keeping love becomes our covenant-keeping love (Rom 5:18b, 19b). It was for this reason that the Spirit led our Savior into the wilderness to begin His ministry and to press through every temptation and sustain every test. And as already observed, Jesus Christ is obedient in covenant-keeping love to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). This covenant-keeping love is a gift to you and me through faith in Him. Trust Christ’s covenant-keeping love for you.