Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Temptation is an evocative word which perhaps brings to mind the power of our advertising industry to persuade us that whatever they are offering is something we should not and cannot resist. Paula Gooder writes that for some Lent is all about resisting temptation by giving up something, to hone our skills of resistance, so that when a bigger more powerful temptation comes our way we are able to keep strong and refuse to give in. We are learning to be content with what we have and who we are.
If we understand this as the meaning of temptation it is not so easy to equate that with what was happening to Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness. Certainly after forty days and nights of fasting the thought of bread may have been a great temptation but what of the other two challenges the Devil puts before Him?
The wilderness is a place of struggle, and testing. Just as the Israelites came out of Egypt and for forty years were tested in the wilderness, so now Jesus experiences his own exodus, passing through the waters of baptism, and into the desert to be tested for forty days. But it is worth noticing that the Spirit led him into the wilderness so this was part of God’s plan for Him, rather than the Devil randomly appearing with his temptations. This suggests that this was a time of testing for Jesus which would show what kind of Son of God he would be and how His ministry would be lived out.
The story of the temptation of Jesus is told in the form of a dialogue between the devil and Jesus which makes use of quotations from the Book of Deuteronomy. In Matthew’s account we are given a glimpse of the inner struggle of Jesus as he faces the issue of how to accomplish his ministry but again notice that in two of the encounters the Devil starts by saying “If you are the Son of God” At this point in his Gospel there is little doubt that Matthew thought Jesus was the Son of God and how the Devil fronts his questions implies that he also acknowledged this to be the truth.
Jesus had been fasting for forty days and nights when he is asked to command the stones to become loaves of bread. The contrast with Israelites’ testing in the wilderness is evident. In Deuteronomy the Israelites had barely fled Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea before they start complaining about not having food to eat and God provides for them. Yet despite being told not to keep the manna overnight as God would provide new each day, some did, choosing to rely on themselves rather than totally on God. Jesus on the other hand counters the devil’s temptation with words from Deuteronomy 8. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Rather than using his miraculous powers to satisfy his own needs he will trust God to provide for him.
Focusing solely on bread or today’s equivalent encourages us like the Israelites to focus on our own desires and concerns rather than those of the people around us. We become inward looking worrying about ourselves and our needs in that moment.
Jesus here in the wilderness is himself on the verge of starvation and he will live among people who are in extreme need. The struggle for him in this temptation is how can he be compassionate with needy people and provide for their needs and yet present to them a life of discipleship that calls for wholehearted seeking after the kingdom of God rather than just satisfying physical needs.
In the second temptation the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and tells him to throw himself down, quoting a promise from Psalm 91 that God would command his angels to protect him. The psalmist writes in this psalm about God being our refuge providing us with safety and security. At the end of the psalm God says Those who love me I will deliver I will protect those who know my name” God is ready to help whenever we need it and the Devil wants Jesus to place himself in danger to simulate that need and see if God really would help. Jesus’ response shows that He is aware that he is being invited to do exactly what the Israelites did –not to trust that God is who He says He is and force Him to act according to their own demands. God loves us and wants us to ask Him for what we really need but it is so easy to test God trying to force Him to respond to our agenda and not to trust that He knows what is best for us and the world.
Jesus would, of course, perform many miracles of healing and other powerful signs. But here, he faced a struggle as he came to terms with the meaning and intent of such ministry. It will not be to amaze people. Throughout his public ministry he carefully avoided publicity by urging those whom he healed not to make him known. He did not need that kind of acclaim He just wanted people to trust in God’s provision and protection.
The third and final temptation or test sees the devil take Jesus to a very high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises to give him all these if Jesus would only fall down and worship him. It is noticeable that this time the devil does not say “If you are the Son of God. He wants Jesus to give up being the Son of God and swear allegiance to him. The corrupting influence of power and glory is pervasive in the world. The devil wants Jesus to enter that world over which he appears to have some authority otherwise he wouldn’t be offering it to Jesus.
The irony being that later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus stands on another mountain in Galilee and proclaims that he had been given all authority in heaven and earth.
The devil could only offer authority in this world and this age but because of Jesus’ obedience and faithfulness to the task that God has set before him no matter what the cost He was given authority over all creation and even over death.
Jesus then dismisses the Devil because the worship and service of God is at the core of who He was.
In this temptation account the reader sees into the mind and heart of Jesus as he begins to make decisions that will set the course of his life and work. The temptation story ends with the ominous statement that the devil departed from him, but not for long. Temptation would come again when people demanded signs to prove that he was who he said he was. And ultimately it would come again in Jerusalem when he was on the cross.
By definition temptation is something that appeals to us. Spirit-filled, vibrant Christians are still subject to temptation. All of us have certain desires, wants, needs, both physical and emotional. We crave food when we are hungry. We need companionship, acceptance, approval of others, love and appreciation. The devil is often viewed as the source of our temptations, but we need to understand something about ourselves. The source of our temptations is almost always our own legitimate, normal, natural desires.
For us the question is what kind of disciples are we? How do we respond when we are tested? What will we do and who will we be? If we can come to the end of this Lent with clear answers to these questions – as clear as Jesus’ to the Devil then we will have spent Lent well and be confident in our call to discipleship trusting in God for all our needs and growing into the people He calls us to be.