In the barren wilderness known as the Jordan Rift the Lord Jesus faced three universal temptations designed to undermine him as a man and corrupt his sense of personal mission. It is likely that he dealt with many other temptations while in this physical wasteland, but these three are recorded, and they do indeed carry a lot of weight.
The story goes that Jesus had been led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for a forty-day period of fasting. He was understandably hungry, and being vulnerable was perceived by Satan to be an easy target. We can only presume Satan’s encroachment took place toward the very end of the forty-day fast.
The first temptation Satan threw at Jesus related to bodily provision or material gain. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (see Matthew 4:3). How easy this would have been for Jesus to do. And who would have blamed him? He had not eaten in weeks; no doubt famished it would seem a reasonable thing to pursue. But a word of caution is wise. Satan was not trying to helpfully satisfy Jesus’ hunger. He was wanting to condition Jesus to leverage his personal capacities for selfish gain. He wanted to redirect Jesus’ dependency upon the Father to another place: Jesus’ own means. He sought to cause Jesus to believe that he not only could use his capacities for himself, but that there was good cause to do so. It would be a mighty stroke of autonomy for Jesus, and he would benefit materially. Indeed, this is the temptation wherein the one giving in declares through words or deeds, “Give to me, give to me, give to me!”
Jesus, of course, pushed back and denied himself this opportunity. “Man shall not live be bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3. With that Satan moved to another tactic.
The second temptation Satan threw at Jesus related to the pursuit of the spectacular and the related management of power. It is worth noting that since Jesus used Scripture to thwart the first temptation, Satan now uses Scripture to tempt Jesus. Matthew 4:5-6 says, “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”” Satan wanted very much for Jesus to make a spectacle of himself, capturing glory in the here and now through the use of power and influence. It would be a tremendous exhibition of personal mastery for personal glory were Jesus to have given in. This is the temptation wherein the one giving in declares through words or deeds, “See! See me! See me!” Yet he does not give in, reminding Satan that it is inappropriate to “put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7; Deuteronomy 6:16).
The third effort to tempt Jesus finds Satan escorting Jesus to the top of a high mountain, from which place Satan showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). Satan was determined to derail Jesus’ sense of true purpose. “I want your allegiance,” Satan was essentially demanding. What Satan threw at Jesus in this instance related to the pursuit of position and status. “You worship me,” Satan implied, “and everything you see before you will be yours.” What a terrible corruption of Jesus’ calling and purpose were Satan to have achieved victory here. Indeed, this is the temptation wherein the one giving in declares through words or deeds, “It’s all about me! It’s all about me! It’s all about me!” Yet again Jesus responds from the text of the Bible. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (see Deuteronomy 6:13).
Stuff, the spectacular, and status—three items that too easily derail us all. How common it is for us to use our personal experiences and capacities for selfish gain (material provision, stuff). How common it is for us to manipulate our environment so that people will turn their eyes toward us, so we can look good and have applause. How common it is for us to embrace what is less than God’s best if it means we gain some position or influence. For any of us these are significant. For those of us whose life-callings imply the leveraging of influence, these three temptations are especially serious.
In the end we note simply that Jesus’ focused response had him always turning his direct attention straight to his Father: You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. Those words sum up the means by which these three powerful temptations are dealt a mighty blow.