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WHY DID THE DEVIL TEMPT JESUS IN THE DESERT?

26 Nov

THE BEGINNING OF JESUS’ PUBLIC MINISTRY

“The baptism of Jesus by John – or at least the mysterious happenings associated with it – seems to herald the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. As John himself indicated, Jesus did not need a baptism unto the remission of sins or unto repentance. It was, then, not so much the simple human event of the washing of Jesus in the Jordan by John that was significant; it was rather the divinely caused events which accompanied that washing. The descent of the Holy Spirit of God in the form of a dove, the voice of the Father saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ – these are the significant happenings on that occasion. These happenings are a message from God announcing that Jesus is most pleasing and acceptable to God. They are the divine seal of approval placed beforehand on the work of Jesus for the accomplishment of God’s plan to save mankind.

THE FURTHER UNFOLDING OF GOD’S SALVATION PLAN

It is not clear from the texts of the Gospel whether or not any others than John and Jesus saw the dove and heard the voice from heaven. But John, as we shall see later, saw the dove and realised the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. He was prepared then to give testimony to Jesus. Jesus himself heard the voice of His Father and felt the power of the Spirit hovering over Him. Under the guidance of the Spirit He withdrew into the desert. There He fasted for forty days and forty nights. At the end of this period God allowed the devil to tempt Him.

GOD ALLOWED THE DEVIL TO TEMPT JESUS

The nature of the temptations by which the devil tried Jesus seems to indicate that he did not know the true identity of Jesus. He probably realised that Jesus was a threat to his own dominion over the lives and destinies of men. At this moment he would try to determine more exactly the nature and strength of this threat.

THE DEVIL DID NOT SEEM TO KNOW THE TRUE IDENTITY OF JESUS

• ‘COMMAND THAT THESE STONES BECOME LOAVES OF BREAD’ (Mt 4:3)

He begins with a temptation that is both subtle and a tribute to the reality of the human nature of Jesus. Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights. He was hungry. The devil appeals to this hunger, thus acknowledging the real humanity of Jesus. ‘If thou art the Son of God,’ he says, ‘command that these stones become loaves of bread’ (Matthew 4:3). But this temptation is not simply an appeal to the physical hunger of Jesus. The devil knows that Jesus is someone highly pleasing to God. He knows that Jesus also realises this. If Jesus is only a man highly favoured by God, then it may be possible to appeal to His vanity, to His pride in His close relationship of God. And so he does not say to Jesus, ‘You are hungry. Serve me and I will give you bread to eat.’ Instead he says, ‘If you are highly favoured by God, if you are so close to God as to be called the ‘Son of God,’ then call upon the divine power to assist you, ask God to work a miracle for you. Command that these stones become loaves of bread.’

THE CUNNING WAY OF HOW THE DEVIL’S DEMAND IS PHRASED

Now the hunger of Christ was a legitimate human need. The desire to satisfy it was a natural and a good desire. But there are ordinary ways to satisfy this need. The devil is tempting Jesus to satisfy the urgings of vanity by a miraculous display of power.

Jesus answers: ‘Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4). In effect Jesus is saying: There is a higher law ruling the world than the law of human desire. Man must not so desire even the food which sustains life that he will seek it outside of or apart from the will and the Law of God. Man must regulate his desires and their satisfaction by the Law of God.

• ‘THROW THYSELF DOWN’ (Mt 4:5-6)

Then the devil led Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and said to Him, ‘If thou art the Son of God, throw thyself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge concerning thee; and upon their hands they shall bear thee up, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone’ ‘(Matthew 4:5-6). Here again the devil tries to appeal to vanity.

If Jesus is the Messias, the One sent by God to redeem Israel, then surely God will care for Him. God will not allow Him to be injured. Moreover, by working such a spectacular miracle before the crowd assembled in the Temple Jesus can begin His work in a blaze of glory; He can attract many men to Himself at once. But apparently it was not God’s will that Jesus should act in this way. Jesus therefore rejects the suggestion of the devil and replies, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God’ (Matthew 6:7).

• ‘ALL THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD’ (Mt 4:9)

Finally the devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows Him the kingdoms of the world and says to Him, ‘All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me’ (Matthew 4:9). In his first two attempts the devil has failed to induce Jesus to make a show of His power.

Now He tries to seduce Jesus with the promise of power over all the kingdoms of the world. It is true, of course, that the devil by his temptations has caused man to forget God and to that extent has made himself the master of the world. But it is not true that the world is wholly his. In fact, at this moment he probably fears that Jesus has been sent by God to wrest the world from such dominion as he possesses over it. If Jesus be merely a man, perhaps he can be tempted by offering him the rule of the world.

‘HE DEPARTED FROM HIM FOR A WHILE’ (Lk 4:13)

But Jesus has not come to establish an earthly kingdom. He answers, ‘Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘The Lord thy God shalt thou worship and him only shalt thou serve” (Matthew 4:10). At these words the devil left Him. Jesus had won the victory. But, as St Luke suggests, the devil will return at some later time to resume the struggle. ‘He departed from him for a while’ (Luke 4:13).

THE NEW HEAD OF THE HUMAN RACE

Since this temptation of Jesus by the devil took place in secret, with no witnesses, it is obvious that it became known only later when Jesus Himself must have told it to His followers. Why did God allow it to take place? The ways of God, we know, are not fully understood by men. This much at least we can conjecture: as Adam, the first head of the human race, had in the beginning of his work in the world fallen victim to the temptation of the devil, so it was fitting that Jesus, Whom St Paul will later speak of as the new head of the human race, should encounter the devil face to face and overcome him.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959

 

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