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Great Britain: I. (710–1777). 1906.

John Knox

On the First Temptation of Christ

THE CAUSE moving me to treat of this place of Scripture is that such as by the inscrutable providence of God fall into divers temptations judge not themselves by reason thereof to be less acceptable in God’s presence. But, on the contrary, having the way prepared to victory by Christ Jesus, they shall not fear above measure the crafty assaults of that subtle serpent Satan; but with joy and bold courage, having such a guide as here is pointed forth, such a champion, and such weapons as here are to be found (if with obedience we will hear, and unfeigned faith believe), we may assure ourselves of God’s present favor, and of final victory, by the means of Him who, for our safeguard and deliverance, entered in the battle and triumphed over His adversary and all his raging fury. And that this, being heard and understood, may the better be kept in memory, this order, by God’s grace, we propose to observe, in treating the matter: First, what this word “temptation” means, and how it is used within the Scriptures. Secondly, who is here tempted, and at what time this temptation happened. Thirdly, how and by what means he was tempted. Fourthly, why he should suffer these temptations, and what fruit ensues to us from the same.

First. Temptation, or to tempt, in the Scriptures of God, is called to try, to prove, or to assault the valor, the power, the will, the pleasure, or the wisdom—whether it be of God or of creatures. And it is taken sometimes in good part, as when it is said that God tempted Abraham, God tempted the people of Israel; that is, God did try and examine them, not for his own knowledge, to whom nothing is hid, but to certify others how obedient Abraham was to God’s commandment, and how weak and inferior the Israelites were in their journey toward the promised land. And this temptation is always good, because it proceeds immediately from God, to open and make manifest the secret motions of men’s hearts, the puissance and power of God’s word, and the great lenity and gentleness of God toward the iniquities (yea, horrible sins and rebellions) of those whom he hath received into his regimen and care.

For who could have believed that the bare word of God could so have moved the heart and affections of Abraham that, to obey God’s commandment, he determined to kill, with his own hand, his best beloved son Isaac? Who could have trusted that, so many torments as Job suffered, he should not speak in all his great temptations one foolish word against God? Or who could have thought that God so mercifully should have pardoned so many and so manifest transgressions committed by his people in the desert, and yet that his mercy never utterly left them, but still continued with them till at length he performed his promise made to Abraham? Who, I say, would have been persuaded of these things unless, by trials and temptations taken of his creatures by God, they had come by revelation made in his holy Scriptures to our knowledge?

And so this kind of temptation is profitable, good, and necessary, as a thing proceeding from God, who is the fountain of all goodness, to the manifestation of his own glory and to the profit of the sufferer, however the flesh may judge in the hour of temptation. Otherwise temptation, or to tempt, is taken in evil part; that is, he that assaults or assails intends destruction and confusion to him that is assaulted. As when Satan tempted the woman in the garden, Job by divers tribulations, and David by adultery. The scribes and Pharisees tempted Christ by divers means, questions, and subtleties. And of this matter saith St. James, “God tempted no man”; that is, by temptation proceeding immediately from Him, He intends no man’s destruction. And here you shall note that altho Satan appears sometimes to prevail against God’s elect, yet he is ever frustrated of his final purpose.

By temptation he led Eve and David from the obedience of God, but he could not retain them forever under his thraldom. Power was granted to him to spoil Job of his substance and children, and to strike his body with a plague and sickness most vile and fearful, but he could not compel his mouth to blaspheme God’s majesty; and, therefore, altho we are laid open sometimes, as it were, to tribulation for a time, it is that when he has poured forth the venom of his malice against God’s elect it may return to his own confusion, and that the deliverance of God’s children may be more to His glory and the comfort of the afflicted, knowing that His hand is so powerful, His mercy and good will so prompt, that He delivers His little ones from their cruel enemy, even as David did his sheep and lambs from the mouth of the lion.

Also to tempt means simply to prove or try without any determinate purpose of profit or damage to ensue; as when the mind doubteth of anything and therein desires to be satisfied, without great love or extreme hatred of the thing that is tempted or tried, as the Queen of Sheba came to tempt Solomon in subtle questions. David tempted; that is, tried himself if he could go in harness (I. Sam., xvii). And Gideon said: “Let not thine anger kindle against me, if I tempt thee once again.” This famous queen, not fully trusting the report and fame that was spread of Solomon, by subtle questions desired to prove his wisdom, at the first, neither extremely hating nor fervently loving the person of the king. And David, as a man not accustomed to harness, would try how he was able to go, and believe and fashion himself therein, before he would hazard battle with Goliath so armed. And Gideon, not satisfied in his conscience by the first sign that he received, desired, without contempt or hatred of God, a second time to be certified of his vocation. In this sense must the apostle be expounded when he commands us to tempt; that is, to try and examine ourselves, if we stand in the faith. Thus much for the term.

Now to the person tempted, and to the time and place of his temptation. The person tempted is the only well-beloved Son of God; the time was immediately after his baptism; and the place was the desert or wilderness. But that we derive advantage from what is related, we must consider the same more profoundly. That the Son of God was thus tempted gives instruction to us that temptations, altho they be ever so grievous and fearful, do not separate us from God’s favor and mercy, but rather declare the great graces of God to appertain to us, which makes Satan to rage as a roaring lion; for against none does he so fiercely fight as against those of whose hearts Christ has taken possession.

This Spirit which led Christ into the wilderness was not the devil, but the holy Spirit of God the Father, by whom Christ, as touching His human and manly nature, was conducted and led; likewise by the same Spirit He was strengthened and made strong, and, finally, raised up from the dead. The Spirit of God, I say, led Christ to the place of this battle, where He endured the combat for the whole forty days and nights. As Luke saith, “He was tempted,” but in the end most vehemently, after His continual fasting, and that He began to be hungry. Upon this forty days and this fasting of Christ do our papists found and build their Lent; for, say they, all the actions of Christ are our instructions; what he did we ought to follow. But He fasted forty days, therefore we ought to do the like. I answer that if we ought to follow all Christ’s actions then ought we neither to eat nor drink for the space of forty days, for so fasted Christ; we ought to go upon the waters with our feet; to cast out devils by our word; to heal and cure all sorts of maladies; to call again the dead to life; for so did Christ. This I write only that men may see the vanity of those who, boasting themselves of wisdom, have become mad fools.

Did Christ fast thus forty days to teach us superstitious fasting? Can the papists assure me, or any other man, which were the forty days and nights that Christ fasted? Plain it is He fasted forty days and nights that immediately followed His baptism, but which they were, or in what month was the day of His baptism, Scripture does not express; and, altho the day were expressed, am I or any Christian bound to counterfeit Christ’s actions as the ape counterfeits the act or work of man? He himself requires no such obedience of his true followers, but saith to the apostles, “Go and preach the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, commanding them to observe and keep all that I have commanded you.”

But where the papists are so diligent in establishing their dreams and fantasies, they lose the profit that here is to be gathered—that is, why Christ fasted those forty days; which were a doctrine more necessary for Christians that to corrupt the simple hearts with superstition, as tho the wisdom of God, Christ Jesus, had taught us no other mystery by His fasting that the abstinence from flesh, or once on the day to eat flesh, for the space of forty days. God hath taken a just vengeance upon the pride of such men, while He thus confounds the wisdom of those that do most glory in wisdom, and strikes with blindness such as will be guides and lanterns to the feet of others, and yet refuse themselves to hear or follow the light of God’s word. From such deliver thy poor flock, O Lord!

The causes of Christ’s fasting these forty days I find chiefly to be two: The first, to witness to the world the dignity and excellence of His vocation, which Christ, after His baptism, was to take upon Him openly; the other, to declare that He entered into battle willingly for our cause, and does, as it were, provoke His adversary to assault Him; altho Christ Jesus, in the eternal counsel of His Father, was appointed to be the Prince of Peace, the angel (that is, the messenger) of His Testament, and He alone that could fight our battles for us, yet He did not enter in execution of it, in the sight of men, till He was commended to mankind by the voice of His heavenly Father, and as He was placed and anointed by the Holy Ghost by a visible sign given to the eyes of men. After which time He was led to the desert, and fasted, as before is said; and this He did to teach us with what fear, carefulness, and reverence the messengers of the Word ought to enter on their vocation, which is not only most excellent (for who is worthy to be God’s ambassador?), but also subject to most extreme troubles and dangers.

But to our purpose: that Christ exceeded not the space of forty days in His fasting, He did it to the imitation of Moses and Elias; of whom, the one before the receiving of the law, and the other before the communication and reasoning which he had with God in Mount Horeb, in which he was commanded to anoint Hazael king over Syria, and Jehu king over Israel, and Elisha to be prophet, fasted the same number of days. The events that ensued and followed this supernatural fasting of these two servants of God, Moses and Elias, impaired and diminished the tyranny of the kingdom of Satan. For by the law came the knowledge of sin, the damnation of such impieties, specially of idolatry, and such as the devil had invented; and, finally, by the law came such a revelation of God’s will that no man could justly afterward excuse his sin by ignorance, by which the devil before had blinded many. So that the law, altho it might not renew and purge the heart—for that the spirit of Christ Jesus worketh by faith only—yet it was a bridle that did hinder and stay the rage of external wickedness in many, and was a schoolmaster that led unto Christ. For when man can find no power in himself to do that which is commanded, and perfectly understands, and when he believes that the curse of God is pronounced against all those that abide not in everything that is commanded in God’s law to do them,—the man, I say, that understands and knows his own corrupt nature and God’s severe judgment, most gladly will receive the free redemption offered by Christ Jesus, which is the only victory that overthrows Satan and his power.

And so, by the giving of the law, God greatly weakened, impaired, and made frail the tyranny and kingdom of the devil. In the days of Elias the devil had so prevailed that kings and rulers made open war against God, killing His prophets, destroying His ordinances, and building up idolatry, which did so prevail that the prophet complained that of all the true fearers and worshipers of God he was left alone, and wicked Jezebel sought his life also. After this, his fasting and complaint, he was sent by God to anoint the persons aforenamed, who took such vengeance upon the wicked and obstinate idolators that he who escaped the sword of Hazael fell into the hands of Jehu, and those whom Jehu left escaped not God’s vengeance under Elisha.

The remembrance of this was fearful to Satan, for, at the coming of Christ Jesus, impiety was in the highest degree among those that pretended most knowledge of God’s will; and Satan was at such rest in his kingdom that the priests, scribes and Pharisees had taken away the key of knowledge; that is, they had so obscured and darkened God’s holy Scriptures, by false glosses and vain traditions, that neither would they enter themselves into the kingdom of God, nor suffer and permit others to enter, but with violence restrained, and with tyranny struck back from the right way—namely, from Christ Jesus himself—such as would have entered into the possession of life everlasting by Him. Satan, I say, having such dominion over the chief rulers of the visible church, and espying in Christ such graces as before he had not seen in man, and considering him to follow in fasting the footsteps of Moses and Elias, no doubt greatly feared that the quietness and rest of his most obedient servants, the priests, and their adherents, would be troubled by Christ.

O dear sisters, what comfort ought the remembrance of these signs to be to our hearts! Christ Jesus hath fought our battle; He himself hath taken us into His care and protection; however the devil may rage by temptations, be they spiritual or corporeal, he is not able to bereave us out of the hand of the Almighty Son of God. To Him be all glory for His mercies most abundantly poured upon us!