Jesus resists temptation

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Deuteronomy 6:13-16; Matthew 4:1-11 

Evil: we all know it exists. We see and hear its manifestations all around us in wars, political and economic oppression, broken lives, ecological disasters and personal failures to name a few examples. Human beings have put a face on evil by naming it Satan, the devil, Beelzebub and many other designations. We have even tried to pretend evil is a laughing matter by making jokes about it (“The devil made me do it!”).

But evil is not a laughing matter. Jesus certainly knew that. Matthew tells us that Jesus was confronted by evil in the form of the devil at a time when he was particularly vulnerable, having fasted in the desert for forty days. People in Matthew’s world, in contrast with ours, had no difficulty believing in a personal devil whose tempting talk could make bad beha- vior look good.

Matthew 4:1-4 — The devil tests Jesus’ trust in God to provide food Shortly after being identified as God’s beloved Son at his baptism, Jesus is led into the desert by God’s Spirit. Yes, that’s right. God’s Spirit led Jesus into the desert to face the tempter. In Scripture, the desert is traditionally the place where demonic powers are strong. There the devil entices a famished Jesus to exert his divine power to satisfy his own needs by turning stones into bread. It is ironic that the devil acknowledges the divine status of Jesus. This is indicated by the Greek construction translated “If you are the Son of God, … ” a conditional statement that in this context should be translated “Since you are the Son of God ….” The devil knows who Jesus is and wants to try to entice Jesus into obeying him instead of remaining faithful to his mission as God’s beloved Son.

Jesus does not obey the devil but responds by quoting Deuterono- my 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God’s word takes precedence over Jesus’ human needs. For Jesus at this time, God’s word is his commission to be God’s beloved Son with an earthly mission.

Matthew 4:5-7 — The devil tests Jesus’ trust that God will spare him from bodily harm
Leaving the desert, Jesus and the devil relocate to the top of the temple in Jerusalem. There the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12 in an attempt to persuade Jesus to jump from the top of the temple. Even the devil can quote Scripture!

Jesus again refuses to obey the devil and again he cites Scripture. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus implies that it would be blasphemous to turn God into a performer of spectacular tricks — like sending an angel to snatch the falling Jesus out of the air. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus replies. Jesus passes the test posed by the devil by not agreeing to put God to the test.

Matthew 4:8-11 — Jesus is offered the territory and wealth of the nations if he will worship the devil
Matthew concludes this episode with the fundamental test: Will Jesus worship the devil or remain faithful to God? In the devil’s claims to have control over the territory and wealth of the nations, Matthew’s readers might have detected the boasts of the Roman emperors who claimed to control the known world.

Again Jesus points to Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:13. Only God is to be worshipped and nobody else. For the third time, Jesus turns to the book of Deuteronomy to counter the devil’s temptations. The issue is not only what activities he agrees to do, but whose directives he chooses to obey.

Deuteronomy 6:13-16 — Worship God alone!
To fear God means to revere God with exclusive loyalty. That is the way that leads to life. By resisting the directions of the evil one, Jesus demonstrates what it means to worship God alone.

For discussion

  1. This passage has traditionally been called “the temptation of Jesus,” but Presbyterian scholar John Carroll suggests that it should be called “the testing of Jesus.” Is there a difference between being tempted and being asked to compromise your personal identity?
  2. Is the primary focus of this passage on the specific temptations set before Jesus or on the confrontation between the devil and God’s Son?
  3. What temptations can compromise our Christian identity today? Can you think of Scripture passages that speak to those issues?

James BrashlerJAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.