The Jesus defence: “It is written”

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Published: 1 October 2019 (GMT+10)
Wikimedia Commonsjudean-wilderness

The Gospels of Matthew 3:16–4:11; Mark 1:9–13; and Luke 3:21–22; 4:1–13 record that, before Jesus began His public ministry, God caused His Son to experience a very special time of testing by Satan. As Jesus had not yet called His disciples they were not witnesses of this event, so Jesus must have told them what happened, later.

Why was this temptation necessary?

As well as showing Jesus’ total submission to the will of His Father, the Father was getting His Son ready for His Messianic ministry. Hebrews 2:18 tells us that “because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” Thus, it needed to be manifest that Jesus was able to conquer Satan and all Satan’s temptations. Note that when God the Son took on human form in the Incarnation (Philippians 2:6–8), He was able to experience many things that were not possible of God in His divine essence, including being tempted, as the Gospels describe. See:

Matthew writes: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Mark tells us a little more: “The Spirit immediately drove Him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12), i.e. it was not just an impression that Jesus received, but a powerful inner compulsion—perhaps Jesus taking on Satan, as much as Satan taking on Jesus!

The first temptation

bread-stones

This occurred after Jesus had fasted for forty days and nights, in communion with God, His Father, and “was hungry”. Satan’s first recorded words to Jesus were: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:2–3).

Jesus’ reply was immediate and succinct: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, from Moses’ admonition to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land, in which he reminded them how God had provided them with food for 40 years during their time in the wilderness.

Note that Jesus did not argue, justify His actions, or discuss the matter with Satan; He quoted the Word of God. At appropriate times, Jesus did create victuals, e.g. wine from water, being the first of His signs recorded by the Apostle John, by which “His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:1–11). He also created enough bread and fish to feed two different multitudes (Matthew 14:13–21; 15:32–38). Now, however, it would seem that the Holy Spirit had led Jesus to fast in complete trust and dependence on God, so this was not to be stopped until God so directed, much less at the incitation of Satan.

As to the temptation, Satan was challenging Jesus to duplicate in modified form what God had done during Creation Week (as recorded in Genesis chapter 1), albeit now to create from existing stones rather than ex nihilo. For it to have been a real temptation, Jesus must have been able to do it, because it would be no temptation at all to you and me. So, surprisingly, this apparent questioning of Jesus’ deity by Satan was a remarkable acknowledgment by Satan that Jesus was indeed the Creator God. See:

The second temptation

Wikimedia Commonssecond-temple
The second Jewish temple (model in the Israel Museum)

“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).

Satan here misquotes Scripture (Psalm 91:11–12), to tempt Jesus to demonstrate His divinity frivolously. He leaves out words that do not suit his purpose, namely that God’s command to the angels was “to guard you in all your ways” (v. 11). All Christ’s ways were God’s ways, as they should be for us; i.e. obeying God in every aspect of our earthly life, and not trying to manipulate God by foolishly putting our lives in jeopardy.

Why did Satan invite Jesus to jump from the temple instead of from one of the many precipices in the wilderness? These had no spectators, and so the use of one of them would not have been a short cut to worldly acclaim, which was the basis of the temptation.

Once more, Jesus’ defence was not to enter into debate with Satan, but to quote the Word of God (i.e. Deuteronomy 6:16) in its proper context and to apply it to the situation accurately: “Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7).

The third temptation1

Wikimedia Commonsheraldic-crown

Luke’s slightly more detailed account of this temptation reads: “And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” (Luke 4:5–8).

Here Satan claims to control not only the bulk of the populace but in particular the Establishment, i.e. the dominant group or élite who hold power or authority in a nation or in an organisation. This is a tremendous claim by Satan, but what of Romans 13:1 that says: “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”?

Answer: First, it must have been a real temptation (perhaps via a vision of some sort). Notice that Satan said: “… for it has been delivered to me”, which Jesus did not challenge. All Satan’s power is by God’s permission, and so is allowed by God solely for God’s infinitely wise purposes,2 which God may or may not disclose at the time, but which He may cause to become evident with time. God gave our first parents, Adam and Eve, “dominion” over His creation (Genesis 1:28). But they chose Satan’s dominion over themselves, and humankind ever since has been doing the same, both individually and collectively as nations. Thus Satan became “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus did indeed call Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30), but He also said on the night before His crucifixion: “The ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11).

Again Jesus did not justify His actions, or discuss the matter with Satan. Instead, 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, cf. Deuteronomy 6:13). Luke adds: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). One such opportune time was when Peter opined that Jesus would avoid the cross (Matthew 16:21–23).

Relevance to us

Temptation is something that every Christian experiences: perhaps to disbelieve something that God says in His Word is fact, or perhaps to disobey God in some way, including declining to accept His revealed will for our life. The Apostle John urges us not to love “the world or the things in the world” which he describes as “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:15–16). But note also that no temptation, per se, is a sin until it is embraced. See Strategy of the devil.

When Jesus was tempted, He did not argue with Satan; nor should we, because if we do we will lose. Every single time, Jesus used the Word of God (“it is written”) as His method of dealing with temptation. We cannot improve on this; nor should we attempt to do so. The Apostle Paul lists the Christian’s armour in Ephesians 6:11–17. Paul tells us to “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (vv. 16–17). Faith is taking God at His word and acting upon it. So the Word of God is thus the only weapon given us by God to use in our warfare with Satan. So we need to know the Word of God; if we don’t, we’re in trouble.

Knowing the Word of God

We need to read the Bible, preferably daily, and in context—not just a couple of verses read in a hurry because breakfast is ready. Our aim should be to do as the Psalmist did: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Also we need to believe the Bible from cover to cover, not being dubious about any part of it, especially those portions that atheists attack. Notice that during His temptation, Jesus quoted from the writings of Moses—i.e. that part of the Bible which in our day has been most attacked by liberal scholars using evolutionary assumptions.

We also need to make the Bible a vital part of our thinking and decision-making. It contains the promises of God, which are there to be memorized and claimed. One of these promises is: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

References and notes

  1. The order of the temptations (with this one the third in Matthew’s gospel and the second in Luke’s gospel) appears to be chronological by Matthew, but topical by Luke who, (contrary to his usual practice), does not claim to follow a time order (as Matthew does) on this occasion. Return to text.
  2. As when God gave Satan permission to afflict Job, but with huge restriction on what Satan could do (Job 1:12 & 2:6). See also Luke 22:31 where Satan seems to demand (and thus require) God’s consent to ‘sift’ Peter. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Melvyne C.
It is written, Jesus/God of Sinai "spoke" (Exod 20:1) "from heaven" (Exod 20:22) he "created in six days" (Exod 20:8-11)! God/Jesus told Satan, we do not live on bread alone "but on every word from out of the mouth of God" (Matt 4:4). The defence of God/Jesus in dealing with Satan, He quoted the Hebrew scripture at each temptation to Satan. That example by the greatest of teachers, should also be the greatest example for us when reading scripture and witnessing. Evolutionist and long age Judaeo-Christians take note!
A most excellent article.
Nicholas D.
Such an incisive, helpful article. What a treasure trove the Scriptures are! If we have the whole Bible in our heart languages how blessed we are! How much we need to support the labours of those who translate, and distribute, the Scriptures into other languages than their own so that all nations, tribes, and tongues will be able to glorify God in heaven.
Michael B.
Keep up the excellent work. “Then you (we) will know the truth, and the truth will set you (us) free”—John 8:32
Philip U.
Thanks for ‘unpacking’ this—it’s been on the bucket list for a while to get my head around it. Things like this you just don’t seem to learn in church anymore.
Nick B.
The reason we know that Matthew’s account is the chronological account is 4:10, where Jesus commands Satan to go away. It is not possible for Satan, a demon, to not obey the command of the Son of God (Luke 4:36), so this must have been the final temptation. Luke likely made the Jerusalem temptation last since Jerusalem is an important theme in his account.

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