Luke 4: 1&2 “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

Luke chapter four begins with a description of one of the greatest battles to have taken place in the world, but it is significant also for the help it gives to all the followers of Christ in those skirmishes with the powers of evil that they must regularly encounter. The Usurper, the god of this world, the one who is identified by his many names – the Devil, the Serpent and his seed, Satan, Beelzebub, mankind’s merciless enemy – launches his first attack upon the incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, who is known and loved for his many titles and offices, the Son of the living God, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of Man, Jehovah Jesus, God’s prophet, priest and king. Satan has been planning this assault for a long time. He engages with Christ at this moment in order to nip his mission of cosmic redemption in the bud. He is intent upon preventing Christ even beginning his mission of redemption. Our Saviour had just been anointed by the Spirit of God at his baptism. There he had received glorious divine assurance that he was the beloved Son of God, and that his Father in heaven was well pleased with all that he had done in Nazareth, humbly fulfilling all righteousness for thirty years. It was then that Jesus was led by God in the desert where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

I find one of Tom Wright’s observations puzzling and unacceptable when he says, “The story does not envisage Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure to whom he could talk as one to another; the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head” (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, 2001, p.43). Surely what we have is both the power of buzzing thoughts and also a full frontal encounter with the visible figure of Satan. From any natural understanding of the text we are presented with the devil coming to Jesus and speaking words to him, and Jesus replying in words to them. The devil also led Jesus to a couple of locations and our Lord accompanied him. The natural understanding of the temptations of Christ is a face to face encounter. There is support elsewhere in the Bible for such a view; the devil appeared to Adam and Eve in the form of a serpent; in the age of Job Satan came to God and spoke to him about the patriarch.

In the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel we are told that God the Father spoke actual words to Jesus. Two persons speaking to one another, not simply God placing comforting truths in Jesus’ mind because that was something God had been doing for thirty years, but at Jesus’ baptism there was something more. There was a voice from heaven heard by men. The Spirit came upon Jesus visibly in the form of a dove, and John the Baptist “gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him” (Jn.1:31). A few years later, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus fell to the ground and was blinded not by a raging conscience but by a glorious figure brighter than the sun whom Saul heard addressing him by name. Again, thirty years later on the isle of Patmos John saw a magnificent figure. He was ‘out there’ before him, not in John’s mind or memory, but standing right ahead of John. Saul and John were not given a highlighted consciousness of how wonderful Jesus was. The exalted Christ came to them. So it was here with the prince of darkness. The devil came to Jesus. Such a figure exists; he is the leader of the fallen angels, and he appeared to our Lord in the wilderness. He did not delegate this task to a minor demon. Surely there were many tormenting thoughts troubling our Lord for forty days. He was confronted with a host of temptations to give up the path of duty, and we all experience these fiery darts of the wicked one, but in the wilderness there was more than that. Jesus Christ had a full frontal encounter with Satan. There was eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation with the devil.

Luke chapter four is known as “The Temptations in the Wilderness.” We believe that every day Jesus was tempted, and that he was tempted in every point as we are, and yet there was this unique period – “The Temptations in the Wilderness.” It came; it lasted, and it ended. I am saying that that is the pattern for all of us; daily temptations to be resisted by looking to Jesus and a swift prayer for help and maybe doing something different. We move away from that problem. That is a characteristic of our lives in a fallen world. Then there comes a special season like the one before us when a hail of fiery darts comes at us, on and on and on. The phone rings with bad news; we start feeling an ache – some stabbing pain that won’t go away. There is trouble at the church; our family or our missionaries are experiencing serious trials. There comes a threat of our being made redundant; a son begins to stay out late; our father is developing symptoms of dementia. One problem beckons to another and they come crashing into our lives; we lurch from one trial to another. The psalmist knew this; he says, “Iniquities against me prevail from day to day.” No sooner did one develop than another started. The psalmist climbed out of one and God seemed to push him into another, and he collapsed under them. What shouldn’t happen to a Christian happened; they prevailed against him. A unique time of trial was Jesus’ own experience and I am saying to you, “Reckon on it in your lives too.”

I believe that this is what the Bible is referring to when it uses phrases like “entering into temptation” or “falling into temptation” or “taken in temptation.” It is called the “hour of temptation,” in Revelation chapter three and verse ten. It is as though a net has fallen upon us and has caught us in its meshes and we need all our ingenuity and strength and resolution to free ourselves. We have to carry on our daily duties while chafing in this net. John Owen describes it like this, “Satan attacks us with greater force than his ordinary solicitations to sin. He uses fears, allurements, persecutions, seductions, by himself or others. He takes advantage of a lust or a corruption, and by his instigation it approaches us to provoke us or terrify us with a much greater disturbance than usual. When we enter into temptation there has been special activity of Satan to take particular advantage of us” (John Owen, Temptation Resisted and Repulsed, p.14, Banner of Truth, 2007). That is what we are talking about, a ‘special activity of Satan’ in which he takes particular advantage of us tempting us.

I am saying that God permits such seasons to come into our lives to make us feel our own great weakness. He did so in the case of Peter. He sought to sift him as wheat, and Peter was taken in temptation. There had been long periods of Peter’s discipleship in which he would have answered girls like this instantly saying, “Of course I am following Jesus of Nazareth and I’m proud to confess it.” Through most of his life with Jesus he wasn’t ashamed of being an apostle. He was prepared to die with Jesus, but now the hour of temptation had come. The circumstances were such that Peter was as weak as a kitten, and the temptation seemed irresistible, vigorous, and active. The night was dark; he was all alone; the people surrounding him were strangers and quite hostile to what he believed. The trial wouldn’t end. The girl came back and talked again; someone else came; three times he was challenged as belonging to Christ. Peter entered into temptation and it was the most dangerous hour in his life. David as a young man had faced certain temptations with members of the opposite sex and he had resisted them, but when he was taken in temptation’s powerful hour then down he fell, and how great was his fall.

We are all going to meet times of temptation when the voice encouraging us to sin is more plausible than ever before, when the sin is more attractive and irresistible than we have ever known, when the door of evil is open wide and every encouragement is being given to us to enter. How blessed you will be if you are prepared for such a time. There is no escape if you are not prepared. Keep up your preparation and you will be far safer.


If temptations were not going to be a part of our lives why did Jesus say to his disciples, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22:40)? In Matthew and Mark the warning is repeated – “Watch and pray!” Solomon describes a man who is fast asleep (and some of us who wake every hour or two throughout the night might envy someone who can lie down and sleep for hours without waking). But the man Solomon talks about is sleeping in the crow’s nest, on top of a mast at sea. He is the ship’s watch; he is there as the lookout for rocks or whales or land or pirates, but he is asleep lying on the rigging. What danger he is in! His sleep is bringing others into danger too. Some of you are professing Christians, but you are going to be destroyed if you don’t pay heed to this message, if you fail to watch out for temptations, and your fall will cause others to fall also. When the Puritan preacher John Owen wrote his brilliant little book on temptation (which has just been reprinted in modern English by the Banner of Truth) then he called it Temptation Resisted and Repulsed. What do you know about resisting and repulsing temptation? That, I say, is the mark of being a follower of Jesus Christ. He met temptation and overcame it, and by him we can overcome it too, but if you take another forbidden fruit; if you cave in to your desires; if you sleep rather than watch and pray then you will end up in hell. Jesus warns his disciples to pray that they won’t fall into temptation. The devil was not afraid to come right up to the Son of God and bring direct and subtle pressures on Jesus to sin. He had thought thoroughly about what he was going to say to Jesus and where he would take him. He certainly won’t hesitate to tempt the most mature Christian in the church. The devil has no need to be original. He doesn’t think, “Well this is 2008, and so I must try something brand new for a new year.” No. The old, well-tried snares of the past have been so successful generation after generation that they are good enough to get you. If they got Noah, and Abraham, and Lot, and Kings David and Hezekiah, and the apostle Peter – men who were all greater than any one in the church today – then they are powerful enough to get one of us.

The Lord Jesus had lavished such pastoral care on his disciples. There were no more favoured men in the whole world than these twelve, and Jesus had made the peril they faced spectacularly clear to them. Soon they would be facing armed men out to arrest him. He would be snatched from them. He would be tried and condemned to death on the cross. They would all forsake him and run for their lives. Peter would deny him three times. They’d better believe what he was telling them. This was their future said he who had never made a wrong prediction. “Reckon on it!” he said. “Watch and pray!” But they ignored his words. For them it was unthinkable that they would act like that.

Doesn’t God speak in his word and warn us about our futures? “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (I Tim. 4:1). Hasn’t it happened? Christians whom we much admired, who helped us, have abandoned the faith, haven’t they? They were following spiritual influences which were deceiving them. Behind the fall of these men and women and the wretched discouragement it brought into the church was the activity of deceiving spirits. The devil who tempted Christ is at work deceiving us today. This happens all the time, and we are to watch out for it, and understand this phenomenon, and pray! Let’s be ready to meet temptations of all kinds. This passage is not in the synoptic gospels just as a piece of history, or religious symbolism, but to say, “Be prepared for temptations,” especially when we are setting out on a course of action which is going to bring great blessing to men and women. On the threshold of blessing the devil is most active. He can understand the times better than we can. Jesus was beginning the most extraordinary three years this world has ever seen or ever will see until the last days, and on earth only the devil knew it.


Now what I am going to say to you is probably familiar enough to many of you, but it is not a weariness to me to speak about it, and for you it is safe to hear again of such things. The word for temptation is principally used in the New Testament as testing something to prove its value and usefulness. Think of a test pilot taking a new Boeing jet into the skies and putting it through its paces, taking off and landing, seeing how it responds to various weather conditions, speeds, altitudes, and loads. What of the power and sustained force of the jet engines? Is the under-carriage safe? How does it manouver? Is it heavy on the joy stick? How will it fly with the equivalent weight of 400 passengers on board? Does the cabin pressure keep constant? Is the entertainment system working? Are the toilets and the meals and the refrigerators and the PA system working? Everything has to be tested long before its inaugural flight when hundreds of people get on board and are taken across the Pacific ocean miles up in the air. The people on board are not afraid because the plane has the inestimable quality of being tried and proved. It is a tested plane.

So it is with us; every Christian is tested by God throughout his life. Some Christians, like Spurgeon, were tested and proved at 16 years of age. Many others are still not proved at 60. So the Lord brings pressures to bear on his elect steadily; he tries our faith through many different circumstances. We are to rejoice that the mighty Creator, the living God thinks so highly of us that he is testing us. He is going to use us, perhaps use us greatly for many years, and so God first proves us by a structure of trials each more demanding than the last, from the difficult to the impossible. There are three things that make a man of God, said Luther, prayer, meditation and trials. The great Reformer put trials up there alongside prayer! “Temptation and adversity are the two best books in my library,” he said. Luther acknowledged the trials he’d experienced as being his best teachers, his ‘masters of divinity.’ Luther said that one Christian who’d been tempted was worth a thousand who hadn’t been tempted. How often have I heard Iain Murray quoting the words of John Trapp; “Better be preserved in brine than rot in honey.”

Iola and I have been reading Pilgrim’s Progress each day and one day last week we came to the dialogue between Christian and Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Christian tells him that he is going this way to the distant light to get rid of his terrible burden that is crushing him. “Who told you that this was the way to get rid of it?” asks Wordly Wiseman. “Evangelist,” says Christian. Worldly Wiseman despises Evangelist and he tells Christian that if he keeps taking his advice these are the horrors that lie before him; “fatigue, pain, hunger, dangers, nakedness, swords, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word, death.” “Listen,” replies Christian, “this Burden on my back is more terrible than all the things you’ve mentioned.” Do you know why people give up the Christian faith at the first little bit of loneliness and disappointment that comes into their lives? Because they have never experienced the terrible burden of the guilt of sin. They have never felt condemned by the wrath of God, under the judgment of God, heading for hell as lost sinners. They’ve taken up Christianity as some extra adornment to their lives. They are confident and self-assertive people, and becoming religious they can confidently assert themselves before God! They came to church for life enhancement not for life destruction, but Jesus said, “Unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abides alone.” They have never died to self and sought deliverance from the burden of the sin that besets them by fleeing to the blood of Christ. But in Pilgrim’s Progress Christian had. His burden of guilt was so great; “O wretched man that I am who can deliver me from this body of death?” was his cry. If you had told Christian that he could be saved by suffering “fatigue, pain, hunger, dangers, nakedness, swords, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word, death” then he’d have said, “Fine! Anything to get rid of this burden,” but Christian knew that none of those things could take away his guilt. So the warnings of the trials that came along the way of deliverance did not bother him at all.

Every Christian has to endure such trials; they are ordained by God. You understand what I am saying? Every real Christian must be tested by God to see whether what he professes is genuine. God is saying to us, “Now, my dear children, you say that you believe that I work all things together for your good?” “Yes Lord,” we reply. So then God puts us in a circumstance when it becomes very difficult to accept such a fearful providence can possibly work for our good. For example, here is a young preacher of immense ability with his best years ahead of him, and he is struck down with an incurable illness and he dies. How we needed him, and yet he has left this mortal coil. God says to his widow, “Do you believe that I am in charge? Is this one of those ‘all things’ you have confessed to be working for your good and the good of your Christian children, and for the good of the church?” How hard are the providences of God! Sometimes God snuffs out the brightest candles. It is that we may look to the light of the world. Can you say, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars; the hotter the fire, the purer the gold”? Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “The dark hour makes Jesus bright.” God tests our faith and proves us in such ways. Richard Baxter went through great trials and this was his thought on the matter, “Weakness and pain helped me to study how to die; then that set me on studying how to live.” You want to die the death of the righteous? Then live the life of the righteous. What is a righteous life? Sometimes I think that being in a congregation is like being in a winepress. I can understand why people want to be isolated Christians. They don’t like the pressure brought by living closely with others, loving others, rejoicing with others, submitting to others, considering others better than yourself, having to bear the burdens of the weak, weeping with others, submitting to your elders, but we’ve got no choice in that matter. To opt out of the body of Christ is pride, and there’ll be no wine for others except by the wine press.

How good is God to test us by manifold trials – that is, trials of many kinds. The anvil, the fire and the hammer are the making of us. What good will come to our dear brother in Kenya through the trials God has brought into his life in the past months! We would all agree with Spurgeon when he said that if he could gather together all the grace he’d got out of comfortable and easy times then it would barely cover the surface of a penny, but the good he had received through his sorrows and pains and griefs was almost incalculable. One Christian said to another, “Do you know that the Christian life is a bed of roses . . . thorns and all”? Remember the words of John Newton which we have sung over the past year;

“Why should I complain of want or distress,
Temptation or pain? He told me no less.
The heirs of salvation I know from his Word,
Through much tribulation must follow the Lord?”

So, in our text we meet the sinless Son of God being tested. Who put him in the wilderness to meet with Satan? God did, didn’t he? You ask, “Does God put people in the wilderness?” Yes. How does our text begin? “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (v.1). If there was anyone you might think didn’t need to be tested by God it was his Son. He loved God with all his heart; he always obeyed God. God has just told him how much he loved him and was pleased with him, and he fills him with his Spirit, and yet immediately from that blessing he is led into a wilderness, and he is exposed to an encounter with the devil. What possible good could come from that for Jesus? Much, in every way. There had been thirty years of making doors, and wheels, and tables, and ploughs, and fence posts. Thirty years of listening to customers in the carpenter’s shop, listening to his parents and siblings talking together in the little house in Nazareth. Three decades of that and now he is launched into the public world by baptism and into his ministry as the Christ of God.

As a human being what doubts would Jesus have of his own ability to do this work? Wouldn’t this humble man cringe from standing before hundreds and soon thousands of people and preaching to them without notes or a lectern? There’d be the twelve apostles that he had to unite and transform. There were the constant encounters with a hostile Jewish leadership. There were the sick and dying brought to him. There were his own heart’s motives that he had to be sure of. There was obviously during the next years a terrible infestation of demons in the land which ran parallel to his entire ministry. It seems that in every single community visited by Jesus there were both old and young possessed by the devil, being destroyed themselves and ruining the lives of those who loved them. One man named Legion was driven out of human society, chained and kept in a graveyard. He could snap chains with the preternatural strength he possessed. The strongest man in the world, but at what cost.

How could Jesus of Nazareth cope suddenly with this new life? How could be teach and debate and pray and instruct and counsel and heal and do his mighty works? How could a carpenter’s son – even with great assurance that he had the Spirit of God and that God loved him – know that he could cope? God does it by testing him for forty days in the wilderness, permitting Satan himself to come to him again and again and tempt him. Yet Jesus overcame the god of this world by himself! If he had knocked out the champion then he could certainly overcome the contenders. What could mere demons achieve a triumph when the god of this world himself has failed? Haven’t you noticed how easily the Lord Jesus exorcises those men and women that are possessed by the devil? The Lord Jesus was not intimidated by Legion himself there amongst the tombs, shrieking out, in the worst single case of demon possession that there’s ever been. He delivers the man instantly and sweetly by the word. That was only possible because of the confidence Jesus had gained from his triumph over Satan in the wilderness. We sing a hymn about not yielding to temptation and we say, “Each victory will help you some other to win.” That was preeminently true of Christ. He had supreme power over the kingdom of darkness. Men and women looked at what he said and did and they said to one another, “From where does he get his authority? Even the demons are subject to him.”

So this trial gave the Lord Jesus assurance that far greater was his Father in whom he trusted than the god of this world. “So . . . I can do . . . all things through God’s power,” he could say to himself with wonder after these forty days were over. How much more did Jesus trust in his Father after those weeks than after thirty years in Nazareth! What new depths of compassion did Jesus feel toward Legion, and all the demon-possessed men and women who came to him. He had smelled the breath of Satan. He had experienced his malice and venom for himself in a close encounter that lasted for days, so Jesus never kept anyone waiting until tomorrow for deliverance from the devil because he knew how horrible it was to be under his power.

Again, what new discoveries Jesus made about his own heart through this experience. All those years of Scripture memorization and study were not in vain. What depths of peace he knew even in the wilderness with the devil trying to destroy him. Jesus saw more clearly than ever what strength God had provided him with, what type of metal was his constitution, that the thirty years of preparation in Nazareth had been successful. One reason God allowed his Son to experience what he did was to strengthen Jesus in faith. That was the victory that overcame the devil. He did not know what power and vigour was there until God allowed it to be drawn out at this time. He did not know what authority lay in the word of God until he had used it to overcome the devices of Satan. What a discovery! “Is not your word like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces!” Jesus knew those words of Jeremiah as do so many of us, but now Jesus knew it by experience! He broke the devil in pieces in the wilderness by the power of God’s word. We can’t imagine how powerful God’s grace is until we see what it achieves. You only appreciate how powerful chemo-therapy is when it destroys the cancer that was threatening to kill you. The preciousness and effectualness of the antidote is known in the deliverance it provides. It saves from death, destruction and despair. Jesus knew the power of God’s grace when he had felt the power of Satan’s testing and appreciated the glory of preserving grace.

How much have we men and women today gained from Jesus’ forty day-long battle in the wilderness with the devil! Much more than from his thirty years with his family in Nazareth, and those temptations did not make him bitter. He did not spend the rest of his life blaming God for giving him such a horrible experience. He became a stronger and wiser and more loving man because of this.


God never leads our souls into acts or words or imaginations that are evil. As we close let me draw your attention to those familiar and important words in the opening chapter of the letter of James; “When tempted, no-one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15). God puts us to the test to strengthen us, but he never seduces us to do wrong. Our own evil desires hear the voice of the tempter and we say ‘Yes!’ We are dragged away and enticed by our own desires, and sin gives birth to death.

In this passage in Luke’s gospel the tempter is called ‘the devil’ on no less than five occasions. In Matthew’s account three different names are used for the evil one. He is called the ‘tempter,’ that is, he is the one who entices. He is called ‘Satan,’ the adversary, the one who has entered into conflict with God for our destruction, but he is principally called even by Matthew the devil, the accuser, and this is the one title Luke uses throughout the account of the temptations of Christ. The devil is the accuser of the brethren and the accuser of our conscience. He is a clever, double-minded creature. First, he entices us, bringing the loveliness of some illicit thing to our attention. See it here, how he showed Jesus the splendours of the world and he made great promises that these glories could become Christ’s, as though they were the devil’s to bestow! But once you are caught by his tempting words and you take the forbidden fruit, he then jumps on you and he accuses you of having done the very thing he seduced you into doing. He is a very short-lived friend. The temptation came first, “Do it . . . it will be great!” and then, when we’ve capitulated immediately the cry comes, “How could you have done that? What would your father think of you now?” The devil alternately entices and then he accuses. That’s the pattern – enticement and accusation, and it is always so very personal.

The politicians and educationalists and media people take refuge in structural sins such as racism, neglect of the environment, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor. They all applaud themselves for their clean sheets concerning such evils. Let them remember that evil is more than structural and social and environmental. First and always there is personal sin! There is the sin that begins with our own evil desires which drags us away and entices us. Sin is the matter of the heart Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount; it is anger, and lust, and covetousness. There is a being in the universe named Satan whose whole existence is set on wrecking eternally the children of God. The Lord said it like this to Cain, “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you” (Gen. 4:7). The devil is out to get you, one way . . . one way or another, he’s going to get you! But Jesus Christ the great conqueror, is out to deliver you! The Bible says, “God is able to deliver the godly out of temptations.” Surely if the man Christ Jesus has known temptations he is able to deliver us! He can make a way of escape, the apostle says. So pray as you have never prayed before . . . pray if necessary until your sweat is as drops of blood, crying, “Lead me not into temptation and deliver me from evil,’ and look unto this Jesus that he will carry you through the hour of temptation. There is no one else to whom to cry but to this sympathizing tried Saviour.

6th January 2008 GEOFF THOMAS