The First Temptation of Christ
Want. Take. Have.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Bad Girls” (1999)
. . . Miracle, mystery, and authority. Thou hast rejected all three and hast set the example for doing so.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1879)
In the Wilderness
After the Spirit descended upon Him, Jesus went immediately into the wilderness. He was there, fasting, for 40 days and 40 nights. All the while, Satan tempted Him to abandon His mission (Luke 4:2). He tempted Him to trade obedience to His Father for the glories of self-will and self-affirmation. As the days wore on and the trial drew to an end, Jesus’ health and strength began to fail. Satan then appeared to Him in visible form and made three last assaults on His ultimate trust in His Father.
Scripture insists that these temptations were real and that there was, in each of them, something that would appeal to Jesus’ human nature (Heb. 4:15). It’s important to understand that Jesus was truly human. Huge deal. In addition, He is also eternal deity. Huge deal, too. The truth is, the psychology of all this is tough for mortals to process. As the Son of God, Jesus was both omniscient and omnipotent. He upheld creation and decreed its end from its beginning. As a true man, He grew, learned, and suffered. So, as days of temptation turned into weeks, He could feel the full effects of hunger, exposure, and exhaustion. And so, in His humanity, Jesus felt the full force of Satan’s arguments. He really was tempted in all points like we are, and yet He never yielded to the temptation. He did what His mission required, never turning away from His Father’s will.
Satan struck first at Jesus’ very real need to survive. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” The force of this temptation was simple enough … if you die here and now, it’s all for nothing and your whole mission goes south. Fail in your mission and you fail your Father and your people. That said, survival becomes job No. 1, right? If you are who you claim to be, accomplish phase one of your mission by living to fight another day. Make bread out of these stones. Use your miraculous powers to save your life and the lives of those who will follow after you. Focus on the ends, not the means.
Satan struck next at the path to the cross. In a moment of time he showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. All these, he said, I’ll turn over to you if you fall down and worship me (Rev. 13:4). In other words, Satan was offering to withdraw all opposition to Jesus’ mission. Fascinating. There would be no resistance, no sufferings, no cross. But not just that, there would be no persecution for His followers, either. No lions, no stakes, no martyrdom. Satan would support Jesus’ claims to sovereignty, and no Christian would ever have to suffer for his faith. Jesus could have it all simply by admitting that Satan’s perspective made pragmatic and existential sense.
Finally, Satan struck at the actual definition of the mission. People, he implied, are a tough sell. They’re not going to buy in to your mission on your word alone. They need real reasons to believe. They need evidence. Give them some. Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. The God you call your Father won’t let you die. He’ll send angels to catch you, land you and get you safely among “credible” witnesses … the Pharisees and Sadducees. With those kinds of witnesses and that kind of buzz, everyone in the Temple precincts will know beyond a doubt that you are the Messiah! And to punctuate this third argument, the devil quoted Scripture: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12). In this version of Satan’s plan, the Temple and the scriptural promise of the supernatural “safety net” were to launch the ministry in a big new way. It would be the “P.T. Barnum” way.
What Would Jesus Say?
Jesus had walked His prescribed path all His life. He knew His Father’s word. It was indelibly stamped on His heart (Ps. 40:8). When He responded to each of Satan’s attacks with Scripture, He didn’t speak like a child who, from a memory that has been crammed with Bible verses simply spits out the necessary, parent-pleasing responses. He spoke from a firm, heart-felt commitment to the power of God’s Spirit. And He spoke as the eternal Son of God. There was no word-magic here, only a firm and full commitment to God the Father.
Satan’s first temptation was addressed to the desires and needs of the physical body. Satan had tried to place these bodily needs above the very word of God. But in words borrowed from Deuteronomy (8:3), Jesus said, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Jesus didn’t deny that man needs bread and food to live, but He insisted that obedience to the words of God was a far greater need. Man doesn’t need to merely live … man needs … first and foremost … to obey God.
Satan’s second temptation appealed to man’s desire for possessing the big, the shiny and the beautiful. Man sees, wants, and takes often without any regard to God’s law. Jesus could have all the kingdoms of the world immediately, Satan said. No delayed gratification necessary. No killing the will to self. All He had to do was admit Satan’s underlying and most fundamental premise …
The right to challenge divine authority. Simply stated… men can be as gods. But Jesus responded with: “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). The universe functions in terms of God’s law and His decree. There are no other gods, no other sovereigns. Man must acknowledge God as the only true source of legitimate authority. His Word alone is the only legitimate explanation of reality. And with respect to man’s place in all of this … true authority comes from submission to God and His law.
Satan’s third temptation aimed at human pride. Man wants celebrity status. He wants attention, acclaim, admiration … and he wants it now. Just like Veruca Salt in the original Willy Wonka movie, who wanted to be the first to find the golden ticket and wanted an Oompa Loompa pretty quick, too. But that was mild compared to vanity and pride offered in the place of worshiping God. Again, Jesus answered Satan with Scripture: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Matt. 4:7). God’s promises are not to be a launching pad for our own private plans and pleasures, our own pursuits of glory. Man’s chief end is the glory of God. And we are created for precisely that.
Three Deceptive Hooks
The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. This is how John sums up the lifestyle of the world apart from God (1 Jn. 2:16). These were the three hooks with which Satan tried to deceive Jesus and if “sold separately and without responsibility” are the ones he throws at us. These were also the big three hooks that Satan used in the Garden against Eve:
“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Gen. 3:6).
Here’s what’s important:
This threefold hook is directed at man’s threefold office, that of prophet, king, and priest. Satan would have man put his bodily needs and desires over the (prophetic) Word of God. He would have him seize (kingly) power and dominion without regard to the law of God. He also would have mankind seduce and abuse others in an anti-priestly bid for prominence and pride.
But since man is always prophet, king, and priest … every temptation appeals in a greater or lesser degree to all of these at once. In other words, every temptation appeals in some measure to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And every sin is a surrender of our hearts and souls … to the power of Satan and self.
Victory Over Satan
All of Satan’s temptations implied a kind of soft-and-easy-to-digest “marketing message” for Jesus and those who would follow Him. He encouraged Jesus to use miracles to save life, power to establish His kingdom, and mystery to gather a following. Miracle, authority, and mystery. These are exactly the words Fyodor Dostoevsky uses in “The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov (1879). In this parable, the Grand Inquisitor, like Satan before him, berates Jesus for failing His people, for not loving them enough. Of course, Satan and his messengers regularly pose as angels of light.
But Satan’s worldview assumes that man’s biggest problem lies in his current situation or condition. This could be found either in the outside world around him or even in his own current physical or psychological status. But how can we turn the misuse of miracle, authority, and mystery into something we can use?
Here’s the thing that should immediately grab us and is the very bottom line:
Our true problems are NOT environmental or psychological. Our real problems are ethical and judicial. Our natural, unbridled impulses push us to be ethical rebels against God’s law and we then find ourselves under His temporal curse. The truth is, no miracles, no heavy-handed tyrannical power, no slick and seductive mysticism carry any real meaning and authority. They’re only the devil’s lies. Jesus knew this, and He rejected every and all options except a very painful but obedient walk toward Calvary. He set His face toward the cross. He trusted His Heavenly Father. He obeyed the Word of God, and Satan fled. That’s the only formula that makes Satan flee.
Then God intervened. Angels came and ministered to Jesus. He was in the wilderness with the wild beasts, and for a moment Paradise was restored (Mark 1:13). It was Jesus’ ethical obedience that won this battle. But the war had only begun. There would be fierce, future engagements.