Temptation – War in the Wilderness

Sermon by William Mikler on

On the three satanic temptations Jesus met and overcame in the wilderness, and what his victory teaches us about our own temptations.

The First Sunday in Lent • February 17, 2013 AD
Lectionary Reading (RCL): Deuteronomy 26:1-11 • Romans 10:8-13 • Luke 4:1-13
Responsive Reading: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

On the three satanic temptations Jesus met and overcame in the wilderness, and what his victory teaches us about our own temptations.

Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. (LUKE 3:1-2)

OWING TO THE APPOINTED READINGS in the Revised Common Lectionary, in recent weeks we have studied the progression of the Lord’s early messianic labors out of sequence, avoiding until today the examination of his temptation in the wilderness. Today’s reading, Luke 4:1-11, brings this important event to our attention.


Chronologically, the Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan and his anointing with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21-22) were soon followed by forty days of fasting and satanic temptation in the wilderness (4:1-13). It was only after he met and overcame those temptations that Jesus returned to Galilee to launch his public career in the power of the Holy Spirit (4:14-15). Then, with early regional Galilean successes behind him, he entered into his hometown synagogue in Nazareth where he declared his Messianic Manifesto (4:16-21). But the synagogue rejected him and made an enraged attempt on his life (4:22-30).

Recent focus

In recent weeks we have made an effort to better understand our Lord’s vocation. We have also sought to better understand how his vocation informs our own. We will make a similar attempt today. The Lord Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). In terms of meeting and overcoming our own temptations, his example has much to teach us.


We will work through our Gospel reading in four stages. First, we will allow Luke to set the stage for the fierce battle that Jesus waged with Satan. Then we will cover each of the three temptations Luke highlights, one by one. May the Holy Spirit enable us to learn from our Lord how to wage our own battles with Satan and temptation.


Luke sets the stage for the battle between Christ and Satan in two verses. Those verses read as follows: “Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry” (vv. 1-2). These words bear comment on a number of points.

1. The journey into the wilderness followed the Lord’s anointing with the Holy Spirit at the Jordan. Recall that it was the anointing of the Holy Spirit that empowered Jesus to be the Messiah, the King of Israel. Like his famous ancestor King David, Jesus, the Son of David, was a kingly warlord. (He was a warlord of a different sort than King David, but a warlord nonetheless.) The drama that played out in the wilderness is thus a revelation of the Lord of Host’s first battle with, and first victory over, Satan.

2. It was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into battle with Satan. So Jesus wasn’t lured into the wilderness as part of a satanic scheme. On the contrary, Jesus marched into the wilderness on his own terms, and in the power and might of the Holy Spirit.

3. The wilderness was itself symbolic of what the world had become after the fall of Adam and Eve. Instead of becoming a glorious and well-ordered paradise along the lines of the Garden of Eden, the world had become a dark and foreboding place for which the wilderness served as a stunning parable. But read the story. Jesus, the freshly anointed Messiah, as a first order of kingly business, goes into the wilderness to fast and pray and do battle with the tempter. Mankind and creation have a new champion. He is Jesus the Messiah.

4. The forty-day duration of the temptation has led many theologians to believe that this period of time was symbolic of the forty years Israel trekked through wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. I find merit in this thinking. Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded. Where Israel was conquered by its own sin and rebellion, Jesus conquered by his righteousness and obedience. Israel proved faithless in the wilderness. Jesus proved faithful. May we be like him.

5. Luke states that Jesus ate nothing during those forty days. Some think this means that he subsisted only on the meager offerings of food the desert provided, but I think not. I think Jesus went completely without food as if to say that the real battle that needs to be fought with Satan is not fought in the strength of flesh and blood. It is fought by the power of God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual nature of war with Satan is thus highlighted by the Lord’s long fast and the temptations that he endured and conquered during it. Jesus overcame Satan with spiritual weapons, and so must we.

6. Jesus took nourishment after he won his battles with Satan. The blessings of creation come to those who first conquer the temptations of Satan in the spiritual dimensions.

Now let’s look at the temptations Jesus overcame in the order Luke records them. There are three of them.


The first temptation came in the form of a taunt. Challenging Jesus’ unique filial relationship to God the Father, Satan dared Jesus to circumvent the natural order and make bread from a stone. Satan’s temptation needn’t be over analyzed. The best way to interpret it is through the response that Jesus gave to it. Replied Jesus, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God’ ” (v. 4). The citation is from Deuteronomy 8:3.1 In other words, the Lord’s need for physical nourishment was secondary to his obligation to obey the written word of God. Satan attempted to exalt the belly over the soul and, indeed, to make the soul irrelevant. But Jesus refused Satan’s temptation. In doing so, he established the primacy of the word of God and also endorsed the primacy of the soul over the body.

Temptation: an attempt to nullify the word of God

By tempting Jesus to disobey God’s written word, Satan sought to set aside and nullify the word of God. He’d done this before. In the Garden of Eden, Satan successfully tempted Adam and Eve to set aside the commandment of God in favor of satisfying their very natural desires for natural beauty, delightful taste, and bodily nourishment. Adam and Eve’s disobedience effectively set aside the rule of the Pre-Incarnate Word. In the wilderness, Satan tempted the Incarnate Word to break his own rule!

Jesus’ response

Jesus would have none of Satan’s temptation. Man may eat, yes, for God has made him to do so; but his primary obligation is to live by the word of God. This was God’s requirement, and Jesus was determined to fulfill it.

Mankind’s primary obligation: obedience

Since the Creation of Man, God has made primary man’s obedience to His word. In conjunction with this, God has made secondary the satisfying of man’s hunger. When a man chooses to satisfy his hunger in disobedience to the word of God, he brings judgment on himself. In sum, man misses the mark when he refuses to make obedience to the word of God his primary obligation.

Missing the mark

The temptation to disobey the word of God is one that every Christian faces from time to time. More, it is a temptation various collectives of mankind face, including whole civilizations. Western politics, for example, in all too many cases chooses to ignore the word of God. As a result, Western politics are mostly belly-driven. As such, they are materialistic to the exclusion of genuine spiritual wellbeing. (An example: Western foreign aid feeds the body but ignores the soul. Such aid thus feeds even as it starves.) The West made its belly more important than its soul a long time ago, and is in decline as a result. It also chose rationalism over obedience to divine revelation.

Both individuals and civilizations die when they refuse to live by the word of God. For examples of dying civilizations, consider the worlds of Marxism and Islam. Look also at the West, which has cast off its Christian foundations and entered into steep decline because of it. Starve the soul of a man or a nation long enough, and bodily hunger will set in. The West is dying because it has chosen to disobey the written word of God.

Satan and his minions—human and demonic—have ever sought to nullify the written word of God as the rule of life. Christians must be aware of the satanic scheme, and resist it on every front.


We conclude that the servant of Christ, like his Master, must make obedience to the written word of God his primary duty. Satan will tempt us to do otherwise, but we must refuse him. We must live by the Word, and call men and nations to do so as well.


The next temptation Luke lists (Matthew places it third) is Satan’s attempt to seduce Jesus into worshiping him. If Jesus worshipped him, Satan promised to give to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, along with their glory.2 As he had done with Eve in the Garden of Eden, Satan offered an illusory prize to induce disobedience. The prize was a tease, a come-on, bait for a trap. Jesus refused to be seduced. He rebuked Satan instead, and threw the word of God into his face.

What was at stake

Consider what was at stake here. The Greek root for “worship” is proskuneo. Vine defines this word as follows, “to make obeisance, to do reverence, from pros, toward, and kuneo, to kiss.” In an Eastern context, this word implied adoring prostration before a god or a potentate. We therefore understand that Satan wanted Jesus to prostrate himself before him, and offer to him the worship afforded a god or an emperor.

Had Jesus prostrated himself to worship Satan, he’d never have arisen. He would have remained with his face in the dust for all time and become Satan’s prostrate slave and prisoner.

Because the word “serve” is related to worship and carries the sense of priestly service, if Jesus had worshipped Satan he’d also have become a satanic priest. Furthermore, he would not have received the dominion and glory of the world’s kingdoms. Far from it, he’d have lost his dominion and place as surely as Adam and Eve lost theirs when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

For Jesus, the way to global dominion was through the cross, burial, resurrection, and ascension. There were no short cuts.

Satan’s endgame and methods

We do well to note Satan’s endgame and methods in this temptation. His endgame is to seduce a man to rebel against God. He offers a false prize to inspire a man to rebel. The misleading prize appeals to a man’s desire for power and glory.

But when a man worships Satan he wins no prize. He loses his standing and his dominion. The sad story of Adam and Eve illustrate these things. So also does the long, sad story of Israel, which constantly fell into bondage because of its refusal to obey the written word of God.

The Lord’s response

But the Lord’s response commands even more of our attention. It came in two parts. The first part was commandingly dismissive: “Get behind Me, Satan!”3 Immediately after the dismissive command, the Lord cited a highly relevant Scripture passage. Said Jesus, “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve’ ” (v. 8).4 Let’s consider the two parts of Christ’s rebuke in turn.

First, Satan is vehemently and authoritatively rebuked. He has no authority over the Messiah. He must not and cannot stand in Christ’s path. For Jesus, obeisance and worship to Satan are inconceivable; the worship of him is unthinkable. Away, Satan!

Second, Satan is reminded in no uncertain words that the people of God are to worship and serve God exclusively. The Messiah, who in his humanity fulfilled the vocation of Israel, was bound to the worship and service of God. It was that worship and service that eventually led him to offer himself on the cross as the Lamb of God. His glories would follow that. Satan offered a short cut to destruction. Jesus was not fooled. He stayed his course. In the end he won his crown, and now has all authority in heaven and on earth.


The person that worships Satan becomes his slave. The person that worships and serves God through Jesus Christ makes himself an able bodied servant of the Master. Taking this issue further and applying it on a macro scale, the civilization that worships and serves Satan is doomed to degradation. But the civilization that worships and serves God is destined for dominion and glory. Let us worship and serve God alone.


Matthew’s Gospel lists the next temptation second, but Luke lists it third. This temptation has to do with testing God. In this temptation Satan brought Jesus to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple. Then he said the following,

“If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

‘He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you,’
11 and,
‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

In this temptation Satan once again questions Jesus’ unique filial relationship with God the Father, and tempts him to prove his relationship with a twisted citation from Scripture. The cited passage is Messianic, but Satan distorts its aim and puts it to illicit use. (Liberal theologians, the fifth column insurgents of Satan within the institutions of the Church, have long done the same thing.) On the surface this temptation appears to summon Jesus to prove himself and his sonship. But at a deeper level it is seeks to provoke God into proving that He is God. Jesus’ words make this clear. “It has been said,” Jesus responded, “ ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God’ ” (v. 12). (These words are foundin Deuteronomy 6:16, and recount Israel’s testing of God in the wilderness. See also Exodus 17:7). God is not to be tempted. He is to be trusted.

Testing God in the laboratory

The assumption of unbelief is that God doesn’t exist, or, if He does, He must prove Himself to man on man’s terms. The tester thus seeks to exalt himself over the person or thing tested, in this case, God. The very assumption is sin.

Commenting on this temptation of Christ, and applying it especially to fallen Western man’s insistence on testing God, Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) censures Western man’s arrogance with these biting words, “God has to submit to experiment. He is ‘tested,’ just as products are tested. He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty.”5 This indictment is on target. Western man has succumbed to Satan’s temptation. He has sought to exalt himself over God. He has sought to test God. This is madness. It is also the source of much that is wrong and ruinous in the West.

Jesus’ example points us to our duty

Jesus’ example points us to our duty. We are never to test God. We are ever to trust Him. We may put our lives at risk in His service when called upon to do so, but never for the purpose of testing Him.


Luke closes his account with these words, “Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” (v. 13). His ammunition spent for the time being, Satan departed. Matthew tells us what happened immediately thereafter—the devil left Jesus and angels ministered to him (Mt. 4:11)—but Luke goes immediately to Christ’s Spirit-empowered gospel invasion of Galilee (vv. 14-15). Having beaten Satan in the wilderness, the Lord went to work in Galilee openly plundering Satan’s goods and liberating his prisoners.

We do well to learn from the way the Lord handled his temptations. Doing so we learn many things, principally perhaps, that Jesus conquered Satan not by exercising his deity but by subjecting himself, in his humanity, to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the requirements of the written word of God.

We also learn from Jesus how best to handle our own temptations. We learn to follow the Holy Spirit into battle, and to go to the battlefield He leads us to. We learn that our great weapon in battle is obedience to the written word of God.

In sum, we learn that at all times (and especially in the thick of the fight) that the written word of God must be obeyed, that God alone must be worshipped, and that God must be ever trusted and never tested.

My brethren, battles fought and won in wilderness solitude lead to battles fought and won in the public square. May God grace us to fight and win our own battles in the wilderness, and then grace us to fight and win battles in the public square. Amen.

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