“Then Jesus.” The record of Jesus’ being tempted in the desert is in Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1-13.
“led up.” The Greek is anagō (#321 ἀνάγω) and means, to lead or bring from a lower to a higher point; thus, lead up, bring up. This shows us conclusively that Jesus was led into the desert of Judea immediately after his baptism in Matthew 3. The Jordan River is the low point in that area, being around 900 or so feet below sea level, and the Judean desert was above it to the west, with some mountain summits approaching 1,500 or more, and over 2,000 as one gets close to Jerusalem.
“by the spirit.” The Greek text reads, hupo tou pneumatos (ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος), using the preposition hupo followed by “the spirit,” in the genitive case. Thus here, hupo denotes agency, and tells us that Jesus was led “by” the spirit. It is difficult to decide whether we should say “by the Spirit,” i.e. “by God;” or “by the spirit,” that is, by the gift of God that Jesus had just received 2 verses earlier. The ancient texts were all capital letters, so it was up to the reader to decide what PNEUMATOS (Spirit or spirit) meant. Because English forces the translator to choose between “Spirit” and “spirit,” modern translators have to make a decision for the reader, and hope to educate the reader via commentary.
Actually, in this case, it is likely that both “Spirit” and “spirit” are true, and this is an example of the figure of speech amphibologia, where there are two meanings, both of them true. God, the Spirit, led Jesus into the desert, communicating and leading him “by the spirit,” just as He had done for millennia with Moses, Joshua, David, and the prophets and prophetesses. What actually happened was that Jesus was led “by the Spirit by the spirit.”
“desert.” The Greek is erēmos (#2048 ἔρημος), and it means a solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited place, a desert, a wilderness, a lonely region. However, the word erēmos can refer to an uncultivated region fit for pasturage, even though that area may be right next to fields and houses, thus the title of Gertrude Bell’s book, The Desert and the Sown. Areas in the Middle East were thought of as being good for farming or pasture, and a valley used for farming might butt right up to a hillside used for pasture. This situation always produced the tension that existed between the shepherds and the farmers.
“to be tempted.” Here in Matthew, the Greek text uses the infinitive tense of the verb peirazō (#3985 πειράζω), and so “to be tempted,” as the English translations say, is a good translation. The infinitive clause expresses purpose. It is God who leads Jesus into the Judean wilderness “to be tempted,” but it is the Devil (Slanderer) who does the tempting. It can be confusing at first to see that God led Jesus into the desert “to be tempted,” but there are good explanations for it.
For one thing, we must realize that both God and Jesus knew that a showdown between the Devil and Jesus was inevitable. For millennia the Devil had been aggressively trying to prevent the Messiah from even being born. Then, when he was born, he tried to kill him as an infant through his evil servant, Herod the Great. So it was better for Jesus if he met the Devil head-on and dealt with him personally at the beginning of his ministry. It accomplished many things.
One thing the temptation accomplished is that it cemented in Jesus’ mind who the Devil was and what he wanted: to be in God’s place and to be worshipped. The Devil is like the Wizard of Oz. He makes himself look much larger and more powerful than he really is, and controls people by threats, fear, lies, etc. The prophet Isaiah tells us that when the Devil meets his doom and we get to see him for what he really is, we will say, “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?” (Isa. 14:16-17). When the Devil met Jesus face to face, it gave Jesus a chance for him to see who he was really dealing with. And the Devil, for his part, revealed his crafty and evil nature perfectly for Jesus to see.
Another thing it did was make Jesus stronger in the spiritual battle. It is commonly said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and successfully enduring temptation does make us stronger. Facing the Devil’s temptations cemented in Jesus’ mind that he did not need the world’s fame, or power, or even food. He could rely on God—on God’s provision and God’s timing. This was a huge lesson to learn. And even though Jesus had certainly learned to rely on God in the first 30 years of his life, talking to God via the gift of holy spirit would have bolstered his confidence, and things such as the angels coming to minister to him after the Devil left would have helped also (Matt. 4:11).
Another thing it accomplished was to cement for Jesus, and show us, the absolute necessity to know and understand the Word of God, and to use it in our lives to fight the spiritual battle. Jesus resisted each of the temptations by saying, “It is written,” and quoting Scripture. This set the tone for how he would deal with opposition from that time forward, and it sets the tone for how we must act if we are going to be successful in the spiritual fight. Furthermore, it shows us how important it is to use Scripture as a “measuring tool” to determine good from evil. How did Jesus know what was right and what was wrong? Via Scripture, and anything contrary to the proper interpretation of Scripture must be resisted.
Another thing it accomplished, and continues to accomplish, is that it lets everyone know that just as Christ resisted the Devil and overcame his temptations, so we too can have victory in Christ. Believers do not have to be victims of the Devil, we stand against the Devil and win even as Christ did.
Also, although there is no way to know this for sure, Jesus made it clear to the Devil that he was not going to be simply fooled or led astray, and there are no more direct encounters between the Devil and Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. The Devil realized he would have to kill Jesus to get rid of him, and he tried in multiple ways to do that: from inciting mobs such as at Bethlehem, to trying to drown him via storms on the Sea of Galilee. He thought he won when he finally engineered his crucifixion, only to find like Haman in the book of Esther, that he had killed himself via his own stake.
“tempted.” The Greek word peirazō (#3985 πειράζω) can mean several different things depending on its context. It is used for (1) tempting and (2) testing (i.e., trying, examining, proving); its semantic range also includes (3) “attempting to do something,” like when Paul and Timothy tried to go into Bithynia but were prevented (Acts 16:7); and (4) trying to “entrap through a process of inquiry,” such as the Pharisees testing Jesus with questions (BDAG). The differences in meaning are found not in the word itself, but in the circumstance and especially the motive behind the one who is tempting, testing, attempting, etc. The distinction between testing and tempting, then, is this: testing comes from a desire to see the person prove himself true, to pass the test, and to gain confidence from the victory; temptation, on the other hand, is when evil is placed before someone in hope that he or she will fail. Thus God never tempts people (Jam. 1:13) but he does test people (Gen. 22:1; Heb. 11:17). Both temptation and testing are meant to see what is in a person, whether they will obey, but temptation is meant to make someone fall while testing is to raise them up. God always tests in order to reward or bring about good (Deut. 8:16). Hence, Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (ESV).
“by the Devil.” “Devil” is a transliteration of the Greek word, diabolos (#1228 διάβολος), which literally means “Slanderer.” A primary attribute of the Devil is slander, and slander is so central to who the Devil is and how he operates that one of his primary names is “the Slanderer.” “The Slanderer” works hard to slander others and destroy them and their reputation. He has no regard for law or honesty, and uses many different illicit means to discredit and destroy people.
The literal Greek phrase in this verse is “of the Slanderer,” a genitive of origin, the Slanderer being the source of the temptation, so “by the Slanderer” (by the Devil) is a good translation. [For more information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.”]