The Wilderness of Judea stretches from the hill country south of Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. It covers an area of thirty-five by fifteen miles, and in the Old Testament its Hebrew name means “devastation.”
It was into that grim and bleak loneliness that Jesus went to make His great decision.
There were three temptations: first, to turn the stones into bread; second, to leap down unharmed from the pinnacle of the temple; third, to worship Satan and so gain the lordship of the kingdoms of the world.
I. THE FIRST TEMPTATION
What temptation could be more natural to a man who had fasted for forty days, especially when the little pieces of limestone rock looked exactly like round loaves of bread? But Jesus countered this temptation with the words of the law: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).
This temptation was twofold: First, it was a temptation to use His power selfishly to satisfy His own needs, not for others. Jesus would not use miraculous powers to provide food for Himself, as He would not use them, later on, to come down from the cross. Jesus was not denying that men should be fed; He was asserting that these things are not foremost and that there were deeper needs in man than crushed wheat, and there are greater joys than the full stomach.
Second, it was the temptation to attempt to win men by material gifts, and so to bribe them into becoming His followers. His response to Satan was, “You tempt Me to a religion that would relieve want: you want Me to be a baker, instead of a Savior; to be a social reformer, instead of a Redeemer. You are tempting Me away from the cross, to fill people’s bellies instead of their souls, to bring outer abundance instead of inner holiness. You and your materialistic followers say, ‘Man lives by bread alone,’ but I say to you, ‘Not by bread alone.’ Be-gone, Satan! I am not a social worker. I reject any plan that promises to make men richer without making them holier.” There is no real security apart from the Word of God.
II. THE SECOND TEMPTATION
The second temptation was also twofold. First, Satan now tempted Him to fulfill the nation’s messianic expectations by leading a sensational rebellion against Rome. It is the grim fact that in Palestine between the years 67 and 37 BC no fewer than one hundred thousand men perished in aborted rebellions. The day was to come when Theudas would persuade a great mass of people to follow him out to the Jordan, with the claim that he would part the waters in two, and they would pass over dry-shod, only to have his followers annihilated by Cuspius Fadus, the Roman governor. The day was to come when an Egyptian imposter (Acts 21:38) would lead hordes of Jews to the Mount of Olives with the promise that with a word he could cause the walls of Jerusalem to collapse, only to have his revolt crushed by Antonius Felix. Now Jesus was confronted with a temptation to the same way of self-styled saviors of their country.
Second, by leaping from the temple pinnacle, Satan dared Jesus to do something heroic! “Clothe yourself with wonders. Throw yourself down from the pinnacle, then stop just before You hit bottom; that will be spectacular. But leave their consciences alone!” In the desert there are no spectators to see a miracle of turning stones to bread, but on top of a city pinnacle there would be plenty of spectators. Such a display of wonders would prove His Messiahship.
The second temptation was to forget the cross and replace it with an effortless display of power, making it easier for everyone to believe in Him. Further, it would give His Father an opportunity to protect Him. The truth is that faith in God must never contradict reason. Jesus refused to make Himself an object of special care, exempt from obedience to natural laws. Once again Jesus cited Scripture in His defense (Matt 4:8).
Jesus was saying, “I must win followers not by test tubes, but with My blood; not with material power, but with love; not with celestial fireworks, but with the right use of reason and free will. ‘Be-gone, Satan! Thou shalt not tempt the Lord, thy God.’”
III. THE THIRD TEMPTATION
The final assault took place on the mountaintop. It was the third attempt to divert Him from His cross, this time by coexistence between good and evil. He had come to establish a kingdom on earth by acting as the Lamb going to sacrifice. Why would He not choose a quicker way, by striking up a treaty, that would give Him the world, but without a cross? Read Matthew 4:8–11.
Satan promised to give Jesus the world just so long as He would not change it. But it would still be a kingdom of evil and the hearts of His subjects would not be regenerated. Jesus could have mankind, as long as He promised not to redeem it. Jesus, knowing that those kingdoms could be won only by His death, said to Satan, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve’” (Matt 4:10). What Jesus was saying was, “You want Me to worship you, which means I would serve you, and to serve you would be slavery. I do not want the world, which you do not even own yourself. Now, I will conquer your world by going into the hearts of your dishonest tax collectors and your false judges, and I will redeem them from their guilt and sin, and send them back clean to their professions. I shall tell them that it profits nothing to win the whole world if they lose their souls. All I want of this earth is a place large enough to erect a cross. I shall let you nail Me in the name of the cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, but I will rise from the dead, and you will be crushed. You want me to become antiChrist. Before this blasphemous request, patience must give way to just anger. ‘Get thee behind Me, Satan.’”
Jesus came down from the mountain as poor as when He ascended it. When He had finished His earthly life and had risen from the dead, He would speak to His disciples on another mountain; read Matthew 28:16–20.
Christ withstood the test of appetite and the selfish use of power, the test of loving the world and setting material benefits above values, and finally the test of loving display by sensational means and winning popularity by compromise, which leads to presumption.
So, we learn from the first temptation to bring our appetites into subjection to the will of God—to obey His commands and trust His promises. We learn from the second temptation that if we do not consent to temptation, we will not be overcome. And finally, from the third temptation we learn that we can save ourselves from Satan’s power, if we remember that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe” (Prov 18:10). “Satan trembles and flees before the weakest soul who finds refuge in that mighty name.”1
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1898), 131.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.