The serpent wouldn’t appear unless the odds were in his favor. Like in the Garden, he waited until Adam and Eve were away from God’s immediate presence before he spoke up. So Jesus knows the serpent won’t emerge from the shadows until he has the advantage. Jesus knows what He has to do.
Venturing out like a trapper, Jesus disappears into the wilderness, alone. He makes Himself very weak, eating and drinking nothing week after week. He senses the serpent watching Him from a distance, monitoring His strength as it dwindles more and more everyday. The serpent is cunning, and patient, so he waits. And waits. And waits. Finally, after 40 days, the serpent sees that Jesus is very near death. The time is right. He comes out of hiding and strikes.
Here we ask a relevant question. In the Garden, why did the enemy manifest as a snake? Of all creatures, why a snake? What is the deeper meaning of this? The answer is, in short, that the snake most embodies the essence of the enemy.
Consider a snake’s unique use of constriction and method of consumption. Some snakes employ the force of constriction to take the life of their prey. We can imagine a circle’s circumference tightening inward, squeezing around the center. This is constriction, an outside-in motion. Not all snakes constrict, but all snakes consume their prey from the outside-in as the prey is swallowed whole and then digested inwardly. This is so instructive because the enemy, too, works from the outside-in. Examples may be helpful.
We see his affect on Eve, for she saw that (1.) the tree was good for food, and (2.) that it was pleasant to the eyes, and (3.) that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, so she took the fruit and ate. Good for food has to do with the body, which is the outermost part. Pleasant to the eyes has to do with the intellect, which is inside the body. A desire to make one wise (like God) has to do with the spirit, desire being the innermost part. Suffice to say, the enemy’s deception took hold of Eve from the outside-in.
In the Book of Job, the enemy moves in on Job. Reading the account, we find that Job’s servants and animals are first struck down in the surrounding fields. After this, Job’s house and family are targeted. Finally, Job’s own body and health are attacked. Once more we find this principle in effect: the enemy bringing death from the outside-in.
Study the characteristics of a snake and you will learn a great deal about the enemy. The snake epitomizes the enemy more than any other living creature. Therefore, the enemy finds expression as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is a zone in which physical reality perfectly translates spiritual reality, where the truth of one’s essence comes through and there is no denying it. In the Garden, the enemy has no choice but to manifest as a snake, because that is his essence. Outside the Garden, the enemy gains a new power, an ability to manipulate his appearance. When the outside doesn’t reflect the inside––when something isn’t what it seems––it makes a mockery of God’s design. By manipulating his appearance, the enemy mocks God’s design. He didn’t have this power in the Garden, but man set him free, and now he exploits that power constantly. Now he can prowl around like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Understand, though, that his essence never changes even though his masks often do.
Out in the wilderness, the tempter approaches Jesus probably not as a snake, but as something else. The text isn’t explicit. Knowing the enemy likes to mock what is holy and good, it wouldn’t surprise me if the enemy approaches Jesus looking like someone He already knows and trusts. No matter what mask he wears, the enemy is what he is. Once a serpent, still a serpent. He presses Jesus from the outside-in. His first temptation takes aim at the body, which desires food. His second temptation aims at the mind and the emotions, as he invites Jesus to take a shortcut to being proclaimed Messiah. The enemy’s third temptation takes aim at the spirit, it being a matter of worship.
We read that the tempter first says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus responds with a verse from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’” (Quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
The enemy then takes Him into Jerusalem and has Him stand on the pinnacle of the Temple. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”
The enemy is referencing Psalm 91:12 & 14. Notice he skips over verse 13. Why does he skip over verse 13? Because 91:13 says, “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.” The enemy neglects this verse for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, Jesus answers the enemy with a verse from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Quoting Deuteronomy 6:16)
Now comes the third act. The enemy won’t hold back. As I imagine the scene, I sense the wind blowing against the sun burned face of Jesus as He stands on a high mountain alongside the enemy. Before them history is distilled into a single moment. Draped over the landscape beneath them, all the kingdoms of earth stretch out as far as the eye can see. Their brilliance lights up the sky. Each kingdom is portrayed in its highest grandeur. Rome in its prime; Persia at its best; China in its fullness; Britain at its pinnacle; the United States with its towering skyscrapers; first century Israel with His beloved Jerusalem.
The enemy remains quiet and lets Jesus take it in. The enemy pretends to look too, but he has grown accustomed to this view. Besides, the one kingdom he really wants is not included in this panorama. This kingdom he eyes secretly. This is the kingdom still safeguarded within the thin frame of the Man standing next to him. So the enemy––the serpent known for his guile––remains patient. He keeps Jesus in his peripheral vision. Both of them are cast in the glow of this glorious summation of world history. The light reflects in Jesus’ eyes, and when the enemy finally turns to face Him, he is reminded of the way the light reflected in Eve’s eyes when she beheld the stunning beauty of the Tree of Knowledge. The enemy smiles and speaks. “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”
We must note that the kingdoms of earth were the enemy’s to give, meaning the enemy had to have the authority to offer them to Jesus as a temptation. It’s not a temptation if he doesn’t actually have them to give. For instance, if I say, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you commit some sin,” it’s not a real temptation unless I actually have a million dollars to give you. If I don’t really have a million dollars, it’s a joke. It’s silly. There’s no true temptation unless I genuinely have the means to give you the money. And so in the same way, the enemy really had to have the authority to give these kingdoms of the world to Jesus. How did he acquire such authority? Well don’t blame God! God didn’t give it to the enemy. Man did! God gave man dominion over the world (Genesis 1:28-30), but when man took and ate the forbidden fruit, he succumbed to the will of the enemy. It was a trade off: the enemy gave what he had to man (the feeling of being like God) and man gave what he had to the enemy (the dominion of earth). So now, here’s the enemy and the second Adam. The enemy wants to make another trade: the enemy will give Jesus the dominion of earth if Jesus will make him God. The enemy is trading up! From feeling like God to being God! Of course, the enemy holds his cards close to his chest. He doesn’t show his desperation.
“All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me,” he says to Jesus. Underneath his calm demeanor, the enemy screams: “Jesus, no one will notice! It’s just you and me out here! This is the deal of a lifetime! The future of the world is on sale! You can have it to rule as you see fit, and I will stay out of it––if you’ll simply do the smallest action in this private place. No one will see! Come on, what do you say?”
No terrorism. No holocaust. No inquisition. No crucifixion. Jesus closes His eyes and the world’s brilliance disappears from his pupils. When they reopen, his eyes are illuminated from the inside, by the light of God’s Word. Jesus turns to the enemy and answers with a verse from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’” (Quoting Deuteronomy 6:13)
The enemy’s countenance falls through his feet and tumbles down the mountainside. He’s been caught, bested, and beaten. But note, his head is not yet trampled, so he departs, leaving Jesus alone to die. We are told that angels come and attend to Him (Matthew 4:11). Jesus is not expecting this, nor demanding it, but if they do not strengthened Him at this moment, it’s likely Jesus will die right here in the wilderness. Physically, He has come this close to death.
What a showdown, though! The very best against the very best. Examining their dialogue, we find that Jesus relied on the Torah to do battle. There were five books in the Torah He could have chosen from, but a single book––Deuteronomy––was enough to put down the enemy.
I am reminded of another great showdown: David vs. Goliath. Interestingly, when David went against Goliath, the account says that David “chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine . . . David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.” (1 Samuel 17:40,48,49)
David relied on these stones to do battle with Goliath. There were five stones in his bag he could have chosen from, but a single stone was enough to put down the enemy.
Although the enemy was beaten, the showdown wasn’t all the way over for David. Neither is it over for Jesus. Luke 4:13 tells us that “when the devil had finished every temptation, he left Jesus until an opportune time.” This opportune time won’t arrive until later, when Jesus (again near death) hangs on the cross. The enemy, speaking through those in the crowd, calls out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!” (Matthew 27:40). Think back on the temptations: “If you are the Son of God...” “If you are the Son of God...” and now: “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!” This is the fourth great temptation, and it goes to show that the showdown isn’t quite over between the tempter and the Son of God.
Neither was it over between David and Goliath. After dropping him with a single stone, David stood over Goliath and drew Goliath’s sword out of its sheath. Using Goliath’s own weapon against him, David cut off Goliath’s head.
Hanging on the cross, Jesus looks down at the enemy. Before this, He had struck down the devil with a single book, but now, Jesus will use something else to finalize his victory. Death is drawn up in the hands of Jesus. Using the enemy’s own weapon against him, Jesus dies on the cross––and with that death, He crushes the serpent’s head.