Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2 BSB)
Jesus met the devil on the devil’s turf and in a physically weakened state but still was victorious over him. This moment was crucial for the ministry of Jesus, for he had come to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8).
The Jewish mind understood this principle more clearly than the Gentile mind. The author of Hebrews was led by God to discuss this in more detail. In the first four chapters he strongly underwrote the credentials of Christ for our salvation. He said:
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10)
The word translated “suffering” is pathema and it means emotional suffering more than physical suffering. It describes the intense passion of the soul, and puts the emphasis on the inner man and the inner struggles of the soul.
Our souls struggle against themselves, as well as the devil and the world. But in Jesus there was no inner conflict, rather from the very beginning His heart said, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7b). So that the author of Hebrews said of our “Great High Priest”:
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 without sin. (Heb. 4:15)
So Christ did not enter His public ministry reluctantly, or out of a desire for attention and ascendancy over others. His motive was absolutely pure — to enter into the sufferings that are unique to the Messiah, the Christ of God, and to over come the devil and defeat him. His goal was to save us from our sin and to redeem humanity from the fallen world, the tempter’s power, and our own fallen natures.
Mark’s Gospel merely mentions that the temptations happened, without going into detail (Mark 1:12-13). It is Matthew and Luke that give us the details. Christ was in the wilderness for forty days to be tempted of the devil and both Matthew and Luke mention that the three temptations that they mention happened only after the forty day fast.
The significance of fasting: Scholars generally see biblical fasting as an act of humility and was done as: (1) a sign of grief and mourning, (2) a sign of repentance, (3) an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience that prepares one for a special service or mission, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship. We can see here the meaning of Christ’s fast at this point was a means to help prepare Him for His public ministry.
Though there are examples of people fasting in the Bible, there are no specific descriptive commands in the Bible of exactly what fasting was to be, so there are various theories. At its heart it means going without food for a specific period, acknowledging our greater need for God. But did this mean all food and water, or only some foods, or only food but not water? There are no clear biblical answers to these questions. Though sometimes it is specified that to fast is to go without food and water, it can be argued that going without water is specified in these passages because it was not normally part of fasting (Ezra 10:6).
We can note that in the first of these temptations, the Bible said Christ was hungry, and not that He was thirsty. (But on the cross He was thirsty, not hungry, see John 19:28.) So there is the possibility that Christ’s fasting was only to go without food for forty days, but to drink water. We know that the human body cannot endure 40 days without water, but still, if He did not drink water during this time, then Christ was miraculously sustained by God during this forty day fast.
The Pharisees had perverted fasting into a sign of one’s own righteousness, and something to boast about before others, but this was far from the original idea. Jesus assumed His followers would fast from time to time, and said, “When you fast” (Matt. 6:19), and not, “If you fast.” So periods of fasting, to deepen our relationship with God, are a normal part of the Christian life, even if specific seasons of fasting and specific rules of fasting are not commanded (Col. 2:16-17). The goal is humility, and not self-righteousness or seeking to pay for our sins — our sins are only dealt with in the cross of Christ.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
Christ, the Second Adam: We can draw a parallel between Christ’s fasting and the command of God to Adam not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. “The first sin in the Bible was a violation of a dietary restriction” (Kent Berghuis). Adam ate, Christ did not. Christ as the second Adam proved Himself worthy to be our Savior:
So then, just as one trespass [by Adam] brought condemnation for all men, so also one act of righteousness [by Christ] brought justification and life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:18-19)
So this contest, this showdown between Jesus and the devil, was bound to happen. In fact, this typified His ministry. Christ would be faced with evil repeatedly over His ministry. But there is a significant difference here in the post baptism temptation: this was a personal, one-on-one temptation between Christ and Satan. All other remaining temptations were between Christ and lesser demons and demoniacs (Luke 4:31-37), doubting disciples (Matthew 16:23), and ultimately the religious leaders of the Jewish nation where vanity, pride, and unbelief were the most entrenched.
The conniving of Satan: So for today’s study we will end merely pointing out the conniving nature of Satan. He knew when it was best to tempt Jesus, and he knows when we are also at our weakest point. There may have been other temptations that are not recorded here, in fact, most of us assume there were. And it seems that Satan comes at the end of the forty day fast to tempt him to eat.
It would be normal for the person, once seeing the finish line in view, would assume that the race was virtually over and let down his guard. Also, there would be the subtle temptation for the tempter to ask, “Why did they put the finish line there? And why not here?” Or to suggest, “What does it matter if you eat tomorrow or now?” Or, “What is the difference, really, between fasting forty days or thirty-nine and a half?”
Just look at sporting events on youtube and you will find many races lost in the last ten meters, when the leader let down his guard and assumed that he had already won, only to be overtaken at the last second by another. Near the end of anything is when we are at the greatest point in temptation.
A personal example: I am now completing my full time ministry of pastoring. Due to health considerations I will be retiring in the next few months, and though I will continue to serve the Lord as long as I can, the position of senior pastor will be taken off my shoulders. But I can say honestly that I have been tempted to say all sorts of things to people, things that the Holy Spirit would not allow me to say and certainly has not commanded me to say.
I am completing a segment of my own race of faith, and the temptations are real. I have determined in my heart to finish my race in the right spirit and to bless the people of God as I leave, which is what the Holy Spirit would have me to do. Now, of course, there are a few things (very few things) that I can and ought to say to the church at this stage of my life and ministry that they need to hear. There is the possibility to be more fatherly than before on a few matters, but good fathers are loving and encouraging. They bless their children, and do not curse them.
So over these next few months in my life, I need to preach the grace of God in Christ Jesus, the potential for every Christian and every church to live a miraculous life in the power of God, the mercy of God which covers our sins and gives us hope. As God said, “But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification, encouragement, and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3).
Jesus while on the cross did not curse back at those cursing Him, rather He turned upward to heaven to pray for them, and toward the repentant thief to win him to faith. And it is instructive for all of us that the good examples of biblical leadership all blessed the people of God and encouraged them: Joseph (Genesis 50:15-25); Moses (Deuteronomy 33); Samuel (1 Samuel 12:20-25); David (2 Samuel 22); Isaiah (Isaiah 40); Jeremiah (Lamentations 3:21-33); Peter (2 Peter 3:18); John (3 John 1:8); and Paul (Acts 20:13-38).