I’ve heard it explained that when you face temptation to sin you should quote Scripture at the devil to defeat him and cause him to flee. After all, the argument goes, Jesus himself quoted Scripture at Satan in the wilderness.
When Satan said, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread,” Jesus answered with what we know as Deuteronomy 8:3. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:3–4).
When Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “Throw yourself down,” Jesus likewise responded with Scripture, Deuteronomy 6:16. “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt 4:5–7).
Finally, when the devil put the glory of the world’s kingdoms on display and promised them to Jesus if he would simply fall down and worship him, Jesus used the words from Deuteronomy 6:13. “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matt 4:8–10). And Satan ran away.
Now, on the one hand, it is vitally important to know the Bible from memory and to be able to apply the very word of God to specific situations, especially when we face trials and temptations. But the account of Jesus’ temptation is not intended to teach us that quoting the Scripture at the devil is our weapon to make him go away. That’s using the Bible as a kind of magical incantation, as if Satan is a vampire and we’re holding a wooden cross.
In fact, that use of Scripture is on the same level as the superstition that there is a verse in the Bible that will stop your nose from bleeding. When I was pastoring in the mountains of Western North Carolina I learned that there are people who believe that if you quote Ezekiel 16:6 when you have a nosebleed, the blood will miraculously stop. (I’m not making this up!)
The verse reads in the King James Version,
And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.
Some say you have to read the full verse three times and really believe that your nose will stop bleeding to get it to work.
But there is no promise in the Bible that reading Ezekiel 16:6 will stop your nose from bleeding any more, in fact, than there is a promise that quoting the Bible at the devil will make him leave us alone.
In fact, if quoting the Bible makes the devil flee, why didn’t he run away the first time Jesus used Scripture? And why did Satan quote the Bible right back at Jesus in the second temptation (Matt 4:6)? Furthermore, what about the fact that most of our temptation we face does not even come from the devil but from our own heart? James 1:14 says that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”
So, why does Jesus quote the Scripture in his temptation? Simply put, when Jesus quoted the Scripture, he was affirming his commitment to the Scripture, and thus to the will of the Father.
You see, Jesus’s temptation was not a random event, and the passages of Scripture Jesus quoted were not random texts. The temptation was carefully planned to demonstrate that Jesus would succeed in following the Father where his people, Israel, had failed. The Israelites had been tempted in the wilderness 40 years and sinned often against God. Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the wilderness (cf. Luke 4:2) yet remained sinless.
When Jesus answered Satan with Scripture, he always quoted from the place in Deuteronomy where Moses was reminding the people about to enter the promised land all that God had taught them in the wilderness wandering.
For example, God taught them, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).
How did God teach them this lesson? When God gave them manna it was accompanied with his commands. God told Moses, “I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exod 16:4).
So God gave specific instructions concerning when and how they were to gather the manna (Exod 16:16–30). God said to gather only what they could eat for each day, so when some tried to gather extra manna, it putrefied (16:20). God told them to gather twice as much on Fridays, and when some went out to get their breakfast on the Sabbath they were greatly disappointed to find that the manna had not come (16:27–30).
You see, the manna was never about food. The manna was about learning to obey God.
So, when Jesus was tempted by Satan to gather food in the wilderness in a way that God had not commanded, he was Israel all over again, tempted in the wilderness. And to underscore this association, Jesus chose the words from Deuteronomy 8:3 to answer, “No! I am not like my ancestors in the wilderness who cared more about the food than the commandment. I do not live for bread. I live to do the will of the Father.”
So how do we face temptation as Jesus did? Not by merely quoting Scripture, but by knowing God’s will and by being committed to it before temptation even comes.
The temptation that Jesus faced, and that we face, is to be driven by the desire for food—or any human necessity—rather than by a desire to do the will of God. It’s a temptation we face every day: to be more concerned with our own needs than with obeying God, to make God’s gifts more important than God himself.
In fact, Jesus told his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
When Jesus quoted Scripture, he was expressing a commitment he had before the temptation began. He was standing his ground when Satan tried to deceive him with the notion of making bread from stones. Jesus wasn’t reasoning it out, he wasn’t trying to justify the idea, he wasn’t dwelling on it or weighing his options. Jesus already knew it was wrong because he knew the word of God. And in speaking that divine word, Jesus was forcefully saying, “No! Be gone! Get lost! You cannot make me disobey the Father.”
And that is what Jesus teaches us about our attitude when tempted. Not to merely speak the words from the Bible, as if it will give us special powers to resist. But to know the Word of God, to be committed to the will of God, and to stand our ground, as Jesus did.