Before Jesus’ public ministry began, He underwent an intense time of temptation in the wilderness. These temptations teach us about Jesus, our advisory, and the nature of seduction.
The three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell us about Jesus’ temptation, but it’s interesting which points each writer chooses to include, omit, and prioritize. For example, Mark gives us very little information, while Matthew presses into the details. Both Matthew and Luke tell the full story, but in a different order. By taking a closer look at the differences, we can also get a better handle on each author’s goals.
Let’s jump into the story and see what we can learn from these weeks in Jesus’ life.
Jesus is led into the desert to be tempted
After being baptized by John in the Jordan river, Jesus is immediately led into the wilderness. Here’s what the gospel writers tell us about how Jesus ended up in the desert.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry (Matthew 4:1-2).
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals and angels attended him (Mark 1:12-13).
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry (Luke 4:1-2).
One remarkable thing to note is that this is pretty much all Mark tells us about the temptations. He makes sure that we know that it occurred, but he doesn’t provide many details. Interestingly, Mark gives us so little but still includes an odd fact about wild animals.
What should we get from this little tidbit? First, it gives us a picture of Jesus’ isolation and exposure. He wasn’t on a personal retreat in a remote cabin in the woods; he was exposed to the elements surrounded by nature.
But Mark wants to tell us something else. He doesn’t say, “the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness with the wild animals.” Instead, he mentions the animals after His encounter with Satan when he talks about angels coming to attend to Jesus. Why then? Theologians believe that Mark wants us to identify Jesus as a new Adam who doesn’t succumb to the devil’s schemes.
The significance of 40 days in the wilderness
Jewish readers would have recognized the pattern of testing that precedes a period of public ministry. Throughout the temptations, Jesus responds to the devil with quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy. It’s significant to note that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 in the first temptation, but the previous verse reads like this:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands (Deuteronomy 8:2).
The first temptation: One does not live by bread alone
By the time the tempter shows up, Jesus’ body is starving. The first temptation is for Jesus to use God’s power to meet his own-very real-needs.
The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:3-4).
The devil said to him, “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).
Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3:
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (emphasis added).
What can we learn?
With every temptation, Jesus responds with Scripture. It’s challenging to question how well we would stand up to temptation if we had to draw upon our knowledge of Deuteronomy, let alone the whole Bible.
At one point in John’s Gospel, the disciples encourage Jesus to take a break and eat something, but He responds by saying, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” The disciples take Him too literally, wondering if someone else might have brought Him food, and Jesus says, “My food … is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:31-34). With this temptation, Jesus proves this is more than religious talk. He places God’s will above even His physical needs.
When push comes to shove, we often give in to our hunger for legitimate needs like approval, love, or pleasure because we elevate them above pleasing God. The moment we promote the Lord’s desires above our own, it becomes easier to resist the tempter.
The second temptation: Do not test the Lord
Next, the devil moves from physical needs to Jesus’ ministry. The Lord has a long road ahead of Him as He pleads with Israel to pay attention to His words. A sensational temple-related miracle would go a long way toward convincing them He was who He claimed to be.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:5-7).
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:9-12).
A Bible student might notice that Matthew and Luke place the temptations in a different order. Matthew places this temptation second, while Luke places it at the end of the narrative. Does this mean that the story is untrustworthy? Not at all. In fact, the text alerts us that Luke has changed the order.
In Matthew’s account, he links each temptation with the words “then” (tote) and “again” (palin), but Luke doesn’t include sequential words that connect each temptation. Luke’s Gospel centers itself around the temple. It begins with Zechariah serving in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple to worship God. So it’s not surprising that he reorders the temptations to make the temple temptation the story’s climax.
What can we learn?
There’s nothing particularly tempting about putting yourself in danger to see if God will rescue you. But if you can work miracles, it’s easy to see it as a shortcut to fame and notoriety. This is a tightrope that Jesus walked throughout His ministry. He often told people to keep their healings to themselves and downplayed miracles to point people’s attention to God.
After miraculously feeding the multitude, a large crowd started following Jesus around the countryside. He tells them, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26). The beneficiaries of this miracle didn’t turn their attention to God; they saw it as an opportunity for more free food.
You’d think Jesus would be happy to have such a large crowd interested in Him, but He was very intentional about attracting those who were interested in the message. In ministry, we’re sometimes tempted to use our gifts, abilities, or assets to draw people to us. We might have the best intentions for turning their attention to God later, but it gets easier and easier to rely on gimmicks and tricks to attract others to us rather than draw their attention to God.
Anyone can use Scripture
It’s also worth noting that Satan quotes Psalm 91 as justification for this temptation. Once again, Jesus responds with a quote from Deuteronomy (6:16). This is why it’s so important to spend regular time in God’s Word. This is how we grow in our understanding and discernment, and we become more aware when others are misusing it out of ignorance or manipulation.
The third temptation: Worship the Lord and serve Him only
The third temptation (according to Matthew) is about power. Jesus has come to announce the kingdom of God, but the devil is offering a shortcut. He can simply take authority of all the world’s kingdoms if He simply bows to Satan.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:8-10).
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you 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 all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Luke 4:5-8).
What’s alarming here is that when Satan offers to give Jesus authority over the world’s kingdoms, Jesus doesn’t suggest that they’re not his to give. This is in keeping with much of what the New Testament tell us about the role Satan plays:
- John tells us that the world is under Satan’s control.
“We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
- Jesus calls Satan the prince of this world.
“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31; see also verses 14:30 and 16:11).
- Paul calls him the “god of this age.”
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
What can we learn?
Jesus described the kingdom of God as a mustard seed. It grew from its tiny, inauspicious origin to the world’s largest faith. This whole process could have been expedited if Jesus had taken Satan’s offer to gain authority over the kingdoms of the world. Instead of starting with a handful of disciples, He could simply convert the kingdoms of the world into God’s kingdom. He could have bypassed a lot of cultural resistance. He could have compelled and coerced people to obey God. Thankfully, Jesus knew better. Temptations promise counterfeit benefits that they’re never truly able to deliver on.
We’re often met with choices that allow us to arrive at our goal by following a questionable path. But in God’s economy, holy ends don’t justify unholy means. In this temptation, the choice is clear: worship God or worship the devil. For us, the choice isn’t always that obvious. We need to make sure that we’re worshiping God through our adherence to His precepts. This is the only path to get where we truly want to be.
And the angels attended Him
After the temptations are over, the devil leaves. Jesus is exhausted and starving, and Matthew and Mark tell us that angels came to take care of the Lord. Luke wants us to know that Satan has only exited the stage for a short time.
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him (Matthew 4:11).
. . . and angels attended him (Mark 1:13).
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).
Even though demonic activity continues throughout the Gospels, Satan doesn’t make his follow-up appearance until near the end, when both John and Luke tell us that Satan enters Judas during Passover just before Jesus is betrayed (Luke 22:3, John 13:27).
Watch the temptations from the “JESUS” film
The “JESUS” film uses Luke’s gospel as the basis for this world-changing story. Check out the temptation scene from this groundbreaking movie.