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I was in the spring semester of my freshman year at Furman University when I first encountered, and began to engage, the claim that God is happy. I don’t think I had ever thought about God being happy — truly, deeply, richly, infinitely happy as God — and not sullen, disappointed, nervous, or constantly frustrated by all the mess of this world and sinful humans.
At the time I was not a reader, but a college junior, living at the end of our freshman hall, started a Bible study with a handful of us midyear, and when spring semester came, he said we would read the book Desiring God and discuss.
At first, I was not happy about the plan, but I acquiesced to be part of the group. And in due course, my vision of God and the Christian life was radically changed. In particular, it was the chapter titled “The Happiness of God” that turned my world upside down. There I read on the opening page of the chapter:
Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These he performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment he has in glorifying himself. (33)
A few pages later, I read about the “two lenses” and the “mosaic”:
The infinite complexity of the divine mind is such that God has the capacity to look at the world through two lenses . . . When God looks at a painful or wicked event through his narrow lens, he sees the tragedy or the sin for what it is in itself and he is angered and grieved. . . . But when God looks . . . through his wide-angle lens, he sees the tragedy or the sin in relation to everything leading up to it and everything flowing out from it. . . . This mosaic in all its parts — good and evil — brings him delight. . . . [God] has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history. The contemplation of this mosaic (with both its dark and bright tiles) fills his heart with joy. (40–41)
The whole book was life-changing, but far and away, it was chapter 1, on the happiness of God — that is, on the pleasures of God — that was the great catalyst.
In the months that followed, I took up The Pleasures of God, and it deepened and expanded and solidified such glorious, subterranean, bedrock truths like the infinite bliss and blessedness of God — and the good news that there is a chance that I could be truly happy forever. Because the pleasures of God, as he has revealed them in his word, are the great foundation and possibility for our happiness.
So thank you, John, for preaching on the pleasures of God in 1987 and for writing the book, first published in 1991. And thank you, God, for putting it in John’s head, while reading a line from Henry Scougal, to ask: What about God? “Is it not also the case that the worth and excellency of God’s soul is to be measured by the object of his love?” (18).
God’s Pleasure Conundrum
We turn in this final session to “the pleasure of God in the gospel.” Now, we could approach this topic in a more general sense or a more particular sense. Gospel can be an expansive word. We could stretch its meaning broadly and catalogue some of God’s many pleasures in the fullness and expanse of his reality we call “the gospel,” the good news that Jesus saves sinners. There is much we could say in general about God’s pleasure in the gospel. Like Luke 12:32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
However, more specifically, at the very heart of the gospel is a pleasure conundrum. If “Jesus saves sinners” is a simple, general summary of the gospel, then the simple, straightforward answer to how he saves sinners is, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins.”
So Jesus died. Did that give God pleasure? Did the Father delight in the death of his Son? How can the God who does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11) delight in the death of his own righteous Son? Where shall we go for guidance on the pleasure of God in the death of his Son?
Gospel According to Isaiah
Turn with me to “the fifth Gospel,” as some call it: the prophecy of Isaiah. In the high point of all his prophecy, Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, the great passage about the Suffering Servant (who is Jesus), Isaiah deals head-on with our pleasure conundrum, and he does so seven centuries before the climactic events transpired in history.
Twice in this prophecy we have explicit mention of the pleasures of God. We also have mention of the pleasures of two other parties, as we’ll see. But before we focus on the desires and delights in this solemn passage, let me note a couple items not to miss in what is essentially the preamble to 53:2–12. Look at Isaiah 52:13–53:1:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.As many were astonished at you — his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind —so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
First, note the opening declaration of the servant’s success and exaltation in verse 13: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely [literally, he shall succeed]; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” So before we hear of his jarring humiliation and marring and piercing and crushing, we first hear that he will succeed, and be exalted.
Second, note that, given this declaration in verse 13, a banner of astonishment is unfurled in verse 14 and flies over the rest of the passage:
“As many as were astonished at you . . .” (Isaiah 52:14)
“Kings shall shut their mouths” in amazement. (Isaiah 52:15)
“Who has believed what he has heard from us?” he asks, because it is so surprising, so seemingly upside down. (Isaiah 53:1)
“ . . . who considered . . . ?” (Isaiah 53:8)
The whole of the vision foretells of an astonishing, startling, almost unbelievable work that “the arm of the Lord” will perform. This servant (God’s own Arm) will have his appearance marred beyond human semblance. And perhaps what’s most striking of all is not just that it will happen, but that this is God’s doing. This is God himself at work. In other words, the astonishment comes from the story of the servant being an expression not of human wisdom, but divine.
This is the same God who confounds human wisdom by saying “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23); this is the same God who will say, through Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8–9).” This is the same God who will one day inspire another commentary after these forecasted events that reads,
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:18–21).
God not only does it this way — confounding human wisdom and expectation — but he takes pleasure in it. He delights to astonish. As Jesus prays in Matthew 11:25–26, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will [literally, it was pleasing before you].”
So then, what is this enigma? What’s so astonishing, startling, unbelievable? Isaiah 52:2–12 unfolds the astonishing story, from the servant’s quiet birth and upbringing, to his unimpressive appearance, to the puzzle of his being rejected and despised, to his astounding conduct when treated unjustly (and that, shockingly, all the way to the grave). And finally, climactically, in Isaiah 53:10–12, most astonishing of all, through death comes delight — God’s greatest pleasures through, and because of, this unjust, horrific death of the righteous, undeserving servant.
Let’s unfold the astonishing action of God’s Arm, through the lens of the pleasures of three parties. Our focus here is the pleasures of God, and we’ll linger there longest, but this vision speaks to desires and delights beyond his, shedding light on the pleasures of God in the death of his Son.
1. The Pleasures of Natural Man
The preamble in Isaiah 52:13–53:1 might have us anticipate some big splash. We might expect such a servant will start his career by descending from heaven in glory. But then it all comes about so unexpectedly, so quietly. “For,” as we read in Isaiah 53:2, “he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.”
So, no glorious descent (though there was a private angelic announcement to a small party of lowly shepherds), but the servant came from the womb as an infant and grew up as a boy. Verse 2 goes on to explain how, as man, he was not the kind to attract an Instagram following: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire [or take pleasure] in him.”
Rather, given his quiet upbringing and unimpressive appearance, the story takes another unexpected turn in Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces [!] he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Sinful Man Would Tell Another Story
The first pleasures mentioned in the vision are the desires of natural man. And they are not the same as God’s. The pleasures of natural man would have led to a very different story for the servant.
He would have a celebrated birth and celebrity childhood. Perhaps he would be the visible, well-known and well-discussed son of a beloved monarch. Or maybe he would acquire his fame through athletic achievement, or great triumphs as a warrior. Or even better, all three. And he would be tall, strong, and handsome. He would be both nobly born and accomplished in his own right. So are the desires of natural man.
But this vision of the servant and his story as astonishing points to a critical truth about natural man, that will come front and center in Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way.”
The essence of this “going astray,” this turning — what we call “sin” — is preferring other things to glory of God (The Pleasures of God, 158). Which means that natural man, and his human wisdom, does not see the world aright. His wisdom, even as it seems wise, leads to folly.
Human Versus Divine Wisdom
If you ask, What is the fundamental difference between divine wisdom and human wisdom? I might point you forward a few pages in The Pleasures of God to the chapter on God’s pleasure in hiding himself from the wise and revealing himself to infants:
God’s wisdom has the supremacy of God’s glory as the beginning, middle, and end of it, but man’s wisdom delights in seeing himself as resourceful, self-sufficient, self-determining, and not utterly dependent on God’s free grace. Divine wisdom begins consciously with God (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Psalm 111:10), is consciously sustained by God, and has the glory of God as its conscious goal. When divine wisdom is revealed to humans, its effect is to humble us and give us the same God-orientation that God himself has. (278)
Such human wisdom leads not only to overlooking the quiet, humble beginnings of divine wisdom (and to eventually being surprised by it), but also, in time, to despising and rejecting God’s wisdom. Sin is an assault on God, however much it may not seem like that at first. It may pretend to simply ignore him, but at bottom it is a despising and rejecting of him, and in time that will be manifest.
2. The Pleasures of God in Crushing His Son
First, we have the backdrop of the desires of thin, fleeting pleasures of natural man in verses 2–3. Now we come to our main focus, as we go to the culminating paragraph in Isaiah 53:10–12 and the greatest surprises of all.
Twice the ESV has the phrase “the will of the Lord” in verse 10. I don’t think that’s a wrong translation, but I suspect that the idea of “willing” in English is lost on many of us today. Many of us hear “willing” with a sense of acquiescence. “Well, I don’t want to do that, but I’m willing” (like when I agreed as a college freshman to read Desiring God).
But the Hebrew here implies more. It is a desirous willing — a wanting. This same root is translated delight elsewhere. Like in Isaiah 62:4: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”
That’s the same word here in Isaiah 53:10: “It was the delight of the Lord to crush him.” The KJV reads: “It pleased the Lord.” Interestingly, the KJV has “bruised” and “pleased,” while the ESV has “crushed” and “will.” Verse 10 is so shocking — that it delighted Yahweh to crush him — it’s easy to imagine translators feeling the pressure to soften it. (Admittedly, the verse is so striking that it’s difficult to translate without being able to teach on it and provide context.)
Let’s read Isaiah 53:10–12, in the ESV, and then ask how this text might help us approach our pleasure conundrum:
Yet it was the will [delight] of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;the will [delight] of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors;yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Remember our banner of astonishment. The shock of the servant’s story continues, through verses 4–9, as we’ll see, but now it hits a new register in verse 10. God himself did this, and he was pleased to do it. He didn’t do it by accident or acquiesce. He delighted to do it.
Which not only raises our question today, but also functions for Isaiah to confirm that this did indeed satisfy God’s demands. Our iniquities and transgressions and guilt were against God. It matters very little what this servant does if it does not please or satisfy God.
Happy to Save
So, God’s pleasure in the death of his Son might raise our pleasure conundrum, but let it not be lost on us what great assurance his settled delight provides for saved sinners. Brothers and sisters in Christ, God doesn’t just save sinners; he delights to save us. He doesn’t just go through the motions at Calvary. He doesn’t bite his lip. He doesn’t hold his nose with his people at arm’s length.
As Jesus says in John 16:27, “the Father himself loves you.” God doesn’t only accomplish the gospel and apply it through his Son, but it pleases him to do so. The happy God is happy about his own Son dying to save us. The gospel is not a divine concession. It is a divine delight.
Salvation in Christ is not based on a whim or accident. God designed it, and did it, and it pleased him to do it. And neither Satan nor sinful man can change that! Regardless of what questions it raises, God’s settled pleasure in this gospel gives us great confidence in the solidity of our salvation in Christ.
So, let’s linger here and consider three aspects of God’s pleasure in the crushing (to death) of his Son in this culminating paragraph. (As verse 12 makes clear, this crushing was a crushing to death: “He poured out his soul to death.”)
First, the pleasure of God in the gospel is the pleasure of God in substitution.
Isaiah 53:10 tell us, “His soul makes an offering for guilt.” And then we read in Isaiah 53:12: “He bore the sin of many.” Which leads us to consider the very heart of the passage in verses 4–6. And here’s how it flows under the banner of astonishment: Why was such a servant a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Because his sorrows and griefs were not his own but ours!
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way;and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Our griefs. Our sorrows. Our transgressions. Our iniquities. Our chastisement, our punishment, laid on him. There is no getting around this being “substitution.” This is unmistakably Levitical language. These are the categories of the sacrificial system. The animal, albeit imperfectly and temporarily, stands in (by God’s gracious provision) as a substitute for the chastisement sinners deserve.
Yet here in Isaiah 53, the substitute is manifestly human. Isaiah dares to tread where Moses only pointed. The whole sacrificial system hinted at this and inevitably anticipated something like this, but the arm of the Lord is not yet revealed until Isaiah — and then not yet enacted for another seven centuries.
Second, the pleasure of God in the gospel is the pleasure of God in justification.
Isaiah 53:11 declares, “The righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous.” The servant not only bears the griefs of others and carries their sorrows, but he literally “will provide righteousness for the many” (Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 442).
“Justification” refers to God’s declaration of “Righteous!” over the sinner on the basis of the righteousness of Christ to whom the repentant sinner is joined by faith alone. In other words, the servant (Christ) will “provide righteousness” for the many joined to him by faith. This is an additional pleasure to substitution. The servant (Jesus) not only “bears their iniquities,” but also “provides righteousness.”
But what about “the many” that’s repeated in this text? This is one of the most important questions in the vision because it appears over and over: “Many were astonished” (Isaiah 52:14); “He bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12); “Many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11); and he will share his “portion with the many” (Isaiah 53:12). And this repetition of “the many” leads to a third pleasure of God.
Third, the pleasure of God in the gospel is the pleasure of definite atonement.
“The many” who are astonished in Isaiah 52:14 become the witnesses who speak in Isaiah 53:1 (“us”) and Isaiah 53:2 (“we”). “The many,” then, is “my people” in Isaiah 53:8. “The many” is “his offspring” in Isaiah 53:10. And it’s these “many” who now say, in Isaiah 53:4–5:
“He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
“He was pierced for our transgressions . . . crushed [to death] for our iniquities.”
“[He] brought us peace.”
“With his wounds we are healed.”
“The many,” then, is the “we” in Isaiah 53:6 who say, “All we like sheep have gone astray . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” — that is, all “the many.” The “we” talking in verse 6 are “the many,” the “offspring,” the “my people” — all those whom God has moved from seeing the servant with the desires of natural man, to seeing him with the pleasures of God.
So, the “alls” of verse 6 are constrained by the “we” of verse 6, which goes back to the “we” and “us” of verses 1–2. As Alec Motyer argued at length in his contribution to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: “The intended recipients and the actual beneficiaries of the Servant’s atoning death are one and the same group” (266).
That is, the servant’s work is definite. It is particular. Which means that the servant can say, as Jesus does in John 19:30, “It is finished.” He doesn’t say, “Well, I did my part.” He says, “It is finished.” The servant does not leave the work undone. Nothing here in Isaiah 53 is open-ended. And this finality, this completeness, this definiteness, this particularity is all part and parcel of the achievement of the incarnate Son that delights his Father.
One more quote from Motyer:
The “we” of these crucial verses were locked into a failure to grasp what the Servant was all about, but our iniquities were laid by Yahweh on his Servant; and this is what led to our “seeing.” The theological implications are profound: the atonement itself, and not something outside of the atonement [like the human will], is the cause for any conversion. The resources for conversion are found in the Servant’s death; they flow from it. Thus, it is the atonement that activates conversion, not vice versa. (261–62)
“The pleasure of God in the gospel is the pleasure of God in substitution, justification, and definite atonement.”
The pleasure of God in the gospel is the pleasure of God in substitution, in justification, and in definite atonement — but still our problem remains, however layered and multi-dimensional these pleasures: Why does God delight in the death of his Son?
Four Reasons for the Father’s Pleasure
Here are four reasons (and the fourth leads us to the third and final party to whom Isaiah attributes pleasure) that answer the question, Why does God delight in the death of his Son?
First, God delights in the magnitude of his Son’s achievement — and his death is an achievement. In fact, it is the single greatest achievement in the history of the world: the eternal Son of God became man, lived sinlessly for more than three decades, and with silence and without violence, willfully submitted himself to unjust arrest, torture, and even death to rescue a chosen multitude from every tongue and tribe and nation. And then he rose again in triumph over sin and death and Satan.
This is the singular achievement for which the world was made and set up. This is an achievement of which we have only begun to grasp its magnitude. We will celebrate it forever. When God delights in the death of his Son for sinners, he delights in his Son achieving the single greatest feat in history.
Second, God delights in the pleasure of “the many” rescued by his Son. He takes pleasure in once natural men now born again to delight in him. And nothing produces holy delight in his redeemed people like the achievement of his Son at the cross.
To be accounted righteous, and to be apportioned to the Son — what does that produce? Obligation? Duty? Joy! Real pleasure, not thin and shallow, but the kind that endures forever! And note, the joy of “the many” here is not our getting the Son’s portion as much as our being the Son’s portion (“all are yours, and you are Christ’s,” 1 Corinthians 3:22–23).
If you wonder, Am I among “the many”? here’s the question for you: Do you see the servant and his work as folly or wisdom? Do you see him as nonsensical or glorious, embarrassing or delightful? Does your soul find pleasure in him, or despise him?
At bottom, what do you do with Jesus? There’s no finding out if you’re included in “the many” apart from him and how you orient on him. Those whom God has been pleased to move from despising and rejecting Jesus to worshipful astonishment of Jesus can count themselves among “the many.”
Third, God delights in the Son’s love for God and his glory. The Son “acts wisely”; he does the Father’s will; he lives, and dies, to glorify his Father. He does not take sin — as the preferring of other things to God — lightly. Rather, he takes it with utter seriousness by going to the cross to die for the sins of “the many.” Back to Piper in The Pleasures of God:
The depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory. It was the Father’s righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for sin necessary. So when the Son willfully took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: The glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value! (176)
“Nothing magnifies the glory of God like the Son of God embracing the cross.”
Or, we might say, God is most glorified in his Son when he is most satisfied in his Father. God is most glorified in his incarnate Son when, “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), he endures the suffering and shame of the cross, for his Father’s sake. Nothing magnifies the glory of God like the Son of God embracing (willingly, gladly) the incomparable suffering and shame of the cross.
Which leads both to a fourth reason for the Father’s pleasure and, at the same time, the third and final personal mention of pleasure in Isaiah 53: the pleasure of the servant himself.
3. The Pleasures of the Son in Being Crushed (53:11–12)
This is critical: the pleasure of God in crushing his Son is not apart from the pleasure of the Son in being crushed. That the Son was pleased to be crushed — that in the agony, he endured for the joy set before him — does not mean it was easy. This is not pleasure light. This is pleasure deep, deep enough to sustain and animate the soul against the greatest of earthly deterrents. Consider two aspects of the Son’s pleasure.
One, consider how he went: willfully. Not kicking and screaming, but voluntarily — that is, he tasted enough pleasure in the moment to embrace the cross. We stand in awe of Isaiah 53:7–9:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered [astonished!]that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death,although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
This, again, all under the banner of escalating astonishment. Verses 4–6 gave us the unexpected reason for his sorrow and grief. Verses 7–9 give us the unexpected conduct of the servant. He could have called ten thousand angels. But in the garden, the holy hesitations of his human will gave way to glad submission to the divine will, which — as the God-man — was also his will. He prays, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), and in doing so, his human will embraces the divine.
So, he offered himself voluntarily. He consented. He did not just acquiesce. He willed it. He embraced it. He owned it. He “let himself be brutalized.” It was his pleasure — not a thin, shallow immediate human pleasure, but a deep, divine, supernatural pleasure — to be crushed for the glory of his Father, and his own joy, through saving many sinners.
Then, consider the source of the joy that sustained him. Isaiah 53:11 says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.” In the agony of the cross, he looked forward to the pleasure he would enjoy on the other side, and tasted enough of it in the moment, to keep going. And this requires resurrection.
No Resurrection, No Delight
This is essential for God’s pleasure in the death of his Son, and the Son’s pleasure, and our pleasure in him. If there is no resurrection, there is no divine pleasure in the death of the divine Son. And no pleasure in the Son in being crushed. But the resurrection turns death upside down. And God’s pleasure in the death of his Son is always pleasure that has the resurrection in view.
“If there is no resurrection, there is no divine pleasure in the death of the divine Son.”
Isaiah 53:10 tells us that the Lord “shall prolong his days.” And the pleasure of the Lord “shall prosper in his hand.” God’s pleasure in the death of his Son is a pleasure in prospering his Son after death. Through the achievement of the cross, and by the resurrection, Jesus enjoys the reward of his achievement, “the many” as his portion. The Groom receives his bride.
And the one who once had no majesty that we should look upon him, becomes the majestic one, upon whom the redeemed gaze as the one who died to bear their sins and lives to be their greatest delight. Which brings us back to the first line of the vision in Isaiah 52:13: “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.”
God’s pleasure in the crushing of his Son is the pleasure of God in lifting up his Son — both at the cross and in the resurrection (as in John 12:32). Just as God the Son delights in the glory of his Father, so God the Father delights in the glory of his Son.
And just as nothing moves the born-again human heart like the exaltation and glory of Christ, so nothing moves the divine heart like the exaltation and glory of his incarnate, perfect, crucified, risen, reigning Son.
When it comes to resisting temptations to sin, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Temptations arrive in many ways at many times, and the Bible gives many different strategies to defeat them.
But we can notice one fundamental similarity in all the temptations we face, a dimension that’s always present in satanic deception. Remembering this similarity will help us in the fight, whatever resistance strategy we implement.
To help us see this unifying theme in temptation, let’s examine history’s most remarkable example — the devil’s temptation of Jesus. This scene illustrates Satan’s core strategy, how Jesus kept his head clear, and how we can imitate Jesus’s example.
Anatomy of Temptation
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus being tempted by the devil at the beginning of his ministry, but Matthew’s account provides the most details. He describes three specific temptations and Jesus’s response to each (Matthew 4:1–11).
Theologians down through history have pointed out that there’s a lot going in this particular temptation from historical and theological standpoints, but I’m not going to address those topics here. Instead, my goal is simply to identify a specific dimension common in all of Satan’s temptations.
Dialogue with the Devil
To begin, after Jesus fasts for forty days, the devil seeks to take advantage of his physical weakness and severe hunger.
Devil: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (verse 3)
Jesus: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (verse 4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
Then, from the pinnacle of the temple, the devil seeks to take advantage of Jesus’s faith in a scriptural promise.
Devil: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (verse 6, quoting Psalm 91:11–12)
Jesus: “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (verse 7, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16)
Finally, after showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (verse 8), the devil seeks to take advantage of Jesus’s promised exaltation.
Devil: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (verse 9)
Jesus: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (verse 10, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16)
Three Essential Elements
Notice that the three temptations have three elements in common.
First, the devil sought to narrow Jesus’s focus specifically on each tempting proposition, so that Jesus would view each in a distorted context and therefore experience them as disproportionately compelling. More on this in a moment.
Second, each temptation promises both explicit and implicit rewards. I will paraphrase some that I discern, as if spoken by the tempter:
Bread: Jesus, if you miraculously create bread, it will relieve your starving agony and, more importantly, validate your claim to divinity.
Jump: If you demonstrate the truth of this audacious promise in the sight of all those witnesses down there, you will glorify both the trustworthiness of God’s word and the trustworthiness of your claim as God’s Son.
Worship: Since it is in my power, if you will bow to me, I will make sure that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess your lordship.
Third, each tempting proposition makes implicit threats. Again, I’ll paraphrase some that I discern:
Bread: If you’re unwilling to miraculously create bread, doesn’t it indicate your inability to do so? You’re no Moses, much less the Prophet, much less the Son of God. You’re just another self-deluded “messiah” — and you know what happens to frauds.
Jump: If you’re unwilling to demonstrate the truth of these promises, doesn’t it indicate that you don’t really believe them? You’re no Son of God. You’re just like every other hypocritical rabbi: teach, teach, teach, but you won’t risk your life to prove God’s word is true — and you know what happens to hypocrites.
Worship: The road you’re on is more than risky; it’s doomed. If you don’t bow to me, you will die. And I will make sure it is unspeakably horrible.
Satan’s Core Strategy
This dissection of Jesus’s temptation experience helps us examine not only the devil’s specific strategy with Jesus, but the core strategy he employs in every temptation.
“Jesus was not ignorant of the universal diabolical dimension of temptation: to disorient, distort, and deceive.”
What was the devil trying to do? Essentially, he was seeking to do with Jesus what he did with Adam and Eve and what he does with each of us: disorient Jesus’s perception of reality, so he could distort Jesus’s perception of reality and deceive Jesus into believing a false story about reality.
See if this doesn’t sound familiar. Satan comes when Jesus is in a weakened state — we humans are more easily disoriented when we’re physically, emotionally, psychologically weak. Think about how differently you’re prone to respond to various pressures when you’re weak, rather than when you’re strong and refreshed.
Then he poses to Jesus propositions that put a distorted twist on truth. The devil wove plenty of truth into his presentation of a false reality. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to desire to satisfy his hunger? No. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to demonstrate his sonship through miraculously making bread? No — he did this very thing later when he fed the five thousand (Matthew 14:13–21). Was it inherently sinful for Jesus to put his faith in a specific promise of Scripture? No. Was it inherently sinful for Jesus (in particular) to long to be highly exalted and for every knee to bow and tongue to confess his lordship? No (see Philippians 2:9–11).
All of these, given the right context, were good and righteous. What made the devil’s propositions evil was their distorted context. And I think it required more resolve from Jesus’s human nature to resist than we might at first assume.
But resist he did. How? One way to describe it is that he skillfully used the armor of God against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). In Jesus’s responses, we see him lifting the “shield of faith” and wielding the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:16–17).
Another way to describe it is that Jesus was “not ignorant of [Satan’s] designs” and therefore refused to be “outwitted” by him (2 Corinthians 2:11). Jesus was not ignorant of the universal diabolical dimension of temptation: to disorient, distort, and deceive. So he had his antennae up; he was anticipating it. And when it came, he expected it to sound appealing and appear life-giving, when in reality “its end is the way the death” (Proverbs 14:12).
“The devil tempted Jesus to see himself in a different story.”
The devil tempted Jesus to see himself in a different story, one he implied would be better if Jesus took matters into his own hands. Jesus discerned the insidious temptations by remembering the Real Story he was in, which is what his Scripture quotes reveal. He had come to undo the curse of the fall — the catastrophic result of the first Adam believing a perverted story — by doing only what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19).
Remember the Story You’re In
That is the crucial application point I want to draw from Jesus’s temptation: remember the story you’re in. All of us tend to respond to tempting desires or fears based on the narrative of reality we believe (or want to believe) at the moment. What will lead to more joy or less misery, according to the story we’re believing? If we allow ourselves to be disoriented and sold a distorted bill of goods, and if we then take the bait of a deceptively appealing false story, we will be “lured and enticed by [our] own desire,” which when “conceived gives birth to sin, and sin . . . [eventually] brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).
Many different strategies for fighting different kinds of temptations exist. But all of them require that we not be outwitted by Satan due to ignorance of his designs to disorient, distort, and deceive. God calls us, like Jesus, to “be sober-minded [and] watchful,” since our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). So, like Jesus, we anticipate what temptation will be like, and when it arrives we resist the devil by first remembering the story we’re in.
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