Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear

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.

John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.

Lent Series: The Baptism of Jesus

Instead of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I’m reflecting on passages in the Bible that best portray its meaning. First on the list is when Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels portrays it slightly different. For simplicity, I’ve chosen Matthew. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)
John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.
Andrea Mantegna, Baptism of Christ, ca. 1505

A voice from heaven. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s God. There is a lot packed into what God says. Three scriptures are echoed here that together paint a fascinating portrait of Jesus and his mission.

“This is my Son…”

Son is not capitalized in all translations. Like most Christians, I think it is appropriate in this case. In a sense, I could call myself a son of God, but not Son (with a capital S) of God. We reserve that title for Jesus alone.

This echoes a line from a coronation psalm.

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

(Psalm 2:7b)

This psalm was recited, or likely sung, at the coronation of a new king. In ancient Israel, the king could be called a son of God, but not Son (capital S) of God. It extols the king for his power and assures him he has God’s blessing. Even other kings and rulers better beware of him. God is ready to punish anyone who crosses him or defies his authority. That is exactly the attitude we expect God to have toward God’s anointed, right? “Touch not mine anointed.”

But does that truly reflect the kind of king he would be?

“…the beloved…”

This recalls God’s word to Abraham.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”

(Genesis 22:2a)

Just as Abraham had one son (of his wife, Sarah), God has one Son, whom God loves. So far, it sounds like Jesus has it made in the shade. He is a king, God’s only Son, beloved of God, probably more than any other person on earth. Just as Abraham loved Isaac.

“…and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Genesis 22:2b)

So if God is referring back to the Abraham and Isaac, that means at the same time God affirms him as the “beloved Son,” God also says he must be sacrificed.

“…with whom I am well pleased.”

This comes from a passage in Isaiah about a figure called “the suffering servant.”

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

With whom I am well pleased recalls In whom my soul delights. God also says, I have put my spirit upon him. The Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. Again, it sounds like things are going good for Jesus. Who wouldn’t like to hear God say God is well pleased with them? But in context, it means he will be the chosen servant who suffers for the redemption of others. That becomes clearer in another passage from Isaiah.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

(Isaiah 53:10a)

Some translations say, “Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him….” I think the NRSV is more accurate. It’s not like God is a sadist who gets pleasure from seeing people tortured. But in this case, it was God’s will for him to suffer as he eventually did. But by using pleased instead of will, it is easy to see the connection with God’s pronouncement. Let’s continue.

When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 53:10b-12)

He will be crushed as an offering for sin. He will live as a servant, and in the end, he will suffer in ways most of us cannot begin to comprehend. None of us knows what it is to be crucified, but it was a torture designed to totally humiliate and inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating derives from crucifixion. No one would go through it voluntarily. But that is exactly what God would call him to do, to suffer not for his own sin but for the sins of others. In doing so, he would make many righteous.

We know how his story goes. He will be crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day, he will rise from the dead.  He will descend into darkness, but then he shall see light. But as I read it, I try to put myself in the shoes of people there who witnessed the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, who heard what God said about him. Did they really understand it?

Could he be the Messiah?

The text does not say who heard the voice. I think it’s safe to assume Jesus heard it. I’m approaching it as if John the Baptist and the others who were there heard it as well. They would not have to recognize all those scripture references I gave to know this guy must be special. But if they did recognize those echoes of prophecy, they would be thinking, “Could he be the Messiah?”

That question dogged Jesus throughout his ministry. You might think he would be happy to say, “Yes, I am.” But the title Messiah was fraught with political and religious tension. He had to be careful who he revealed it to. When King Herod found out he was destined to be “king of the Jews,” he tried to have him killed. The Romans knew the legend of a coming Messiah, a son of David, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.

The Jews lived for the hope that they would see that happen. They believed Elijah would return just before the Messiah.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

(Malachi 3:1)

Those who were with John believed he was the messenger, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. If the forerunner was here, surely the Messiah could not be far behind. And then they hear God call this man “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” The hairs on their necks must have stood up.

What did they hear in that message? He was a king, probably from the Davidic line. The Spirit of God rested upon him. God called him his beloved Son. God is well-pleased with him. I’m sure more than one of them thought, he must be the one. If they thought of the song in Isaiah 42:1-4, they would have thought of the last line,

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

Justice for them began with defeating Rome and making Israel a great nation once again. If he was God’s anointed, no power on earth could stop him. And the vast majority who followed him, including the twelve, wanted to be at his side when it happened. When they thought of the Messiah, they thought of glory, power, dominion, and freedom. They thought of the victories of Moses, Joshua, and David over God’s enemies that built the nation. They thought it was about to happen again. They would have had a lot of questions for him. They wanted to be sure they understood what they had just witnessed. But before they could ask any questions, he left immediately to wander in the wilderness for forty days (Mat 4:1-11). I guess he was not eager to answer those questions just yet. He knew how hard they were to teach.

One recurring theme in the Gospels is how people keep wanting to call him the Messiah, but they don’t understand everything that comes with it. The glorious king was just one side of the coin. The flip side was the suffering servant. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would not overthrow their enemies. He would submit to death at their hands. All those people who followed him as the “Son of David,” how many of them continued to follow him to the cross?

A stiff-necked and stubborn people

When I see what passes for religious programming now, I can’t help but wonder, are we any different? They talk about victory, health and wealth, divine protection from enemies and pandemics, dominion over the earth, and personal freedom. “Don’t mess with me! I’m one of the King’s kids!”

You don’t hear about God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). You don’t hear that having the mind of Christ means a willingness to serve and sacrifice for others (Phil 2:5-8). You don’t hear that you share in his glory by sharing in his suffering (Rom 8:17). Their message is resurrection without crucifixion.

What does it mean to follow a Messiah who came as king, Son of God, servant, and sacrifice, all at the same time? If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.

Next, what happened to Jesus when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil? (Mat 4:1-11).

-Grace and peace to you.