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The Temptation of Christ, Part 1

January 5, 2020 Speaker: Kristopher Schaal Series: Temptation

Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 4:1-2

The Temptation of Christ, Part 1

Good morning! Welcome to Sunday school! Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 4:1-11. As we continue on in our series on the topic of temptation, we come this morning to the temptation of Christ.

One of my favorite theologians is named D.A. Carson. I listened to Carson teach on this passage, and he made the comment that some passages of Scripture seem very difficult at first. But once you learn a couple of key definitions, discover a little background info, etc., you find they are pretty straightforward. Other passages, he said, seem pretty straightforward at first, but the more you get into them, the more difficult they become. Matthew 4:1-11, he said, is one of the latter kinds of passages.[1]

Matthew 4:1-11 is difficult to understand because it concerns the mystery of the incarnation: how could the Son of God be tempted? Also, it can be difficult to discern the ways in which the various temptations appealed to Jesus and what He meant by the passages He quoted. And then there are number of other side issues that make this passage challenging.

So I just want to cue you in to the fact that we will be swimming in deep water over the next few weeks. Hopefully you are excited about that, because it means that there are some rich truths here for us to consider. Most importantly, I hope that you are excited to go from learning from Eve’s failures to learning from Christ’s victories. Let’s read Matthew 4:1-11 and then we will pray.

You might be wondering how long we will be in this passage. The answer is probably three weeks. This week, we will set the stage by examining the background of this passage as well as some of Christ’s actions in vv. 1-2. Then, over the next two lessons we will focus on Christ’s use of Scripture throughout the temptations and discuss each temptation in detail. At least, that is the plan. J Let’s begin today by talking about the background of this passage.


There are two aspects of this passage’s background that I would like to discuss: the incarnation and Christ’s baptism.

I.  The Incarnation

Part of the background of this story is the incarnation.

There are two theological ditches that a person can fall into when studying the temptation of Christ. The first is to assume that Jesus could sin.

In theology, we say that Christ was “impeccable,” meaning that He could not have sinned. The Bible is clear that Jesus is God. God is perfectly holy, and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). If Jesus Christ had sinned, He would have ceased to be God. There would have been a rupture in the Trinity, whatever that means. We don’t even know how to talk about such a thing because the fact is that is it couldn’t have happened.

However, in our eagerness to defend the impeccability of Christ, we must never imply that He was not tempted! That would be the other ditch! Why is it heresy to say that Jesus was not tempted? (Because the Bible says that He was, and does so emphatically!)

Jesus definitely was tempted! Not only was Christ tempted, but He had to work hard in order to resist temptation; it didn’t just roll off His back! In fact, the emphasis of Matthew 4:1-11 is not on the impeccability of Christ, but on His susceptibility to temptation!

So on this, as on so many other issues in theology, we have to maintain biblical balance. In this particular case, Scripture says it best. Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

The question is, how was that possible? What miracle made it possible for the divine Son of God to be tempted? (the incarnation) James 1:13 says, “God cannot be tempted with evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.” The incarnate Christ was never tempted. But when Jesus took on a human nature, He opened Himself up to temptation. Isn’t that amazing and wonderful all at the same time!? I know that the Christmas season is over, but we ought never to tire of praising God for the incarnation of Christ!

Part of the background of this story is the incarnation. Another part of the background is Christ’s baptism.

II.  Christ’s Baptism

There were two things that happened at Christ’s baptism that set the stage for His temptation. First, the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove. This was to show (among other things) that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Have you ever considered the fact that Jesus needed the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill His earthly ministry? This is another incredible ramification of the incarnation!

The same Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus in Matthew 3:16 immediately led Him into the wilderness in Matthew 4:1. And Jesus submitted to the Spirit. More on that later.

The second event at Christ’s baptism that set the stage for His temptation was the Father’s saying from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Don’t forget that up until that point, Jesus had been living in obscurity for 30 years! Apart from the miraculous events surrounding His birth, Christ’s baptism was the point at which He was publicly introduced to the world as God’s Son.

However, it was Christ’s very awareness of His own identity as the Son of the God that the devil sought to exploit during the temptations. How did Satan begin that first temptation? “If You are the Son of God”–not that he was trying to get Jesus to doubt His identity, but the devil was making a false assertion based upon that identity. We’ll talk more about that next time.

But for now, suffice it to say that Christ’s incarnation and baptism are two very important events in the background of this passage.

Next, let’s begin examining Christ’s actions in vv. 1-2.

Christ’s Actions

I want you to observe Christ’s actions leading up to His temptation.

When we studied the temptation of Eve, my outline was based on Satan’s strategies and Eve’s responses. That made sense, because in that case, Satan won. However, when it comes to the temptation of Christ, we focus not on the strategies of Satan, but on the perfections of our Lord. One of the most important applications of this passage is to worship Jesus!

So what can we observe about Jesus in Matthew 4:1-2?

I.  Jesus Submitted to the Father.

One thing that is very clear throughout this passage as well as the rest of the gospels is that Christ submitted to His Father’s plan. We are going to see next time that at the heart of each of the three temptations is a core temptation to depart from that plan. But Jesus wouldn’t do it! There may even be the implication that Christ submitted to the Spirit in this passage, because it says that He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, suggesting that He followed. But that discussion quickly becomes very complex.

The point is that one of the keys to Christ’s victory over temptation was a continual awareness of and submission to His Father’s will.

What does that look like in our lives? In the church age, continual awareness of and submission to God’s will is called “walking in the Spirit.” The Spirit leads us primarily by means of His word. As we meditate on the Bible, the Holy Spirit convicts us to apply his word in particular ways. At that point, we can either submit or grieve the Spirit.

How does submission to God by walking in the Spirit protect us from temptation? First, it does so by definition, because if we are walking in the Spirit, we cannot be sinning. That is why Galatians 5:16 can say, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”

Second, if you walk with God in the little things, you will be in an excellent position to resist the bigger temptations. But if you aren’t walking with God in the little things, you have become easy prey for the devil.

Let’s say, for instance, that you have a drinking problem that you’re trying to break. (Feel free to substitute your own besetting sin in the blank.)[2] You get home from work one day and know there are chores to be done. But instead, you plop yourself down on the couch and begin watching TV. About 30 minutes in, a scene comes up and you know you should turn it off, but you don’t. And you proceed to spend the rest of your evening binge watching some Netflix series and then go to bed late. (But you don’t drink alcohol!) Next morning, you wake up late and neglect to read your Bible (no surprise there). You are late getting out the door, so you speed and guess what? A police officer pulls you over. At work, you get yelled up for showing up late, but you lie and say there was traffic because you are embarrassed about the ticket. You have a horrible day. On the way home, you pass the liquor store, and you give in to temptation. Where did you go wrong? Was it when you pulled off of the road to buy liquor? No! It started the night before when you sat down on the couch and started watching TV!

Now let’s rewrite the story. You get home from work one day and you’re really tired. But you remember Proverbs 6:6: “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise.” So you resist the urge to veg and work on your car instead. You really get into your work, but at 8 PM, your alarm goes off, and you know it’s time to get ready for bed, so you do! And because you go to bed on time, you are ready to wake up the next morning to read your Bible and pray. You hit the road five minutes early and are able to cope with work pressures decently throughout the day by depending on God’s strength. On the way home, you pass that same liquor store and feel the twinge of temptation. What are you going to do? Most likely, you will tell yourself no and keep driving! Why? Because you have been walking in the Spirit (more or less) for the past 24 hours! Does that make sense?

Now, where along the way in the first example can you get off of the wrong path and jump onto the right one? You can do that at any point along the way! At any point, you can repent and ask for forgiveness, then start walking in the Spirit.

So, it is important for us to submit to God. Jesus always submitted to His Father.

One more thing that I want to make note of in v. 1 before we move on is the dual purposes of God and Satan when it comes to temptation (v. 1). What was the devil’s reason for tempting Jesus? He wanted to get Him to sin! That’s pretty simple.

However, did God the Holy Spirit know that Jesus would be tempted? (Yes!) Was it a part of God’s plan for Jesus to be tempted? (Yes!) So why did God want Jesus to be tempted? It was in order to demonstrate Christ’s righteousness–to show that Jesus would succeed where Adam, Israel, and all of humanity had previously failed!

So Satan and God have dual purposes as it relates to Christ’s temptation. And the same is true in your life. When you face a difficult trial, Satan wants to use that trial in order to get you to sin. However, God wants to use that trial in order to build up your faith. The question is, which will occur? The answer depends on your actions and attitudes.

The second thing we see Jesus do in this passage is fast.

II.  Jesus Fasted (v. 2).

What is fasting? Fasting means voluntarily going without food (and sometimes water, too) for a certain amount of time in order to focus on God and to pray.

In our study on prayer a couple of summers ago, we said there are two reasons to pray: because I love God and because I need Him. Fasting is a very tangible way of saying, “God, I love you more than food and I need you more than food.” It is also a way to help yourself to love God and depend on Him more by cutting out one of the most common idols.

Sometimes, people fast from things other than food, and that is fine. But almost always in Scripture when you see the word “fast,” it is talking about abstention from food.

People fasted in Scripture for all different amounts of time, from forty days to just a few hours, (although it seems like the typical fast was longer than that). In this passage, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights.

Now, you might read that and immediately think, “That’s impossible!” or at least, “That’s a miracle!” But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. First, the Bible never says that Jesus went without water. In fact, the parallel account in Luke 4:2 indicates that His fast was only from food.

Second, many people have survived 40-day fasts from food, as long as they had water. I even read about a man who went over a year without eating![3] Now, to be sure, that was an expectational situation, and that man was very obese, but the point is that people can go a long time without food.

That said, 40 days is definitely stretching the limits of what the normal human body can take! Interestingly, v. 2 states fairly specifically that it was after the 40 days that Jesus got hungry. What are we to make of that detail?

From what I have read online about long-term fasting, after the first few days, you don’t get hungry anymore until your body has depleted your fat reserves. After that, you get what they call “true hunger,” which is a warning that your body is about to begin eating muscle tissue in order to keep you alive. At that point, you are starving.

Christ’s fast brought Him to the brink of starvation. But He did it 1) out of submission to the Spirit and 2) because He loved His Father and knew that He needed Him.

Think about the timing of this fast. Jesus was about ready to start His earthly ministry. Soon He would not have time to get alone with God for so long. He needed this extended period of fellowship in order to strengthen Him for His ministry.

Do you think Jesus’ fasting made it easier or harder for Him to resist temptation? From a physical perspective, His hunger weakened Him and opened Him up to the first temptation. (You don’t tempt a man who has just eaten to turn stones into bread!) But from a spiritual perspective, Christ’s fast made Him stronger.

There is much for you and me to learn here. Is fasting for today? (Yes!) How do we know?

It is true that fasting is not commanded by the New Testament. But Jesus prefaced His comments about fasting with the phrase, “when you fast” (Mat 6:16). He said that His disciples did not need to fast while He was with them, but His expectation was that when He was taken away from them again, they would resume fasting (Mat 9:14-15). Also, fasting is spoken of positively in both the Old and New Testaments. It may not be a command, per say, but fasting is certainly for today!

How might fasting and prayer prepare someone to resist temptation?

I can think of at least three ways that fasting and prayer help us to resist temptation:

  • It clears our minds from distractions and helps us to think about God.
  • It helps us to battle our idols and trains our hearts to worship.
  • It strengthens our will to deny ourselves and follow Christ.

The discipline of fasting certainly is foreign to modern American Christianity! But it has been a part of the lives of believing people for millennia. Maybe you study it out and consider whether God would have you to fast.


For the next couple of weeks, my applications are going to come in the form of suggested New Year’s resolutions. How many of you have made New Year’s resolutions before? How many made one this year? Today, I want to suggest two New Year’s resolutions for 2020.

  1. Determine to Walk in the Spirit in 2020.

This can hardly be considered a New Year’s resolution because it is something that every Christian should be doing all of the time! Still, I think it would be really good for some of you to determine, “I’m going to put a concerted effort into walking in the Spirit in 2020.” Maybe figure out a way to keep the idea of walking in the Spirit in front of you more often, like a paper on your fridge or a reminder on your phone. Maybe journal about your progress at the start or the end of each day. Write down a list of your besetting sins and ask God for strength to submit to the Spirit in those areas. Anything to keep you mindful of the need for moment-by-moment submission to God and constant dependence on Him.

  1. Study/Try Fasting and Prayer in 2020.

In the Bible, fasting is considered to be a normal part of the believer’s experience. However, in today’s American Christianity, fasting is not only neglected, it is practically unheard of! It is totally foreign to our way of thinking! That is a weakness in our Christian culture.

So why not in 2020 say, “I am going to practice fasting”? Try it out! See how it goes! Work on ways to improve! You won’t learn anything new without trying!

Maybe you say, “Pastor Kris, I just don’t understand fasting. I wouldn’t know the answer to basic questions like why to fast, how to fast, how long to fast, what to focus on when I’m fasting, etc.” If that is the case, why not pick up a good Christian book about fasting and educate yourself on the topic? I’ve got one right here by John Piper that I would recommend. Come write down the information after the service and then pick it up! If you don’t have the money, the church will buy you a copy as long as you read it. J

Consider learning to fast in 2020.

You say, “Pastor Kris, I thought this series was about temptation. Why are you talking about walking in the Spirit and fasting?” Because those are the things that Jesus did in order to beat temptation. Next time, we’ll talk about Christ’s use of Scripture as a third general thing that He did to defeat temptation and then get into the specific temptations. But for now, what about you? Take some time now to write down one or two takeaways and perhaps a 2020 New Year’s resolution.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onNeFK1LknM

[2] I borrowed this illustration (with some minor changes) from one of my favorite preachers, Mark Minnick. I don’t remember what sermon it was from.

[3] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/survive-without-eating-382-days/