Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
The 3 temptations hurled at Jesus by the devil in Matthew 4 are fairly familiar to New Testament readers. The devil tried to get Jesus to make bread from stones, to leap off the temple, and to bow to worship him. All three of these, had he given in, would have been failures. But what more is happening?
In this passage, Jesus is succeeding where the nation of Israel in the wilderness wanderings failed. It is significant that we see Matthew, who cites Old Testament Scriptures prodigiously, emphasize that Jesus was in the wilderness. The picture, if we think Old Testament, is Israel in the Exodus wandering the wilderness for 40 years.
The call to turn stones to bread is a call from the devil for Jesus to use his own power in his own way for his own physical provision. Israel failed at this in the desert. When God commanded Israel to gather manna, people disobeyed by gathering too much or by gathering on the Sabbath when gathering was forbidden. In other places in the wanderings, the nation sinned against God by not trusting him to provide or by grumbling against his provision. At the border, after the spies were sent into the land, the nation refused to trust God enough to go in and take the land starting with Jericho. One might see that, in this instance, Jesus relies on the provision of his Father without complaint where national Israel did not. Jesus succeeds where Israel failed.
In the second temptation, the devil attempts to get Jesus to cast himself down from the high point of the temple, a nearly 400-foot drop according to some. This is a call to get Jesus to stop seeking to do the work he was sent to do in the way God sent him to do it. It was a call to try to get Jesus to take a lazy and easy way out, forcing the hand of god. Jesus refused, as he would not put God to the test. Of course, in the wilderness, Israel failed here. There were people who demanded that God provide for them beyond the manna. Others presumed upon the Lord and tried to go and take Jericho even after God had forbidden them from entering the land after their refusal to trust him. If the first temptation was a temptation not to trust God to provide, this second is a temptation to force God’s hand by stepping out where God did not command. Jesus again succeeded where Israel failed.
In the third temptation, the devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would simply bow and worship him. In the days of the Old Covenant, one of Israel’s greatest failures was idolatry. The nation turned from the Lord and bowed to statues that represented demons. Jesus, of course, would not worship anyone but the Lord God. Jesus succeeded where Israel failed.
God called on the nation of Israel to be his people. He gave them a set of commands to obey, commands that were not burdensome. As a nation, they would not and could not obey. They could not work their way to God through obedience to ordinances.
Where the nation of Israel did not live up to the commands of God, the Savior did. Where Adam did not keep the command of God, Jesus did. Where you and I have never lived up to the commands of God, Jesus has.
In order to be saved, we need two things: a paid penalty and a perfect righteousness. We need the penalty for our sin to be paid. For us to try to pay the price for our sin, an infinite offense to an infinitely holy God, we would spend eternity in hell. But Jesus, the infinitely worthy Son of god paid that price on the cross. We also need perfect righteousness to enter the presence of God. But we have failed. Jesus has succeeded where all people have failed. And the Lord will count all who come to Jesus as possessing the record of Jesus’ righteousness. Thus, Jesus pays the penalty for our sin and grants us imputed righteousness, counting his perfection to our account, so that we can be in the presence of god in heaven in perfect joy forever. This forgiveness and gifted righteousness is for all who will come to Jesus in faith and repentance.