The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness following His baptism, but not unwillingly. Nothing happens to Christ without His consent or permission (John 10:18). His temptation in the wilderness also happens because of His choice. The Son of Man goes as it is written of Him, and no one will hinder Him from carrying out His mission! One may even say that Jesus deliberately entices the Devil to a contest, because the Devil has no power apart from God’s permissive will (cf. Job 1-2).
Like the scapegoat of old (Leviticus 16:8-10), Jesus begins His work of carrying away our sins immediately following His baptism. Mark relates that He was with the wild animals, away from the domain of men and utterly alone (Mark 1:13). He abstains from all food for forty days, as Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) had done. Moses and Elijah could not do so apart from God, and Jesus’ own fast is a proof of His divinity. Jesus explicitly tells His disciples in John 4:34 that His food is to do His Father’s will, suggesting that He had no need to eat whatsoever. That He eats and becomes hungry is a sign of His humiliation, becoming like us, not by necessity, but by choice.
It is likely that the forty days stand for the forty years during which Israel wandered in the wilderness as a divine punishment, especially since earlier in Matthew, Jesus is explicitly said to fulfill the prophecy of Hosea 11:1. Just as Jesus is the second Adam, being everything that Adam was not, so also is Jesus the greater Israel, faithful where Israel of old was faithless.
The word temptation and its related forms is used in three different ways in Scripture. God may tempt us, as He did with Abraham (Genesis 22:1). Men may tempt God, something which is explicitly forbidden (Deuteronomy 6:16). Satan may also tempt us into sin (1 Corinthians 7:5). What is common to all of these is the idea of testing. To be tempted is not a sin. If it was, Jesus sinned in the wilderness, something which is blasphemous to say (Hebrews 4:15). This test is a kind of proving, attempting to determine the truth or the quality of something. God proves His servant Job through His trials against the accusations of Satan. Thus this temptation, like the temptation of Abraham, is not an invitation to sin. James says that God tempts no one, because the temptation in question there is an enticing to sin (James 1:12-15). Rather, God proves the character of His saints to their praise and to His glory.
Men may not tempt God or put Him to the test, because it calls into question His nature. A man would test God to see whether He is faithful or telling the truth, as the Israelites did at the first Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7). Yet God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind (Numbers 23:19). Satan also tempts man in the same way by presenting opportunities to sin, drawing into question the Word of God (as with Eve in Genesis 3) or by laying before us a trap. Satan tempts Jesus to sin, but Jesus resists him and does not give way. We are also capable, through the work of the Holy Spirit, of resisting temptation. It is only when we assent to it that sin gives birth to death, though this assent is not hard to gain.
Satan is described in three ways within this passage: the “tempter,” the “slanderer,” and the “adversary.” He is the Tempter for reasons noted above. He is the Devil, or the Slanderer, because he seeks to accuse by lies and half-truths (Zechariah 3:1-2). He is the Adversary, because he opposes God and His saints. Satan tempts Jesus out of his desire to be a murderer (John 8:44). He is a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Yet as noted above, Satan should not be understood as God’s opposite. Satan comes into the wilderness because God has permitted it, not because Satan can do so on his own (Job 1:12; Matthew 8:31-32).
The first temptation here is a test of God’s providence. Can God provide something as simple as bread for You in this wilderness, as He did for Israel with the manna? God the Father quoted Psalm 2, “This is my beloved Son,” just forty days earlier or so at Jesus’ baptism. Is that still true? Satan’s question, “If you are the Son of God,” is thus drawing into doubt that pronouncement more than anything else. Yet Jesus rebukes the devil with Scripture, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. God gave Israel manna so that they would learn to trust in Him above all things. It is not a difficult thing for God to provide, even when it seems like it is physically impossible to us. God’s providence is not limited to natural laws, but all things come from His gracious hand (1 Kings 17:14-16; Psalm 145:15-20; 1 Kings 17:4-6, etc.).
The second temptation here is a test of God’s faithfulness. The devil takes Jesus physically to a high point in the city and tells him to throw Himself down, for Psalm 91 says that God will bear you up and keep you from physical harm. Yet this rash action would become a temptation of God, because casting ourselves into danger in order to determine whether God will keep His Word is drawing into doubt His faithfulness. It is an act of faith to trust in God, knowing that He will deliver us, even when things seem hopeless or contrary to our expectations. It is an act of presumption to see whether God will do it in ways that fit our parameters and conditions. Thus, Jesus rebukes the devil with Deuteronomy 6:16, which is perfectly fitting, since the sin of Israel at Massah was the same as the devil’s proposal.
The last temptation here is a test of God’s sovereignty, since it is an invitation to idolatry. Now on a very high mountain, the devil presents to Jesus a vision of the world. He baldly lies and claims the authority to give and take these kingdoms as he pleases. This is God’s possession and perogative, not Satan’s (Psalm 2:8; 22:28; 47:8; 50:10). In exchange for this worldly glory, shown to be as empty as it really is in Satan’s lie, he calls on Christ to worship him as the source of that glory. However, God rules over the world, and all things are under His dominion. He alone is the proper object of worship, because He is the Creator, not a creature. He is the Lord, and glory belongs to Him alone (Isaiah 42:8).
With the words of Deuteronomy 6:13, Jesus sharply rebukes Satan for his pride. Again, these words fit perfectly, because God warned Israel in that portion of Deuteronomy 6 of the dangers of the world. When they come into their inheritance in the land and live in that which God gave them, they must not be enticed to think that such things came by their own power. God rules over all things, and He is the one who gives all things. We must not seek to worship other gods, because such gods are nothing at all and did not bring us out of slavery into the promised land. God alone is our Redeemer, our Provider, and our King.
Let us also take note of two things in this passage. First, Jesus sharply rebukes Satan and commands him to depart. Resisting temptation may indeed involve drastic measures, even to the point of abstaining from something entirely. If something I do leads me or someone else to sin, it is better to not do it at all than to dabble in it in the name of freedom (1 Corinthians 8:13). Second, Jesus rebukes the devil with the Word of God. Our strength is not in ourselves, but in God and His Word. Spending time in that Word is the surest way to resist temptation, because it is our life and our weapon against the devil (Ephesians 6:17). Jesus resists the invitation to sin, because He is sinless, but He shows us the way to resist the devil and his temptations by His example.