In connection with Jesus’ sinlessness, we should notice in more detail the nature of His temptations in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). The essence of these temptations was an attempt to persuade Jesus to escape from the hard path of obedience and suffering that was appointed for Him as the Messiah. Jesus was “led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). In many respects this temptation was parallel to the testing that Adam and Eve faced in the Garden of Eden, but it was much more difficult. Adam and Eve had fellowship with God and with each other and had an abundance of all kinds of food, for they were only told not to eat from one tree. By contrast, Jesus had no human fellowship and no food to eat, and after He had fasted for forty days He was near the point of physical death. In both cases the kind of obedience required was not obedience to an eternal moral principle rooted in the character of God, but was a test of pure obedience to God’s specific directive. With Adam and Eve, God told them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the question was whether they would obey simply because God told them. In the case of Jesus, “led by the Spirit” for forty days in the wilderness, He apparently realized that it was the Father’s will that He eat nothing during those days but simply remain there until the Father, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, told Him that the temptations were over and He could leave.
We can understand, then, the force of the temptation, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). Of course Jesus was the Son of God, and of course He had the power to make any stone into bread instantly. He was the one who would soon change water into wine and multiply the loaves and the fishes. The temptation was intensified by the fact that it seemed as though, if He did not eat soon, His very life would be taken from Him. Yet He had come to obey God perfectly in our place, and to do so as a man. This meant that He had to obey in His human strength alone. If He had called upon His divine powers to make the temptation easier for Himself, then He would not have obeyed God fully as a man. The temptation was to use His divine power to “cheat” a bit on the requirements and make obedience somewhat easier. But Jesus, unlike Adam and Eve, refused to eat what appeared good and necessary for Him, choosing rather to obey the command of His heavenly Father.
The temptation to bow down and worship Satan for a moment and then receive authority over “all the kingdoms of the world” (Luke 4:5); was a temptation to receive power not through the path of lifelong obedience to His heavenly Father, but through wrongful submission to the Prince of Darkness. Again, Jesus rejected the apparently easy path and chose the path of obedience that led to the cross.
Similarly, the temptation to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4:9-11) was a temptation to “force” God to perform a miracle and rescue Him in a particular way, thus attracting a large following from the people without pursuing the hard path ahead, the path that included three years of ministering to people’s needs, teaching with authority, and exemplifying absolute holiness of life in the midst of harsh opposition. But Jesus again resisted this “easy route” to the fulfillment of His goals as the Messiah (again, a route that would not have actually have fulfilled those goals in any case).
These temptations were really the culmination of a lifelong process of moral strengthening and maturing that occurred throughout Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood, as He “increased in wisdom…and in favor with God” (Luke 2:52) and as He “learned obedience through what He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In these temptations in the wilderness and in the various temptations that faced Him through the thirty-three years of His life, Christ obeyed God in our place and as our representative, thus succeeding where Adam had failed, where the people of Israel in the wilderness had failed, and where we had failed (Rom. 5:18-19).
As difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, Scripture affirms that in these temptations Jesus gained an ability to understand and help us in our temptations. “Because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). The author goes on to connect Jesus’ ability to sympathize with our weaknesses to the fact that He was tempted as we are.
“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then [lit. ‘therefore’] with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16)
This has practical application for us: in every situation in which we are struggling with temptation, we should reflect on the life of Christ and ask if there were not similar situations that He faced. Usually, after reflecting for a moment or two, we will be able to think of some instances in the life of Christ where He faced temptations that, though they were not the same in every detail, were very similar to the situations that we face every day.