Lent begins today, often observed with 40 days of abstinence from something we enjoy leading up to Easter. It’s modelled on the stories in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 of Jesus fasting in the wilderness after his baptism and before the beginning of his ministry.
Each of them tells of him being tempted by the devil. The temptations are in a slightly different order in each Gospel, though they are essentially the same: he’s tempted to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, and to worship Satan in return for all the kingdoms of the world. The way the stories are told puts them at the end of the 40 days in the wilderness. It’s like a gladiatorial encounter: Jesus does formal battle with the devil. But that is a literary device: in the real world, these are the temptations Jesus faced every day, heightened and sharpened as they probably were by hunger and thirst. So what do they mean, and what do they teach us today?
1. Stones into bread
It’s sometimes suggested that Jesus was being tempted to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger. This is probably not what is at stake. Instead, he is being tempted to repeat the miracle of the manna in Exodus 16, which fed the Israelites when they had run out of food. In Deuteronomy 8:3 Moses warns the people that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out from the mouth of the Lord” – the verse quoted by Jesus when he answers the devil in Matthew 4:4.
Why didn’t he do it, though?
The answer is that he refused to demonstrate his power in an unanswerable, overpowering fashion. Rather than compel people’s obedience, he will ask for their trust.
2. The pinnacle of the Temple
The devil tells Jesus to prove that God loves and protects him by throwing himself down from the highest point of the city. He quotes Psalm 91:11-12, where the psalmist says the angels will “lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone”.
This is another temptation for Jesus to prove his power by a sort of magic trick. He refuses this temptation because Moses commands, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” In other words, the relationship Jesus will ask from his disciples during his ministry is the same as the relationship he has with his Father. The Father’s care doesn’t need to be proved. It is based on loving trust.
3. The kingdoms of the world
“All this I will give you,” says the devil, “if only you will bow down and worship me.” From our perspective, this is the oddest of all the temptations. We believe Jesus “being in very nature God… made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7). The devil was offering Jesus less than what he had already given up, at a cost that was too high whatever the reward.
But this is a very perceptive temptation. We do inflate the values of this world far beyond what they are really worth. We don’t keep our eyes on the prize, and we settle for less than we ought. Jesus refuses to compromise. The great Christian writer and thinker GK Chesterton said that the tendency of the world is to see things in shades of grey; the duty of the Christian is to see them in black and white.
The temptations faced by Jesus are temptations faced by all of us: to use unworthy methods to advance the Kingdom, to fail in love and trust, and to settle for spiritual second best. He met them with faith, prayer and scripture; so must we.