Biosphere 2, located near Tucson, AZ, is an earth science research facility. Its original mission was to demonstrate the capability of plants and animals to grow in a closed, controlled ecological system that could possibly support human life in outer space. The Biosphere has a very interesting and controversial history, but there is only one aspect of its research findings that I am addressing today: the viability of trees. Trees in the Biosphere didn’t do as well as trees in the wild. They grew faster and taller, but because of their shallow, under-developed root systems, they often fell over before maturity. Trees became top-heavy with thin, weak trunks and limbs. What the trees lacked, scientists found, was resistance, namely, from wind. Lack of wind caused a deficiency of what is called “stress wood,” which helps a tree grow more solidly. Trees need to be stressed in the long run to survive, and wind “toughens them up.” As with trees, our strength comes from the struggle, too.
One such struggle is depicted in the hymn, “Jesus Tempted in the Desert.” It’s a good summary of Luke’s Scripture in both plot and theme. Each of the first three verses concerns a temptation by the devil, and the second part of each verse is Jesus’s rebuttal. The last verse recounts how we, too, face temptation by the enemy, but that our faith, trust, and obedience belong exclusively to God. Satan, of course, will use every deception that he can to keep Jesus—and us—from succeeding.
Jesus willingly goes into the wilderness, led by the Spirit, to be tempted by Satan during a 40-day fast. Forty, by the way, is the Biblical number symbolizing the victory of “good over evil.” Jesus’s faith and trust in God’s provision, as well as His allegiance to God, will be tested; and the focus on His mission to redeem mankind will constantly be met with attempts to trick and distract Him. Satan’s temptations are challenges that Jesus choose to face as a man, not as a divine being, even though His divinity is the bullseye for Satan’s arrows. The temptations are common to all humanity with the same capability of making or breaking us. Jesus will experience firsthand how Satan lures, deceives, and attempts to snare us.
The real crux of this story is not in the temptations themselves, because they’re old news. There are only three categories of temptations as recorded in 1 John: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Adam and Eve, the Israelites, and many other Biblical characters fell for all of them. Jesus resisted every one. Jesus’s RESPONSE to the temptations—using only God’s Word— is the crux of this passage. God’s Word has the final say, and it contains every weapon needed to fight temptation. In fact, this story is a “how-to” template for resisting temptation.
When I read the temptation story the first 600 times, I always imagined Jesus as the Underdog. Weak from hunger, alone in a hostile environment, bullied by Satan, Jesus is seemingly defenseless. But as I went backward in Jesus’s story—and even further back into the Old Testament—I got a different picture. Jesus…came… armed. He didn’t just have a few lines from Deuteronomy in His arsenal. He had been schooled in ALL of God’s Word, and consequently, He had the full armor of God for support.
Now, Paul’s description of the full armor of God that we read in Ephesians came after Jesus’s ascension; but references to God’s armor first existed in the Old Testament from which Jesus read. Referring to the Messiah, Isaiah 11:5 says, “…righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the sash around His waist.” Proverbs 30, verse 5 describes the shield of faith this way: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.” A verse in Isaiah 59 describes God Himself rescuing Israel—again—saying, “He put on righteousness as his breastplate and the helmet of salvation on his head….” There are many more references to the armor of God in the Old Testament, and as Jesus grew more mature and more grounded in God’s Word, the armor became like a second skin to Him. Therefore, Jesus comes to the front line well-prepared to stand against the devil’s schemes.
So, let’s talk about Jesus’ preparations for battle. We know He was half divine, which could’ve been a big plus, but Jesus tied that advantage behind His back by identifying with His human side. However, He had been training for this confrontation most of His life. For instance, recall the story of 12-year-old Jesus who went head-to-head with the religious leaders in the temple. Obviously, Jesus knew and understood Scripture well, so God’s Word became his belt of truth.
Jesus was further fortified for his encounter with Satan just before the wilderness battle. He had just come from the Jordan River after being baptized, where God publicly claimed Jesus as His Son, and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Talk about a front-line defense! That wouldn’t deter Satan, however. Emboldened by his success with the first Adam, Satan readied himself to move in on the Second Adam, Jesus. Ironically, the possibility of bringing about the downfall of God’s Son must’ve been a temptation that Satan himself couldn’t resist!
Because he was without sin, Jesus’s need for baptism wasn’t for the sake of repentance, but to identify with us as repenters. Being entirely obedient to God’s Word made him sinless; and sinlessness made Him righteous. Deut. 6, verse 25 says, “For we are righteous when we obey all the commands the Lord Our God has given us.” Righteousness is not only the breastplate that protects the heart and organs, but it protects us from all of Satan’s accusations and lies, enabling us to stand our ground against sin.
After His baptism, what does Jesus do? What Jesus always does—He prays. God is the source of all strength, and we have only to pray in the Spirit to tap into that source. Prayer, then, is the lifeline to God that helps sustain Jesus in the wilderness.
Immediately after His baptism, armed with the shield of faith and the breastplate of righteousness, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert, where “… he was tempted by the devil.” Wait, what? Why would Jesus’s Helper lead Him to the front line to engage with the Enemy?
First, this desert experience is where the rubber will meet the road. Will Jesus withstand the temptations of the devil? Jesus is in a physically-compromised state that will expose any chinks in his armor. But He has none. Despite the Satanic powers of evil and Jesus’s own weakened state, Jesus has the advantage of the indwelling Holy Spirit. As 1 John 4 promises: “…the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
The second reason Jesus is led into the desert is to “feel our pain”—the angst we feel when we’re overcome with the temptation to sin. In other words, Jesus must “walk a mile in our shoes.” In doing so, He mentors how we should walk a mile in His. In action rather than words, Jesus is saying, “I’m a man, too. This is how you do it. If I can do it, you can do it.”
The desert ordeal was also a physical, mental and spiritual test to prove that Jesus was ready for the three rigorous years of ministry that would ultimately take Him to the Cross. And don’t forget the trees. They thrived only when they encountered wind resistance. Jesus is about to encounter “Satan resistance” in order to test and build His spiritual muscle. James 1:4 says, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.”
However, the number one reason Jesus needed to persevere was for OUR sakes. Hebrews 4:15 explains the necessity of Jesus’s success in overcoming temptation: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Had Jesus failed, we would not have a sympathetic high priest to intervene for our sins. Worse yet, our eternal lives would be lost.
What better place, then, than the hostile, barren desert to measure Jesus’s faith, obedience, and dependence on God? And who better to test Jesus than Satan? The wilderness experience would expose the integrity of Jesus’s convictions. Either His roots in God’s Word would go deeper in response to the winds of temptation—or topple Him from grace. We don’t become stronger by avoiding trials and tribulations; we become stronger when we face them head-on engaging the armor of God, prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit as allies.
In His wilderness testing, Jesus is alone, hungry after 40 days of fasting, and therefore not at his personal best. Ironically, the desert itself, though inhospitable, becomes Jesus’s prayer closet, where He communes continually with the Father. In Jewish culture, fasting always involves praying. A very oversimplified explanation of fasting is that it empties us of worldly things while filling us up with God. Jesus is filling His spiritual tank. However, He is vulnerable, and Satan is ready to pounce.
First, though, it’s noteworthy that Scripture says that Jesus was “led by the Spirit” to be tempted. It does NOT say that Jesus was led “into” temptation. God might lead us to a situation that tests us for purposes of spiritual growth; but we alone make the decision to sin or not to sin through free will. It’s like the old saying, “You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” The horse gets to choose whether he’ll be a drinker or not. Even Satan can’t force us to sin, but he will cheer us on!
The most cunning part of the first and third temptations is that Satan calls into play the Sonship of Jesus. He taunts Jesus with, “If you are the Son of God…,” knowing full well that He IS God’s Son. For Jesus, it’s not about Who He is as much as Whose He is. His mind and thoughts are protected by the helmet of salvation, knowing Who He is in God. Satan wants Jesus to expose His divine identity, which will abort Jesus’s mission by interfering with God’s timing and will. When Satan dares Jesus to turn stone to bread to satisfy His hunger, the lust of the flesh and pride of life rear their ugly heads. The lust of the flesh is a temptation to satisfy bodily needs or desires in sinful ways, such as adultery, gluttony, or addictions. Pride of life involves a spirit of self-sufficiency, arrogance and defiance of God’s sovereignty. Not only would turning bread to stone using His divine power be sinful, but a slap in God’s face as well. It would be like Jesus saying, “I don’t need You or trust You to provide for me; I’ll do it Myself. And I don’t want to wait to do it in Your time anyway, because I’m hungry NOW. Besides, mankind’s salvation is less important than boasting to Satan that I really AM the Son of God.” So, in one fell swoop, Jesus would’ve abused His divine power for instant gratification, self-centeredness, and self-reliance.
Instead, Jesus, who is clad in the shield of faith, defers to God’s provision and timing. This is evidenced when He quotes from Deut. 8:3: “…man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Jesus effectively stops all discussion or argument by using God’s Word as His sword. The sword of the spirit is the only weapon of offense listed in the armor of God. All other parts are defensive in nature. In comparison to God’s Word, Satan’s temptations are like bringing a peashooter to a gunfight. The message to us, of course, is that the Word of God is our greatest weapon against sin. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”
Trumped by the Word of God, Satan moves on to the second temptation. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers to give them to Him—with one little stipulation: Jesus must worship Satan. Jesus simply quotes Deut. 6, verse 13, saying, “… ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” Jesus chooses to be obedient to the first commandment.
What is easy to miss here is that Jesus didn’t even acknowledge Satan’s offer of ruling kingdoms! Who Jesus would worship was His only concern. In fact, Jesus’s life of poverty, humility and service contradict a life that covets worldly power and materialism—better known as lust of the eyes. But to a lesser man, owning and ruling the world would be a heady trip. However, as preacher Billy Sunday once observed, “Hell is the highest reward that the devil can offer you for being a servant of his.” It goes without saying, though, that Jesus will one day rule the world and banish Satan forever; but it will happen in God’s time, not Satan’s.
Once again Satan throws around Jesus’s Sonship in the third temptation. (Can’t you just see him strutting and sneering, “If you are the Son of God…”.) This time the enemy wants Jesus to throw Himself off the highest point of the temple and let the angels catch Him. In an even more twisted ploy, Satan himself uses Scripture as evidence that God’s angels will protect Jesus from any harm. However, the intention of Psalm 91, from which Satan quotes, is to show God’s protection of his people, not to incite them to use God’s power for parlor tricks. So, it’s really a misuse of Scripture. More importantly, a stunt such as this would, again, prematurely expose Jesus as divine, derail God’s timing, waylay the journey to the cross, and leave us in sin and darkness forever, all in the name of the pride of life. Instead, Jesus simply retorts with another verse of Scripture found in Deut 6:16, “… ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus cuts Satan off at the knee with the sharp and powerful two-edged sword of God’s Word. Even Satan seems to know that used in context for the purpose of truth, God’s Word is the final Word, and the devil slinks away, temporarily beaten.
I know I spent more time discussing the armor of God, namely His Word, than I did on the temptations themselves. That’s because temptations will come and go, but the Word of God is unchanging and eternal, our constant source of strength and truth.
Our “stress wood” grows stronger when we know and depend on God’s Word to help us stand during our trials and tribulations, just as Jesus did. That we will struggle at one time or another against the winds of temptation is a given; but if our roots run deep in the Word of God, we won’t topple at the slightest breeze.
Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, at this, the beginning of our Lenten season, let us remember that even in our own desert experiences, we are never alone. Like Your Son, Jesus, let us rely on the full armor of God, prayer, and the Holy Spirit as You lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.