Editing our commentary for Luke, I was reading about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (4:1-13). It struck me how all three temptations were basically seeking illegitimate fulfillment of legitimate goals. Here are some of my thoughts (and many thanks to Alison, who has been contributing to this section; some of this language is hers)… It’s still a bit rough, but I was struck by what the three temptations seek to do in illegitimate ways: 1) Be practical, 2) Be powerful, and 3) Be spectacular.
Temptation to be practical – Stones into bread
The immediate, obvious application of this temptation is for Jesus to alleviate His own hunger. Of course satisfying hunger is not sinful in and of itself. It would not have even been a problem for Jesus to provide food in a supernatural way; in fact, He would do just that later on in His ministry (Luke 9:10-17). What exactly was the problem with Satan’s suggestion?
A common opinion of commentators is that this temptation has to do with distrusting God’s ability and willingness to provide. Jesus had been fasting for forty days, and He would have quite understandably been hungry and weak. He could have taken matters into His own hands to make sure He did not starve. However, His rebuttal implies that He was looking to His Father’s word to sustain Him, rather than earthly food. God was able to sustain Him in the wilderness, and He was not about to provide food for Himself as if God couldn’t take proper care of Him.
Ravi Zacharias takes a slightly different approach to this temptation, suggesting that it carried implications of far more than just His own hunger:
It is not surprising that the first temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness was to change stones into bread. “Do this,” said Satan, “and the world will follow You.”
…[This was] not a soft temptation thrust upon Jesus. The tempter knew, precisely, the force of his taunt. How much more relevant could God be than to be a provider of food for life? What good is religion if it cannot feed the hungry? Satan was perilously and painfully close to a truth. But it was a half-truth, and a half-truth gets so interwoven with a lie that it becomes deadlier by the mix.
Ask yourself this question: What kind of a following would result if the sole reason for the affection toward the leader is that he provides his followers with bread? Both motives would be wrong—for the provider and the receiver. These are the terms of reward and punishment that are mercenarily tainted and have diminishing returns, at best engendering compliance, but not love. Their appeal, too, is soon lost when offered as enticements or when withheld to engender fears. Dependence without commitment will ever look for ways to break the stranglehold. (Zacharias, Ravi K., Jesus Among Other Gods. Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2000. p. 82)
Either way, Jesus was faced with the temptation to be practical. It was immensely practical for Jesus to make something to eat after forty days of going without. It was also practical for Him to use His power to make food whenever He wanted to—think of the people He could feed and the attention He could get to spread His message! However, Jesus was not about to cast off His dependence on His Father, nor was He about to bribe the masses into following Him. Although Satan’s suggestion sounded practical, for the Son of God, it was sin.
Temptation to be powerful – Trading worship for kingdoms
One may ask, how is this tempting for the One who created all of the kingdoms to begin with? Jesus knew the task that lay ahead of Him: to die for humanity in order to establish righteousness. If Satan were to give Him the kingdoms, Jesus could then ostensibly bypass the crucifixion and establish justice on the earth without enduring torture and death. Jesus already knew that He would establish a global kingdom one day; why wait?
However, the means Satan proposed of bringing it to pass was blatantly in opposition to the character of Christ. If Jesus, God in the flesh, were to bow to Satan, who could say what sort of catastrophe would follow? He would have effectively ceased to be God, and the entire created order would have been dramatically shaken, to put it mildly. Not only would the thought of worshipping a fallen angel be abhorrent to Jesus, but He knew better than anyone the full weight and consequences of sin and how thoroughly it would have destroyed who He was and what He came to do.
Jesus refuses Satan’s temptation with a sharp rebuke. Although Jesus was fully and completely human, He was still fully God, and the suggestion to worship one of His own fallen creatures was a direct affront and insult to His very nature. Quoting scripture once again, Jesus refuses the temptation to seize the power that was rightfully His outside of God’s Law and timing.
Temptation to be spectacular – Throw Yourself down
In this temptation, Jesus is tempted to act presumptuously upon His relationship with the Father. What would be the purpose of this testing? What was Satan suggesting that Jesus would accomplish?
The temptation would have been to make a dramatic show. If Jesus was borne up by angels after a dangerous fall, it would have been a clear demonstration that He was truly the Son of God. The temple was a public place, and if Jesus threw Himself off of its pinnacle, He would have garnered a lot of attention and amazement very quickly. A day was coming where every eye would see Jesus and recognize His Lordship (Rev 1:7); there would have been nothing wrong with people recognizing and honoring Jesus for who He was. There also would have been nothing wrong with Jesus receiving angelic aid (see Matt 4:11; Mark 1:13; Luke 22:43). So where was the temptation?
Jesus identifies it clearly in His response: Satan was trying to get Him to test God. The devil was suggesting that Jesus presume upon God’s protective power in order to gain a quick fifteen minutes of fame. Jesus also recognized that He was in a divine time of hiddenness and testing — His wilderness season was not over quite yet — and to seize the public eye with a grandiose display of power would be exalting Himself outside of the Father’s timing and ways.
This would have also been a temptation to make God prove Himself on someone else’s terms. It was just forty days earlier that God had thundered from heaven that Jesus was His beloved Son, yet now Satan was asking Jesus to prove it to a taunting adversary and a skeptical audience. Sure, God had talked big and had said a lot of good things about Jesus, but was He ready to back it up with power?
Jesus knew better than to test God with such an arrogant challenge. “I know You said ___, but did You really mean…” It was exactly that kind of demand for proof that got Zacharias in trouble with the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:18-20). What God says, God means, and God will justify His own word in His own timing and in His own ways. This was not a matter of a nervous Gideon pleading for a sign to be sure he was following God’s orders. This was a brazen devil demanding that God show Himself true.
Praise God that Jesus was such a pillar in knowing fully who He was and who His Father was.
Heb 2:14, 18 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil…
….For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.