In Matthew 4, we find the famous account of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. What’s so fascinating about this account is that Jesus was supposed to be alone during those 40 days, and yet we find the Gospel writers describing what happened. Where did they get their material from? Well, since no one was with Jesus during His temptation period, what we find in the Gospels can only be an account that Jesus told His boys about what He did in the wilderness for 40 days. Now suppose you go on a trip to another country by yourself. How will your friends and family know what you did while you were there? They won’t. All they will have to go by is what you tell them when you get back, and if you make a bunch of stuff up, are they going to know that you’re lying? Nope.
Was Jesus being truthful about His conversations with Satan during the famous temptation account? Probably not. Far more likely, He just made up this entire story as a means of exalting Himself, and in this post, we’ll explain why this story would have made Jesus seem like a Guy who was worth following from the perspective of New Testament Jews.
Now to correctly interpret Jesus’ actions in the Bible, you have to start by dropping the Church’s ridiculous theory that He is a God-human hybrid. Jesus is 100% God, and as such, He does not have any human limitations or issues. So when we see Jesus showing up in human form on earth at any time for any reason, right away we need to realize that He is role playing, not presenting an accurate depiction of who He is. This really isn’t a hard concept to grasp once you think about how often you as a human put on acts around other people to hide your true emotions. And yet while humans can lie with their words and actions, they are too limited to do much more than that. We humans just aren’t that impressive when it comes to our ability to put on complex charades.
Now let’s forget about humans for a moment and talk about angelic beings. Now we’re talking about creatures who have far more talents than we do. Angels and demons have a long history of showing up in a wide variety of forms and they display a complex range of communication skills. They have the ability to manipulate matter, toy with our senses, and perfectly impersonate human beings in both physical and ghostly forms.
So who created angelic creatures and gave them their special abilities? It was three non-angelic, non-human Beings who we refer to as the true Gods or more specifically as Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We should certainly expect the true Gods to be more capable than the creatures They create, and yet when it comes to the God Jesus, Christians struggle to grasp how Jesus can look and act like a human without actually being a human. Why are we so dumb about this? Why do we think that the same Jesus who created us and the entire universe can’t manage to show up as a human being without somehow compromising His Divinity? Why do we pretend that Jesus is limited to only being in one place at a time whenever He shows up to someone in human form? Why do we act like feigning humanity is such a massive struggle for our Gods that They simply can’t pull it off without becoming less Divine? Well, our need to over-humanize and limit Jesus stems from our issues with not feeling in control, and that’s a whole other discussion. For now, let’s focus on the temptation story.
According to the Gospel records, what Jesus told His disciples was something like this: “Right after I was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, I wandered around in the desert all by Myself for forty days and Satan tried to tempt Me three times, but I stayed loyal to Yahweh.” Jesus then claims to have been tempted in three ways that are obviously designed to really impress His human audience. Let’s face it: if we had infinite powers and we were up against it, wouldn’t we use our powers to help ourselves be more comfortable? Of course we would. And if we had infinite powers and we were being mocked, wouldn’t we use our powers to show off? Yes, we’d do that too. We humans are selfish, insecure little creatures and we just can’t stand being mocked or deprived. So when Jesus says, “After not eating for 40 days, I wouldn’t use My Divine hookups to make food for Myself,” His Jewish disciples would be super impressed and think, “Wow, who is this Guy who shows such amazing self-restraint?”
It’s important to realize that at the time Jesus claims to have gone through His temptation experience, He didn’t have any steady followers yet. It was only some time after this experience that He began gathering His core group together. And once a bunch of Jewish men start toying with the idea of giving it all up to follow a Guy who really seems to know His purpose in life, naturally there is going to be a lot of waffling and worrying about whether they’re making a wise choice or not. After all, who is Jesus and what is He about? Here’s where Jesus starts telling stories about “Things I did before I met any of you,” and those stories serve as a kind of character reference which convince His boys to end up following Him. In the temptation story, Jesus describes Himself as displaying a very impressive level of spiritual maturity and remarkable devotion to Yahweh. He also claims to have some special in with Yahweh that is so well known that even the demons acknowledge that He is more than just a regular human. The temptation story is actually a very boastful, Self-exalting tale on Jesus’ part, which you won’t be properly wowed by until you see Jesus through His disciples’ Jewish eyes. So now let’s work on stepping into their sandals.
Jesus’ core group of disciples was composed of Jewish men who were carrying around a warped version of Old Covenant theology which had been drilled into them by Israel’s spiritual leaders: the Pharisees and Sadducees. New Testament Israel was a religious society from start to finish: the government was based on the laws of the Torah, and there was no separation of church and state. Yahweh was Israel’s national God, and ethnic Jews were taught from the cradle to be fiercely patriotic to Israel, passionate about defending Judaism, and proud of the fact that Yahweh loved them more than all of the Gentile scumbags around them. Bigotry wasn’t seen as a bad thing in ancient Israel: instead it was encouraged and celebrated. Even an unimpressive fisherman like Peter could feel superior to Romans simply based on the fact that he was an ethnic Jew. There’s no way that the twelve disciples would have considered following Jesus around if Jesus hadn’t presented Himself as an ethnic Jew. In those times, ethnic Jews wouldn’t publicly associate themselves with non-Jews—it’s just the way things were. So since Jesus was targeting ethnic Jews, He intentionally came in a form that their narrow minds could accept. Of course Jesus doesn’t at all think that ethnic Jews are better than everyone else, but He was working within the context of His disciples’ foolish thinking. This is how our Gods always operate with humans: They meet us in the midst of our blind stupidity and They dumb things down and twist the truth until it is something we are able to grasp in our immature state. As They mature us, They start revealing complexities and untwisting the truth, but you won’t find much maturity happening in the New Testament.
Now Old Covenant theology leaves no room whatsoever for a second God to exist. Every good Jew knew that Yahweh claimed to be the only God in existence, and that He said anyone who worshiped multiple Gods ought to be immediately executed. If Jesus had shown up saying, “Hey, Guys, I’m a second God,” no one would have accepted it. And since it was Yahweh who had made this message so hard to believe, we see Yahweh and Jesus working together to ease the Jews into this radical notion that Yahweh was totally lying all of those times when He claimed to be the only true God in existence.
Now in the temptation story, Jesus elevates Himself as having access to Divine power. Not only that, but He claims that His access to such power is a very well-known fact among supernatural beings. Notice how it is Satan who says:
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matt. 4:3)
If you’re not a Jew living in Gospel times, the significance of this language goes over your head. You see, these Jews believed that Satan was the ruler of this world. Is he really? Of course not, but the New Testament Jews had an idolatrous obsession going on with angelic beings. This is why you find the Jewish man who wrote the book of Hebrews telling other Jews:
Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! (Heb. 13:1-2)
To the Jews, it was some great privilege to interact with angels. Angels were better company than humans in their minds. This is a totally wrong attitude, and we should not at all be imitating the idolatry that these people showed towards angels. But we do, which is why Christians today credit their guardian angels for protecting them and wax on about the apostle Paul’s “spiritual armor.” Who was it Paul was telling his people to defend against? Bad ole Satan of course.
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph. 6:11)
To the New Testament Jews, Satan was the ultimate foe. In fact, they viewed Satan as constantly trumping the mighty Yahweh which was why we find the apostle John completely rejecting the sovereignty of Yahweh with this obnoxious statement:
We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. (1 Jn. 5:19)
Satan can’t really be in control unless God is locked in a closet somewhere, but the New Testament Jews were so steeped in their idolatry of demons that they actually thought it was a good thing to exalt Satan to such ridiculous extremes. And by the way, we are perpetuating this obnoxious mindset today with all of our guff about prayer warriors and prayerful intercession and rebuking demons. If Christians were to stop revering demons and focus that admiration onto the true Gods instead, they’d be a lot better off. But, like the Jews, we’re having far too much fun exalting ourselves as demon stomping warriors to stop with the idolatry.
Now once you understand that these particular Jews are more impressed with Satan than they are with Yahweh Himself, then you can appreciate how strategic Jesus is being by describing Himself as facing off with the great Satan himself in that lonely desert. To further underscore His own awesomeness, Jesus then describes Himself as being in some starved, weakened state. He claims to have been fasting for 40 days before Satan even showed up. Fasting was a common practice in Jewish society, so Jesus’ boys know firsthand what an exhausting thing it is to go without food for so long. When they picture Jesus staggering around in that desert all by Himself, alone and defenseless, only to then be confronted by the super evil, super powerful “ruler of this world,” well, yikes, how could Jesus stand a chance? But then Jesus shocks them all by putting these words in Satan’s mouth:
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matt. 4:3)
The first shocker here is in Jesus’ use of the title Son of God. But notice that He’s not the One claiming this title—He says that Satan referred to Him by that title. Well, that’s a double wow to a NT Jew, but you’re not going to be wowed even once unless you know something about Daniel 7. In that chapter, the human prophet Daniel has a disturbing series of visions. In one of those visions, he sees the glorious Yahweh on the throne giving a whole bunch of authority, power, glory and turf to some other Guy that Daniel doesn’t recognize. Now Daniel had a whole lot more respect for Yahweh than most of the NT Jews did, so naturally he is quite curious about who Yahweh is giving such great status to. Daniel sees the Figure come from Heaven—suggesting that He is definitely more than human, even though he looks like a man. It is in trying to describe this supernatural Being’s external appearance that Daniel uses the phrase “one like a son of man.” Before Daniel’s vision, the term “son of man” simply meant “human.” Yahweh called the prophet Ezekiel “son of man” as a kind of nickname, and the title didn’t impress anyone. But when Daniel later associates the phrase Son of Man to that strange and mysterious Figure who the great Yahweh is making such a fuss over, well then that simple title takes on a whole new meaning. All the Jews who read about Daniel’s vision are super curious about who the Son of Man was. All they can tell for sure is that He clearly has a special in with Yahweh—He seems to be some kind of super favorite, even more so than famous Jewish heroes like Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. For centuries, Jewish theologians remained stumped about this Son of Man business. But then Jesus shows up, and when He uses the title Son of Man, He is claiming to be the Son of Man who Daniel saw—some kind of special Being who has special connections with Yahweh.
Now all Jewish men liked to refer to themselves as “the sons of God” with the title God being a specific reference to Yahweh, so Jesus’ claim to be a “Son of God” would normally be nothing impressive—it would simply come across as Him saying, “I’m an ethnic Jew who follows Yahweh.” But when Jesus starts throwing around the term Son of Man and linking Himself with that mysterious being from Daniel 7, well then His use of the title Son of God starts taking on a whole new meaning. The NT Jews called themselves “the sons of God” as a way of reminding themselves and everyone else that they were the true God’s special favorites. But when Jesus describes the mighty Satan challenging Him to prove that He really is the Son of Yahweh, well then everyone is super-impressed. Why on earth would Satan make such a challenge unless Satan knows things about Jesus that no one else knows? And if beings in the spiritual realms have reason to think that Jesus has super powers and some kind of special hookup with the great Yahweh, well then clearly Jesus is Someone to be reckoned with. So when Jesus says that it was Satan who was referring to Him as the Son of God, well then Jesus’ disciples are suddenly paying very close attention to His story. And when they hear that Satan challenged Jesus to turn rocks into bread, well then clearly that proves that Jesus really does have access to some pretty awesome power, otherwise the great Satan wouldn’t be baiting Him that way. See how it works? In the temptation story, Jesus is very cleverly using Satan to exalt Himself in the eyes of His human disciples. Jesus knows all about how wowed the NT Jews were by Satan, and yet here He’s claiming that Satan knows that Jesus has super powers.
Well, now wait a second—these are monotheistic Jews that Jesus is talking to and the only God they acknowledge is Yahweh. So in their minds, if Jesus has power, it must flow from Yahweh—Jesus can’t just have power on His own. Well, that fits nicely with the Daniel 7 vision in which Daniel saw Yahweh give the power to One who was like a Son of Man. You see, Yahweh wasn’t about to blast Daniel’s theology apart with the notion that there were multiple Gods. And Jesus isn’t going to go there with His disciples, either—at least not so early on in their relationship. So in the temptation story, Jesus uses language that makes it clear that Yahweh was the Source of His power, and that Yahweh was the One Jesus was devoted to pleasing. Now let’s look at the language He uses in the second temptation:
Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the Temple. “If You are the Son of God,” he said, “throw Yourself down. For it is written:
“‘Yahweh will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matt. 4:5-6)
This quotation is a misapplication of Psalm 91—a psalm in which an over-excited Jew wrongly proclaimed that Yahweh will give those who are spiritually faithful to Him problem-free lives on earth. So what point is Jesus making here? Well, He is once again exalting Himself by describing Satan as again acting threatened by Jesus’ status as the Son of Yahweh. Then, knowing that His disciples view Him as just a human who is specially favored by Yahweh, Jesus really impresses them by describing Himself as resisting the temptation to ask Yahweh to publicly flaunt His favor of Jesus.
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put Yahweh your God to the test.’” (Matt. 4:7)
Now today in the Church, you’ll find a lot of really misguided teachers telling you that the real point of this story is that we should always run to Scripture when we’re in a jam. Often this temptation account is twisted into an excuse for why we should all worship the Bible as a higher authority than God Himself. But this is not at all what Jesus is saying. The point is not that He’s quoting Scripture. The point is that He’s demonstrating exceptional loyalty to Yahweh.
The NT Jews knew that their ancestors had a long history of doing a terrible job of honoring Yahweh. Their Torah (which is our Genesis through Deuteronomy) outlined the basic principles of Yahweh’s Old Covenant, and the Jews had spent centuries ignoring those commands, thus demonstrating their total lack of respect for Yahweh. But here in the temptation story, Jesus is exalting Himself as a truly devoted follower of Yahweh by telling about a time when He was in some desperate, lonely situation, being hounded by the formidable Satan himself, and yet He still wouldn’t waver in His devotion to Yahweh. By quoting from the Torah every time Satan tempts Him, Jesus demonstrates His understanding of what Yahweh wants from His followers, and He is flaunting how right His spiritual priorities are.
Remember that Jesus’ original audience viewed Him as just a regular human, and in NT Israel, true devotion to Yahweh was hard to find in any human. Jesus is really shining like a spiritual superstar here, and He’s already passed two tests that His audience knows they would have flunked. Consider how much time we Christians spend trying to manipulate God into giving us what we want. Well, here in the temptation story, Jesus claims to have such high rank with Yahweh that even the devil is referring to Him by an honorary title. Yet even though He is in a perfect position to get Yahweh to give Him His way—from the human perspective, that is—Jesus says that He took the higher road and refused to try and manipulate Yahweh for His own gain, because that’s how committed He is to honoring Yahweh.
The final temptation is humorously worded. Jesus claims that the devil took Him to some high mountain from which Jesus could see “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Well, no, he clearly didn’t. Any mountain high enough to provide that kind of vista would be far above the snow line and Jesus would have been a popsicle. Plus Israel just wasn’t long on impressive heights, with the famous Mount Zion reaching only about 2500 feet tall. To put that number in perspective, Mount Everest is about 29,000 feet and Mount Shasta is over 14,000 feet. Since Jesus’ human audience thinks He’s just a human, if He’d actually hiked up high enough to see the whole world, everyone would have been so distracted by how He survived the journey with just a tunic and sandals that the point would have been lost. But happily the NT Jews were an extremely exaggeratory bunch so Jesus’ dramatic language didn’t faze them. They were far more interested in what that mighty devil said to Jesus next.
“All this I will give You,” the devil said, “if You will bow down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:9)
Now once you understand who the devil really is, and who Jesus really is, this offer sounds utterly ludicrous and makes the devil sound like a delusional moron who is so steeped in arrogance that he actually thinks he has something to offer Jesus. But if you are the apostle John, then you really do think that the devil rules the world, so this offer sounds legitimate to you. Did Jesus and Satan really have this conversation? Probably not, because Satan does know who Jesus is, and he is painfully aware of how limited his control over this world is. But when it comes to being a tool for Jesus to exalt Himself, this story is fabulous, for Jesus’ disciples would have been extremely impressed at the thought of the great Satan offering anyone his vast domain. What human could turn down such an impressive opportunity for power? And of course Jesus is greatly exalting Himself by making His personal worship out to be something which the great Satan is so desperate to have that he’s willing to give the whole store away. How awesome must Jesus be for the ruler of demons to be trying to purchase His admiration? See how it works? And yet today we call Jesus humble—now there’s a laugh. There’s nothing humble about this blatant brag fest. Jesus is basically saying, “You know that devil who you are all so impressed with? Well, out in the desert, he wanted Me to worship him so badly that he offered to give Me his whole kingdom. That’s how much he thinks of My opinion because I’m Yahweh’s main Man.”
Now we can tell that Jesus’ disciples would have been sorely tempted by this offer personally, for they were the same clowns who got into arguments about which of them would hold the greatest positions of glory once Jesus launched His coup against the Roman Empire and turned Israel into a world power (see Know Your Bible Lesson 60: Greedy Disciples). Once they signed up with Jesus, this is what they expected Him to do, because they totally misunderstood what Jesus’ purpose was and they weren’t very good listeners. And once we see them greedily lusting after a power that they’ll never have, we can appreciate how impressed they must have been by Jesus passing up Satan’s offer to give Him the world.
Jesus said to him, “Away from Me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship Yahweh your God, and serve Him only.’” (Matt. 4:10)
Choose loyalty to Yahweh over a chance to become as powerful as the great Satan? What Jew in NT Israel thinks like this? Jesus does, and His disciples would have been totally blown away by this story. To help spike their admiration up another notch, Jesus finishes His testimony by describing the mighty Satan as giving up on trying to best Him—the obvious implication being that Satan feels overwhelmed by Jesus’ fierce devotion to Yahweh.
Then the devil left Him, and angels came and attended Him. (Matt. 4:11)
Why wrap up with this comment about angels attending Him? This is another example of Jesus playing along with His disciples’ ignorance. As Psalm 91 demonstrates, the Jews liked to think of angels as being Yahweh’s special helpers who came and intervened when humans were in trouble. It makes total sense to them that angels would come and help Jesus. But more importantly, it makes Jesus sound like a somebody that He should have not just one, but a whole group of angels sent to Him, thus demonstrating the magnificent Yahweh’s pleasure with Him. What is one more self-glorifying detail going to hurt? Jesus is awesome, and He’s going to keep exalting Himself throughout the Gospel books—even if it means putting words in Satan’s mouth.