Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2where 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 5:27-28, NIV)
After Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came upon him, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:2). The following verses describe the specific temptations Jesus faced and how he overcame them by drawing strength and guidance from Scripture. In each of the temptations, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his unique identity as the Son of God for his own benefit. Yet Jesus refused, remaining committed to the mission to which God had called him.
When we read this story, we may be surprisingly unimpressed. Of course, Jesus didn’t give in to the devil’s illicit invitations. He was the Son of God, after all, God in human flesh. He had superhuman strength to defeat the devil’s schemes. Some don’t even really believe that Jesus was truly tempted. His temptations seemed formal or formulaic, not genuine and heartfelt. What we need to understand, however, is that Jesus was actually wrestling with the meaning of His messianic calling. He was rejecting the obvious and expected path of glorious kingship, choosing instead the enigmatic and unexpected way of sacrificial servanthood. For Jesus, this wasn’t merely a thought experiment. It was a heartfelt, gut-wrenching challenge.
In the letter to the Hebrews, we find theological reflection on the temptation of Jesus: “Therefore, since we have a great High Priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. 16Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16). The NRSV uses the word “tested” where other translations (NIV, KJV, CEB) go with “tempted.” Either way, the point is that Jesus was tempted/tested “in every respect . . . as we are,” though He never sinned. Whether in the wilderness or the workshop, whether alone or with others, Jesus was truly tempted. He felt the conflict of desires we know so well. He felt the temptations that are so familiar to us.
This means, according to Hebrews, that Jesus can “empathize with our weaknesses” (v. 15). He really understands what it’s like to be us when we are tempted. For this reason, when we are tempted, we don’t have to hide from Jesus in shame. Rather, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (v. 16). We can tell Jesus what’s really going on with us without holding back. As we do, we will “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (v. 16). Jesus not only understands, but He also supplies what we need to say “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God’s kingdom.
How free are you to let the Lord know when you are tempted? What might help you to become even freer to do this in the future? The fact that Jesus experienced genuine temptation means that he sympathizes with us when we are tempted. We don’t have to hide in shame. Rather, Scripture invites us to speak openly of our struggles so that we might be helped by God’s mercy and grace given through Jesus.