The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

  Paul, Romans 12:2

Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if men imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.  Although Peter cannot achieve his own conversion, he can leave his nets.

  – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

The Encounter

1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. 

 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” 

 4Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.” 

 5The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” 

 8Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” 

 9The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10For it is written: 

   ” ‘He will command his angels concerning you
      to guard you carefully;
 11they will lift you up in their hands,
      so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” 

 12Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” 

 13When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. 

Luke 4:1-13

Some Observations

“Full of the Holy Spirit . . . [Jesus] was led by the Spirit in the desert.”  Going into the desert alone (no water, food, shelter, companionship) is not something Jesus, nor any human, would voluntarily seek.

Evidence of the Spirit’s leading may, in some or possibly many cases, have us participating in things that do not come naturally in the flesh, i.e., doing something that involves personal sacrifice or going somewhere/doing something that has no apparent personal upside or creates great uncertainty.  We should aspire to this same fullness and sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading that we will see throughout Jesus’ life; by default, we are very dependent on our own senses and desires to “guide us.”  Alternately, we can often find ourselves guided by responding reactively to our environment and all daily demands and distractions.

Our own senses and logic may lead us into what appears to be more safe and reasonable lives, but likely to be far from the “life to the full” that Jesus promises those who follow him.

In countering the devil’s temptations, every response from Jesus is a direct quote from Scripture.  Deuteronomy 8:3 – “Man does not live on bread alone.”  Deuteronomy 6:13 – “’Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”  Deuteronomy 6:16 – “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  

Jesus obviously had studied Scripture closely (as noted yesterday) and memorized a great deal of it.  He does not improvise or use his own logic to come up with a response, but rather uses Scripture as his direct source.

In Jesus’ response to the first temptation, the version in the Gospel of Matthew reads: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” – again reinforcing the primacy of Scripture.  As man, Jesus experienced temptation as we do.  He was literally very hungry after not eating for 40 days (and would, by definition, be tempted by other human appetites).

He is then tempted with power and adulation, but responds that we should “worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”  Of course, we are tempted similarly by success, status, money, consumerism, experiences and various other sensual indulgences – what does it mean practically to worship God each day with an intensity that overwhelms these other cravings?

The last temptation is to willfully do something that logically would result in harm, i.e., the law of gravity would ensure that jumping off the highest point in the temple would result in injury or death unless God miraculously intervened (this is the temptation).  Jesus answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  An implication is that, while God has saved us through Christ and often intervenes when we do foolish things (I’ve sure done my share), we have been given minds and intellect to make wise decisions.  We are stewards that should not act imprudently and then expect God to ”bail us out.”

The passage ends noting that the devil left him “until an opportune time.”  Jesus will be tempted many more times, culminating at the Garden of Gethsemane with the temptation to resist drinking from the cup that is the will of his Father as our source of redemption.  

We must expect the same – as true disciples of Jesus, even more so.  May we be open to the Spirit’s leading, guided by the words given to us by God to frame our lives.


“[Blessed is the man whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.  Whatever he does prospers.”

  Psalm 1:2, 3

A Prayer

“You have filled my heart with greater joy than when grain and new wine abound.  I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

  Psalm 4:7, 8