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The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: Jesus is Tempted by Satan in the Wilderness
Chapter Ten: Jesus is Tempted in the Wilderness. What did it all mean?
The Gospel of Mark, long considered the oldest of the Gospels, and a primary source book for Luke and Matthew, only mentions the temptation of Jesus in passing.
12 And immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.
13 And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto Him.
It's so lightly touched upon by Mark, and yet, it's a rich story with some very disturbing long-term inplications. Why did Jesus have to go into the Wilderness? Where exactly did He go? Why did He fast for forty days? What did those Temptations mean for Jesus, and what did it mean for His divine mission (and for us) if He failed? How would His life have been different, and how would the fate of the world been different, if He had not withstood those Temptations in the Wilderness?
Matthew 4: 1 - 2
Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He afterward hungered.
A visit to Mount of Temptation
So Where did He Go?
The Google map above gives us a topographical look at the area around which Jesus is said to have undergone temptation. To the southeast of Jericho you will find the monument often regarded as The Baptismal Site in Bethany. After that, if you ask nicely and tip well, your local tourist guide might drive you eight miles northwest, through the town of Jericho, to Deir Al-Quruntul , a Greek Orthodox monastery built in the cliffs of Mount Quarantania. If you stop in Jericho first, you can even get there by cable car! The Bible does not clarify exactly where the Temptations took place, but this site is favored because it features many caves in which a man seeking solitude and meditation can take refuge.
Why did He Fast for Forty Days?
The number forty has great mystical meaning in the Bible. It is widely used throughout the Good Book to indicate a time of great testing or trial. Among the more notable instances:
- During the Great Flood of Noah, it rained for forty days and forty nights.
- After killing the Egyptian, Moses spent forty years as a shepherd until he received God's call.
- Moses went up Mount Sinai for forty days to obtain the Ten Commandments.
- Joshua and his spies spent forty days investigating Canaan.
- Moses and the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt.
It is entirely possible that forty days is a symbolic number, meant to call to the reader's mind the significance of the task at hand. I personally question the idea that He ate and drank absolutely nothing at all, because the experience would have killed Him. However, the fact remains that Jesus underwent a debilitating fast, meant to drain Him to the utter limits of His physical endurance and make the Devil's temptations all the more difficult to bear.
Matthew 4: 3 - 4
3 And when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
4 But He answered and said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’”
Meditation: The First Temptation
A man's resolve, will and capacity to withstand temptation wither in the face of extreme hunger. Once Jesus was at His lowest ebb, the Devil arrived with what he tried to pass off as a rational solution. Jesus has all this power, and He's beloved by God! Why doesn't He ask for a good meal right then and there?
That's trying to hit a man where it really hurts - and that's the nature of the Devil. He's going to attack us when we are at our lowest ebb, in the place that is most vulnerable. Here he just suggested that Jesus, who was starving, eat something. What's wrong with that?
The problem lies in that God had sent Jesus out and instructed Him to go hungry until His trial was past. If He were to use His powers to make bread against His Father's will, He would essentially be doing magic for entirely selfish reasons, a practice directly in opposition to God's will and counter to Jewish law. God sent Him to the Wilderness for a purpose. Jesus understood that He was to subject HImself to God's will, regardless of how uncomfortable and weak He was. He would eat when it was God's will that He eat, and not before.
There was a second temptation in here hidden by the more obvious appeal to Jesus' stomach. Satan said "IF you are the Son of God..." He was trying to imply that Jesus was merely mortal, and did not have God as His father. He was, in essence, appealing to Jesus' pride, trying to force Him to show off in order to prove His closeness to divinity.
Matthew 4: 5-7
5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, and set Him on a pinnacle of the temple, and
6 said unto Him, “If Thou be the Son of God, cast Thyself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge concerning thee; and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said unto him, “It is written again: ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’”
Meditation: The Second Temptation
Satan's second gambit was embroiled with guile that flowed out in several directions. On the surface, it looks as if he was trying to dare Jesus to do something dangerous and stupid just because He could, but it was more complicated than that. In the first temptation, Satan was not able to make Jesus put His own will ahead of His father's. In the second temptation, the Devil tried to make Jesus manipulate His father's will, forcing protective action that would otherwise have been unnecessary. Consider also the public reaction that would have come about if Jesus had given in. He was right above the temple, and while in the Devil's grasp He was invisible. If Jesus had agreed to this, He would suddenly have appeared out of nowhere in the sky in front of possibly hundreds of witnesses in the middle of Jerusalem. Important people from all around would have watched the angels fly down to save Him, and everybody would have been instantly aware of His divinity. Certainly everybody would understand that He was a Divine messenger immediately! They'd welcome Him as a Messiah instantly! What a way to make a splash!
What a way indeed, but not God's way. Jesus was not willing to manipulate His father. Manipulation and guile are tactics of the Devil.
Matthew 4: 8-9
8 Again, the devil took Him up onto an exceeding high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them,
9 and said unto Him, “All these things will I give Thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
Meditation: The Third Temptation
And on the top of a cliff, the gloves came off. Jesus came to Earth for one specific mission - to be the Messiah. He is the one that Isaiah foretold, the One who had come to deliver Israel. What Jesus knew, and what the Jewish people did not, was that the Messiah would not be an earthly leader. The people were expecting a political revolutionary who would rise up against the Roman authorities and make Israel a sovereign nation once more. Jesus knew that He had come to suffer and die to save all mankind from sin.
Satan was offering Him the chance to be what the people were asking for - a political conqueror. If Jesus ruled all the lands, then He could not only drive out Rome, but make it subservient to Israel. All humans that He knew would love and revere Him and call Him blessed.... but he (small h, and that's deliberate) alone would know that he had failed in his mission to save the world.
And oh, what that failure would mean! There would be no perfect lamb to offer for the sins of the world. There would be nobody who could take on our earthly nature and yet be untouched by that specific quality that damns us all, no matter how righteous we try to be. Not only Jesus' soul, but the souls of all the world were at stake with this diabolical proposition.
10 Then said Jesus unto him, “Get thee hence, Satan! For it is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.’”
Jesus passed the tests. He submitted Himself to His Father's will, despite the difficult nature of the things He was being asked to do. Although God incarnate, He chose to act in a way that was humble and subservient, and He chose to take the difficult path of righteousness rather than the easy path of instant gratification.
11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.
And so much more delicious than bread made out of rocks! Especially when eaten with a truly blameless soul. With this temptation now at an end, His purity confirmed and His faith tested to the utmost, Jesus was ready to begin His ministry.
As we go through life, we will continually be tempted by the Evil One as You were. Help us to remember that nothing Satan can offer us is as beautiful or fulfilling as Your love. Let us remember also that while He lies and manipulates, You will always be true to us. The Lord's way may not be the easiest way, but it is the only way that leads to eternal joy.
Previous chapter in this series
- The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: His Baptism
John has been baptizing sinners in the River Jordan. Jesus comes to be baptized. In this way, God's will is fulfilled and Jesus is anointed as God's Chosen One.
Next Chapter in the Series: The Wedding at Cana
- The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: The Wedding at Cana
Jesus' first miracle takes place in Cana. He changes water into wine. What is the significance of this act, other than to keep somebody from having a terrible party?
Where it is located
Temptation of Christ
Unknown, 12th century
Basilica di San Marco
Man of Sorrows
William Dyce, 1860
Scottish National Gallery
The Temptation of Christ
Juan de Flandes, 1500
Jésus au désert
Barthélemy Parrocel, 1600s
Musée du Pays Brign
Three Temptations of Christ
Sandro Botticelli, 1482
Fresco, Sistine Chapel
Jesus Carried up to a Pinnacle of the Temple
James Tissot, around 1894
Temptation on the Mount
The Temptation of Christ
Ary Scheffer, 1854
Walker Art Gallery
Carl Heinrich Bloch, 19th century
The Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace in Copenhagen
Christ Served by Angels in the Wilderness
Ludovico Carracci, 1610