Have you ever stopped to wonder why life actually seems harder as a Christian? Perhaps you were baptized under the assumption that life would be easier as a Jesus-follower only to discover shortly thereafter it can be more difficult. Gone are the days of ease and carefree living; now you wrestle with an ongoing struggle of sorts. You experience unexplainable opposition, feel mounting pressure, and even “hear” an inner accuser that’s not like you. You just can’t shake the notion that ever since you chose to follow Jesus everything seems “off.”
Welcome to the War
It may be the tension you’re experiencing is demonic opposition. When you became a disciple of Jesus, you also became an enemy of Satan. You have a very real and very evil enemy who is out to devour you (1 Pt. 5:8). Even now there are demonic forces seeking to destroy your love for Jesus, your life, and your peace in him. They tempt you to doubt your identity in Christ and your assurance in God’s purposes, but they will not prevail. You can defeat this opposition by identifying with Christ in his victory over Satan and following his example in refuting demonic lies.
Jesus shows us in Matthew 4:1-11 (also see Mk. 1:12-13; Lk. 4:1-13) that discipleship 101 is learning how to overcome the enemy. This passage tells of an experience Jesus had alone in the wilderness when confronted by the devil. It’s unique among all other stories found in the synoptic Gospels in that we only have it because Jesus chose to recount it to his disciples (every other account comes from eyewitnesses).
Jesus saw this experience as so essential to his messianic ministry and the maturation of his disciples that he wanted his disciples to memorize and testify to it. They needed to know what he went through and how he came out victorious because they too would one day experience demonic opposition in the war against evil. This means if you’re a disciple of Jesus, Jesus thinks you need this story.
Peeling Back the Layers: How to Understand Matthew 4:1-11
Read Matthew 4:1-11 in its entirety to get reacquainted with the text. As you read, note the following points:
Context—It is crucially placed (also in Mark and Luke) between the baptismal revelation of Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 3:13-17) and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Matt. 4:12-17). Evidently, confronting evil is the first priority on the Messiah’s “to-do” list before he enters the public arena.
Translation—The English rendering of “tempted” doesn’t capture the full breadth of the Greek verb peirazo. Often in Scripture it means “to test,” specifically in order to reveal truth. Jesus is indeed being tempted by the devil to act against God’s will, but he’s also being tested by God to reveal what’s in his heart. In some mysterious fashion, satanic tempting and divine testing work in concert together.
Purpose—Even though this was Jesus’ first significant battle with evil and his circumstances seem horrific, all three Gospel writers go out of their way to make it clear that the whole event took place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 4:1; Mk. 1:12; Lk. 4:1). This experience, though excruciatingly painful, was happening according to the sovereign purpose of God.
Summary—At its heart, this story is intended to be an obvious recapitulation of Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness as God’s chosen Son who was to fulfill a divine calling (being a blessing to all the nations). The lessons Israel should have learned but failed to grasp were to depend on God’s Word rather than bread (Deut. 8:3), not to put God to the test (Deut. 6:16), and to make God the sole object of their worship (Deut. 6:13). It’s not random then that these are the exact three tests that we see in Jesus’ wilderness temptations!
In the same way, Yahweh led Israel into the wilderness to test their hearts to reveal the truth about their obedience and devotion to him (Deut. 8:2), so now another “Son of God” is being led into the wilderness for forty days to be tested by God and tempted by Satan in preparation for his divine calling. Will Jesus, as the beloved Son of God, fully obey the will of the Father or will he fail to overcome evil as every other son of God failed before him (think Adam in the garden, Israel in the wilderness, and even you today)?
Jesus Is Our Christus Victor: Identifying In Jesus’ Victory Over Satan
The history of failure and flawed fulfillment in Adam and Israel add to our own experience of failure and disobedience. These failures might make us skeptical regarding the Messiah’s odds of success. However, Matthew 4:1-11 portrays Jesus facing the tests we’ve all failed and being tempted where we’ve all conceded but, surprisingly, he doesn’t fail or compromise. Where we as humans have all stumbled and fallen, Jesus the true human resists and stands firm!
Look at Jesus’ Spirit-led response to satanic attack:
- When Jesus is tempted to doubt his identity as the beloved Son of God while suffering the hell of hunger (Matt. 4:3), he looks at the tempter and quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 (Matt. 4:4). He essentially says, “This does not define me. The words spoken by my Father, whom I trust with my life, define me. My love and loyalty to the Father is more real to me than my current condition, no matter how painful it is.”
- When Jesus is tempted to test the Father’s love and commitment to him as a means of proving his affection to the Son (Matt. 4:5-6), he looks at the tempter and quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 (Matt. 4:7). It’s as if he’s saying, “I will not test the Father and put him in my service. That’s not how this relationship works. I will trust my Father’s love and commitment to me regardless of my circumstances.”
- When Jesus is tempted to obtain the kingdoms of the world by taking a path other than that ordained by the Father (Matt. 4:8-9), he looks at the tempter and says, “Be gone, Satan!” and quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” This temptation is compromising the very heart of who Jesus is and what he came to do . . . and it infuriates him. He knows one day he will reign as King over all the world but the means by which he will do so has already been determined by the Father—it’s the path of the cross. He will worship and obey God even to the cross.
If you are in Christ, this story is good news! Jesus passed divine testing and defeated satanic tempting on your behalf—he is truly your Christus Victor. His representation of you didn’t begin on the cross, but in the wilderness. Here we witness Jesus defeating evil and showing himself to be the true Adam, the true Israel, the true Son of God, and the true human on your behalf.
The first step in defeating demonic opposition is knowing you have obtained victory over the enemy. Although you have repetitively failed divine testing and succumbed to demonic temptation, through your union with Christ, it’s as if you fully succeeded. You are declared the perfect son of God because of Jesus’ victory for you (first in the wilderness and then on the cross).
The outcome of the war you’re waging against demonic opposition has been determined for you by the true human, Jesus Christ. Be confident in battle, knowing that Satan and his demons are defeated. Because of Jesus you are victorious even when you feel defeated. The battles you are fighting today and the lies you are hearing from the enemy are not definitive of who you are. Your identity as a Christian is the same as Jesus’—victorious son of God.
Jesus Is Our Great Exemplar: Following Jesus’ Pattern to Defeat Demons
The war has been won but, until Jesus’ second coming, we still have battles to fight. Recognizing Christ’s victory over evil on our behalf is the first step in defeating demonic opposition. The second is following his example.
As noted above, Jesus thought his disciples needed to know this story because in it he modeled how to counter demonic attack. He quoted Scripture out loud, told Satan to be gone, and then allowed angels to strengthen him. This is an example for all Jesus-followers today: Quote Scripture out loud (in it’s proper context of course!), tell the demons to be gone, and then do something that strengthens you spiritually (worship, Bible reading, prayer, etc.).
Jesus’ particular temptations are a good place to make parallel applications for your life.
- When tempted to doubt your identity as the beloved child of God amidst your circumstances, quote Scripture out loud and affirm that your suffering, your insecurity, or your sin does not define you. The word of God, particularly as its expressed through the gospel, defines you. Your love and loyalty to the Father are more real and defining than your current situation, no matter how painful.
- When tempted to test the Father’s love and commitment to you, demanding he give you a sign of his affection, quote Scripture out loud and affirm that through Christ you have absolute assurance of God’s love for you. You know he is committed to you because he left the glories of heaven to come and die for you. The gospel leaves no room to doubt God’s affection for you.
- When tempted to take another path other than the one God has determined for you, quote Scripture out loud and affirm that you will trust the Father’s plan and purposes for your life even if they include suffering. Tell the harassing demonic voice to “be gone!” Reaffirm that God is the exclusive object of your worship regardless of what lies ahead.
This may not always be easy, but it is straightforward—we simply follow Jesus’ example. It doesn’t have to be weird or scary and it’s certainly not reserved for the spiritual giants. Learning to do spiritual warfare is basic discipleship. Allow me to illustrate this from my life.
Recently, I’ve experienced the worst and most frequent migraines I’ve ever had. The pain is isolating, frustrating, and defeating. While lying in excruciating pain in a darkened room I’ve heard (in my mind, not audible) an old familiar voice say, “If you are a son of God why do you have to suffer? If God really loved you shouldn’t he prove his affection by healing you?” Christian, that’s demonic. That’s not my voice nor God’s, it’s the voice of an enemy seeking to devour me while I’m vulnerable by tempting me to doubt my identity as a beloved child of God.
Although it would have been easy to test God, to “make” him prove his love through my healing, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesus in the wilderness. There he was literally starving to death, yet he was unwilling to exercise his power to obtain food or test God because he trusted the Father fully. He trusted the Father on my behalf even as my own trust failed. And so, in my pain, I followed Jesus’ example and spoke out loud,
“My circumstances, no matter how painful, do not define me. God’s Word defines me. I am a child of God and his love and commitment to me is eternally certain because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I refuse to put my Father to the test. Be gone! I will only worship and serve God, even now in my pain.”
Afterwards I continued to rest and pray as I rode out the migraine with a newfound sense of confidence in God’s goodness. There was nothing weird or magical about it. I simply identified in Jesus’ victory then followed his example in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.
Don’t allow demonic opposition to destroy your joy and peace in Christ. Learn to recognize voices that aren’t from the Spirit of God and then speak out God’s truth. Grow in your discipleship by daily identifying with Christ in his victory over evil and following his example in refuting lies.
Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God’s Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving the local church. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.