Luke XV: Lk. 4:1
Part of the glory of the gospel is that the eternal, infinite Creator God became one of us and was tempted like us in order to lead us back to Himself.
Full of the Spirit
The first, unmistakable but perhaps terrifying thing to note about the temptation of Jesus is that it was while Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” that the Spirit led him into the wilderness (Lk. 4:1). Luke once again highlights the role of the Spirit and underlines it here for us. Mark’s gospel uses an even stronger verb and says the Spirit “drove” Him into the wilderness (Mk. 1:12). And Matthew makes it clear that the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt. 4:1). It’s not like the temptation was an unintended consequence. The Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tested by doing battle with Satan. There are several things to note here. First, this is not at odds with the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray which includes the petition: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Mt. 6:13, Lk. 11:4). The Psalms are full of requests for God to take away hardships and prayers for peace. We pray for health and peace while trusting our Father to guard us in the valleys.
We should also note that the Bible teaches that sin is a slippery slope. People do not wake up one day and randomly have an affair or commit violent crime. Most headline scandals can be easily traced back to years of compromise. David prays against a certain progression of sin: from “secret sins” to “presumptuous sins” to “great transgressions” (Ps. 19:12-14). Likewise, Paul says that ingratitude begets folly and false worship, and that unleashes a sequence of sin that God sometimes gives people over to (Rom. 1:21-26ff). This is why Christians must be much more concerned with “little sins” than they frequently are. Wisdom means anticipating trajectories. Notice here, that these temptations are primarily centered on the desires of Jesus – His heart is being tested. God sometimes allows us to be tempted in smaller ways in order that we may withstand greater evil (e.g. 1 Sam. 16:34-36).
There is also an enormous difference between God giving someone over to great transgressions and God allowing great tribulation. One is an unmistakable sign of God’s displeasure and absence (Prov. 22:14), while the other is an unmistakable sign of His deep pleasure and presence (Heb. 12:5-11). We frequently get this backward. Sinners in deep trouble want to spin the story so that they are enduring testing, while faithful saints mistake trials as some kind of punishment. Of course grace means there is always hope: Today if you hear His voice harden not your hearts. But there’s a huge difference between Job losing his children and David losing his. Here, Jesus has just been declared God’s “beloved Son” in whom He is “well pleased” (Lk. 3:22). This time in the wilderness is part of that good pleasure. This is proven by the presence of the same Spirit upon Him (cf. Lk. 3:22).
God Doesn’t Tempt
The Bible still gives us reason to parse this out carefully. James says that God cannot be tempted, and He does not tempt anyone (Js. 1:13). James says this is rooted in God’s fundamental and thoroughgoing goodness (Js. 1:17). He is the Father of lights, and He isn’t random or capricious. He is always seeking our good. On the one hand, this means that in order for Jesus to be truly tempted, He had to become truly man. This is not God in a man-suit: Jesus is fully and truly human. God cannot be tempted because His goodness sees exhaustively through every temptation. There is something about the finitude of being human that makes temptation possible. We can’t see or know all things, and therefore, disobedience can seem plausible. Notice that at it’s heart this is to doubt the goodness of God (cf. Gen. 3:4-6). But Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted at all points just as we are, yet remained without sin (Heb. 4:15). This is part of God’s humiliation, part of His submission to our human nature, voluntarily limiting Himself for us (Phil. 2:6-7). This is also a demonstration of His love: we have a High Priest who can sympathize with us in our weakness. And this is the basis of our appeal to every kind of sinner in the world.
James also says that God doesn’t tempt anyone but rather everyone is tempted by their own desires (Js. 1:14). This is why we cannot evade responsibility by saying that we’re only human. Our finitude is not an excuse to disobey. Our finitude merely requires that we always live by faith. We do not know all things, but we know the One who does (Jn. 20:31, Col. 2:3, 10). He not only always seeks our good, but He promises not to allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear, and always makes a way of escape so we can endure (1 Cor. 10:13). James is also insisting that we have responsibility for our desires. He says: “Then when desire has conceived it brings forth sin; and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death” (Js. 1:15). Entertaining foolish or sinful desires and thinking they won’t turn into sinful action is like pretending that you can be pregnant for six months and then nothing will happen. In other words, we are required to rule our hearts (Dt. 6:5-6, Prov. 3:1, 4:23), and this means that we have the ability to choose what our hearts will desire, love, and delight in (e.g. Ps. 19:10-11, Jn. 6:21, Phil. 4:8).
In the Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
Jesus was tempted for us. He faced evil for us, and He overcome evil by fixing His eyes on the joy set before Him. His heart was set on the glory of the Father. Ultimately, He not only faced temptation but became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. It is this love for us that sometimes leads us into the wilderness in order to drive us back to Him.