What would you pick? If you had to choose one Bible story to set up the significance of Jesus, which one might it be?
The new year brings me a new Sunday school class to teach, and with that came a decision. We had determined that this year would feature Bible lessons from the life of Jesus. So for the first class session, I wanted to pick a Bible story that would be the perfect introduction to who Jesus is and why he matters.
One of the birth accounts might have made a good introduction to Jesus, but the kids I was teaching had recently heard those stories for Christmas. So what other incident from Jesus’s life would best introduce the man and his saving mission? Surely there are many good options, but which would you choose?
I picked the temptation of Jesus while he was fasting in the wilderness, where the devil comes with three snares and Jesus resists.
To some, this might seem like an odd choice. When I see this story used in published Sunday school lessons, those lessons usually don’t say much about Jesus at all. Instead they might focus on how students ought to resist temptation too. They often urge students to copy Jesus’s successful methods: just as Jesus quoted Bible verses to the devil, the students too should memorize Scripture and be able to quote it when tempted, the point being that knowing the Bible is useful.
I’m all for Bible memorization, and I certainly think it’s good to urge kids to resist sin. But the temptation story also reveals rich truths about Jesus. There’s good reason why it happened right before the start of his public ministry, and why both Matthew and Luke report it in detail just as we’re getting to know him.
Jesus’s victory over the devil proves his fitness to be the Savior. Think back to the very start of the Bible, when Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and sinned against God. The devil tried to get them to doubt God’s goodness and disbelieve his word. Here’s how he tempted them in Genesis 3:1–5.
- “Did God really say you may not eat from any of these trees?” (God is not being good to you.)
- “You won’t surely die!” (What God’s says is not trustworthy or true.)
- “God just doesn’t want you to become like him, knowing good and evil.” (What God wants for you is not what’s best for you.)
Adam and Eve failed those temptations, and sin entered the world. After that, the wait began for one who would not fail—the promised victor who would crush the head of the serpent. Jesus’s first step in showing himself to be that Savior from sin was to triumph where Adam and Eve failed. He was tempted like we are but never sinned, and then died on the cross to take the punishment for sin the rest of us deserve.
The set of temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness is much like what Adam and Eve faced, and like those we struggle against today. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil began, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). There’s a suggestion that God has not been good enough—that Jesus’s nearness to God during his time of fasting is not sufficient for human needs, and maybe the cravings of the stomach are a better priority. The devil went on to suggest Jesus test God’s word by jumping off the temple. Finally, he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in return for a moment of worship—a temptation obviously sinful yet terribly strong, as any of us who’ve ever put worldly gain ahead of serving God can confirm.
Yet Jesus won. He beat the devil at the devil’s best game.
Jesus continued obeying God all the way to the cross, where he again faced temptation: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). But Jesus stayed on the cross out of love for us and faith in his Father, who raised him from the dead proving that he never deserved to die. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice who saves sinners like us.
So the main point of the temptation story is not so much that we should resist like Jesus did, but more that he succeeded where we fail. When we find ourselves rocked by sin, we turn to Jesus for hope and confidence. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8).
I ended the lesson by telling those kids in my class, “The devil is powerful and tricky, but Jesus is more powerful. Sometimes we sin and the devil accuses us. He hopes we’ll get discouraged. He wants us to think God is going to punish us, or we have no power to resist sin. When that happens, tell the devil he can’t accuse you because you’re forgiven in Jesus. And tell him you are able to resist sin because God is at work in you. You belong to Jesus—the winner!”
When picking Bible lessons to teach, I sometimes make poor choices. But this time, wanting to show why Jesus really matters, I think I chose well.
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like. Your email address will not be displayed.)