The fifth in a series of studies of references to Satan in the Gospels
This fifth direct reference to Satan in the Gospels is a brief reference to an event developed in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, and discussed at length in the first study in this series.
At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Two major events occur before Jesus launches his public ministry. He is identified as God’s Son when he is baptized by John, and he is led into the wilderness, where he is “tempted by Satan.” The story, here in its briefest form, tells us much about the Savior, and much about Satan.
1. “At once the Spirit sent him.” Jesus’ trek into the desert is in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is a healthy reminder to us. We are far too quick to question God’s leading when things don’t turn out as successfully or pleasantly as we expect. God may lead us into difficult and painful experiences, just as the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert.
2. “was in the desert 40 days” Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus fasts for forty days. Forty days is about the length of time it takes for the body to use up all stored resources. After a day or too of fasting hunger goes away, but it returns in force when the body’s resources are depleted. Weakened by the intense heat and the fast, Jesus; strength is at rock bottom when the tempter comes.
3. “being tempted by Satan” The Greek word translated “tempted” in our New Testament is also translated “tested.” Whenever this word appears in the Greek text the translators have to choose whether “tempted” or “tested” makes more sense. In Matthew and Luke “tempt” is appropriate, for they record Satan’s specific attempts to move Jesus to act out of the Father’s will. We need to adopt the same translation, for the “temptation” is “by Satan.”
4. “being tempted” At the same time, we need to recognize that the total wilderness experience was a “test” devised by God. Satan’s challenge was merely a part of that test. Jesus has been identified as God’s Son, and is about to set out on a ministry in which he calls the Jewish people to total commitment to God. The testing here in the desert, with its challenge by Satan, is a qualifying test. That is, Jesus is tested in order to prove that what God has said about him is true. Having demonstrated his own commitment, Jesus can now call others to follow his example.
5. “with the wild animals” This phrase is peculiar, but may allude to Isaiah 65:25, which pictures the “wild animals” such as the lion and the wolf living in harmony with the lamb and the ox. Clearly the image is one of peace and relief after the testing is past, when “angels attended him.”
This brief account of the temptation provides a clue that helps us put Satan’s attacks in perspective. The Spirit sent Jesus into the desert. When we’re responsive to the Spirit he may well lead us into situations that test our commitment and our faith. Satan may well try to take advantage of the stress to launch an attack on us, as he launched his attack on Jesus when he was weakest. Yet, whatever Satan may do he can operate only within a context of an experience which God the Father has designed. And God has designed each of our experiences for our good.
As Jesus triumphed over Satan by trust in the Father and his Word, we too can and will triumph. The passing of our tests, like Jesus’, will qualify us to call others to a similar commitment to our Lord.