There are several defining moments in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ that deserve the deepest and most serious consideration. His baptism at the Jordan, His temptation in the wilderness, His transfiguration, His agony in Gethsemane and His sufferings on the cross are the most significant points in Jesus’ earthly ministry. The baptism and temptation are singular in their importance because of the representative character which they portray. In order to fully understand any subsequent act in the life of Christ the central importance of these two inaugural events must first be discerned.
Matthew, Mark and Luke each collectively bear witness to the fact that the wilderness temptation occurred immediately after Jesus was baptized. His baptism was nothing less than identification with those for whom He came to die. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. Jesus needed no repentance, but He underwent it to show that He was the sin-bearing representative of His people. It was most likely also the Messianic anointing with which His public ministry was inaugurated. This event, for the first time in human history, led to the unfolding of the mystery of the Trinity. There at the Jordan, the Father pronounced his declaration of delight over the Son, as the Spirit descended upon Him. The readers’ mind must reach back to the first manifestation of the Spirit, where, at the creation of the world, He is said to have hovered over the waters that the Father and Son spoke into existence. The declaration of the Father at Jesus’ baptism was meant to carry the Son through His entire ministry, especially through the atoning death He was to endure on the cross. The declaration that Jesus was the Father’s beloved Son, is put both to Jesus and to those who were present at the baptism. Jesus was obeying the Father by undergoing a baptism of repentance–a “repentance” that He alone, of all mankind, did not need. As the representative of His people, Jesus was obeying what His Father had commanded Israel to do, and was therefore well pleasing to Him. He was, in brief, the second Adam doing all that the Father commanded His people to do.
The descent of the Spirit had a twofold purpose. For the one baptizing, it was a mark that the Messiah had come. For the One being baptized, it was the guarantee of the Father’s pleasure in the Son. R. A. Finlayson summarized this well when he wrote:
Outwardly the descent of the Spirit publicly identified Jesus of Nazareth with the Messiah. The witness of John the Baptist that before the baptism in Jordan he “knew him not” cannot refer to personal acquaintance with Jesus, since as kinsmen they knew each other from boyhood. But it does refer to the fact that He did not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah until he was given the witness of the Spirit at the baptism.
The descent of the Spirit must be regarded as having also an inner significance for our Lord Himself beyond His public dedication to His office as Messiah. He needed the Holy Spirit to bring a new anointing to His manhood, with all the tenderness, and patience, and gentleness that the dove-like form symbolized. It is indeed significant that the dove-like Spirit did not on this occasion descend like fire, as He did afterwards at Pentecost. Fire scorches, purifies, and burns up the dross. But in the nature of our Lord there was no dross to be burnt.
It is only in His approach to sinful men that the Spirit is as fire; on Him He is the dove. And as the Holy Dove He equipped the manhood of the Lord for the gracious ministry on which He was entering.
The voice from heaven was a confirmation of the Father’s pleasure with the obedient Son. It was the audible counterpart of the visible manifestation of the Spirit. These two confirmations of Jesus’ Person and work would carry Him through His ministry. Sinclair Ferguson notes:
He had been “Christ-ed,” anointed into the office of King, by the powerful coming of the Holy Spirit on Him at His baptism in the River Jordan (Luke 3:21-22). That pointed Him forward to the overwhelming baptism into death He would experience at Calvary (Luke 12:50). By that baptism of blood He would conquer sin, death, and Satan (Col. 2:13-15; Heb. 2:14-15). 
This is evident also from the temptation account. The Spirit would carry Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Satan would tempt Christ on the basis of the very words the Father had spoken to Him at the baptism. “If you are the Son of God,” was the refrain with which he began each attack. Satan had been present at the baptism and had strategically planned an assault on the Son based on the Father’s word to Him.
A comparison of the three evangelists reveals the fact that Jesus was immediately taken from His baptism into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Just as all three Persons of the Godhead are for the first time revealed at the baptism, so also the two central figures of that first Gospel promise (Gen. 3:15) met for the first time on the battlefield of the wilderness. This is the beginning of Christ’s work as Messiah. The apostle John explained this when he wrote: “For this reason the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” He had come into the world to deal with the one who brought rebellion into the world. He had come to conquer the one who had conquered man. At first glance it does not appear that the Son of God is in the wilderness to deal with the evil one, but that the evil one is there to deal with him. But the subsequent act of casting out demons proves that He had to “first enter the strongman’s house” and bind the strongman before He could plunder his goods.
On one hand, the temptation of the Messiah should strike us as strange, and on the other, as most necessary. It should seem strange to us because the very idea of weakness seems antithetical to the nature of a conqueror; but it should not surprise us because “It is quite true that long previous Biblical teaching…must have pointed to temptation and victory as the condition of spiritual victory. It could not have been otherwise in a world hostile to God…”3 The revelation of Christ’s Person and work is the preeminent focus of the temptation narratives. We may learn much about the tempter’s strategies and the weapons of our warfare, but we must first ascertain the Captain of our salvation as He, by His obedience, secures the blessings of the sons of God on our behalf. Afred Edersheim masterfully summed up the significance of Christ’s baptism and temptation when he wrote:
From the Jordan to the wilderness with its wild beasts, from the devout acknowledgement of the Baptist, the consecration and filial prayer of Jesus, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the heard testimony of heaven, to the forsakenness, the felt want and weakness of Jesus, and the assaults of the Devil–no contrast more startling could be conceived. And yet, as we think of it, what followed upon the baptism, and that it so followed, was necessary, as regarded the Person of Jesus, His work, and that which was to result from it.” 4
Jesus: Last Adam
Christians have often rushed to make an application between Christ’s temptations and our own when approaching the temptation narratives. While it is certainly true that much is to be learned about Satan’s temptations from these accounts, it is important to recognize the purpose of the place and event of Christ’s temptation prior to embarking on a formal discussion of satanic assault tactics. “His baptism was followed by an immediate conflict. He went from the waters of Jordan to the wilderness of Judea to battle face to face with Satan himself (Luke 4:1-13). This event, perhaps even more clearly, set the parameters of His kingdom, because in it Jesus proved to be everything that both Adam and Israel had failed to be.”5
Mark’s account is unique in that it provides a general statement of temptation without any mention of particular attacks. This is an important confirmation that the temptation of Christ is not, first and foremost, an example of how Christians are to overcome the evil one. The lack of attention given to the particular temptations is a significant indicator that the account is not preeminently an example for us. As the Redeemer of God’s elect, Christ must overcome the temptations in the wilderness. There is a theological significance underlying the setting of this temptation. Mark, like Matthew and Luke, mentions the connection between the baptism in the Jordan and the temptation in the wilderness, but he immediately draws the connection between the wilderness and the wild beasts. It would be easy to overlook so small a detail. Why would Mark include such a seemingly irrelevant detail?
It is only as the readers’ mind returns to the Garden of Eden, where the first Adam was surrounded by animals, that the reference to the wild beasts becomes evident. It was there that the first Adam was to take the Garden out–pushing its borders into the farthest reaches of the earth–and to glorify God by thinking His thoughts after Him. The first place this was to occur was with reference to the naming of the animals. The animals, no doubt, would come to Adam. The lion would lay down with the lamb. The peace and harmony of the Garden was disrupted by one who came in the form of one such animal Adam was to name. By entering into the temptation of the serpent, Adam turned the Garden into a wilderness, and the once peaceful animals into wild beasts. On account of this, the second Adam must begin His ministry in a wilderness. His was a ministry of undoing everything that Adam had done, and of doing everything that the first Adam had failed to do. His environment must, in some form, resemble the environment of sin and corruption, since He was made in all ways like His brethren, yet without sin.
Luke’s account of our Lord’s temptation serves this conclusion as well. There are no references to the wild beats in this record, but there are clues in the larger context of the book that lend support to this idea. Luke begins his Gospel with a genealogical record of Christ’s lineage. Many attempts have been made to explain the differences between Luke and Matthew in regard to the genealogies. Generally speaking, evangelicals have accepted on solid exegetical ground, the conclusion that Luke is tracing Jesus’ genealogy through Mary’s lineage. Matthew, in contrast, is showing that Christ is the rightful heir of the kingdom of Israel by virtue of Joseph’s ancestry. While actually only biologically descended from Mary, Jesus was nevertheless considered Joseph’s son in the truest and fullest sense. Luke, as distinct from Matthew, traces Christ’s lineage back to Adam. It is interesting to note the way Adam is described in Luke 3: 38, “Adam, the Son of God.” Starting with the first verse of the beginning of the section (3:23), skipping the verses in between, and picking up at verse 38 at the end of the genealogy, we read: “Now Jesus Himself was about 30 years old when He began His ministry, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph…the Son of Adam, the Son of God.” On the one hand, Jesus’ ancestry reaches back to Adam, the first man–He is the “Last Adam”–on the other hand, Jesus’ genealogy reaches back into eternity–He is the “Son of God.” As such, He comes to undo all the damage that the first Adam had done–all the sickness, sin and death. It is important to note the way in which Luke focuses on the compassion and healing ministry of Christ in his Gospel record. Some have speculated that this is simply because Luke was himself a physician and was, therefore, more enamored with the compassionate healing ministry of Jesus. While this is certainly true, the more theological explanation is that Jesus is the Last Adam, and is set forth by Luke as the great “physician” (Luke 4:23; 5:21). He came to deal with the sin and misery brought into the world by the first Adam. It seems natural to see Luke’s temptation account as more specifically relating to Jesus as the Last Adam who obeys in every way all that the first Adam failed to obey.
Jesus: True Israel
There is another reason why the Son of God had to go into the wilderness to be tested. Our minds must now be carried back, not to Eden where Adam was to dress and keep, but to the wilderness where Israel was tested. Israel, as a nation under law, was God’s son. As a corporate entity, God’s son, Israel, was to obey Him and so be a witness to the surrounding nations. Like Adam, Israel was called God’s “son” (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 18:5; 32:19), but as the biblical description unfolds it becomes clear that not all Israel was of Israel (Rom. 9:6)–that is, not all who had the adoption of common grace had the adoption of saving grace. There was always a remnant (Isaiah 1:9; Romans 11:5) who, by faith in the coming Son of God, had the saving adoption confirmed. It was only by union with the true Israel, Jesus Christ, that the blessing of the covenant was secured for individual Israelites. This theme lies at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel. There is a recapitulation of Israel’s history in the life and ministry of Jesus. The obedience of the true Israel lies in stark contrast with the disobedience of the Old Covenant people of God.
Matthew begins this idea by outlining the typological fulfillment of Israel’s history in the genealogy of Christ. The organic relationship between Israel and Christ established the principle that all of Christ’s life was the antitype of Israel’s experience. Matthew opens with the words: “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Son of Abraham.” Why only mention David and Abraham? Why not mention Adam, Noah and Moses? The most satisfying explanation is that these two covenant heads represented the periods of Israel’s history as organically related to Christ. Jesus did not come from Moses’ seed, but came instead from Abraham and David. Abraham was the beginning of Israel’s history, David the beginning of Israel’s Kingship.
As the genealogy unfolds, Matthew moves from Abraham, to David, through the exile and finally comes to the fulfillment of the promises. This structure sets the grid for understanding Matthew’s Gospel. The parallel is drawn out for us in Matthew’s Gospel. Hosea reminded Israel that God had drawn His Son out of Egypt (Matt. 2: 15). At the birth of Christ, the true Israel, the eternal Son, went down into Egypt with Mary and Joseph in order to fulfill OT prophecy. The true Israel, the seed of Abraham, goes down into Egypt (Matt. 2:13-14), comes out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15), goes through the water (3:13-16), into the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11), up on the mountain (Matt. 5-7), down from the mountain (8:1), gives bread from heaven (Matt. 14; 15), proclaims the kingdom through typology and parables (Matt. 12; 13), fulfills the prophetic ministry (Matt. 23), and is exiled when He is crucified. As Isaiah foretold “he was cut off from the land of the living.” (For a more detailed explanation, see this and this.)
In every way that Israel proved to be the unrighteous son, Jesus proved that He was the righteous Son. The obedience of Christ is the emphasis of the temptation accounts; and, failure to see this fact, will inevitably lead to a failure to see His glory in redemption. We need a covenant keeper who has fulfilled the demands of the law for us. His obedience is credited to us, because, just as He represented us in His baptism, so also He represented us in His temptation. Here we find the “good news” of the Gospel. It is not simply His death on the cross–as detached from His obedient life–that justifies us. No, that death is attached to every subsequent act of obedience the Son of God placed on the divine scale for our salvation. God the Father was pleased with the Son at His baptism, He was pleased in His overcoming the attacks of the devil, and He was pleased with Him through the entirety of His obedient life, “even (and especially) to the point of death on the cross.”
As we approach Matthew’s account of the temptation of Christ, further indications of this typological structure surface. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, as Israel was tempted in the wilderness, He appealed to those portions of Scripture specifically given to Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 8:3; 6:16; 6:13). Had Israel taken God at His word, and obeyed when tested, the promise of blessing would have been procured. Israel would have overcome with the weapons God supplied. The true Israel must overcome by the word of God. It is by faith in Him that the blessings procured now become ours. God does not deal with us in the same way as He dealt with Jesus. The Lord was driven into the wilderness to be tested, and, subsequently, rewarded on the merits of His obedience.
Interestingly, there is marked identity between the temptations put to Jesus with the temptations put to both Adam and Israel. The temptations may be understood to fall into the same category as that first temptation with which the serpent sought to lead our first parents astray. Eve “saw that the tree was good for food” (i.e. the lust of the flesh), “that it was pleasant to the eyes” (i.e. the lust of the eyes), and “that it was desirable to make one wise” (i.e. the pride of life). David J. MacLeaod has effectively pointed out the relationship between Israel’s temptations in the wilderness and Christ’s temptations in the wilderness:
The quotations of Scripture by Jesus during the temptations seem to follow the sequence of Israel’s testing in Exodus: the provision of manna (Ex. 16), the testing at Massah requiring a miracle (Ex. 17), and the worship of the golden calf (Ex. 32).6
Again MacLeod notes:
The events in the wilderness have profound significance when viewed against the Old Testament stories of Adam and Israel. In the Garden of Eden Satan attempted to undermine Adam’s confidence in God as well—and the temptation involved food! There were differences, of course: Adam was well fed and physically fit; Jesus was hungry and weak. Adam was the object of Satan’s initial seduction of human beings; Jesus was attacked after His opponent had thousands of years of practice.
Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness was likewise related to food—their dissatisfaction with the manna the Lord had provided. They “did not believe in God, and did not trust in His salvation” (Ps. 78:17–20, 22, 32; cf. Ex. 16; Num. 11; Ps. 106:13–14). The devil’s aim is clear. He wanted Jesus to repeat the unbelief and rebellion of Adam and Israel.
The Temptation(s) of Christ
Luke tells us that when the three temptations were finished “the devil departed from Him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). When was this opportune time? It appears that the next explicit temptation of Christ—regarding His Messiaship—came at the point of His identification to His disciples at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:16-18). There, Jesus having just received the confession of faith from Simon Peter, is immediately tempted by the devil through Peter with regard to the work of the Messiah. Just as He had resisted the devil in the third temptation with the rebuke, “Get behind me Satan…” so He again resists the temptation of Satan with the same rebuke. In the three temptations in the wilderness, there was an attempt to keep Christ from going to the cross. If He would take matters into His own hands and make some bread out of stones, if He would show off His power just a little by throwing Himself off of the Temple, and if He would just bow down to the evil one in order to get what His Father had promised Him, Jesus would have taken the route of ease rather than the route of the cross. The Father’s intention for the Son was that He would be “heir of the world.” He had promised to give Him “the nations for an inheritance.” But these promised blessings would only come as the Savior suffered. The cross was the pathway to blessing for Christ and those in Him by faith. Satan tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross through the vehicle of the sympathies of one of His beloved disciples. Jesus would again obey, as He had in the wilderness.
While His entire life was one of representative sinlessness in the face of temptations (see this article), there seems to be one more place where Christ is said to have been tempted during His earthly ministry—at the climax of His Messianic ministry! As He hung on the cross, the chief priests and the scribes (those that Jesus had declared to be the seed of the serpent) railed against Him, “If you are the Christ…,” “If you are the Son of God…” These testing words were the same used by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus was being tempted to get Himself down off of the cross, as He had been tempted to take matters into His own hands in the wilderness. Our Lord would not succumb to these temptations, as He had not to those of the evil one in the desert. Instead, He would obey to the point of death, even the death of the cross. The Father would vindicate the Son by raising Him from the dead. In the resurrection, everything that Satan had wickedly tempted Christ to do was done. In the resurrection, the Father justly gave His Son everything that Satan had falsely promised to Him. Jesus finished the work of redemption. He was given the nations as an inheritance. His power and Messianic glory was shown most fully—not in His jumping off the Temple or turning stones to bread—but in His rising from the dead. What a far greater display of glory when it came from His obedience to His Father in the work of redemption.
Now, it is true that a theology of temptation may be drawn from the temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke. Satan tempts the Savior there in the same way that he always tempts. It is the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).” The manner by which he tempts us today is still the same as that in which He tempted Adam Israel and Christ.
We too, who are united to Christ by faith, are warned not to fall into the same example of disobedience as Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-13). As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken us by such as is common to man.” We, like the Savior, are to remember that with the temptation God “will provide a way of escape that we may be able to bear up under it.” We, like the Captain of our Salvation, are to take up the sword of the Spirit and fight against the wiles of the devil. The peculiar temptations may differ in their specifics, but the manner in which they work upon the mind and heart of man are the same. Our Lord exhibited for us the way we must now wield the weapons of our warfare. God has provided His word as the primary means to our overcoming temptations. We must never forget, however, that it is because “He was tempted in all points even as we are, yet without sin,” that we now have an Advocate in heaven who gives us “grace and mercy in time of need.” He had no help when He was alone in the wilderness. Unlike Him, we are not taken out there to face the devil on our own. We have a victorious Savior, who has come “conquering and to conquer.” Let us find our strength and victory in Him.
1. R.A. Finlayson, Reformed Theological Writings (Christian Focus Publicatons, 1996) p.56
2. Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2007) p.62
3. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912) Vol. 1 p. 292
4. Ibid., p. 292
5. Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone p.62
6. David J. MacLeod “The Temptation of Christ” (Emmaus Journal [EMJ] 10:1) (Summer 2001)
This post is a modified and expanded version of “God’s Obedient Son,” which was published by Reformation 21 (May 2009), the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.