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”.
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 4.
- 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).
We 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:
John: The Jewish crowd wanted to make him king (Jn.
The wilderness temptations: Satan offers him the kingship of the [Jewish?] world
John: The Jews ask for miraculous bread (Jn. 6:31)
The wilderness temptations: Satan invites him to make miraculous bread
John: The [Jewish] disciples want Jesus to go to
Jerusalem to show His power (Jn. 7:3)
The wilderness temptations: 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.
Matthew's record speaks of "the tempter", and the suggestion has been made that this was a technical term used to refer to the Essene priest whose duty it was to test the claims to Messiahship made by people (5). This would confirm the suggestion that the Lord's temptations were at the hands of the Jews. The desert where He was would've been accessible from the Qumran settlement of the Essenes, and the preceding chapter 3 of Matthew has recorded how many of these people appear to have accepted baptism from John the Baptist in the very area where the temptations occured. Perhaps "the tempter" priest stayed around and entered into dialogue with Jesus. In confirmation of the idea that the "devil" was some form of Jewish priestly figure, we note that Mt. 4:4 records that Jesus told him that "It is written...". To the illiterate, Jesus usually said that they would have heard something said in the Old Testament; but to the literate Jewish religious leadership, He prefaces His quotations or allusions by saying that "It is written". The fact He uses this phrase here would suggest He may have been talking to one of that class. The Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20 has a surprising number of similarities to the Lord’s life and death amongst the Jews, suggesting that they did indeed subject Him to tests of His Messiahsip:
“Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life, reproaches us for our breaches of the law an accuses us of playing false...he claims to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a son of the Lord. Before us he stands, a reproof to our way of thinking, the very sight of him weighs our spirits down; His way of life is not like other men’s... in His opinion we are counterfeit... and boasts of having God as His father. let us see if what he says is true, let us observe what kind of end he himself will have. If the virtuous man is God’s son, God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies. Let us test him with cruelty and with torture, and thus explore this gentleness of His and put His endurance to the proof. Let us condemn him to a shameful death since he will be looked after- we have his word for it" (6).
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 (7).
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 Him.
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. Click here to view parallels.
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) p. 1094.
(3) See Oscar Cullmann, The State In The New Testament (New York: Scribners', 1956) p. 15.
(4) Click here to see chart
(5) See Laurence Gardner, Bloodline Of the Holy Grail (Gloucester, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2002) p. 314. This point is apparently confirmed in Barbara Thiering, Jesus the Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006) pp. 80,81,88.
(6) Susan Garrett lists several Greek words and phrases found in the Gospel of Mark which are identical to those in this section of the Wisdom of Solomon. It would seem that Mark was aware of this passage in the Wisdom of Solomon, and sought to show how throughout the Lord's ministry, and especially in His death, the Jews were seeking to apply it to Him in the way they treated Him. See Susan Garrett, The Temptations Of Jesus In Mark's Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) p. 68.
(7) This is actually the view of Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (New York: Scribners, 1971) p. 73.