By H. Lynn Gardner
After Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his ministry, the devil attempted to deceive Jesus into obeying him and using his miraculous power to gain people’s allegiance. Jesus demonstrated decisively that he, not the devil, was in charge of his ministry.
Temptation in the Wilderness
The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where for 40 days the devil tempted him. The wilderness of Judea was a desolate, uninhabited area west of the Dead Sea. Jesus ate nothing, experiencing hunger (Luke 4:1, 2).
Why was Jesus tempted? For several reasons: 1—Satan tested Jesus to see if he would change his method of ministry. 2—Jesus demonstrated his spiritual power over Satan. 3—Since Jesus encountered the power of temptation, he can sympathize with those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:17, 18; 4:15, 16). 4—Jesus provided an example to enable us to overcome temptation.
The devil tempted Jesus during his 40-day fast, climaxing with these three temptations. In this context, the word tempted means to try or test with intent to produce failure. The devil (literally slanderer or accuser) is an evil being who seeks to entice humans to sin against God (1 Peter 5:8, 9).
God does not entice us to sin (James 1:12, 13); but he does test us to prove and demonstrate our faith in him (see the accounts of Abraham and Job). Temptation is not sin; it is a suggestion to sin. We become guilty when we yield to temptation and commit sin.
As Moses and Elijah did, Jesus fasted 40 days (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8). The text does not say whether he went without water. Jesus’ body cried out for food. Hunger pains become very severe right before the final collapse. Some note that Adam and Eve fell for Satan’s temptations under the best of circumstances, but Jesus resisted even in an unfavorable situation.
Stones into Bread
The devil addressed Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’” (Luke 4:3, 4).
As a deceiver, the devil came in the guise of a friend giving helpful advice. He makes evil look good and enticing, as he did with Eve in the Garden of Eden: “You will be like God, knowing good from evil.” Eve saw the forbidden fruit as “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:5, 6). From an earthly viewpoint, temptation becomes powerful and attractive when evil looks good.
The devil used “If” not to create doubt of Jesus’ deity (which both knew to be true) but probably meant: “Since you are God’s Son, it is a shame you are starving. As Lord of nature, speak the word and change the limestone rocks into pieces of bread and satisfy your hunger. You have a right to live. Why should you perish in this wilderness?”
Why should Jesus not miraculously provide food for himself, as later he did for the multitudes? Jesus did not work miracles selfishly. He obeyed the Father rather than Satan. Jesus came as a self-sacrificing servant, not as a self-indulgent aristocrat. He worked miracles to meet the need of others.
The devil tempts people to misuse bodily desires. God gave us our bodily drives and desires for food, sex, rest, and connecting with others. The devil seeks the misuse of these proper desires: the desire for food turning into gluttony, the drive for sex turning into immorality, the need for rest turning into laziness, and the enjoyment of conversation turning into gossip. Godliness requires control of bodily desires.
Jesus did not gratify his hunger; rather, he pointed to the Word of God, quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3 in his response to Satan. Trusting and obeying the Word of God can defeat the temptation to misuse bodily desires. We are to pray not to yield to temptation (Matthew 6:13; 26:41). “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). When tempted, we can rely on God and his Word and prayer so that we do not allow desires to enslave us.
Rule the World
From an elevation, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offered to give Jesus “all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Luke 4:6-8).
This could have been an actual mountain with miraculous vision employed to view all the kingdoms of the world. The devil offered Jesus the rule of the world through the route of compromise. The devil’s offer concerned the control over the lives of humans rather than the deed to real estate. Jesus referred to the devil as a “the prince of this world” (John 14:30). The devil rules those who live in sin. The devil suggested, “The lives of the people show allegiance to me. I can transfer their allegiance to you. There’s room for both of us.” The devil does not have the power to overrule human free will. The appeal was for Jesus to gain the kingdom without the cross—no sacrifice or suffering. Satan’s asking price was for Jesus to acknowledge and submit to his authority.
The devil tempted Jesus to worship him rather than God. Many people put money, pleasure, sex, fame, power, or self as the thing most important in life. God tolerates no rivals. He alone is God and must have first place. We must reject substitute gods.
Jesus unhesitatingly refused the devil’s temptation and again appealed to Scripture as his authority (Deuteronomy 6:13). Jesus would not make a deal with the devil to gain the kingdom by compromise. God is supreme, and he alone deserves our worshipful service and allegiance. Jesus declared his total submission to the authority of God.
Jump Off the Temple
In Jerusalem from the pinnacle of the temple, the devil challenged 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 guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:9-12, English Standard Version).
“The highest point of the temple” may have been the parapet at the southeast corner of the temple area located a great height from the valley below. The devil quoted and misapplied Scripture (Psalm 91:11, 12). He misinterpreted the text because he took a conditional promise as unconditional. He suggested that by this spectacular stunt Jesus would gain followers. The devil suggested using sensationalism instead of spiritual truth to gain people’s favor. Jesus did not employ publicity stunts to gain disciples.
The church must be careful, lest in its programming a worldly sensationalism is imported that fails to honor and glorify Christ. Christians cannot serve Christ self-importantly. We must refuse the temptation to demand the limelight and praise of people.
To put God to the test presumptuously is to distrust God. Jesus obeyed God rather than Satan. Jesus refused to make trial of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:16). It is wrong to hazard one’s life expecting God to give extraordinary protection. After Christ commanded Satan to leave, angels ministered to him (Matthew 4:10, 11). The devil ceased temptation and departed until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). We are to resist the devil, and he will flee from us (James 4:7).
Could Jesus have sinned? James 1:13 says, “God cannot be tempted by evil.” Yet when Jesus took on human flesh, he became vulnerable to temptation and sin. Alfred Plummer observed that one who resists temptation may realize the force of the temptation more than the one who succumbs. B. F. Westcott said, “Sympathy with the sinner in the trial does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin, which only the sinless can know in its full intensity. He who falls yields before the last strain.”
We gain self-control to resist temptation by following Jesus’ example: 1—Complete trust in God. 2—Unhesitating refusals. 3—Relying on the Word of God. We can resist temptation because God will provide a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13).
H. Lynn Gardner is a retired Bible college professor and dean living in Carl Junction, Missouri (www.lynngardner.info).