The Temptation of Christ: His Victory is Our Victory (Matthew 4:1-11)

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Matthew 4:1-11 records the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness. Keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel was written to Jews, the people of Israel.

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. And 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.’” 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 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.” 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.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

Do these temptations seem strange to you? Make bread; jump off the roof; worship the devil. A loaf of Sara Lee seems like a far cry from near-suicide or Satan worship. Where is the sin in turning stones to bread? The act of miraculously producing bread is not sinful; Jesus did so when he fed the 5,000 and the 4,000. The act of eating bread is, of course, not sinful either; Jesus ate bread on many occasions. There must be more going on here.

Parallels to Israel’s Wilderness Wanderings (Deuteronomy 8)

Jesus responds to the first temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Let’s look for clues in the verse’s context (Deuteronomy 8).

Keep in mind seven key details from Matthew 4: Jesus was (1) led by the Spirit (2) into the wilderness (3) for 40 days (4) to be tempted. (5) He was hungry from fasting. (6) There’s this potential miracle bread. (7) Jesus says “No,” because man does not live on bread alone, but on God’s word. Listen carefully to Deuteronomy 8:1-3.

1 All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers.
And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove [test] thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.

Israel was (1) led by God—remember the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night—(2) in the wilderness (3) for 40 years (4) to test them—testing and temptation are nearly synonymous in the Bible. (5) They suffered hunger. (6) God provided miracle bread—manna from heaven. (7) God said this was to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on God’s word.

This is not a coincidence. Matthew is telling the story of Jesus in terms of Israel’s history. Matthew’s Jewish readers would have picked up on this much more quickly than we do. But it gets more interesting.

Parallels to Israel’s History

Let’s rewind in Israel’s history. They began in Egypt, but left to escape slavery. After the exodus, they passed through the Red Sea. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that this was like a baptism: “[the people of Israel] were baptized into Moses…in the sea.” (Remember that.) This brought them into the wilderness, where they wandered for 40 years. Afterward, they prepared to enter the Promised Land. That’s where the book of Deuteronomy picks up. The word Deuteronomy literally means “second law.” Chapter 1 says, “Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain [the] law.” Moses explained the law to Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, and in Deuteronomy 8, he warned them to learn their lesson from the wilderness wanderings: man does not live by bread alone.

Four key movements: (1) Egypt. (2) Baptism—in the red sea. (3) Wilderness testing. (4) Exposition of the law.

Now let’s rewind in Matthew’s gospel. In chapter 1, Jesus is born, and his genealogy reveals that he is a descendent of Israel. In chapter 2, Jesus and his family flee to Egypt, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” The verse that Matthew quotes is Hosea 11:1, which refers to God’s son Israel. But Matthew applies it to Jesus. In verse 20, an angel leads Jesus out of Egypt. Then, in chapter 3, Jesus is baptized. This is some time later in his life, but it is the next major event that Matthew chooses to highlight. Which brings us to Chapter 4, the wilderness temptation. And if we kept going, chapter 5 would bring us to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus expounds the law.

Four key movements: (1) Egypt. (2) Baptism. (3) Wilderness temptation. (4) Exposition of the law.

Here’s the point: Matthew is showing us that Jesus has come to stand in for his people, Israel. He has come to be their representative.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus in terms of Israel’s history to show us that Jesus has come to stand in for his people and be their representative.

Jesus the Better Israel

Do you remember when Israel faced the Philistines in the Valley of Elah? The Israelites were scared and practically defeated. But David stepped up to fight Goliath on their behalf. Israel could not win the battle, but if David won, then David’s victory would become their victory. Israel needed a representative because they had already fought and lost.

Do you remember how Israel failed when they were tested in the wilderness? (1) First, they grumbled against God and complained that there was no bread. (2) Second, they put God to the test at Meribah—you can read the story in Exodus 17. And (3) third, they turned to idols—false gods—and worshipped them.

In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul brings up these three massive failures of Israel in the wilderness: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; …[do] not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble [i.e., for lack of bread], as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”

Do these three temptations sound familiar? (1) First, Jesus was tempted by a lack of bread, but chose to trust in God’s provision; he learned the lesson that Israel failed to learn: “Man shall live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (2) Second, Jesus was tempted to take a leap of “faith,” but insisted, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And (3) third, Jesus was tempted to worship Satan, but insisted, ”You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

At every point that Israel failed, Jesus was victorious. Israel, the son of God out called out of Egypt, was rebellious. Jesus, the Son of God called out of Egypt, was obedient. Jesus is the greater David who defeated the ultimate enemy of God’s people: Satan.

Jesus the Better Adam

Now that you are thinking about the life of Jesus in light of God’s whole redemptive plan, do you notice anything else that is familiar about Jesus’ temptations?

Jesus was alone. Satan came to him and tempted him to eat forbidden food. Satan did this by twisting Scripture. The parallels to the temptation of Adam and Eve are unmistakable.

In verse 3 of Matthew 4, Satan tells Jesus to eat by changing stones into bread; he told Eve she could eat of any tree in the garden. In verse 6, Satan tells Jesus that if he jumps off the temple, “you will not dash your foot against a stone”; he told Eve, “you will not surely die.” In verse 8, he tells Jesus that he will have all the world’s kingdoms; he told Eve she would be like God.

Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus has not only come to represent Israel because they failed; he has come to represent the whole human race, because we have all failed through Adam.

Jesus has not only come to represent Israel because they failed; he has come to represent the whole human race, because we have all failed through Adam.

At every point that Adam failed, Jesus was victorious. Jesus refused to eat bread that his Father did not give him permission to eat. He did not put God to the test. And he ignored the serpent’s temptation to be like God. Philippians 2:6 explains, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

The similarities are clearly intentional. They are designed to direct our minds to Adam’s temptation. But the differences are intentional as well. They are intended to show how much better Christ is than Adam. Ralph Earle observes,

The contrast between this and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden is very striking. They were in the midst of a luxurious paradise; Jesus was in a bleak, barren wilderness. They had everything to eat; He had nothing. They had the companionship of each other; He was alone. The first Adam ate the forbidden fruit; the last Adam refused Satan’s suggestion that He make bread to eat. With everything in his favor the first Adam failed and brought suffering to the whole human race. With seemingly everything against Him the last Adam triumphed and brought salvation to all mankind. Never was battle fought with greater issues at stake. Never was a more important victory won.

“Adam failed even though he had everything going for him, but Jesus succeeded even though, humanly speaking, the odds were stacked against Him.” (Tabletalk Magazine)

In Romans 5, Paul explains why this is so important for our salvation. He writes in verse 12 that “by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” But he says in verse 14 that Adam is “the figure [or type] of him that was to come,” Jesus. Verse 15 is key: “if through the offence of one [Adam] many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.” Paul concludes in verse 19 that “as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one [Jesus] shall many be made righteous.”

Because the first Adam gave in to temptation: death and sin. Because Jesus, the better Adam, conquered temptation: life and righteousness. Like David winning the battle for the Israelites, Jesus won the battle for all of Adam’s race. That’s you and me.

Where Adam failed, Jesus was victorious. Jesus is the new Adam, the Second Adam, the better Adam.

His Victory is Our Victory: Imputed Righteousness

If we only read Matthew 4 to find tips and tricks for beating temptation, we’re missing the point. First and foremost, we are Adam, who has given in to the Tempter. We are the Israelites who have grumbled, complained, acted selfishly, and taken matters into our own hands. We have doubted God and failed to trust him. We have worshipped other gods—idols of sex, sports, money, and popularity. We have failed to look to God for all of our hope, happiness, and security. We have lived without reference to him. We have spurned his blessed Son. We have not lived on God’s Word. We have made ourselves fat on pleasure. We have been gluttons on the world’s worm-infested bread.

We need a better Adam, who will not sin. We need a better Israel, who will live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In fact, our only hope is for a man to step up and stand in our place and do what we cannot do on our own. That man is Jesus. Jesus learned the lesson that Israel failed to learn: man does not live on bread alone.

Now there’s one key thing you need to understand. Don’t miss this: If you are not united to Jesus, his victory will not help you. For Jesus’ victory to become your victory, you must be in union with Christ.

Do you know why we tell children to ask Jesus into their hearts? Why the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ) needs to dwell within you? Why you must be born again? Because your greatest need and mine is to be united to Jesus. We need to be spiritually connected to him. We need for our lives to be hidden in his life. The phrase “in Christ” appears over 70 times in the New Testament because union with Christ is salvation. When we are united to Jesus, his victory is our victory. His righteousness is our righteousness.

Our failures are replaced with Christ’s victory. Our death is replaced with his life. Our sin is replaced with his righteousness.

Because Jesus went to the cross as our representative and paid the penalty for the sins we have committed, this union is possible. By faith, we can be united to Jesus in his life, death, burial, and resurrection. His story becomes our story.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus is the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In the beginning was the Word, and he came down to us from heaven. He is the bread that we eat. When we are united to him, we are clothed in and partake of his righteousness.

Charles Wesley wrote,

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Why do I have righteousness divine? Because I’m in Him—in Christ. Why am I free from condemnation? Because he is my living Head. I’m spiritually connected to him. “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil” (Heidelberg Catechism).

Onward to the Promised Land

If we have been united to Jesus by faith, then we should feel like the Israelites in Elah as they watched David step onto the field of battle: from the sidelines, we watch as our Savior steps up to fight for us in the wilderness. Jesus is there to face temptation because we have already failed. But if he wins, our failures are replaced with his victory. Our death is replaced with his life. Our sin is replaced with his righteousness. And as the body of Christ, God’s new Israel, the New Testament church, we get to enter the Promised Land.

Thomas Aquinas writes,

Christ went out into the desert, as to a field of battle, to be tempted there by the devil. Hence Ambrose says on Luke 4:1, that “Christ was led into the desert for the purpose of provoking the devil. For had he,” i.e. the devil, “not fought, He,” i.e. Christ, “would not have conquered. … Christ in doing this set forth the mystery of Adam’s delivery from exile,” who had been expelled from paradise into the desert….

Adam was expelled from the paradise of Eden into the desert of a cursed world. Jesus stepped into the desert so that we could return to paradise. If you are in Christ, He is leading you into the Promised Land where Deuteronomy 8 says you shall eat and be full: “A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness.” 

Adam was expelled from the paradise of Eden into the desert of a cursed world. Jesus stepped into the desert so that we could return to paradise.

His Victory is Our Victory: Imparted Righteousness

This does not mean that God’s people are free from battles or temptations. Until Jesus returns Satan continues to roam about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. But if we are united to Christ, his victory is our victory. Not only does his victory cover our past failures, but it provides present power for holy living.

Hebrews 2:18 says, “because [Jesus] himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Jesus not only imputes righteousness to us, but also imparts righteousness to us. Christ empowers us to live victorious lives.

You may have heard someone say, “What God sees me, he doesn’t see my sin, he sees Jesus.” But union with Christ goes further than this. Just as Paul says that we can be seen by God as righteous in Romans 5, he says that we can actually be righteous in Romans 6: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

If Jesus lives in our hearts, we have access to his power to defeat Satan’s temptations in our own lives. 1 John 2:6 says, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

In closing, here are five ways to access Christ’s victory in your life by walking even as he walked:

First, follow Christ’s example of fasting. When Jesus knew he was going to be tempted, he fasted forty days. Why do we think that we can be victorious without fasting? If we have been united to Christ, we must walk as he walked. Richard Foster writes:

More than any other single Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.

Second, follow Christ’s example of studying and memorizing Scripture. Satan will try to deceive you by twisting the Bible. Hebrews 5:13 says that the mark of an immature Christian, a mere babe, is that they are “unskilful in the word of righteousness.” Jesus was skilled in the word of righteousness. He showed us what it means to raise the sword of the Spirit when he quoted verses back to Satan. To appropriate Christ’s victory, you must do the same. David said, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” If you’re struggling with lust or anger, memorize verses that address those issues.

Third, follow Christ’s example by rejecting “innocent” pleasures that dull your love for God’s word. Eating bread may seem harmless—but it is deadly when it amounts to a rejection of God’s life-giving word. It is impossible to live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God while at the same time gorging yourself on TV, social media, and junk food. “The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself. It cannot discern truth; it does not want to” (Douglas Groothuis). Hebrews 2:1 warns, “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” “Drifting away from Christ may simply look like a bunch of Netflix binging” (Tony Reinke.)

Susanna Wesley famously wrote to her son John, “Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.”

To follow the example of Jesus is to feast only on the bread that comes from heaven. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he teaches us that we must find our all in him and not in the bread of this world.

Finally, follow Christ’s example of refusing to be self-reliant. Rely on the power of Christ who lives within you. The temptation to turn the stones into bread warns us against the danger of taking matters into our own hands. It warns against the parent sin of self-sufficiency. Instead of looking to God’s Word for salvation, sanctification, and satisfaction, we run the risk of trying to win the battle in our own strength. But there is no victory apart from Christ. 1 John 4:4 is our only hope: “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.”

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

In verse 10 of Matthew 4, Jesus said, “Be gone, Satan!” and the devil left him. When the devil tempts you, rise up in the power of Jesus and declare, “Be gone, Satan! In the name of Jesus, get behind me!” and he will flee from you. One little word, “Christ,” the name of Jesus, shall fell him—it will cause him to fall like the mighty giant Goliath fell in the name of Jehovah.

Have you been united to Jesus by faith? Has his victory become your victory? If you are not living in victory, you can. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Are you weary of bearing your own sin? Turn to Jesus. Do you feel defeated in your Christian life? Turn to Jesus, the better Adam, the better Israel, the better David.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as Associate Pastor of God's Missionary Church in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.
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