John the Baptist came preaching repentance, telling anyone who would listen that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
What did John mean to say when he talked about this kingdom? How did the people understand the words “the kingdom of heaven”?
The ancient world had already had several kingdoms in its history that had arisen to such power that, during the times of their reigns, they had controlled the activities of all the known peoples of that day. Kingdom after kingdom had ruled this way in their times before falling from their position. Finally, leaving nothing but the stone ruins of their ancient and once great buildings, they were replaced by yet another kingdom.
But the Jews believed that this cycle of kingdoms rising and falling would eventually cease.
This was a teaching not only of their traditions, but also in the Scriptures. A new kingdom would arise that would never cease—a kingdom with God Jehovah as its head.
As the Jews of John’s day listened to him speak of the kingdom of heaven, this would be the kingdom that they would have thought of when he preached his message. They would have thought of the many promises in the Scriptures of the coming of a Messiah who would set up this kingdom.
The Coming of the Kingdom of Heaven
Some of these words had been written by the prophet Daniel, as he had put on paper the interpretation of a dream that the Babylonian king of his day had one night. He told the king:
In the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will shatter all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, but will itself stand forever. And just as you saw a stone being cut out of the mountain without human hands, and it shattered the iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold, so the great God has told the king what will happen in the future. (Daniel 2:44-45 BSB)
This is one of the many Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. To the people of John the Baptist’s day, it was the coming of this kingdom about which they believed that John must have been speaking. Indeed, they were correct, but they were not correct in how this kingdom was to arrive. They believed that it was to arrive in their day with great signs of power, overcoming by might the present Roman Empire, and ushering in a Jewish state that would exist in power and in eternity.
They did not realize that their Messiah was already among them, having been born in an animal stable to a poor carpenter’s wife. In addition, the Messiah had not come to redeem the Jewish people only, but had come as a savior for the entire world.
Unlike former kingdoms of the earth, the kingdom of heaven would not be established by military means, but by establishing peace. The Messiah would not be an army general, but would be characterized by bringing kindness and goodwill.
The Revealing of the Messiah
This Messiah was revealed to John the Baptist not by an aggressive bird of prey, but by a peaceful dove. John testified:
I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and resting on Him. I myself did not know Him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God. (John 1:32-34 BSB)
The revealing of the Messiah apparently was a developing understanding for John, because even before this fulfillment of the Spirit descending and resting like a dove upon Jesus, Jesus had come to John to be baptized.
John at first did not want to do it. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he asked Jesus.
John’s hesitation was understandable. His baptism was one of repentance, and Jesus had no need of that.
But Jesus replied to John, “Let it be so now. It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness in this way.” (Matthew 3:14-15)
“Righteousness” is a word in the Bible that has a rather special connotation. It means that which is right in the sight of God and in the kingdom of heaven. What is considered “right” in the kingdoms of the earth is not necessarily what is right in the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven offers an entirely new way of understanding life.
This is the reason that Jesus came to John to be baptized. With Jesus, it was not because it was a sign of repentance, but only to fulfill what was the proper thing for Jesus to do to initiate the kingdom of heaven.
To Identify With Us
Jesus also gave himself to be baptized because in every way, he sought to show us that he came to earth as a man so that we know that he can identify with all that we endure. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “passed through the heavens” in order that he may live among us so that he can sympathize with what we experience—even to the point of being tempted in every way in which we ourselves are tempted (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The Pleasure of the Father and the Testing of the Son
After Jesus had come up out of the water and as the dove descended to rest on him, a voice came from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!”
Pleased, the Father may have been, but that did not mean that Jesus was to lead a privileged life in his time with us. And the image of a dove was not to mean that the days ahead would be peaceful ones for him.
The very next verse says, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry” (Matthew 4:1 BSB).
In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, it says that the Spirit compelled or drove him into the wilderness. This was not something that Jesus chose to do, but it was necessary for him to do so. I will not pretend that I know all of the reasons that it was necessary for Jesus in his own life and ministry, but it was necessary for us in that it demonstrates to us that of all the temptations that we must endure, Jesus has endured far more.
Did the Temptations of Jesus Truly Tempt Him?
Some wonder if this is so. They wonder if Jesus had to endure more that we do. Was it possible for Jesus to even sin? He is God, so can God sin? If he cannot sin, how then could the temptations be true temptations?
This is one of those questions that will keep the discussion around the campfire or in the theology classroom going late into the night, and without any conclusive answer. I will only say this: certainly the Devil must have thought that he could entice Jesus to sin. He worked very hard at doing so.
I in fact was pondering this very question on one camping trip very many years ago. Some time before that night, a violent windstorm blew through the area. Many trees had broken or were uprooted by the power of the wind. As I hiked around examining the damage, I came upon two trees of the same species and of similar size and condition. One had been toppled by the windstorm. The other, just feet away, was still standing tall.
Which of these two trees felt the greatest power of the storm? Not the one that toppled. When it fell, the fury of the wind no longer affected it. The gale could no longer torment it. No—it was the tree that did not fall that knew the full power of the tempest. It had withstood the most violent of the wind gusts and endured the entire length of the storm. It had known far more of the fury than did the tree that fell, yet it had stood firm.
Jesus also knew the full fury of the storm of Satan, yet did not fall. He did not sin. Even in his baptism, he demonstrates to us the strength that this act can also give us in combating temptations.
The Temptations of Jesus
The temptations of Jesus were three-fold. First of all, Jesus had gone forty days and nights without eating, so of course he was hungry. The first manner in which Satan tempted Jesus was with the physical needs of Jesus—the nutritional requirements of his body.
The tempter came to Him and said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” It was a temptation to the needs of his flesh.
But Jesus would not turn the stones to bread. Why? Perhaps it was because he would not do it simply out of the suggestion of Satan, but look at how he answered the temptation.
Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
The larger issue is that in his forty days of fasting, Jesus learned that physical food is secondary. Of primary necessity are the words of life that come from God. Physical life is something that even with adequate and proper nutrition will eventually cease. It is the spiritual life that comes from the word of God that will live forever and will not cease.
Not to be so easily outdone, the devil took Jesus to the “holy city” and set him on the pinnacle of the temple.
“If You are the Son of God,” Satan then said to him, “throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning You, and they will lift You up in their hands, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’”
Satan now is appealing to the pride of Jesus in that Jesus could preserve himself from death—The Pride of Life. And the devil was also getting crafty. He quoted a Psalm to prove his point.
Jesus replied, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Failing that, the devil then took Jesus to a very high mountain from which they could see “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.”“All this I will give You,” Satan said to Jesus, “if You will fall down and worship me.”
These were no empty words. Scripture confirms that since the initial rebellion of man in the Garden of Eden against the authority of God, the world has been under the control of Satan. Showing all of this to Jesus, the devil perhaps thought that if Jesus would actually be able to see with his eyes all that he would gain, he would succumb to the temptation.
“Away from Me, Satan!” Jesus answered. “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’”
The Temptations of Jesus are Our Own Temptations
Interestingly, the three temptations of Jesus parallel our own temptations more than we may at first realize. In whatever specific form our own temptations come, they are basically either in the nature of the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, or the pride of life.
We may not be tempted to actually turn stones into bread—that ability is beyond us. Nor may we be tempted to call on angels to serve us, or tempted with possibility of ruling the entire world and all of its governments. These things we know are simply beyond possibility.
But they were not for Jesus. He could have done or had each of these things, but did not succumb to the continuing onslaughts of the devil. He felt the full power of the windstorm. He felt the full gale force of the temptations of Satan, yet did not fall.
But it apparently was not easy for Jesus to do this. This is another indication to me that these temptations of Jesus were true temptations. He was actually enticed by them. I know this by how Matthew finishes this account.
Matthew writes, “Then the devil left Him, and angels came and ministered to Him.”
Withstanding the tempest of Satan’s temptations had taken everything out of Jesus. He must have felt drained of all inner fortitude that the angels then came to minister life to him.
How Our Baptism Can Help Us
Withstanding Satan’s temptations may also take everything out of us, but it is our baptism that is one thing that can give us the strength to do so.
We can say to ourselves and to Satan in the midst of the fiercest storm and within the tempest of the winds of temptation, “I no longer belong to the kingdom of the world and I do not have to follow its ways. That old me is dead. I now live a new life in the kingdom of God.”
We can stand firm, even when trees all around us are falling.
Another John, not John the Baptist but John the Apostle, wrote these words many years later. John the Apostle was by now an old man when he wrote to the church:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God remains forever.
1 John 2:15-17 BSB
1 John 2:15-17 BSB
We will also remain forever if we refuse the temptations of the world and learn to live in the riches of the will of the Lord. Withstand the gale-forced winds of the tempter, and God will send his angels to minister strength to you.
 ekballo: I throw, cast, put out, banish, bring forth, produce