The Temptation of Christ — For Our Comfort and Salvation
“For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted,
He is able to succor them that are tempted.”
The account of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness has been recorded “for our learning” (Romans 15:4) in Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12–13, and Luke 4:1–13. This Bible narrative is often used merely to give important instruction, by way of the Savior’s own example, as to how we too can resist the devil and cause him to flee from us (James 4:7), namely, by using the Word of God as our spiritual armor and weaponry (Ephesians 6:11–17), as Jesus did. However, in the above-quoted verse of Holy Scripture (Hebrews 2:18), the temptation of the Savior is not mentioned as an admonition to follow His example, but is rather here cited to be of comfort to us when we are subjected to Satan’s temptations. That Christ is able to “succor” us simply means that He is able to help us. Because Jesus suffered real temptations as a true human being, He is able to relate to us in our spiritual struggles against the devil; and because Jesus is also true God, He is able to give us the aid that we need the most when we are assailed by the devil’s temptations. But is it not true that, because Jesus is God and since it is impossible for God to sin (Isaiah 6:3), it was really impossible for Jesus to give in to the temptations of the devil and to transgress any part of God’s holy Law? Yes, it is true that it was impossible for Jesus to sin and to violate His holiness, just as it is impossible for God to violate any of His divine attributes (II Timothy 2:13). This, however, does not mean that the temptations that Jesus endured were not real temptations. When the devil tempted Him, saying: “If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (Matthew 4:3)—thus calling into question Christ’s divine sonship, as well as the Father’s providential care of Him—it was an impossibility for Jesus to obey Satan and thus to sin. But this was still a real and serious temptation because, being in His state of humiliation, Jesus’ true human body experienced real, serious, intense hunger, with all of the pains and cravings that go along with it—since Jesus kept food from His body for a period of “forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:2).
Certainly, Jesus, as a true Man, knows what it is like to be tempted by the devil; and, thankfully, He is also able to help us in every time of temptation in ways that no mere human can. As our exalted Lord God in the heavens, He keeps Satan in bounds and restricts what he is capable of doing against us. Just as the Lord set specific limits to what the devil could do to Job (Job 1:12; 2:6), even while He was allowing Job to suffer much at the Tempter’s hand, so He also restrains the devil in his attacks against us. Through the new man that we received when the Holy Ghost brought us to faith, the Lord has given us the ability to “resist the devil” (James 4:7)—though our sinful flesh would rather yield to him (Matthew 26:41; Romans 7:15–23). For our comfort, God has promised that He will not allow any temptation to come upon us that is greater than our ability to resist—the ability He has given us by the working of His Spirit through the Gospel. “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:13). The Lord, who abides faithful to His Word at all times (II Timothy 2:13), here promises that He will always “make a way to escape” whatever temptation He allows to beset us. Sadly, and to our shame, we do not always take the provided “way to escape”; but this is certainly not the fault of our gracious Lord—it does not mean that He was unfaithful to His promise of not allowing too great a temptation to befall us. If and when we fall, the fall is of our own making (James 1:13-15). The devil can only operate within the confines that God sets for Him; and, thankfully, Christ, our God and Lord, is on our side and will help us in all of our spiritual battles—knowing exactly what we are enduring, having Himself endured the devil’s temptations. “For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succor them that are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
Later in this Epistle to the Hebrews, the fact that Christ endured all manner of temptation is again stressed together with an exhortation to come boldly to the Lord for help in every time of need. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16). Though He never gave in to any of the devil’s temptations, the Lord Jesus was truly tempted just as we are. He can, therefore, completely sympathize with us and provide us with the exact help we need as we “wrestle…against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). Therefore, in times of temptation, let us not attempt to fight Satan alone (in which endeavor we would most certainly fail); but let us come boldly in the name of Christ to the throne of grace—seeking the aid that He has promised us in our ongoing battles against the devil and his cunning temptations, and being assured of the Lord’s mercy and grace in granting us the help that we so desperately need when Satan seeks to devour us (I Peter 5:8; II Thessalonians 3:3).
Though it is through such prayers that Christ wants us to seek His help for spiritual strengthening at all times of temptation, and though He certainly will grant us the promised “succor” in answer to our prayers, yet it is important to remember that it is not through the prayers themselves that we receive His aid. Rather, God has given us the means of His Word and Sacraments to build up our spiritual defenses. In His high-priestly prayer for His disciples on the night of His betrayal, Jesus besought His heavenly Father to increase their ability to resist the devil and to walk in holiness, saying: “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17). It is specifically the Gospel of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus that moves us to love Him in return and to show that love by following His Commandments and shunning the devil’s temptations (I John 4:19, 5:3). Accordingly, the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (12:1).
In addition to the written Gospel, the Lord has also graciously given us what is sometimes called the “visible Gospel,” namely, the Sacraments, for the strengthening of our faith and for the ability to resist the temptations of Satan. Every time we receive the true body and blood of Christ—given and shed for us “for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28)—offered to us in the Sacrament of the Altar, we should “show the Lord’s death” (I Corinthians 11:26), namely, “remember and proclaim His death,” as Luther puts it, and as Christ Himself says: “This do in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). And though the Sacrament of Baptism (unlike the Lord’s Supper) is received only once in a Christian’s life, yet its Gospel-effects are on-going and beneficial as we daily remember and ponder in our hearts the gracious promises of the Lord concerning Baptism (such as I Peter 3:21, Acts 22:16, Galatians 3:27, Romans 6:3) and respond to God’s grace in Christ Jesus by daily renewing our Baptismal vow of serving only the Triune God and renouncing the devil with all his wicked works and ways. Thus we receive the edifying power of the Gospel in the Sacraments, through which Christ succors, or helps, us to stand fast against the devil’s crafty devices.
There is actually Gospel comfort and strengthening for us in Christ’s own resisting of the Tempter, since He overcame every temptation of the evil foe in our place. This was part of His active obedience (His life of perfect holiness), which was accomplished by the Lord Jesus vicariously—as the Substitute for all mankind. We share in the victory of Christ over Satan, which frees us from the condemnation that resulted from Satan’s victory over Adam and Eve. Our first parents were unsuccessful in resisting the temptation of the devil, and thus they brought upon themselves and all of their offspring the consequences of sin and death. As we are born into this world, we are spiritually dead, our bodies are subject to temporal death, and we are worthy of eternal death in hell. In this condition by nature we could only follow the devil and provoke God’s wrath. Writing to the Ephesian Christians, St. Paul says: “[Ye] were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air [the devil], the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience, among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:1–3). Thankfully, though Adam and Eve willingly yielded to Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden and plunged themselves and us into this horrible condition, Christ’s victory over the devil’s temptation has secured for all mankind salvation. By virtue of the perfect active obedience of the Savior, every sinner on earth has been graciously justified, or declared righteous and forgiven. “For if by one man’s [namely, Adam’s] offense death reigned by one, much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of One [Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous” (Romans 5:17–19).
Now it might be thought that this glorious message of the Gospel would cause people to become less concerned about resisting the devil themselves since Christ has overcome the devil in their place. And it is true that the carnally-minded in this very way abuse the Gospel of God’s grace—thinking that they are safe to live in unrepented sin. However, with true Christians, the exact opposite is the case—the grace of God in Christ Jesus is that which “constrains” them in their new man to live in His service rather than in the service of the devil. “The love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge, that if One died for all, then were all dead; and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves but unto Him which died for them and rose again” (II Corinthians 5:14–15). The active obedience of Christ (His holy life), as well as His passive obedience (His suffering and death), as set forth in the Gospel, are what move the Christian, according to his new man, to respond in love and gratitude to the grace of God by following His Commandments and gladly shunning what displeases Him. Accordingly, the knowledge of Jesus’ conquering of the devil in our behalf, for the eternal salvation of our souls and for the great comfort that this brings to the heart of a penitent sinner, gives us Christians the “succor,” the help, to become stronger in our own battles against the devil and better at resisting his crafty devices. Therefore we should, most certainly, take to heart, as our example, the way Jesus answered and rejected each temptation of the wicked one with the power and authority of the Scriptures; and we should apply this method in our own conflicts with the devil.
May we never fall prey to the lie (which Satan promotes) that there is no point in trying to resist his temptations because it is impossible for us to avoid sin completely. This is a tactic used by the father of lies (John 8:44) to get us to follow him without even putting up a fight —regarding sin to be inevitable. While it is a sad truth, as the Scriptures clearly teach, that it is impossible for us to rid ourselves of the influence of our flesh in leading us into all manner of wickedness (Romans 7:14–23; Galatians 5:17), it is not true that we are powerless to resist Satan’s temptations. The Lord tells us in His Word that we can “resist the devil” and cause him to “flee from [us]” (James 4:7) by the power of the Spirit working in our hearts through the Gospel. And, thankfully, even in our most private struggles against the devil, we do not have to face him alone. The Son of God, who Himself endured the devil’s temptations, provides us with the help that we need when we are being tempted, setting limits to what the devil can do to us and increasing our ability to resist him through the power of the Gospel.
Jesus Christ, be Thou our Stay; oh, let us perish never!
Cleanse us from our sins, we pray, and grant us life forever.
Keep us from the Evil One; uphold our faith most holy.
Grant us to trust Thee solely with humble hearts and lowly.
Let us put God’s armor on, with all true Christians running
our heavenly race and shunning the devil’s wiles and cunning.
Amen, Amen, this be done; so sing we, Hallelujah!
(TLH 247, v. 2)
—P. E. B.