5-8 The Temptation Of Jesus
Matthew 4: 1-11: “Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the
wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty
days and forty nights, he was afterwards an hungered. And when the
tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command
that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is
written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that
proceedeth out of the mouth of God. “Then the devil taketh him up
into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down:
for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee:
and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at anytime thou
dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written
again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. “Again, the devil
taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all
the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto
him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and
worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for
it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only
shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels
came and ministered unto him”.
This passage is read as meaning that a being called the “devil”
tempted Jesus to sin by suggesting certain things to Him and leading
Him into tempting situations.
1. Jesus “was in all points tempted, like as we are” (Heb. 4: 15),
and: “every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust,
and enticed” (James 1:14). We are tempted by the “devil” of our
own lusts or evil desires, and so was Jesus. We are not tempted
by an evil being suddenly standing next to us and prompting us to
sin - sin and temptation come “from within, out of the heart of
man” (Mk. 7: 21). They “proceed” out of the heart, as if to stress
that the heart really is their source. Jesus was tempted just as
we are (Heb. 4:15,16), and in this sense He becomes for us a legitimate
example. Paul borrows the language of "the tempter" coming
to Jesus and applies it to "the tempter" coming to Christians
(1 Thess. 3:5). And we can note that Matthew alone records how Jesus
fasted during the temptation period- and it is Matthew alone who
records instruction to us about fasting (Mt. 16:16-8 cp.
9:14,15). Seeing we're not physically encountered by a literal personal
satan in our times of testing, it surely follows that neither was
Jesus our example.
2. The temptations are hard to take literally:-
- Matthew 4: 8 implies that Jesus was led up into a high mountain
to see all the kingdoms of the world in their future glory, “In
a moment of time”. There is no mountain high enough to see all the
world. And why would the height of the mountain enable Jesus to
see what the world would be like in the future? The earth, being
a sphere, there is no point on its surface from which one can see
all the parts of the world at one time.
- A comparison of Matthew 4 and Luke 4 shows
that the temptations are described in a different order. Mark 11:13
says that Jesus was “in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan”,
whilst Matthew 4 : 2-3 says that “when he had fasted forty days...the
tempter (Satan) came to Him...”. Because Scripture cannot contradict
itself, we can conclude that these same temptations kept repeating
themselves. The temptation to turn stones into bread is an obvious
example. This would fit nicely if these temptations occurred within
the mind of Jesus. Being of our nature, the lack of food would have
affected him mentally as well as physically, and thus his mind would
have easily begun to imagine things. Just going a few days without
food can lead to delirium for some (cp. 1 Sam. 30:12 ). The similarity
between rolls of bread and stones is mentioned by Jesus in Mt. 7:
9, and doubtless those images often merged in his tortured mind
- although always to be brought into swift control by his recollection
of the Word
- Jesus probably told the Gospel writers the record of His temptations,
and to bring home in words the intensity of what He underwent, He
could have used the figurative approach seen in Matthew 4 and Luke
- It seems unlikely that several times the devil led Jesus through
the wilderness and streets of Jerusalem and then scaled a pinnacle
of the temple together, all in view of the inquisitive Jews. Josephus
makes no record of anything like this happening - presumably it
would have caused a major stir. Similarly, if these temptations
occurred several times within the forty days as well as at the end
of that period (which they did at least twice, seeing that Matthew
and Luke have them in different order), how would Jesus have had
time to walk (n.b. the devil “led” Jesus there) to the nearest high
mountain (which could have been Hermon in the far north of Israel),
climb to the top and back down again, return to the wilderness and
then repeat the exercise? His temptations all occurred in the wilderness
- He was there for forty days, tempted all the time by the devil
(he only departed at the end - Matt. 4:11). If Jesus was tempted
by the devil each day, and the temptations occurred only in the
wilderness, then it follows that Jesus could not have left the wilderness
to go to Jerusalem or travel to a high mountain. These things therefore
could not have literally happened.
- If the devil is a physical person who has no respect for God’s
Word and is interested in making people sin, then why would Jesus
quote Scripture to overcome him? According to the popular view,
this would not send the devil away. Notice that Jesus quoted a Bible
passage each time. If the devil was the evil desires within Jesus’
heart, then it is understandable that by His having the Word in
His heart and reminding Himself of it, He could overcome those bad
desires. Psalm 119:11 is so relevant that perhaps it is specifically
prophesying Christ’s experience in the wilderness: “Thy word have
I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee”.
- That the temptations were internal to the mind of Jesus is suggested
by the way that in Matthew's record, there is a progression from
the desert, to the temple pinnacle, to a high mountain- as if in
some sort of ascent toward Heaven. It's even possible that Paul
has this in mind when he comments that Jesus did not consider rising
up to equality with God a thing to be grasped at, He dismissed that
temptation, and instead He progressively lowered Himself,
even to the death of the cross (Phil. 2:6-8).
can of course understand the 'Satan' figure to be a literal person who
as it were ministered the suggestions / temptations / tests to the Lord
Jesus. This would be in keeping with how in Old Testament times God had
raised up various adversaries through whom to test His children. But
those individuals were very much under God's control and as it were on
His side. John Thomas, who shared our view of Satan completely, put it
like this: "If Deity became Satan to Israel, and to Job, it is not to
be denied that an angel may have assumed the same attitude in the case
of Jesus Christ" (1).
3. The devil left him “for
a season” to return later. The temptations from 'the devil' returned
when the Jewish people, the Pharisees and Herod demanded of Jesus that
He pull off a miracle (Lk.23:6-9; Mk. 6:1-6; 8:11-13; 15:31; Mt.
12:38-42). This was just the temptation He had faced and overcome in
Mt. 4:5-7. Yet there is no record of a creature literally approaching
the Lord later in His ministry. And yet the essence of the three
temptations did indeed return to Him later, and the three of them found
their quintessence in the experiences of the cross. Thus “cast thyself
down” was matched by the Jews [again associating things Jewish with the
devil] tempting Jesus to come down from the cross. There is a strong
association between the 'satan' and the Jewish system. The whole
structure of the record would have sounded to first century ears like a
debate between the Jewish rabbis and their disciple: "Matthew's and
Luke's stories are in the form of a three-part conversation not unlike
the debates of the scribes which utilize proof-texts from Scripture"
(2). The triple temptations are to be compared with the Lord's triple
temptation in Gethsemane, and His three trials for His life (before the
Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate). In this sense the satan 'returned' to
Him. This is especially clear in Mark's Gospel. The Jews- the Jewish
Satan as it were, the adversary to the Lord's cause- are recorded as
putting Him to the test, just as He was tested in the desert (Mk.
8:11-13; 10:2; 12:13-17).
We note that the Gospels go on to call Peter "satan"
and Judas "a devil"- perhaps because both of them offered
the Lord Jesus the same temptations to immediate glory without the
cross which "satan" did in the wilderness. They would
therefore have been occasions of where Satan 'returned' to the Lord
as predicted at the close of the account of the wilderness temptations.
A good case can be made for Judas' betrayal of the Lord being rooted
in his desire for an immediate Messianic Kingdom, and his bitter
disappointment and anger when he finally understood that the Lord's
Kingdom was not to come about in that way. It's been suggested that
'Iscariot' is related to the Latin sicarius, an assassin,
which would suggest that Judas [like Peter] was a zealot willing
to use force and violence to bring about the Kingdom of Jesus (3).
John's Gospel omits many of the incidents and teaching accounts
of the synoptics, but repeats their essence in a different way (4).
It seems John's equivalent of the temptation narratives is his account
in Jn. 6:1-14 of the Jews tempting Jesus to do a miraculous sign
to prove Himself Messiah, and to provide manna in the wilderness.
In this case, John is casting the Jews and their thinking in the
role of the "satan" of the wilderness temptations. The
following parallels between the wilderness temptations and the Lord’s
experience as recorded in Jn. 6 indicate how the ‘devil’ of temptation
returned to the Lord Jesus- and note in passing how the equivalent
of ‘satan’ is the Jews:
The wilderness temptations
The Jewish crowd wanted to make
him king (Jn. 6:15)
Satan offers him the kingship of
the [Jewish?] world
The Jews ask for miraculous bread
Satan invites him to make miraculous
The [Jewish] disciples want Jesus
to go to Jerusalem to show His power (Jn. 7:3)
Satan takes Jesus to Jerusalem
and tempts Him to show His power.
The Synoptics speak of how satan ‘comes to’ and tempts and challenges
the Lord Jesus to claim earthly political power, which ‘satan’ can
give him (Mt. 4:8,9). But John describes this in terms of “the people”
coming to Him and trying to make Him King- which temptation He refused
(Jn. 6:15). Likewise it was ‘the devil’ in the wilderness who tempted
Jesus to make the stones into bread. But in Jn. 6:30,31, it is the
Jewish people who offer Him the same temptation. In the wilderness,
the Lord responded that man lives by the bread which comes from
the mouth of God. In Jn. 6:32, He responds likewise by speaking
about “the true bread from heaven”. The temptation from ‘the devil’
to publically display His Divine powers in front of Israel in the
Jerusalem temple (Mt. 4:5,6; Lk. 4:9-12) is repeated by John in
terms of the Lord’s brothers tempting Him to go up to the same temple
and openly validate Himself “to the world” (Jn. 7:1-5).
In any case, the temptation to produce manna in the wilderness
was a temptation to play the role of Messiah as the Jews would have
expected it to be played- and this was exactly the temptation that
Jesus overcame. Likewise, the temptation to appear on the pinnacle
of the temple and jump down to Israel from there was a temptation
to again be the Messiah Israel wanted, rather than the One God wanted;
for according to the rabbinic Pesiqta Rabbati 36, "When
the King, the Messiah, reveals himself, he will come and stand on
the roof of the temple". These temptations repeated themselves,
as "the devil departed for a season" to return later-
e.g. in the form of the relatives of Jesus tempting Him to go up
to Jerusalem and to some dramatic works to prove His identity. It
was the Jews who repeatedly demanded from Jesus a dramatic "sign
from Heaven" (Mt. 16:1; 22:18,35; Mk. 8:11; 10:2; 12:15; Lk.
11:16)- "tempting him" to give one. They are the ones
continuing the tempting of Jesus which we first encounter in the
record of His wilderness temptations. Hence we can connect the wilderness
"satan" with the Jews / Jewish thinking and the temptation
to be as they wanted rather than as God intended.
4. In Lk. 11:21,22, the Lord Jesus speaks of how He has already
overcome ‘Satan’ and is now sharing Satan’s goods
with His disciples. Now this may be prophetic of the Lord’s
faith in victory over ‘satan’ in the cross. But it could
also be a reference back to His successful struggle with ‘satan’
in the wilderness. If this is the case, then He is reflecting how
He understood ‘satan’ not as a literal strong man who
guards his house, for Jesus didn’t fight with such a person
in the wilderness, but rather to the symbolic power of sin with
which He had fought and overcome (5).
5. There is an evident similarity between the temptations / testing
of Jesus and the temptations / testing of Israel, also in the wilderness.
That's why each time, the Lord replies to the temptation with a
quotation from Deuteronomy relevant to the wilderness temptations
of Israel. The point is that it was God who tested Israel.
The Greek words peirazo and peirasmos which are
translated "tempt" in the wilderness temptation record
are used in the Greek Old Testament in connection with God
testing His people (Gen. 22:1; Ex. 15:25; 17:7; Num. 14:22; Dt.
4:34; 8:2; 9:22; 33:8; Ps. 95:8). Quite simply, whoever or whatever
"the devil" was in the Lord's temptations, it was under
the control of God. We've earlier pointed out how God tested
Israel in 2 Sam. 24:1, but the parallel 1 Chron. 21:1 says that
"satan" did this.
6. The Lord Jesus overcame the temptations by quoting Scripture.
This is an understandable way to overcome temptation that goes on
within the human mind; but there is no logical nor Biblical reason
why an evil being such as a personal satan would be somehow scared
off by quoting Scripture. If tempted or threatened by an evil person,
let alone a personal "Satan", it would be quite useless
to merely quote Bible verses to the person so that they leave us.
But once the real 'satan' is understood to be the adversary of our
own internal temptations and thoughts, all becomes clearer.
7. The idea of the Lord being led by the spirit and then seeing
things like Him standing on a high mountain, or perched on a temple
pinnacle, all have some similarities with the experience of Ezekiel.
He was likewise 'led of the spirit' of God to the captives by the
river Chebar; he was 'in spirit' transported there, but I don't
think that means he literally went there (Ez. 1:4-28; 3:11-15; 11:1,24,25).
It seems the same happened with the Lord Jesus, the "son of
man" whom Ezekiel typified in so many ways.
8. The account of the temptations begins and ends with reference
to "the spirit". The Lord Jesus was led by God's spirit
into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, and then "Jesus
returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee" (Lk. 4:1,14).
The nature of the record hardly suggests that 'Satan' was in radical,
independent opposition to the spirit of God; even if we take 'Satan'
as a personal being in the narrative, clearly there was a co-operation
between him and God in order to test God's Son (cp. Paul's delivering
of people unto Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme, 1 Cor.
5:5). And that runs counter to the classical view of Satan as a
rebellious being locked in combat with God, ever seeking to oppose
1. When Jesus was baptized in Jordan by John, He received the power
of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16). As soon as He came out of the water,
He was driven into the wilderness to be tempted. Knowing that He
had the power of the spirit to turn stones into bread, jump off
buildings unharmed etc., these temptations must have raged within
His mind. If a person was suggesting these things to Jesus and Jesus
knew that person to be sinful, then the temptations were a lot less
subtle than if they came from within Jesus’ own mind.
2. The temptation to take the kingdoms to Himself would have been
far more powerful if it came from within Christ. Jesus’ mind would
have been full of Scripture, and in His afflicted state of mind,
caused by His fasting, it would be tempting to misinterpret passages
to enable Him to use them to justify taking the easy way out of
the situation He was in.
Standing on a high mountain recalls Ezekiel being shown what the
Kingdom would be like from a high mountain (Ez. 40:2), and John,
seeing “the holy Jerusalem” from “a great and high mountain” (Rev.
21:10). Jesus saw the world’s kingdoms as they would be in the future
(Lk. 4: 5), i.e. in the Kingdom, when “the kingdoms of this world
are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ” (Rev. 11:15).
Maybe He would have thought of Moses at the end of 40 years’ wilderness
wandering (cp. His forty days) looking out at the Promised Land
(the Kingdom) from Mount Nebo. It is emphasized in Daniel (Dan.
4:17, 25, 32; 5:21) that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of
men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will”; Jesus would have known
that only God, not anyone else, could give Him the kingdom. Therefore
it would not have been much of a temptation if an evil monster claimed
to be able to give Jesus the kingdom, when He knew only God had
the power. However, Jesus knew that it was His (the Father’s) good
pleasure to give Jesus the kingdom, and it must have been suggested
by the “devil” within Jesus that He could take that kingdom immediately.
After all, He could have reasoned, God has delegated all authority
to me in prospect (Jn. 5:26-27), to the extent that He had power
to both give His life and take it again (Jn. 10:18), although ultimately
all power was given unto Him only after His death and resurrection
(Matt. 28:18). Jer. 27:5-8 and Jer. 34:5-8 in the LXX speak of how
God has made the earth and will give it (Gk. doso) to whomever
He wishes; and these are the very words of the 'satan' in Luke's
record: "I will give (doso) it to you... I give it
to whomever I wish". One could say that this is a way of explaining
how the Lord Jesus was tempted to 'play God' and seek equality with
God- which temptation He refused (as Paul points out in Phil. 2).
3. With His familiarity with Scripture, Christ would have seen
the similarities between Himself and Elijah, whose morale collapsed
after 40 days in the wilderness (1 Kings 19: 8) and Moses, who forfeited
his immediate inheritance of the land at the end of 40 years in
the wilderness. Jesus at the end of 40 days, was in a similar position
to them - faced with a real possibility of failure. Moses and Elijah
failed because of human weakness - not because of a person called
“the devil”. It was this same human weakness, the “satan’ , or adversary,
that was tempting Jesus.
4. “And the devil said unto Him, If thou be the Son of God...”
(Lk. 4: 3). It must have been a constant temptation within the mind
of Christ to question whether He really was the Son of God, seeing
that everyone else thought He was the son of Joseph (Lk. 3:23; Jn.
6:42) or illegitimate (so Jn. 9:29 implies), and that the official
temple records described him as the son of Joseph (Matt. 1:1,16;
Lk. 3:23, where “supposed” means ‘reckoned by law’). He was the
only human being not to have a human father. Philippians 2: 8 implies
that Jesus came to appreciate that He really was a man like us,
inferring it was tempting for Him to disbelieve He was the Son of
God, or to misunderstand His own nature.
5. The temptations were controlled by God for Christ’s spiritual
education. The passages quoted by Jesus to strengthen Himself against
His desires (“devil”) are all from the same part of Deuteronomy,
regarding Israel’s experience in the wilderness. Jesus clearly saw
a parallel between His experiences and theirs:-
Deuteronomy 8:2 “The Lord thy God
led thee these forty years in the wilderness to humble thee,
and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether
thou wouldest keep His commandments (word), or no.”
Matthew 4 / Luke 4 “Jesus led up
of the spirit” “forty days” “in the wilderness”. Jesus was
proved by the temptations. Jesus overcame by quoting the
Scriptures that were in His heart (Ps. 119:11), thus showing
it was the Scriptures that were in His heart.
Deuteronomy 8:3. “And he humbled
thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna...
that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread
only, but by every word...of the Lord...”
“He was afterward an hungered".
In John 6 manna is interpreted by Jesus as representing
the Word of God, which Jesus lived by in the wilderness.
Jesus learnt that spiritually He lived by the Word of God.
“He answered...it is written, Man shall not live by bread
alone, but by every word ...of God”.,
Deuteronomy 8:5 “Thou shalt also
consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son,
so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee”
Jesus no doubt reflected on His
experiences. God chastened His Son, Jesus- 2 Sam. 7:12;
Ps. 89: 32.
Thus Jesus showed us how to read and study the Word - He thought
Himself into the position of Israel in the wilderness, and therefore
took the lessons that can be learnt from their experiences to Himself
in His wilderness trials. The description of the Lord Jesus as being
in the wilderness with beasts and Angels (Mk. 1:13) is another connection
with Israel’s experience in the wilderness- they were plagued
there by “wild beasts” because of their disobedience
(Dt. 32:19-24 and context).
(1) John Thomas, Eureka: An Exposition Of The Apocalypse (West Beach, Australia: Logos Publications, 1985 ed.), Vol. 3 p. 65.
(2) G.H. Twelftree, 'Temptation Of Jesus', in I.H.Marshall, ed., Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels (Leicester: IVP, 1992)
p. 822. Ernst Lohmeyer likewise noted that the account of the wilderness
temptations reads very much as a disputation between two Rabbis-
as if Jesus was arguing with a Jewish mind about the interpretation
of Scripture. See Ernst Lohmeyer, The Lord's Prayer (London:
Collins, 1965) p. 224. Henry Kelly sees the record as "a typical
rabbinical "show-debate". Such debates were a form of
midrash (meditation on Scripture) that displayed an authoritative
figure responding to a series of challenges by citing the correct
passage from Scripture"- Satan: A Biography (Cambridge:
C.U.P., 2006) p. 87. There's a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) where 'Satan' three times tempts Abraham, and is rebuffed by
Abraham's quoting of Scripture. There's another example in the Deuteronomy
Rabbah 11.5 where Moses likewise is portrayed as having a triple
dialogue with an Angel about agreeing to his death. The
more researchers explore the Jewish literature contemporary with the
Gospels, the more it becomes apparent that the style of the Gospel
records is similar to that found in the contemporary literature- and
such a show trial was very much Jewish rabbinic style. "The Gospel
tradition presents much of Jesus' teaching in literary forms akin to
those characteristic of rabbinic literature. Such "forms" include
miracle stories, parables, disputations, and "cases", examples drawn
from real life situations"- M. Wilcox, 'Semitic Influence On The New
Testament', in C.A. Evans and S.E. Porter, eds., Dictionary Of New Testament Background (Leicester: IVP, 2000)
(3) See Oscar Cullmann, The State In The New Testament
(New York: Scribners', 1956) p. 15.
The Synoptic Gospels
Mt. 16:19 the keys of the Gospel
of the Kingdom
the more literal accounts of the
birth of Jesus
Jn. 1: 1-14
The great preaching commission
Jn. 14:12; 17:18; 20:21; Jn. 15:8,16;
Jn. 17:23 RV
The Synoptics all include the Lord’s
Mount Olivet prophecy as a lead-in to the record of the
breaking of bread and crucifixion
In John, the record of this prophecy
is omitted and replaced by the account of the Lord’s discourse
in the upper room. “The day of the son of man” in John becomes
“the hour [of the cross]… that the son of man should be
glorified” (Jn. 12:23). “Coming”, “that day”, “convict /
judge the world” are all phrases picked up by John and applied
to our experience of the Lord right now. In our context
of judgment now, we have to appreciate that the reality
of the future judgment of course holds true; but the essence
of it is going on now.
The three synoptic gospels all include Peter’s
‘confession’, shortly before Jesus’ transfiguration
on the mountain.
In John’s gospel the account of the
transfiguration is lacking. Are we to assume that Thomas’
confession in chapter 20 is supposed to take its place?
The need for water baptism
The account of the breaking of bread
The many quotations from the Old Testament, shown to be
fulfilled in the Lord Jesus.
The synoptics each give some account of the literal origin
of Jesus through giving genealogies or some reference to
John’s version is in John 6:48-58. He stresses that one
must absorb Christ into themselves in order to really have
the eternal life which the bread and blood symbolize. It
seems John puts it this way in order to counter the tendency
to think that merely by partaking in the ritual of breaking
bread, believers are thereby guaranteed eternal life.
John expresses this in more abstract language: “The word
was made flesh” (Jn. 1:14).
John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as if He somehow existed
in the plan of God from the beginning, but “became flesh”
when He was born of Mary.
(5) This is actually the view of Joachim Jeremias, New Testament
Theology (New York: Scribners, 1971) p. 73.