Why Satan’s Temptation of Jesus Failed


Dallas Willard

By Dallas Willard

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him…. Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left 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 at the end of them he was hungry. Luke 4:1-13

When Satan confronted Jesus, he did not pick him up and throw him off the pinnacle of the temple. Nor did he turn the stone into a loaf of bread and stuff it in Jesus’ mouth. He did not have the power to do that. He had to appeal to Jesus and then wait for Jesus’ response. What was that response? It was not, “Who do you think you are? Do you know who I am? I am the Son of God, you pip-squeak! Now scram!” No, Jesus responded with the Word of God. Rather than speak on his own behalf, he used the Scriptures to respond to Satan. He spoke them directly to him, using the authority of God’s Word to defend himself against Satan’s attempted deceptions.

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All three temptations received the same response: “It is written. It is written. It is written.” Satan did not argue back. He simply left Jesus alone—at least temporarily. We are told that after the final temptation in the wilderness “[the devil] departed from Him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). We are not told when, but the implication is that he came back. Indeed, you can be sure that Satan was Jesus’ constant companion during the days of his flesh. He was never very far away. Satan was fully aware that only Jesus could break his grip on the human world, devoted as it is to power and deceit, and only Jesus could deliver human beings from the mire of sin and evil in which they floundered. He knew Jesus to be the only truly radical person to enter human history, for he would refuse to use evil to defeat evil. He would set alight a new order that does not employ the devices evil persons use to try to secure themselves and get their way.

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Everything rested upon Satan’s defeat of Jesus. If Satan could prove that it was impossible for a flesh-and-blood human to do the will of God, he would have defeated God’s great project that began with creation. He would have shown that the idea of creating an even more glorious universe by bringing God’s church to fullness was impossible, a divine pipe dream. And perhaps—just perhaps, for it’s hard to read Satan’s mind—he thought tricking Jesus would give him a few more millennia before he met his final destiny. Whatever he thought, he was sorely disappointed by Jesus, who later told his disciples in the Upper Room just before his arrest in Gethsemane, that “the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (John 14:30).

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How Satan wanted to find something in him! He wanted to be able to get inside Jesus’ mind in the same way he got inside Eve’s mind. That is what the Garden of Gethsemane was about; it was the final struggle between Satan and Jesus. From the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, Satan had tried to destroy or deflect him. And in the final hours before the cross, Satan tried to break Jesus down by pressuring him with the hopelessness, in human terms, of what Jesus was attempting. Satan’s aim was to prevent the redemptive act of crucifixion— the one thing that would open the doors to deliver humanity from the grasp of evil by demonstrating the power of good over evil—and he brought all his demonic power to bear upon Jesus.

Jesus’ will was invincible, but the victory was not without a great struggle. Indeed, he sweated great drops of blood from withstanding Satan’s effort to turn him away from the cross. We sometimes see Jesus portrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane as cowering in the face of upcoming death, begging God to allow him to live, and unable to do anything about what would be done to him. He is depicted, in short, as a pathetic victim. But in light of who he was—and is—we would err badly if we were to accept this interpretation. There is no indication anywhere in the Scriptures that Jesus was afraid to suffer and die. He was not trying to avoid the cross. He was overcoming Satan. Once this was accomplished and the way to the cross was clear, Jesus was as serene as anyone you can imagine.

With humanity under his direction, Satan used people to torture Jesus. His goal was either to see Jesus die in the beating or to provoke Jesus into asserting his miraculous powers against those who were harming him. In either case, Jesus’ progression toward the cross, and the radical act of redemption in world history, would be prevented, and Satan would continue his rule. But to Satan’s chagrin, Jesus himself was in charge of the events and people involved in the story. He had “set his face” toward this goal—like a football player who sees the whole field and anticipates every move—to achieve his end of blowing open a carefully prepared but tiny cultural enclave of redemption and stepping upon the stage of world history (Luke 9:51). As he said at a crucial turning point in his career: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion], will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 NRSV). We need to see clearly the profound wisdom of his chosen path toward his goal. This was the Trinity’s winning strategy to break down the rule of Satan, and with its accomplishment Jesus stands quietly at the center of the contemporary world, as he himself predicted.

The events of Christ’s death and resurrection demonstrated to his followers and other observers that what Jesus said about the kingdom and its availability was and is true. To live through and beyond torture and the cross in resurrection life shows the presence of God among men. Knowledge of this presence and the unfailing availability of God to those who trust him led Jesus to say all the beautiful things that we wistfully acknowledge but hardly believe to be true: all those things about birds and flowers being in the care of God, and about how we need never be anxious or afraid, no matter what comes, even crucifixion.

Jesus’ basic idea about this world—with all its evil, pushed to the limit in what he went through going toward and nailed upon the cross—is that this world is a perfectly good and safe place for anyone to be, no matter the circumstances, if they have placed their lives in the hands of Jesus and his Father. In such a world we never have to do what we know to be wrong, and we never need be afraid. Jesus practiced what he preached, even as he was tortured and killed. And multitudes of his followers have chosen to do the same.

The above is adapted from Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23 by Dallas Willard (@DallasAWillard). Copyright © 2018 by Willard Family Trust. Pages 83-86. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com.

Life Without Lack is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Dallas Willard (1935–2013) was a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy from 1965 until his retirement in 2012. His groundbreaking books The Divine Conspiracy, The Great Omission, Knowing Christ Today, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Renovation of the Heart, and Hearing God forever changed the way thousands of Christians experience their faith.

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