Last week we began looking at temptation from about 50,000 feet, culminating in an overview of the temptation of Jesus as he inaugurated his public ministry. Today, we will dive more deeply into that time in Jesus’ life.
The first temptation of Jesus presented in the gospels involves hunger. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days, and by that time his body had to be consuming its own protein to survive.
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
– Matthew 4:3-4, ESV
This sounds very much like the insulting thug who hung next to Jesus on the cross. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”1 Come on Jesus! Use your divine prerogative. Get us off these crosses.
The issue is not really hunger. That was just a catalyst. The issue is life. On the surface, Satan appears to be pressing a hunger issue, and there is no doubt that hunger enters the equation. But the real issue is trusting God with our lives. He cares for the sparrow, and he cares for us. Yet the accuser says, “You are supposedly the Son of God, and yet this is how you are treated?”
It seems that Satan wants to shake Jesus’ confidence in the ability, or the willingness, of God to care for him. If the Father or Holy Spirit is not going to stay close by and meet the needs of Jesus, then Jesus will just need to take matters into his own hands by turning lifeless objects into life-sustaining nourishment.
Jesus could absolutely have done what Satan suggested. Interestingly, there are those who should know better who believe he did. In 1985, USA for Africa released the Quadruple-Platinum charity single We Are the World, which contains the erroneous line sung by Willie Nelson, “As God has shown us, by turning stones to bread…” It was a shot taken in ignorance that missed the mark. God did not turn stones to bread, though Satan tempted him to do so, and now perhaps Satan wants us to believe it did happen.
For Jesus, the creator of all that exists, it is a simple thing to change matter from one form to another. We have seen him feed multitudes with a handful of scraps, and the result of that was not an increased faith in God, but rather an amplified craving for more handouts.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.
– John 6:26-27, NIV-1978
Jesus did not use anything supernatural to defeat Satan in this temptation, but instead said, “Man shall not live by bread alone…” Jesus faced Satan as a man, and he defeated Satan as a man.
Pride and Presumptuousness
Taking his cue from the first response of Jesus, Satan knows that Jesus responds to temptation with scripture, with the Word, and may be likely to respond to the Word when it is presented to him.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
– Matthew 4:5-7, ESV
Though I cannot confirm this, I have been told there was a tradition among the Jews that when the Messiah came, he would announce himself by jumping from the pinnacle (or wing) of the temple, which towered roughly four hundred feet above the Kidron Valley. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, “The valley was very deep, and its bottom could not be seen if you looked from above the depth.”
It is from this Temple pinnacle, according to the early Christian historian Hegesippus, that James, the brother of Jesus, was hurled to his death for his refusal to denounce Jesus at the demand of the scribes and Pharisees.
Satan may be picking at the pride of Jesus by urging him to make his Messianic announcement in a spectacular way, jumping from this great height, while at the same time proving the depth and breadth of his trust in God to save him from the long fall.
Satan could not possibly have chosen a place more holy, or more identified with the presence of God, than the temple in Jerusalem. If ever there were a place in which God would hold to his promises, this is the place. The pinnacle of the temple, therefore, is a prime launchpad for Jesus’ Messianic installment.
Satan quotes scripture to give credence to what he is pushing Jesus to do. It is revealing to note, however, that the scripture Satan quotes, he misquotes, twisting it ever so slightly to make it fit a scenario that it does not really fit. The passage referenced comes from Psalm 91, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee,” but Satan eliminates the phrase, “to keep thee in all thy ways.”
Twisting scripture to fit my agenda is a different matter than relying on the truth of scripture to sustain me as I walk in the will of the Father. Dr. Joseph Parker put it eloquently:
This was an appeal to the Son of God to be presumptuous, to force meanings into the divine word which the divine Spirit never intended to convey, to force God into situations which he never intended to be occupied. Do you know the subtlety and force of such suggestions? Do you know what it is for men to get themselves almost purposely into trouble, that they may put the divine word to its fullest stress? Do you know what it is to shut the eyes, to lower the head and to run straight against a granite rock, and then to blame God for not softening it into a cloud through which you could thrust your head with ease?2
Psalm 91 does not grant me license to live foolishly while expecting that God will protect me from myself. Indeed, the entire Psalm is one of protection from outside destructive forces, because we take refuge in God’s protection.
Pastor Robert Deffinbaugh speculates that Satan might actually have believed he could kill Jesus by persuading him to make this jump and that Satan believed bringing about Jesus’ death was a winning proposition for him. We know from Daniel 10 that battles between Satan’s angelic armies and God’s angelic armies do occur and that they occur in real-time from the human perspective. Deffinbaugh hypothesizes that if Satan could persuade Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple, and at the same time engage the armies of God just long enough to bring about a delay, perhaps they would be unable to catch Jesus in time, and he would die from the impact of the fall.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
– Matthew 4:8-10, ESV
Satan offered these kingdoms to Jesus, and it is absolutely true that Satan could have given them to him. The same scenario is presented in Luke where Satan says, “I will give you all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.”3
Jesus did not argue that point with Satan. In fact, Jesus himself called Satan the ruler of this world.4 In this temptation, Satan is suggesting that Jesus should take a shortcut, sidestepping the cross, and by doing so, to satisfy his various cravings and allay his anxieties outside of the plan of God for his life. That is precisely what temptation is for us as well.
I find it a curious thing that Satan offers Jesus power, dominion, and glory. Doing so confirms Satan’s lack of understanding of who God is and how God functions. Where Satan appears to view reign and rule as attributes and functions of power, Jesus teaches us that true power is found in service, and that it is not power in the traditional sense at all. From a biblical perspective, the church of Christ is never portrayed as a power pyramid, but rather as a service community.
Next week we will return to the temptation of Jesus and see if there are practical lessons for us to draw from what Satan did and how Jesus responded to him.
Until then . . .
1. Luke 23:39
2. Parker, J. (1898). The People’s Bible, Discourses Upon Holy Scripture. (Vol. 18, p. 104). London: Hodder & Stoughton.
3. Luke 4:6
4. John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11