Today’s meditation comes from Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13.
For the first thirty years of Jesus’ life, He did nothing that the gospel writers saw fit to record, save for the one episode where He remained behind in the temple at twelve years of age, listening at the teachers’ feet and astounding them with His wisdom (Luke 2:41-52). He otherwise appeared to be a normal young man, until He was anointed by the Holy Spirit and received power from on high. This marked the beginning of His ministry. He had the power to do miracles at this point, but He had never yet performed one. Strangely, the first thing the Holy Spirit did was lead Him into the wilderness, to be tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1). The Holy Spirit actually intended for the temptations to occur. Yet we know God never leads us into temptation (Matthew 6:13, James 1:13); Jesus was a special case, for this too. Why?
In my retelling, Jesus recited to Himself the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, believing that His own time in the wilderness was a parallel of theirs. They left Egypt (the life they knew), just as He left His old life of obscurity behind. They had never before known power, and then suddenly they were delivered with great signs and wonders. Then the Lord drove them into the wilderness, where they confronted daily needs, and with them, temptations to doubt the Lord’s goodness and provision. The story in the Old Testament does not record that it was Satan stirring up the people against the Lord, but then, the Old Testament had (almost) no doctrine of Satan. Presumably he was there, though, and the Israelites gave right in, every time. In order for Jesus to be our perfect sacrifice and substitute, He needed to be tempted in all ways as we were, and yet remain without sin (Hebrews 4:15). So the first temptation, according to both versions of this story in Matthew and Luke, was turning stone into bread. This parallels the temptations of the Israelites in the wilderness: much of their grumblings against the Lord had to do with lack of food and water. Notice that Satan waited to offer this temptation to Jesus until he’d been fasting for forty days, and was literally beginning to starve. Bread was not a luxury, but a legitimate need at this point. Yet would He trust in the Father to provide, or take matters into His own hands? If He did the latter, it would demonstrate potentially two things: lack of trust in God’s provision, and also doubt in His own identity.
It’s interesting that Satan begins two of his temptations with “If You are the Son of God.” These would not have been temptations if Jesus had no inclination to doubt who He was. Yet after thirty years of doing nothing remarkable, how could He not? Giving in to this doubt would have been sin, though, as “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23), and the root of all sin is unbelief (John 16:9).
The order of the second and third temptations varies in the two accounts in Matthew and Luke, though the content was the same. According to 1 John 2:16, there are only three areas in which Satan tempts us: the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The temptation to turn stone to bread was lust of the flesh: putting the needs of His body above following God. He responded to this temptation by comparing God’s Word to bread: no doubt this was exactly what the original manna in the wilderness was meant to represent.
Pride of life would have been showing off by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple, just to prove to the Jews (and to Himself) that He had the power to call angels to His assistance. Satan even tried to twist scripture to convince Jesus to fall for this one, adding to and omitting portions of Psalm 91 to suit his purposes. Satan’s version of Psalm 91 made it sound as though God had promised carte blanche: complete protection under any and all circumstances. But Jesus understood that His power was not to be spent upon His own lusts (James 4:3)—and indeed, He did not benefit personally from any of the miracles He performed (unless you count taking His portion from the food He multiplied when feeding the 5000 and the 4000). Here too, Jesus responds to the temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy, as He does with all three. As Paul tells us, the Word is a sword, our only offensive weapon against the enemy (Ephesians 6:17).
The last temptation according to Matthew’s account was the lust of the eyes, as He beheld all the glittering kingdoms of the world. Luke’s gospel records Satan’s assertion, “this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish” (Luke 4:6). Notice that Jesus didn’t contradict this: the earth and all its kingdoms were Satan’s, and they both knew it. Jesus had come to earth, in part, to regain the authority that Adam had lost. Here, Satan offered it to Him freely. I doubt Satan realized that the alternative was the cross, since Paul tells us that if he had understood this, he would never have crucified Him (1 Corinthians 2:8). But Jesus knew it, which presumably made the offer all the more enticing. Yet even if Satan had kept his end of the bargain (which is doubtful), regaining authority for Himself only was never Jesus’ goal. He wanted us back, and there was only one way to get us. If Jesus had sinned, He could not have become the perfect Lamb of God, our substitutionary sacrifice. He could not have ushered in the New Covenant.
Fictionalized Retelling (from Jesus’ POV)
It was time.
I had, from time to time over the last six months, lingered some distance away from the Jordan River as my cousin John baptized the hoards of Israel who came to him seeking repentance. I watched smiling, laughing, and sometimes weeping as the prodigals came home.
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” I murmured aloud on more than one occasion, bursting with pride in my cousin. But I had never revealed my presence to him over the past six months. His fame grew, though I remained in obscurity.
My heart hammered in my chest in a blend of excitement and anticipation as I made my way right down to the banks of the Jordan this time. John was waist deep in the river, helping a middle aged man plunge beneath the waters and come back up again, his nose plugged and eyes closed while everyone around him cheered. Grinning, John released him.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance, friend!” John shouted after the man as he waded toward his friends, arms thrust into the air in victory and face streaming with water.
John turned to see who was next, and our eyes locked. His smile froze while mine widened. Understanding struck him.
“Of course it’s you.” He was too far away and the rushing water was too loud for me to hear him, but I saw his lips form the words and his eyes fill with tears. Then he started laughing, even as the tears spilled over onto his cheeks. Answering tears pricked in my own eyes. I had always imagined this moment: how John would react when he realized that I was the Messiah. The reality was better.
“Behold!” John bellowed to everyone around him, making a grand sweeping gesture to me with one hand as he wiped his cheeks with the other. “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’ I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water.”
My chest felt like it might burst with love for My cousin. I waded up to him as he spoke, positioning Myself to be baptized as the others before Me had done. His expression changed from awestruck to appalled, and he held up his hands in protest.
“I need to be baptized by You,” he protested, “and are You coming to me?”
“Let it be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” I told him.
He shook his head, but in wonder, not refusal. I knelt down, plugged My nose, and closed My eyes, as My cousin took hold of my shoulders and lowered Me below the chilly rushing waters. He lifted Me out again, and I shook My hair and beard, water streaming from My face as I wiped it away. The sky above us was cloudless that day, but even so, it seemed to part like a pair of blue curtains. Beyond it, I saw the scene Ezekiel had described: a still sapphire sea, and a throne surrounded by an emerald rainbow. The One on the throne was all flame and rainbow, more glorious than the sun.
“Father,” I whispered. It was the first time I had ever seen Him with My human eyes.
He rose to His feet, and threw something in the air. As it descended through the parted sky, I could make out the form of a gleaming white dove. It landed on My shoulder.
“Holy Spirit!” I breathed, like embracing an old friend. He burned Me, but without pain, as Moses’ bush had burned without being consumed.
“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” My Father declared.
With that, the sky rolled back across the heavenly scene like a scroll. The dove too had vanished, and the burning faded—but He was upon Me still, just like He had come upon the prophets of old in power. I knew He would be with Me from now on, until My mission here was complete.
I turned to John, curious whether he had seen and heard what I had, or whether that had just been for Me. His awestruck expression, still turned toward the sky, told Me all I needed to know. Then he looked back at Me.
“How long have You known?” he murmured.
I smiled back at him. “As far back as I can remember.”
“And yet You never told me!” It was an accusation, but then he held up a hand and said, “No no, I understand. It was better this way. I’d have asked far too many questions, though by all rights I should have guessed.” He shook his head and added to himself, “I must have been intentionally blinded until now; it’s the most obvious thing in the world—Jesus! where are You going?”
I was wading back to the banks, and already the crowds had parted to make way for Me. I pointed up to the heavens. “The Spirit compels Me away from here just as surely as if He tugged Me by the hand. I must go.”
“Where?” John called after me. “I’ll come with You!”
“Into the wilderness, and I must go alone,” I called, giving him an apologetic glance. “You, meanwhile, still have work to do here.” I cast him one more grin, and made my way through the crowds gazing at Me with amazement on the banks, My robes streaming with water and gathering mud at the hems.
I walked out into the lonely places of Israel, as the chatter of the crowds grew distant behind Me. My clothing dried and stiffened with the sediment from the Jordan as the day progressed. Wild animals heard my footsteps and fled as I drew near. The Holy Spirit pulled me deeper and deeper into the wilderness.
Yet there was another presence here too, besides Him and Me. I felt, though I did not see him yet. His hatred pulsed all around Me, like the heat radiating from the sun. It was almost tangible.
I made camp that first night after the sun went down, and lay My head upon a flat stone for a pillow. I closed My eyes. It was then that I heard the first whispers.
You imagined it all, Satan taunted. There was no open heaven, no Father, no Holy Spirit. You suffer from delusions of grandeur. What are You but a poor dead carpenter’s son?
I huffed and turned over. “It just happened today,” I said aloud. “At least have the decency to wait a few days before you try to make Me doubt it.”
He fell silent for perhaps an hour. Then when I hovered in that space between sleep and waking, he whispered, You’re not the Messiah. You’ve never done any miracles in your life. John is greater than You are!
I groaned, mostly annoyed to be disturbed out of slumber. Aloud, I countered in a voice thick with sleep, “Born in Bethlehem, of a virgin, from the tribe of Judah and of the line of David. I was called out of Egypt, while Herod massacred the children two and under at the time of my birth. My cousin, also born of a miracle, came in the spirit and power of Elijah and has been my forerunner for six months…” I kept quoting prophecies I had fulfilled already until I sensed that Satan had given up for the night. Then I breathed a sigh of relief, and drifted off at last.
Day and night, this cycle repeated—intensely for the first three days, when I was hungriest. By the third day, my hunger receded, and so did the whispers. After that, Satan’s daily temptations seemed almost halfhearted, and he gave up easily.
“Isn’t that just like you,” I panted to him aloud as I crested a hill with a large tree where I could rest in the shade. “Not one to waste your efforts in a battle you know you cannot win!”
I knew I would not feel hunger again for the most part until I literally began to starve, which would happen around day forty. I did not know how long the Holy Spirit intended for me to spend out in the wilderness, though I guessed forty days and nights—that number recurred throughout scripture. The hardest battle would come near the end, when I was at my weakest, both physically and emotionally.
Until then, I walked, I rested, and just when I could stand my thirst no more, I came across streams and springs where I slaked my parched tongue. I quoted the Pentateuch to Myself aloud. I sang the Psalms, inventing melodies for some of them that had never been set to music in My day. I talked to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, though I got no more audible or miraculous responses as I had in the Jordan.
What are You doing out here? What is the point? Satan whispered several weeks in.
“Symbolism,” I informed him, as much for My benefit as for his. “The Israelites left their old life in Egypt, were ‘baptized’ as they passed through the Red Sea, and entered the wilderness, where they learned trust and dependence upon God day by day, despite constant opportunities to doubt. Forty years for them; forty days for Me. Then they entered the Promised Land, through the Jordan at flood stage. Jordan means ‘destroyer,’ which symbolizes you, of course. The waters of the ‘destroyer’ parted and were cut off all the way back to the city called Adam. It was, for them, as if the fall had never happened, as long as they remained on the right side of the covenant. You had no power over them anymore. Only then did they began their work of taking territory and slaying giants. In the same way, after I defeat you in the wilderness, then My ministry will begin. Then I will take down your ‘giants’ of sickness, death, and disease, set the captives free, and proclaim the good news of the kingdom.”
If this is Your wilderness experience like what the Israelites experienced, then where is your manna? Satan sneered. God fed the Israelites, but He’s happy to let You starve. You know why? You’re not really His son. He’ll let You die out here like the blasphemer You are.
I rolled My eyes at this attempt, though in truth, My stomach responded differently. It growled at the thought of manna.
The awakened hunger persisted after that. At first upon is return, it gnawed here and there and then quieted for the rest of the day. It was worse on the days when I did not come upon a stream. A belly heavy with water could soothe the ravenous beast for awhile.
By day forty, though, the hunger was constant and nearly unbearable. I hardly felt the Holy Spirit’s presence at all, but Satan’s whispers seemed always just behind Me.
I squinted against the glare of the midday sun, not sure if My eyes were playing tricks on Me. But surely if I were to see a mirage, the shriveled, misshapen being before Me is not what I would have conjured.
“Satan,” I greeted the creature. I had never seen him before with My human eyes, yet I recognized him at once. I looked him up and down, noting the leathery skin like that of a bat, the emaciated features, the beady flashing red eyes. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” I commented. My human eyes had never beheld him in his pre-fall glory either, but I knew the story from Isaiah.
His lip curled at this, returning the inspection. “I could say the same of You, if You truly were who You claimed to be. But You and I both know You’re not. At least I once glowed brighter than the morning star. You, on the other hand…” he gave a wheezy laugh. “A delusional carpenter whom God will permit to die of starvation in the wilderness, whose carcass will be picked clean by the vultures.”
“How well-named you are,” I retorted. Satan meant accuser.
“If You are the Son of God,” he returned, circling Me like one of the vultures he had referenced, “command that these stones become bread.” He gestured at a large boulder at my feet.
Immediately My stomach gave a loud, painful growl. Unbidden, I saw the hot loaf in My mind’s eye, dripping with butter, sweetened with honey. My mouth flooded with saliva I could ill afford to spare: I was dehydrated enough.
But I had not quoted the Pentateuch for forty days and nights for nothing. I knew the stories: God gave Moses the rod that he used in power to deliver the Israelites from every one of their challenges, and yet he was only to use it as God had prescribed. He could not bring water out of any rock, nor could he do it by any method he chose. When he forgot this, he had forfeited his own right to enter the Promised Land. In the same way, the power of the Holy Spirit was Mine, but I could not use it when and how I pleased—lest I forfeit My Promised Land.
“It is written,” I panted back, swallowing back the saliva, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” Satan knew the reference as I did: it was from Deuteronomy. His beady eyes flashed, but he tried to control his expression. I should have felt a flash of triumph, but all I felt was hungry.
Satan circled Me, and fastened his reptilian hands upon My wrists. In a whirl of wind and the blink of an eye, he spirited us together to the pinnacle of the temple of Jerusalem. My eyes widened and I took a step back from the ledge, as down below I saw the bustle of the crowd of worshippers, or priests bearing lambs or goats they had just bought and washed for sacrifice. They did not seem to see us—yet.
“Prince of the power of the air,” I murmured to Myself, amazed. It was an impressive trick.
He smirked at me, and gave an exaggerated little bow. Then his proud expression hardened and he took a step closer to me—too close. “If You are the Son of God,” he hissed, and gestured at the ledge casually, “throw Yourself down.” His words again conjured a clear picture in my mind: the gasps, the cheers, the crowds flocking to Me in amazement. What a spectacular way to announce My ministry! Satan shrugged and added, “For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”
I gnashed My teeth together. That was a misquote of Psalm 91. Technically it was correct, but it was completely out of context. It angered Me how subtle his lies were, though less for Myself, and more for all those precious ones whom I knew he would lead astray with exactly this kind of deceit throughout the ages. I retorted, “It is also written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God!'” This was also from Deuteronomy. “Don’t play this game with Me, Satan. You think you know the word better than I do? I am the Word. You cannot win.”
“Oh, can’t I?” he whispered back, clutching My wrists in his fists once again. I did not know where he planned to take Me now, but I knew he would choose a different tactic this time. He couldn’t make Me doubt My identity, so—
I caught My breath. We were at the top of a snow-capped mountain, well above the clouds, though I did not feel cold. This was a vision, I realized. I looked down, and all around me I saw—time. All of it. From the beginning to the end, every glittering kingdom of earth merged with one another, their rising and falling, their wealth and their greatness. But even more than this, I saw the people in those kingdoms: great and small, young and old, good and evil. My heart ached. They were why I had come. I longed for them, so desperately—My sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, all lost and hopeless and hurting without Me!
Satan leaned so close to My ear that I could feel his breath upon My neck.
“All this authority I will give you, and their glory. It has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. If You will fall down and worship me, all will be Yours.”
I whirled on him, horrified at the longing I felt. Adam gave the authority of all the earth to him, and he offered it back to Me now. It was precisely what I had come to reclaim, and he now offered Me a shortcut—without the sacrifice.
Without the cross.
“Away with you, Satan!” I snapped. “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve!'”
His expression sank into a deep scowl, and he bared his pointed yellowed teeth at Me. Then in a whirlwind, he was gone. I found Myself alone in the wilderness once again, on My hands and knees, panting.
Then I felt a hand on My shoulder. I jerked back, expecting to see Satan once again, but I softened when I saw a beautiful face I somehow also recognized.
He smiled at me tenderly, and gestured behind him. There, I saw a cake sizzling upon a stone, and a jug of water. My stomach gave an answering, painful growl. I thought at once of the story of Elijah in the wilderness as he fled to Mount Sinai, and an angel met him along the way with just such refreshment as this.
Gabriel hovered just behind me as I wolfed down the repast, closing My eyes in bliss as I savored the flavors. The cake was smaller than I would have liked, but I also knew better than to break such a long fast with a large meal. Nevertheless, had I had the option, it would have been hard to resist.
When I had finished, I turned back to Gabriel.
“I wonder that I have never met him before,” I said, meaning Satan. “But then, I’ve never drawn attention to Myself before.”
The angel nodded, and pointed at the sky with a slight smirk. “That got his attention, I think.”
I laughed, and then grew thoughtful. “Yes. But I needed it, too.” Of course, I literally needed the power of the Spirit to begin My ministry—but what I meant was that I had emotionally needed the open vision and the Father’s voice, too. After thirty years of obscurity, I had not doubted My identity per se, but the overt confirmation had certainly been a relief. Gabriel understood this.
“That has always been the struggle,” Gabriel agreed. “Physical manifestations of power alert Satan to where the battle is.” Then he added, “He gave up for now, but he’ll be back, whenever he thinks You’re at Your most vulnerable. He’s like the Amalekites in that way.”
I gave a short laugh, catching the reference to the tribe that had first attacked the Israelites in the wilderness by picking off the weak and stragglers among them. “Of course he is. The Amalekites got that strategy from him.” I sighed and mused to Myself, “I’ll have to be careful. Anything I say plainly or do in the natural realm is double-edged: he can see or hear it just as surely as those for whom it is intended. Which is why so many of the prophets spoke in mysteries and dark sayings.”
Gabriel sank down to the ground beside Me, mimicking My posture with his arms around his knees. “He never understood any of the prophecies about You until it was too late,” the angel agreed. “Oh, he knew vaguely of course: Seed of Eve, line of Abraham, and that kind of thing—so he did his best to corrupt the earth, keep Abraham’s line barren until there were too many of them to bother with that strategy, and then kill or corrupt the Jews in general. But if he could have narrowed it down to Your exact line…” He shook his head. “Even at the time of Your birth, the best he could do was inspire Herod to kill all the babies two and under in Israel. He didn’t understand that—”
“‘Out of Egypt I have called My Son,'” I finished, quoting from Hosea.
Gabriel nodded. “Right. He was looking for you in the wrong country. The truth was written in black and white—”
“But in a dark saying,” I agreed, and bit My lip. I thought of David’s seemingly superfluous musical gift of the harp, which turned out to be his ticket into Saul’s palace. I, likewise, had a gift for story telling. Now I understood why. I looked up at Gabriel.
“I am to teach the people in parables,” I realized. “So that ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding’…”
“Except for those whose hearts have been prepared to perceive and to understand,” Gabriel agreed.
“By My cousin.” I gave a short laugh, and then sighed. “Even then, I’ll have to be careful what I say. He’ll be watching Me very closely from now on.”
Gabriel stood and brushed himself off, which was also My cue that it was time to head back to Capernaum.
“Yes,” he said, “I daresay Satan won’t take his eyes off of You for a second, from this moment on.”
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