Lent Series: Temptation in the Wilderness

Let’s talk about the Temptations.

The Temptations publicity photo. Clockwise from top: David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams.
The Temptations 1964 publicity photo by Kriegsmann

No, not these guys. Well, maybe another time. I’m talking about the temptations Jesus experienced just before beginning his ministry. He has just been baptized by John, and he went off “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It says he fasted forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-2).

I would not have passed that test. The longest I ever fasted was three days. But Jesus was tougher than I am in a lot of ways. It says the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted, but it does not tell of any specific temptations until after forty days and nights. I wonder if he was tempted during that time, or if the fasting was to prepare for the temptations.

If you know your Bible history, forty days in the wilderness recalls Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years. It is also one of many parallels with Moses, who also fasted forty days and forty nights as he received the Torah from God (Exodus 34:28). Many commentators believe the Gospel writers wanted to present Jesus as “the prophet like Moses” who was promised in the Torah.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like [Moses] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

(Deuteronomy 18:15).

You could literally write a book on all the connections the Gospels make between Jesus and Moses. But for now we will just look at how the devil tempted Jesus.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear
Temptations of Christ (mosaic), Saint Mark’s basilca, Venice

Turning stones to bread

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:3-4).

The first temptation is obvious for someone who has been fasting for forty days. Turn these stones to bread. What harm could it have been? He was starving. Why not make a little bread so he could eat?

I’ve written before about how I believe one of the purposes of the Incarnation was so God could experience what it is like to be human. If he went around magically making loaves of bread every time he was hungry, he would not know what it was like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread.

To counter that temptation, he quotes from Deuteronomy. He only quoted part of the verse, but I think it would help us to see all of it.

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

(Deuteronomy 8:3).

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are about to enter the promised land. Moses is recalling for them the entire forty years’ experience of being delivered from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. In this verse, he reminds them how they had no food, and God fed them with manna. But first, God let them go hungry.

Why would God let them go hungry? Two reasons are given. First, to humble them, God let them go hungry before feeding them. This would teach them not to panic when they look around and see no food but to trust God to provide for them. Second, this experience should have taught them that they do not live by bread alone but by the word of the Lord.

But come on, Jesus. You’re close to starving. Anyone would have understood if you made a loaf of bread.

Yes, and even under those circumstances, he did not give in to the temptation for the quick fix. As Jesus would tell his followers a few chapters later,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

(Matthew 6:25, 33).

Easy for you to say, Jesus. You’re the beloved Son of God. You don’t know what it’s like to starve. You never came close to starving to death.

Oh, wait. He does, and he did. If he had given in to that temptation, he could not have spoken this with authority. Like I said, I would not have passed that test. That’s why I’m glad Jesus did.

Throw yourself down. God won’t let you get hurt.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

(Matthew 4:5-7).

The first temptation was about whether he would trust God, even when he was starving. This one is almost the exact opposite. It’s like the Devil is saying, “Okay, I get it. You trust God to take care of your needs. So I’ll give you another opportunity to trust God. Throw yourself down from this pinnacle. You’re God’s beloved Son. Surely, God will protect you. He even promised it in the Bible.”

This was probably the most insidious of the devil’s temptations, because he quoted scripture. I will probably say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting the Bible does not mean they are speaking the word of God. The devil quoted scripture. Do you need any more obvious sign than that?

The devil comes at him like, “It’s right there in the Bible. ‘He will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will bear you up, so you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ You could throw yourself off this pinnacle, and you won’t get hurt. After all, you are the Son of God. If the angels will protect anyone, it’s you.

“What’s this? I see you hesitating. Are you telling me you don’t believe the Bible? This is the inerrant, infallible word of God. God promised you in the scriptures you won’t get hurt. This is the word of God, who cannot lie. Go ahead. Jump.”

Jesus quotes again from Deuteronomy, which says,

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

(Deuteronomy 6:16).

Massah is one of many instances when the Israelites tested God (Exodus 17:7). Moses warns them not to do that anymore. Jesus sees the connection there. Jumping off the pinnacle to prove he is the Son of God would be putting God to the test. If his forty days in the wilderness symbolically recreate Israel’s forty years, he passed this test where Israel failed.

If you are the Son of God…

Notice that the devil prefaced each of these temptations by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”. It seems he is trying to get Jesus to use his divine privilege to get out of difficult situations. As the Son of God, he could turn stones to bread. He could ask God to command the angels to protect him from harm, even if he does something stupid. Oh, what? Throwing yourself off a pinnacle to rocks below wouldn’t be stupid?

What do you think would have happened if he had thrown himself off the pinnacle? Would the angels have caught him? Maybe, maybe not. We can only speculate. But either way, that would have been the end of his mission. If the angels didn’t catch him, he would have died. If they did, it would only be because he claimed something as the Son of God that is not available to us. Both times he refuses to claim any privilege he could as the Son of God. He will live fully as a human, vulnerable in the same ways we are. Because he had a clear understanding of his mission, he did not fall for any trap that would sabotage it.

All the kingdoms of the world I give to you

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

(Matthew 4:8-10).

The devil could not appeal to him as the Son of God here. “If you are the Son of God, bow down and worship me.” That would make no sense. But he makes an offer that many people would have given in to. He offers all the kingdoms of the world, and all their wealth and splendor.

All of Jesus’ scripture quotes come from Deuteronomy, so he uses this verse to answer him.

The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.

(Deuteronomy 6:13).

To fall down and worship the devil could mean literally bowing to him and declaring, “All hail, Satan, ruler of this age.” But I think this temptation was more subtle than that. Jesus would never have worshipped the devil in such a blatant fashion, and he knew that. So what did he mean?

Remember, at his baptism, God already announced Jesus was the king God had chosen. What kind of a king would he be? That is what the devil is challenging him about. He could take over the world if he wanted, just like Alexander or Julius Caesar. They built their kingdoms through conquest, violence, and bloodshed. That was how all kings of the world took and maintained power. Still is. Was he going to be a king like them? Or would he be different?

Then the devil left him…

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:11).

To review, the devil has tempted him to take advantage of various privileges he could claim as the Son of God, for legitimate needs and for just showing off. He tempted him with power and glory, the likes of which would have made him the envy of the greatest conquerors in history. He even tried to bribe him into worshipping other gods (himself), a temptation the nation of Israel gave into over and over again.

The devil has finished tempting him. For now. But these same temptations would continue to dog him through the most well-meaning people, his followers and even the twelve apostles. They had been watching and waiting for centuries, eagerly awaiting the promised Messiah, the son of David, who would free them from Roman occupation and restore the glory of a united and free Israel. And if he went on from there to conquer the entire Roman empire and enslave it to Israel, and Rome had done to them, so much the better.

Going through these temptations, in private, mano a mano with the tempter himself (literally or figuratively), helped prepare him for when the crowds pressured him to be the Messiah they wanted. We should look at some of the ways his followers tried to tempt him. Who knows? We might be making the same mistakes today.


Thank you for reading. I hope this Lenten journey is meaningful to you. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

Note: Bible quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.

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