Once Jesus identified himself with Israel, the Father identified Jesus as His righteous son. As Messiah, he is one of us and all of God. God’s Spirit now leads Jesus into the wilderness to relate with Israel in ways they normally stumbled—temptation.
He first spent forty days and nights fasting, an echo of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. When he grew hungry, the tempter drew near; he said to Jesus “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
The Father had just identified Jesus as his son; the tempter casts doubt on that notion, hinging its reality only on whether or not Jesus will use his deity to provide for his very real need. It’s a temptation Israel had given into often; it’s a temptation we all give into—“You’re supposed to be our God; provide for us! Jehovah Jireh! I’ve named it and claimed it! Now bless us!” After all, we feel (Ps88:10), how can God be glorified if we’re not alive? Jesus answered the tempter “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”
Jesus sees life differently than the tempter (and us). Life is more than proper digestion; more than the provisions or materials we need and demand. What’s the point of life if it’s not the God-formed life? The life worth having, Jesus implies, is the one God gives form to in us through his words. God’s words speak a salvation substance into the soul no sustaining nutrient ever could. God spoke creation into existence; his commands precede creation. Craving creation independent of its creator’s command discards the God-formed life. We may be fed and filled by creation’s sustenance, but it comes at the cost of salvation’s substance given form in God’s commands. Jesus certainly had an appetite for food as we do, but not at the cost of the salvation reality he was bringing to be formed in us.
So the devil takes him to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple and tells him to jump off, again hinging Jesus’ identity of son-ship on this stunt. Since Jesus has appeared dependent on God’s words, the devil targets that, citing a psalm poetically reflecting on God’s protection (Ps91:11-12). Again, this tendency to be exacting of the letter of Scripture rather than embracing its spirit was a temptation Israel often gave into (Mt 9:10-13, 12:1-14). And again, it’s a temptation we often give into—“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”. Jesus knows Scripture wasn’t given so we could merely obey its letters, but that our character may conform to the holiness of God. So Jesus cuts through the letters the devil quotes him to remain true to its spirit of holiness: “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.’”
Scripture will always form the God-honoring life in us; if it doesn’t, we may be trying to manipulate Scripture to our own ends. While it is wise to always beware that which might delude or distract our witness to the holiness of God, it may also be wise to extend that wariness to our tendency to use those fortune cookie passages we quote out of context, as the devil did, to further our own spiritualized agenda. By placing God’s high and holy honor at the center of his focus during this temptation, Jesus was able to remain true to the God-honoring life Scripture forms in us.
The third temptation is unlike the others. In the previous two, the tempter sought to create doubt in Jesus concerning the identity of son-ship the Father had placed on him; Jesus cut through the fog of those temptations by remaining devoted to the priority of the God-formed life and the God-honoring life. This time, there is no condescending questioning of Jesus’ identity. The devil knows Jesus is assured he is the “beloved Son” and Messiah who will usher the Kingdom of Heaven into the reality of Earth. There is nothing left to do but make Jesus a deal.
Taking Jesus to a high mountain and showing him a vision of all the kingdoms of the world and all the splendor, worth, and wealth they had to offer, the devil says “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”
The devil was offering precisely what the Jews wanted—a world where their Messiah was in charge, where justice was mediated through military might, a new golden age where all the world awed and oohed at the wealth and wisdom of their king. And again, much of this is what we also often want—power and prosperity, respect and affluence. But considering who was making the offer, Jesus saw the clear demonic nature of these desires. Hearing enough, Jesus ordered “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and serve Him only.’”
Jesus had certainly come to take up residence in all the kingdoms of the world, though not to receive their glory, but to reveal to them his glory—the redeeming reality of God’s heavenly reign on Earth. Really the devil only offered Jesus more of the same—more of Earth’s tyranny, bullying, manipulation, exploitation, self-aggrandizing. These things would have absolutely no place in the redemptive reality Jesus was bringing. Jesus would usher in a kingdom whose reality would fall upon the ears as good news, bearing good fruit in the lives of those who gladly received it; the worship of God alone would become the culture of its citizens.
In all three schemes, how Jesus responds reveals what is at stake in moments of temptation. Temptation is all about what way our lives will bear witness to, whether it’s the way of God’s redemptive reign as formed in his words and matured in how we honor him, or more of the same dark, corrupt and crooked ways that have oppressed humanity from the beginning. Temptation is an opportunity to step into the way of salvation reality Jesus formed in his righteous witness in the wilderness. How Jesus responds in his own temptations shapes how we can respond during ours. When tempted, Jesus’ response pushes us down upon his way, following in the footsteps of his redemptive reality, enduring until we’ve escaped.
For we who strain to faithfully follow Jesus, the text allows us to relax in the recognition that Jesus has done what we often cannot (Heb 4:15-16), and that is grace and peace to us. We can know we are not alone in our temptation as we persist gracefully forward upon the way with he who is one of us and all of God.