In the last essay we studied the genealogies of Jesus in Luke 3:23-38 and Matt. 1:1-17. In this essay we are studying Jesus’ Temptation. We should think of Jesus’ temptation experience as a “test” as well as a “temptation.” For one thing the Greek word used here means both things. But in addition to that, a temptation invariably is a test or trial. Every time we are tempted to sin, for example, our faithfulness to God is tested. And the same was true of Jesus.
Now let’s turn to the accounts of the temptation. Mark’s parallel to Luke 4:1-2 is Mark 1:12-13. And it reads, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
There are several significant matters of a general nature to be noticed before we take up the threefold temptation itself. First, we note the time. The Temptation took place immediately after the Baptism. Mark states it most clearly: quote, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Mk. 1:12). This is significant, because it was at the Baptism that God spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Now we see that immediately afterwards came a test of the Son.
Second, we see the reason. We see in Mark that the temptation or test was God’s idea. Of course it was Satan who did the actual tempting; but it was the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his Baptism, who Mark says drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.
Third, the place is indicated. The temptation took place in the wilderness. The wilderness has both good and bad associations in the Old Testament, and that tradition certainly is in view here. As Mark reminds us, the wilderness is the place of the wild beasts; that is, an unsafe, fearful place, the place where Satan is strong. In other words the wilderness is as a place of evil.
Finally, fourth, we see the duration of the Temptation. It lasted 40 days, the same symbolic number of days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai, when he received the Law, and that Elijah wandered in the wilderness on his way to the holy mountain.
Of these four factors, the most important is the second, the fact that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. This Temptation, or test, did not happen by accident; nor did Satan seek out Jesus and corner him. Rather, Jesus was sent by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to face whatever Satan had to offer.
This was because at his Baptism God pronounced Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit had come upon him; and that experience had to be tested. The Baptism experience wouldn’t mean a thing if Jesus folded up the first time a strong test of his faith or obedience came up. And so the heavenly Father arranged an immediate major test.
Now some folks believe that Jesus could not have failed this test, because he is God. But if that were the case, the whole experience would have been no test at all. It would have been a pointless, meaningless experience. The truth is Jesus, who was functioning as a real human being, could have failed; he could have yielded to Satan’s temptations.
Now then, the temptation itself is three-fold, but underlying each of the temptations is a single objective on the part of Satan. He hoped to get Jesus to do something, anything, outside of the will of the Father. He wants Jesus to do his own will instead of his Father’s.
Turning now to the actual individual temptations, we notice first, in Luke 4:3-4, that Satan attacked Jesus at the point of his physical weakness. Since Jesus had been fasting for forty days, Satan approached him at the point of Jesus’ natural physical hunger.
Now notice the subtlety of this. Jesus’ hunger was perfectly natural. And the suggestion to satisfy that hunger was not in itself evil. Satan simply suggested to Jesus that he satisfy a perfectly legitimate craving. The evil lay in the fact that Satan was suggesting an illegitimate way of providing the satisfaction. Thus the key to a proper understanding of the temptation narrative is to understand the implications of this illegitimate way.
In order to heighten the pressure of the temptation, Satan cleverly approached Jesus and said, “If you are the Son of God,” (undoubtedly with that kind of emphasis upon the “If”), “command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Of course, that Jesus was the Son of God was exactly what the voice from heaven had said at Jesus’ Baptism. Thus Satan was implying, “If you really are the Son of God, then exercise some of the privileges of it. Miraculously make some bread to satisfy your hunger. It’s your right and privilege as the Son of God, if you are the Son of God. It is easy to see how such an argument would seem reasonable to a hungry person. But Jesus understood what was really at stake here. And that’s way he quoted Deut. 8:3: “It s written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Thus we immediately see by Jesus’ answer that the all-important matter during a temptation is what God says, which represents God’s will. There are no rights and privileges for the Son of God outside of the will of God. And if we ask what the will of God for Jesus in this situation was, we realize that it was that the Father did not want him to ruin the Incarnation.
Jesus was, as John puts it, the Word of God became flesh. He was the Son of God; but he had become a man, a real man, a genuine man. He was not merely disguised as a human being; he was not pretending to be a human being; he was a human being. When he became such, he laid aside his divine powers. He was still divine in an essential way, but the Father’s will for him was to be a genuine human being. And Jesus would have blown the whole purpose of his coming had he taken back his divine powers and exercised them.
Now at this point we must deal with the matter of Jesus’ miracles. Yes, Jesus performed miracles; but we must realize that he did not exercise his divine powers to do so. He worked miracles the same way you might. The Father did them by the power of the Holy Spirit in response to Jesus’ faith. If Jesus had taken up his divine powers to miraculously turn stones into bread, he would have stepped outside the will of the Father; and Satan would have won a victory.
And so we see that much more than physical hunger was at stake here in this first temptation. The whole purpose of the Incarnation was on the line. But Jesus overcame the temptation. He met the test, by reference to the written Word of God—in this case Deut. 8:3—in which it is clear that the Word of God, which expresses the will of God, is more important to life than bread. Now it is important to notice that Jesus goes to the written Word for his own benefit. It is in the written Word that Jesus found the will of God for his life in this situation. It also is crucial for us to realize that Jesus was faithful to the will of God.
In the second part of the Temptation, Satan changed his approach. Whereas in the first attack he struck at Jesus’ physical weakness, we see in 4:3-8 that Satan’s second thrust was aimed at another aspect of Jesus’ humanity.
Human beings are notoriously susceptible to the desire for wealth and power. And so Satan “led him [Jesus] up.” Matthew specifies that the Holy Spirit led Jesus up a high mountain (Mt. 4:8); and there Satan enabled Jesus to perceive the glory, which would include the wealth and power, of all the nations of the earth (v. 5). And then Satan said to Jesus that he would give it all to Jesus, if he would fall down and worship Satan (vv. 5-7).
We need to note at this point that this aspect of the Temptation is strictly symbolic for two reasons. First, one could not see all the kingdoms of the world in a literal sense from any mountain on the earth. And second, Luke tells us that this vision of all the kingdoms took place “in an instant” (v. 5). Thus the mountain view was intended simply to impress the mind of the weakened Jesus with the grandeur and greatness of the mountains in order to prepare his mind for the greatness and splendor of the vision of the kingdoms.
Here again the subtlety of Satan emerges. The force of this temptation lies in the fact that Jesus was (and is) destined within the framework of the will of God to be the Lord of all the nations of the world. Thus in effect, Satan was offering Jesus a “short cut,” or more specifically, an easier way to his destiny. You see, the way to glory for Jesus, within God’s will, was a way of humiliation, suffering and death, as prefigured in the Baptism. And here is Satan saying to Jesus, in effect, you can have it all now, without the humiliation and suffering. Just bow down to me and it all will be yours. But again Jesus rises to the occasion by turning to the written Word of God. This time he quotes Deut. 6:13. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
In Matthew’s version of the story Jesus speaks to Satan with personal authority: “Away with you Satan!” (4:10), indicating that Jesus is in perfect control of the situation, because he knows God expresses his will in the scriptures.
But Satan is not finished. He has one more angle that he wants to use. He has one more temptation that he hopes will break through Jesus’ iron determination to do the will of God. In the third part of the Temptation, found in 4:9-13, Satan changes his approach once again and attacks Jesus spiritual strength, namely his trust in the Father.
The “pinnacle of the temple” probably refers to the southern wing of the temple, where king Herod had built a portico, from which Josephus tells us, “anyone looking down would be giddy, while his sight could not reach to such an immense depth.” I don’t doubt this at all. The southeastern corner of the temple platform, which still stands, is extremely high, even without a temple on top of it.
Once at the pinnacle of the temple, Satan suggested to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (Ps. 91:11-12).
Again the subtlety and cleverness of Satan is evident. Satan is saying to Jesus, in effect, that trust in God is best demonstrated by an extraordinary act of the type suggested, the idea being, in effect, “If you really believe that you are the Son of God and if you really believe God’s Word, which says that he will take care of you, jump off the pinnacle of the temple and prove it. After all, even the Word of God says he will protect you. Jesus had rebuffed the first attack by quoting scripture, so clever Satan quotes the scripture as part of the second attack. But again Jesus sees through his method and rejects the suggestion. He quotes Deut. 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 12).
Jesus realized perfectly that the issue once again was the will of God. Trust in God demands that one remain within the framework of God’s revealed will. To step outside that is not trust, but folly. In this case, it would have been presumption. Had Jesus leaped from the temple pinnacle he would have been tempting or testing God the Father, not showing trust in him. And that is why Jesus quoted Deut. 6:16.
Frequently Jesus’ quotation is interpreted as though Jesus meant it for the benefit of Satan, that Satan ought not tempt his God, meaning Jesus. But Jesus quotes this quotation from Deuteronomy, like the others, for his own benefit. Even the Son of God must not tempt, or test, the Lord his God. Trust in God is not the same as presuming on God.
An example of presumption from my own experience took place during my first pastorate. A fellow student pastor invited me to preach in his church. We were driving around the community visiting some of his people, and he was going 70 mph on a crooked road. I protested that he was gong to kill us, and he said, “No problem, we are on God’s business.” And I told him “What if there is some other nut driving towards us at 70 mile an hour on God’s business?” My friend was presuming on God to protect us.
There is an alternative interpretation of this last temptation that I did not give you that you should know about. Quite a few scholars interpret Satan’s suggestion that Jesus jump off the pinnacle of the temple as a temptation to proclaim himself the Messiah by means of a spectacular display. The idea is that by jumping off the temple in front of a large crowd and having them see him saved by angels would dramatically show everyone that he was the Messiah. But Jesus rejected the suggestion, thus staying within the will of the Father.
This victory by Jesus does not mean that he never again was tempted. But the temptations that came to Jesus throughout his earthly ministry always, with one exception, were variations of the three temptations experienced at the beginning of his ministry, and he was able to handle them easily. The exception was sexual temptation. We know that Jesus was tempted sexually, because he experienced every human temptation. But it wasn’t part of the wilderness temptation.
To summarize, Satan attacked Jesus at the point of his physical weakness when he was fasting; he attacked him at the point of his humanity, tempting him to take a short cut to personal power and glory. And Satan attacked Jesus at the point of his spiritual strength, namely, his trust in God. In every case it was an attempt to get Jesus to act apart from and outside of the will of God. Satan failed! Jesus conquered! He remained faithful to the will of God. And we are the beneficiaries.
Now then, turning to application, we learn several important things about the will of God in this temptation narrative. First, we learn that the will of God is all-important. If it was all-important for Jesus, it certainly is all-important for us. Second, we learn that the scriptures are the primary source for revelation of the will of God. We must rely of the written Word of God for direction, just as Jesus did. Third, being faithful to the will of God is more important than bread. It is better to starve than be unfaithful. Fourth, being faithful to the will of God does not involve presumption. Sometimes being faithful is harder than being presumptuous. And fifth, being faithful to the will of God does not normally involve “short cuts” to our destiny.