Immediately after His baptism, Jesus felt compelled to go out into the wilderness alone to meditate, to pray – and to do battle with the devil.
Why was this necessary? Why did He not embark on His public ministry straight away?
Up until then, He had been living a relatively ordinary life as a ‘private’ person and subject only to ordinary, ‘everyday’ temptations; but He was about to thrust Himself into the spotlight, as Israel’s Messiah – and as a result He would be subjected to a much more powerful assault. He needed to prepare Himself beforehand for the special temptations He would face as Messiah: temptations to bribe, force or dazzle people into believing Him and following Him.
Forty days of testing (verse 2)
Many of the events of Jesus’ life ‘recap’ the history of God’s people: his infancy spent in Egypt, for example (Matthew 2:13-15). His 40-day fast in the desert mirrors Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, learning to depend on God for everything (Deuteronomy 8:1-5). During that time, Israel tested God by demanding food (Exodus 16), by demanding proof that God was with them (Exodus 17:1-7), and by worshipping an idol (Exodus 32). Jesus faced very similar tests – but, unlike the Israelites, He passed them.
Man does not live by bread alone (verses 3,4)
On one level, Jesus was being tempted to satisfy His own hunger by making use of His power to perform miracles. But there was a deeper issue at stake: in a world full of very obvious physical needs and suffering, should He relieve them all? Feeding the hungry and healing the sick would certainly make Him popular – but it would also mean that people would follow Him solely because they wanted an easy, trouble-free life (John 6:26).
Jesus certainly promised His followers life “to the full”. (John 10:10) But not a life free from poverty, suffering or persecution (Matthew 8:18-20). Christian preachers have often been tempted to “bribe” people into becoming Christians by promising them the resolution of all their problems – but while knowing Jesus certainly transforms one’s life, it creates new problems and challenges as well as dealing with old ones. If the model of a Christian life is the apostle Paul’s life, then it is anything but an easy ride (II Corinthians 11:16-29)!
Worship the Lord only (verses 5-8)
Can the Kingdom of God be created in the same way as a ‘secular’ empire – by force? Does the end justify the means? Whereas worldly powers set out to impress and overawe their subjects, Christ came as a servant – and expects the leaders of His people to do the same. (Luke 22:24-27) No doubt He would have been more ‘successful’ (in the short term) if He had allowed His disciples to use violence. But that is not how God operates (John 18:36).
One of the Church’s biggest historical mistakes was to ally itself with the secular power of the Roman Empire. Christianity became identified with government, and rulers were encouraged to declare all their subjects “Christian” by decree. But we need to recognise that we can’t make people Christian by legislation, any more than we can make them Christian by force. God’s Kingdom is spread by very different methods. (II Corinthians 10:1-5)
Do not put God to the test (verses 9-12)
On several occasions people demanded that Jesus perform a miracle to ‘prove’ who He was (e.g. Matthew 16:1-4). But He always pointed them to the evidence of the miracles He had already done (and the lives He had transformed – Luke 7:22) and to His future Resurrection. He would not conform to their expectations or follow anyone else’s agenda.
Satan quoted Scripture to justify his case. And a case can be made for almost any course of action – if you are sufficiently selective in what you quote! But Jesus knew the Scriptures well enough to discern the fundamental principles, which must not be contradicted. God’s promises must be interpreted in the light of God’s commands.