The Temptations of Jesus
A Very Painful Event.
I am writing the following chapters to help us to think with me about one of the most unusual events in human history. The event is the temptation of Jesus Christ in the wilderness of Judea. It was an event that I suspect took Jesus through 40 of the most difficult days of his life. For the balance of his ministry the things that transpired over those 40 days will come percolating up through his words and deeds. He may have been indelibly marked by the wilderness event, and the writers of the New Testament will refer to it in the years that follow.
It was an experience that lasted for 40 days, but Mark, almost with modesty, tells the story in just two verses, as though the matter was incidental. Though be careful, appearances can deceive.
When Matthew tells the story, a few years later than Mark, there may be an increasing need to hear some of the details more fully. Most of us believe that Matthew, as he writes, has Mark’s version of the story before him, but decides to open up the story with some of the details of this strange encounter. He tells us the story in 11 verses.
When Luke writes his version of the events that led from the incarnation to the ascension, he tells his version in 13 verses, revising the order of the 3 temptations as he does so.
A Very Painful Event
But why would I think that this event was particularly painful? Couldn’t Jesus the Son of God beat his foe with one hand tied behind his back? Let me lay out some of the evidence.
First of all, how would the disciples know about this event, unless Jesus had told them? This testing time took place before he ever met them. There were no eyewitnesses during the 40 days. Jesus must have shared this event with his disciples. But when might he have done that? My guess is that it took place shortly after the puzzling event at Caesarea Philippi. Do you remember those devastating words addressed to Peter on that day? “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter and his fellow disciples must have been stunned by his words. Listen to them in Matthew’s version of the story.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (Petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
What was it that could spark such a reversal from the words “Blessed are you, Simon…” to “Get behind me, Satan!”? It is a though Peter had touched a very sensitive nerve in Jesus.
Let me turn your attention to another “Peter moment”. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and Peter’s impending denial, Jesus speaks to Peter to remind him of the danger he was in, reminding him perhaps of that earlier event. “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you…” (Luke 22:31)
I wonder, whether those words, “sifted like wheat”, was a reflection of his own experience during the 40 days in the wilderness? The temptations did not succeed, but not without an immense struggle.
But it is in one of the passages in the book of Hebrews that draws us to the conclusion that the temptations and testing of Jesus were very painful. Listen to its words found in Hebrews 5:7-9
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
It is presumed that this passage focuses on the time he spent in Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal. But many a writer has pointed us back to the parallel event in the wilderness. There too he offered up prayers and learned obedience through suffering, and was “made perfect” as a consequence.
Intimations of the Pain in other texts.
1. The Lord’s Prayer
Many of us have prayed the prayer that we call “The Lord’s Prayer” from early childhood. But it is not a childish prayer. It may first have been used by Jesus for himself and may have been born out of his own suffering. Note how its familiar words remind us of the time of the triple temptation that took place shortly after his baptism.
- Our Father who art in heaven (Satan raises the insinuating question, If you are the Son of God?)
- Hallowed be Thy name (Satan will suggest to Jesus “worship me…”
- Your Kingdom come (Satan will make his offer, “All these Kingdoms I will give you…”
- Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours”, perhaps earlier too when he submits to his Father’s will and submits to redeem the world “God’s way”.)
- Give us each day our daily bread (Satan suggests Jesus could provide his own bread from stones.)
- Forgive us our trespasses / debts / sins), as we forgive those who sin against us… (See chapter 2 as this controversial issue is more widely discussed.)
- And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (or from the evil one, or the time of trial) (The entire event is described in the three gospels.)
- For yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory for ever, Amen (Satan suggests that he will give Jesus “all the Kingdoms” and suggests he use his own power to make bread, and perhaps seek glory, in jumping from the temple?)
2. Gethsemane’s Triple Temptation
It is also of interesting to note that the gospels do not simply say that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, but two of the writers demark it into three episodes and paint it as a time of trial and a battle with temptation. This is how Matthew describes the event in chapter 26:36-4.6
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial/temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.
3. The Triple temptation during his passion
It is also intriguing that during the time of his trial before the authorities, he is tried 3 times, first by the chief priests, then by Herod, and then by Pilate, and then crucified. And it also is of interest to note that the words of the Satan “if you are the son of God…” are played out again in this ultimate testing time.
Here are the words of the participants in the trial and the crucifixion.
- In Matthew 26:63 the High Priest demands, “Tell us, “Are you the Christ, the Son of God!?”
- In Matthew 27:40 one of the men crucified on one of the three crosses says, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!”
- In Matthew 27:43 the Scribes & Elders who overview the execution say, “He trusts in God, Let God deliver him now, if he wants to! For he did say “I am the Son of God!”
- In Matthew 27:54 the Centurion at the moment of Jesus’ death understands it differently, however, and says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Some of us are not sure we liked the 1988 movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ” directed by Martin Scorsese, but one of the good services of that film is that it painted the crucifixion also as a time of severe temptation that Jesus faced and won. It may be that the triple temptation was not a one-time event but something he faced all throughout his ministry, and even throughout his entire life.
All of this underscores for me that what happened in the wilderness temptations may have marked Jesus indelibly. In the chapters that follow I want to dig a bit deeper into the testing time and to look into his experiences that preceded and followed this event.