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The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness proved that He was an overcomer prior to the launching of His ministry on earth. This forty-day period followed the pattern of both Moses and Elijah, who also fasted forty days. Moses, of course, fasted three times for forty days, but as a result, he received a revelation of the law. Exodus 34:28 says,
28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
Likewise, Elijah fasted forty days, as 1 Kings 19:7, 8,
7 And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.” 8 So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.
Elijah then received the revelation of the remnant of grace (1 Kings 19:18) who fulfilled the promises of God in spite of the disobedience of the majority of Israelites. Paul tells us in Rom. 11:4-8,
4 But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice…. 7 What then? That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; 8 just as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day.”
Whereas Moses’ revelation was of the law that was to be written on the hearts of the people, Elijah’s revelation was a prophecy of the overcomers who would actually fulfill the purpose of God in their life time. Paul says that this remnant was “chosen” while the rest of the Israelites were given “a spirit of stupor.” The clear implication is that the majority of Israelites were not chosen. In other words, their genealogy from Abraham did not make them chosen. Faith, shown by obedience, is the evidence of being chosen.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness proved that He was chosen. The law was written on His heart, and He evidenced the faith of the remnant of grace. So it is not surprising that later, when Jesus was transfigured, Moses and Elijah were seen with Him (Luke 9:30). Also, after His resurrection, Jesus met with two men on the road to Emmaus, where we read in Luke 24:27,
27 And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
Jesus’ close association with Moses and Elijah from beginning to end proved that He was the Messiah who was prophesied in the law and prophets. Jesus fulfilled all of the expectations of the law and prophets, for all that they had written Jesus did. Luke focused upon this, because it was powerful evidence that Theophilus would understand.
Before we comment more specifically on the three temptations mentioned here, we should note how Jesus, the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), overcame in every area where the first Adam had failed in the garden of Eden.
The first Adam was tempted in three areas that parallel the three temptations of Jesus. Gen. 3:6 gives us the three temptations of Adam and Eve,
6 When the woman saw that  the tree was good for food, and that  it was a delight to the eyes, and that  the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
A summarized explanation of these is given in 1 John 2:16,
16 For all that is in the world,  the lust of the flesh,  the lust of the eyes, and  the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.
These three things are seen in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus’ first temptation was to turn stones into bread (Luke 4:3), because fasting makes all food look good. The second temptation was to be given the kingdoms of this world immediately, without having to die first. The third temptation was to test God by jumping off a pinnacle of the temple to force God to catch Him and thus prove His relationship with God. It is not hard to see that these three represent temptations of the body, soul, and spirit. They may be paired this way:
The tree was good for food (Genesis)
The lust of the flesh (John)
Turn stones into bread (Luke)
The tree was a delight to the eyes (Genesis)
The lust of the eyes (John)
Taking the easier path to comfort the flesh (Luke)
The tree was desirable to make one wise to “be like God” (Genesis)
The boastful pride of life (John)
Tempting God so that one can boast (Luke)
The first tempts the body in its desire for food. The second tempts the soul in its lust of the eyes, for the carnal mind always desires the easier path. The third tempts the spirit, for those who have a wrong spirit desire wisdom in a prideful way. This is the wisdom offered by the serpent, who said in Genesis 3:5, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
John calls it “boastful pride.” True wisdom is humble, not prideful. The devil tempted Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple in order that He might boast of His great exploit after God saved His life. But Jesus understood that this was tempting God. Tempting God in this way puts the will of man over the will of God by forcing God to react to us. It puts man above God in a subtle manner, thus revealing the pride inherent in such actions. Those who tempt God in this way have a spiritual problem. Paul says of Jesus in Phil. 2:6,
6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.
The devil tempted Jesus to force God to catch Him and to save Him from being killed, so that He could fulfill His calling by dying on the cross a few years later. If Jesus had fallen for this temptation, He would have failed the humility test by grasping “equality with God” in an unlawful manner. If anyone had the right to assert the right to be equal with God, it would have been Jesus. But if even He refused to do this, so also should believers refuse.
Having shown an overall view of the three temptations, let us now look at each of them more closely.
Luke 4:3, 4 says,
3 And the devil said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered Him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’.”
When the devil said “IF you are the Son of God,” he was not actually throwing this fact into doubt, as it may appear in the translation. Dr. Bullinger explains in his notes that the word “if” (ei) is followed by the Indicative Mood, which means that “the hypothesis is assumed as an actual fact” (The Companion Bible, Appendix 118, 2).
In other words, the devil was not questioning Jesus’ position as the Son of God, but rather had already conceded this fact and was assuming it to be true. Yet he was using this fact to tempt Jesus, because as the Son of God, Jesus had the right to expect God to provide for His needs—in this case, with food for His body.
However, the purpose of Jesus’ fast was to deny Himself that which the body needed or was craving. He was giving up food for a greater purpose. Furthermore, He understood that He was in the wilderness to fulfill the law and the prophets, who had already shown that this wilderness experience was the will of God. Moses’ law made it clear that He was the second goat which was to be led into the wilderness “for Azazel” (Lev. 16:8). Furthermore, He had to be tempted even as Israel was tempted in the wilderness before Joshua (Yeshua) could lead them into the Promised Land.
And so Jesus responded to this temptation by quoting Deut. 8:3. Let us read verses 2 and 3 to get the full context:
2 And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.
Take note that Israel was led forty years in the wilderness, connecting their experience to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. In both cases, the purpose was the same. It was to prove what was in their hearts and to see if they would keep the commandments or not. In other words, was the law truly written in their hearts by the action of the Holy Spirit? Or was the law still an external force fighting against the natural, carnal desire of man to be disobedient and to go his own way?
True humility is to submit to the authority of God and to obey His voice. It is easy to be obedient when God leads us into the good things in life. But the true test of obedience is when we must choose between the desire (lust) of the flesh and the will of God. So Moses says that God “let you be hungry… that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone.”
The bread of God is more important than the bread which our bodies crave. The true bread is the word of God, and Moses says we are to live by “everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” This includes the whole of Scripture and also the specific word that He speaks to us as we learn to hear His voice.
In the past, I have met some Christians who set aside Scripture and who wanted only to hear the voice of God. Others reject the voice of God and read only Scripture. But we are to live by every word that has come out of God’s mouth, whether it was spoken to men in the past (now known as Scripture) or to us personally. This includes the law, the prophets, the Psalms, the New Testament writings, and our own specific revelation. If we reject any one of these, we are failing to resist the first temptation.
The second and third temptations of Jesus are given in different orders in Matthew and Luke. Matt. 4:5 records the second temptation as the occasion when the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, whereas Luke 4:9 records this as the third temptation.
Each author has his own purpose and audience, and so there is no compelling reason that they should record each event in Jesus’ life in strict chronological order. John’s gospel, for example, arranges Jesus’ miracles in a way that reflects the eight days of the feast of Tabernacles. These were not meant to be written in chronological order.
Luke’s order, however, is consistent with the order of temptations in Gen. 3:6 and in 1 John 2:16, and these also follow the natural order of body, soul, and spirit.
Luke 4:5-8 gives us the second temptation—that of the soul:
5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” 8 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only’.”
It is clear that the devil took Jesus into the spiritual dimension for this experience. It all happened “in a moment of time,” because all time is one in the world of spirit. The Greek word translated “moment” is stigma, “a point.”
As I wrote earlier, this temptation correlates with that of the serpent in the Garden in Gen. 3:6, “it was a delight to the eyes.” The devil was offering Jesus the opportunity to take the easy path to become king of the earth (but second in command).
Adam was originally given the Dominion Mandate in Gen. 1:28. He thus incurred a debt that he could not pay, and so the Divine Court “commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children, and all that he had” (Matt. 18:25). In such situations, a buyer is found, who is given dominion over the people and their former estate until a redeemer can be found or until the year of Jubilee.
In this case, the devil claimed to have dominion over the whole earth, which had been Adam’s estate. Jesus did not dispute this, although the devil failed to mention that with the dominion he had also been given the responsibility to pay the debt that Adam’s sin had incurred. That is the downside of taking over an estate being sold on account of debt. It does not come free of charge.
Jesus came as the Redeemer of Adam’s estate. Legally speaking, He had to pay the full penalty yet owed for Adam’s sin (as calculated by the Judge according to the law) in order to receive dominion over the estate. It would cost Him His life.
Hence, the devil was offering Jesus a “deal.” Jesus could avoid death and obtain the dominion mandate as second-in-command under the devil. No one gets everything they want in a compromise, but here Jesus could avoid death by crucifixion and get most of what He wanted.
We know from the scene in the garden of Gethsemane how much Jesus would have liked to avoid the pain of the cross. In Matt. 26:38 Jesus said, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.” So this temptation of the soul was quite real. But Jesus responded by quoting Deut. 6:13. Let us quote the full context of this passage, verses 10-14,
10 Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you great and splendid cities which you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied, 12 then watch yourself, lest you forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. 14 You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the people who surround you.
Israel was to receive dominion over Canaan as a prophetic model of what was to come later. Even as Joshua (Yeshua) took dominion over Canaan, so also would Jesus (Yeshua) take dominion over the whole earth. But the original purpose for the dominion mandate was to give Adam dominion under God. Adam had not created the earth, so it was not his to own. He was God’s chief steward, called to rule all things by the laws of God.
The devil, then, was offering Jesus a deal whereby He would be given dominion over the whole earth in order to rule it by the laws of the devil—i.e., by “lawlessness,” or in violation of the laws of God. Instead of ruling the earth according to the character and will of God, Jesus would have been bound to rule the earth according to the character and will of the devil.
If Jesus had taken the devil’s offer, He would have violated the law in Deut. 6:13, 14. In fact, He would have followed Israel’s example of lawlessness, for Scripture makes it abundantly clear that after the Israelites inherited Canaan, they turned to follow other gods in violation of the law. But Jesus succeeded where Israel had failed—not only in the wilderness temptations, but also in the land of Canaan itself.
The nature of the temptation, as seen in God’s warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 6, was directed at the soul. The soul is the carnal mind, with its weakness and tendency to coddle itself and enjoy the good life, while forgetting the God who gave them the Kingdom with its bounty. The people were deluded by their own souls into thinking that they could live by their own conscience without being obedient to God. They had more confidence in their own sense of right and wrong than they ought to have had.
So also today, many are deluded into thinking that they can cast aside the law of God and simply be led by the Spirit, not knowing that the Spirit does not lead anyone into lawless behavior. When men violate the law of God, thinking they are being led by the Spirit, it is because their conscience resides in the soul, which is mortal and therefore weak and subject to the second temptation of the devil. It is only when the Spirit takes full dominion over the soul that the soul is able to see perfectly right from wrong.
In the Garden of Eden, the devil tempted Eve in Gen. 3:5 by saying, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The problem was that once they sinned, death (mortality) came upon them, lodging specifically in their souls. “The soul who sins shall die,” says Ezekiel 18:4. The idea that souls are immortal is foreign to Scripture. It is the soul that dies. (Our spirit returns to God, and is not said to be subject to death. The spirit in man has a consciousness, which does not die when the body and soul dies.)
Adam and Eve’s temptation was that they might be like gods or like God (Elohim), knowing good from evil for themselves, independent of the will of God expressed in His law. Many Christians have fallen for this second temptation, thinking that their conscience is capable of fully knowing good and evil. But in practice, many are led in many ways that go contrary to the law (character) of God.
The Holy Spirit is called to write the laws of God in our hearts, but He does this slowly through experience over many years as He changes our hearts. He does not instantly change our character in its entirety. Some have been changed in dramatic ways in an instant, but such changes are never complete. There are always further changes that the Holy Spirit makes as time passes.
So let us all be aware of the universal nature of the second temptation, knowing that the three temptations in the wilderness are common to all. Let us follow the example of Jesus’ success, rather than the example of Israel’s failure.
Luke records Jesus’ third temptation in Luke 4:9-11,
9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; 10 for it is written, ‘He will give His angels charge concerning You to guard You,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, lest You strike Your foot against a stone’.”
The third temptation involves the temple itself and would have spoken directly to Theophilus, the former high priest. The temple itself was a fortress, and on its east side was the high wall of the city itself. On the north side was the Citadel, which King Herod renamed the Antonia Fortress in honor of his early patron, Mark Antony. It is probably on the highest tower of the Antonia Fortress that Jesus was led for the third temptation. It is described as follows:
“Now as to the tower of Antonia, it was situated at the corner of two cloisters of the court of the temple; of that on the west, and that on the north; it was erected upon a rock of fifty cubits in height, and was on a great precipice…. The tower of Antonia itself was built upon to the height of forty cubits…. And as the entire structure resembled that of a tower, it contained also four other distinct towers at its corners; whereof the others were but fifty cubits high; whereas that which lay on the southeast corner was seventy cubits high, that from thence the whole temple might be viewed….”
No one can say for sure which was the tower of the third temptation, but it seems to me that the 70-cubit tower of Antonia, overlooking “a great precipice” is most fitting. It was high enough for the Roman guards to see the temple grounds clearly and to watch for any signs of trouble.
It was from this Citadel that the Roman guards rescued the apostle Paul in Acts 21:31, 32, as the people were beating him after a rumor was spread that he had brought a Greek proselyte into the inner court reserved for Jewish men only.
The Citadel also housed the special robes that the high priest wore three times a year during the feast days while ministering in the temple. The Romans had taken charge over the robes as leverage over the high priest and the religious system itself.
Why might the devil lead Jesus to the high tower of this Citadel? First, it overlooked the temple. Second, it was next to a great precipice. Third, as a fortress, it represented safety and security, which formed the backdrop for the temptation itself. Just as the Roman soldiers were given charge over the temple and the high priest, so also is it said that “He will give His angels charge concerning You to guard You” as the true High Priest.
The devil quoted from Psalm 91:11, 12, but Jesus’ response showed how the devil twisted the Scriptures. Luke 4:12 gives Jesus’ response:
12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ [ekpeirazo].”
Jesus responded to the temptation by quoting Deut. 6:16,
16 You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.
Jesus quoted the commandment of Moses, who in turn was referencing an event at the encampment at Rephidim in Exodus 17. The people had run out of water, and the people were threatening to stone Moses. In that context, Moses tells them in Exodus 17:2, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
God then provided water from the rock in verse 6. Exodus 17:7 then says,
7 And he named the place Massah [“test”] and Meribah [“quarrel”], because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
When things seem to go wrong, men naturally assume that God has forsaken them, or that they have somehow taken a wrong path and have forsaken God. But God often hides Himself to test the faith of the people and to see if they will believe His promise never to leave or forsake us.
When men test God, they also quarrel with Him. In other words, they disagree with God’s leading. They think God ought to lead them always in smooth paths in rose gardens. They think God must always prosper them, without realizing that difficulties in life are the things that mature us spiritually. We should learn to be an Amen people who are in agreement with God, regardless of where He leads us. Instead of quarreling with God for leading them to a place with no water, they should have inquired to know how God would provide for them and what they ought to do next.
When men tempt God, the sin is in their disagreement with God. When we disagree with God, it shows the extent that we are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. God tests us in order that we might experience a breakthrough to achieve a higher level of faith and maturity. When men test God, it exposes their level of disagreement.
So the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and tempted Jesus to tempt His heavenly Father. But Jesus never disagreed with the Father, for He said in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” The sense here is not to say that they were the same Person, but to tell us that they had the same viewpoint and had no disagreement, even as sheep hear and follow the voice of their shepherd.
The implication of Jesus’ answer, then, is to say that He had no quarrel with the Father and certainly felt no need to test the Father’s desire or ability to provide Him with security. Note also that Moses was in danger of being stoned, whereas Psalm 91:12 says that the angels of God “will bear you up in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
The third temptation involves the spirit, even as the second is a temptation of the soul, and the first is a temptation of the flesh. For that reason, we may connect the third temptation of Jesus to the third temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, where the tree was desirable to make one wise and to “be like God.” This is the “boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16) that makes men think they are as wise or wiser than God.
Job himself learned this lesson when he encountered difficulties. In the end, God spoke to Job about the pride of man, saying in Job 38:4, 16, 17, 18,
4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding… 16 Have you entered into the springs of the sea? Or have you walked in the recesses of the deep? 17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? 18 Have you understood the expanse of the earth? Tell Me, if you know all this.
Job had to admit “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee?” (Job 40:4). Job learned a universal lesson that man is not God, nor should we tell God what to do or how to govern the universe. God’s plan may seem evil to those who find themselves in trouble, but they ought not to tempt God by disagreeing or disputing with Him.
The devil tempted Jesus in this spiritual way, trying to get Him to jump off the pinnacle to force the Father to take action. The root of this temptation lay in the idea that Jesus should force the Father to catch Him in order to allow the divine plan to continue. But it was not the Father’s will that Jesus should jump off this pinnacle. Jesus did only what He saw His Father do. To do otherwise would show disagreement and manifest the pride of life in humanity, whereby men think they can boast of being wiser than God.
Luke 4:13 concludes,
13 And when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time [kairos].
When was the “opportune time” that the devil might return? Was there still another temptation ahead? Perhaps Luke was setting up his readers for a greater temptation in the garden of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives in Luke 22:39-44. It occurred when the time came for Jesus to be crucified, and Jesus admonished His disciples to pray with Him, so that they “may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:26). This is an admonition to the entire body of Christ, which was soon to experience its own persecution. Yet we find in verse 43,
43 Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.
In the previous temptation, the devil had claimed that the angels of God would keep Him from harm. But in this final temptation, the angel came to strengthen His resolve to fulfill His divine mission. It also implies that the angels of God were to strengthen the Church in order to overcome all things. But that story is for a later time.