For we are not unaware of [Satan’s] schemes,” says the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:11. We always forgive people, he says one verse earlier, because we know what the Devil is up to, and we are not having any of it. Similar logic underlies Paul’s insistence that Christians put on the armor of God: “that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11). Satan has a plan, but we know what it is so we can stand against him.
I’m not sure how many Western Christians today could echo Paul’s sentiments. Many churches, anxious to avoid seeming spooky, weird, or unhealthily preoccupied with the Devil, throw the baby out with the bathwater. They hardly mention him, let alone teach people how he plans to destroy them and what to do about it. More than a handful of professing Christians don’t believe in him at all, which is just how he likes it. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled,” quips Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, “is convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Obsessing over the Devil makes us fearful and paranoid, but ignoring him altogether makes us naïve and unprepared. So it is significant that two of the four Gospels give us detailed accounts of Satan’s guerrilla campaign against the Lord Jesus (Matt 4:1–11, Luke 4:1–13). Reflecting on how Satan attacked him—and how he stood his ground—can be illuminating.
According to Matthew, immediately after Jesus was baptized, he was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). (This is worth remembering when it comes to the recent controversy over the Lord’s Prayer and whether God would ever lead his people into a time of testing!) As some commentators have pointed out, the Spirit is leading Jesus “down”: from Galilee to the Jordan, then down into the water, then further down into the wilderness. The Devil, on the other hand, wants to lead him “up”: to the holy city, to the pinnacle of the temple (v. 5), to a very high mountain (v. 8). The lesson? Satan loves elevating people before their time—the better to tempt them with pride, performance, and compromise—and we need to guard against him through humility and service. When he goes high, we go low.
Satan’s first explicit attack comes in his opening snark: “If you are the Son of God,” he says, “tell these stones to become bread” (4:3). Jesus has just heard his Father declare, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17), but since then he has been led into the desert, and he hasn’t eaten anything for 40 days. So Satan strikes not just at his hunger but at his sonship. If you were really so loved by God, he wouldn’t make you so hungry, would he?
Satan’s next salvo starts with the same insinuation but takes aim at Jesus’ confidence in Scripture: “If you are the Son of God . . . throw yourself down. For it is written . . .” (Matt. 4:6). Theologian F.D. Bruner points out that where the first temptation focused on Jesus’ weakness (hunger), the second focuses on his strength (faith). You say you trust the Bible, but do you really? What about difficult texts or ones that cost you something? Will you put your money where your mouth is?
The third attack is the most blatant: “All [these kingdoms] I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me” (4:9). The Devil has sought to provoke pride, insecurity, and unbelief, and now he tries for idolatry—elevating the mission (in Jesus’ case the kingdom) above God. But once again, Jesus is resolute. For the third time, he responds by quoting Deuteronomy: “For it is written . . .” (v. 10). Immediately Satan leaves, and Jesus is given food and angels—exactly what Satan had offered in the first two trials. Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matt. 6:33).
If we want to know our enemy, Matthew 4 is a great place to start. Satan hates humility, sonship, Scripture, and worship. He will do all he can to eat away at them, like an acid, and he is far likelier to get away with that if we don’t know what he is up to. But thanks be to God, we are not ignorant of his designs. It is written.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of Spirit and Sacrament (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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