Whether it’s that extra slice of pie we don’t need (which might bust another notch on our belt), or the allure of that affair (which threatens to blow our family apart), temptation is something we all deal with. How do we beat it? Thankfully, Jesus gives us a lens on why temptation exists and what He’s done about it.
Take Us Back to Egypt
All three Synoptic Gospels mention that Jesus, after spending 40 days in the wilderness, has a showdown with the devil. Because the Lord responds to each of Satan’s three temptations by quoting Scripture, some people say the point is, “We should resist temptation by citing Bible verses.” While that’s certainly true to some extent, I think something more is going on here.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy each time, referencing Israel’s temptation in the desert, where she spent 40 years (like Jesus’ 40 days). God led His people there to “humble and test” them, “to know what was in [their] heart, whether or not [they] would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2 NIV). Now Jesus is similarly led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and this testing will reveal what’s in His heart (Luke 4:1).
Jesus’ first test involves food. We’re told that after not eating for more than a month, “He became hungry” (Luke 4:2). Uh, yeah. That’s like saying, “After swimming for an hour, He was wet.” But Jesus’ hunger emphasizes something important: His humanity. The Son of God knows the full-freighted weakness of our flesh; He bears our burden and doesn’t pull out His “Creator of the World” ID card to leverage His status and opt out of suffering.
So Satan tempts Him: “Tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3)—in other words, Use Your privilege to avoid pain. But Jesus responds, “Man shall not live on bread alone,” quoting Moses’ words to Israel when she cried out in hunger against God (Luke 4:4). Israel was famished in the desert (just as Jesus is), so she turned against God and complained: “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3).
Israel failed the test; God’s people revealed that in their hearts, they did not trust their Redeemer. God provided the needed manna anyway, but Israel’s outstretched fist showed they were ready to jump ship at the first sign of trouble. Jesus, in contrast, displays trust, looking to His Father for provision. The Savior gets an A on the same test His chosen people flunked.
The Son of God knows the full-freighted weakness of our flesh; He bears our burden and doesn’t pull out His “Creator of the World” ID card to leverage His status and opt out of suffering.
The other two temptations are similar. Satan twists Scripture and tells Jesus to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple, forcing the Lord’s hand to reveal He’s the Messiah. Jesus again quotes from Deuteronomy, which refers to the time the Israelites grew impatient for water and cried out against God. They failed that test, too, yet God still provided water from a rock.
Satan also tests Jesus, saying: Bow down to me, and I will give You the kingdoms of the world. This mirrors the time when Israel bowed down to the golden calf and other idols in the desert, failing yet another test—that of worship. Against this backdrop, Jesus once more quotes Moses: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Luke 4:8). Unlike Israel, Jesus worships God alone.
Succeeding Where We Fail
Jesus succeeds not only where Israel failed, but also where Adam and Eve failed. They too were tempted with food, by a twisting of God’s words, and they essentially “bowed” to the tempter when they believed his lies about God. In reality, God wanted them to rule the earth together with Him. But they instead sought the kingdoms of the world for themselves, wanting to be like God rather than with Him, to live independently from God rather than live under Him in loving trust and intimate communion.
Jesus isn’t showing us how to pass the test; He’s passing it for us.
And Jesus succeeds where we fail, too. We often distrust God, bail at the first sign of trouble, and want to live apart from Him. In contrast, the Lord’s wilderness tests are like exploratory surgery. They open Jesus’ chest, pull back His ribcage, and reveal what’s in His heart: He’s spiritually clean.
But Jesus is more than an example to be followed—He’s a Savior to be trusted. This is why we miss the point if we focus on themes like “Jesus quoted Scripture; you should, too.” Jesus isn’t teaching a Resisting Temptation 101 seminar—He’s saving the world. He’s not showing us how to pass the test; He’s passing it for us.
The truth is, if we’re united to Jesus, He’s going to gradually make us more like Himself. We’ll get better at handling temptation over time as we’re formed into His image and shaped by the beauty of His holiness. But getting our act together isn’t our starting point—Jesus is.
The Unassumed Is the Unhealed
Why does Jesus endure temptation? The early church had a saying, “The unassumed is unhealed.” What they meant was that Jesus takes on, or assumes, the full weight of our condition in order to redeem it. If our distance from God is the problem, then Jesus bridging that distance in union with us is the solution.
We can look up from our trials, temptations, and testing to rejoice when we participate in the power of Jesus’ victory.
Say, for example, Jesus had just a soul with no body; in that case, His union with us would extend only to our souls. But since we have “flesh and blood,” Hebrews tells us, He was “made like His brethren in all things,” sharing in our humanity (Heb. 2:14-17). Similarly, if He took on a body but never suffered temptation or pain, His redemption would not enter the depths of our distress with weight and power. But “since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered,” He is able to offer powerful, meaningful help when we endure trials (Heb. 2:18).
Jesus was made like us in every way except one: He did not sin. Sin downgrades and defaces our humanity—so Jesus not sinning makes him more human, not less. Jesus is true humanity. We should be encouraged, because “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus succeeds where we failed, living the life we haven’t in order to set the world right and bring us back to God.
So what do we do when tempted—when our screaming child is about to send us over the edge, when that diagnosis arrives and the tempter whispers that God’s abandoned us, when the allure of a co-worker beckons us to betray our covenant in an affair? We look to Jesus. The gospel doesn’t say we need to do better. It says we need the power of God. We can look up from our trials, temptations, and testing to set our eyes on the beauty of His holiness, cry out for His Spirit to help us in our weakness, thank Him for His work on our behalf where we’ve fallen short in the past, and rejoice when we participate in the power of His victory.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft