Immediately after his baptism, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to fast and pray. That’s why he probably thought he was going there, anyway. Scripture says the Holy Spirit led him there explicitly to be tempted by the devil.
Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness prepared him for his ministry. In this post, I’d like to explore how they prepared him for the events of Holy Week.
A friend of mine once counted all the verses in the gospels and determined that 40% of them deal with Holy Week. That is, the gospels describe the period between the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his appearances to his disciples on Easter in more detail than any other part of Jesus’ life.
What can the temptations of Christ in the desert show us about the last week of his earthly life?
Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness
In a way, all three of the temptations described in the gospels (I’m using the account in Matthew 4:1-11) have two things in common:
- Satan tried to cast doubt on Jesus’ identity, trying to induce him to prove to Satan that he was indeed who God said he was.
- Satan showed Jesus easy ways to meet both his immediate needs and the needs he could anticipate in his ministry. That is, they invited him to take shortcuts. But the Son could do only what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19).
But each one uniquely tried to exploit different possible weakness.
The temptation to security
After 40 days without food, Jesus was hungry. Who wouldn’t be? Some of the stones may have reminded him of bread. Satan reminded him of how easily he could turn them into bread and satisfy his hunger.
Now, if you or I were hungry and alone in the desert, we might think some of the stones looked like loaves of bread. But we wouldn’t be tempted to turn them into bread and eat them. Why not? Because we don’t have that ability.
Jesus knew he had miracle working power, but he had never seen the Father turn stones into bread. He had also never seen God do any mighty act for his own security or convenience.
The miracles of the Bible validate that God is Lord over creation. They validate that he is who he says he is and that he can do anything that requires exertion of power. Many are acts of compassion. Turning stones to bread out in the middle of nowhere, with no possible ministry purpose, doesn’t fit the pattern.
So Jesus rejected this temptation with an appropriate scripture.
The temptation to popularity
Satan immediately whisked Jesus from the desert to the top of the temple and dared Jesus to jump off. After all, a scripture promised that angels would rescue him.
When I try to imagine the scene, people below must have seen a man suddenly appear on the top of the temple. What would they think if he jumped off and didn’t splatter on impact? If, in fact, angels rescued him before he hit the ground?
All he would need to do was announce to the startled crowd that he was the Messiah. They would surely have followed him anywhere. What a spectacular way to gain a following!
But that’s exactly the kind of following Jesus worked so hard to avoid. (See, for example, John 2:23-24.)
And if he had jumped to prove a point, would the angels really have preserved his life? Presuming on the scripture Satan quoted would have violated the clear commandment of another. Jesus had never seen the Father do anything of the kind, so he rejected Satan’s invitation by quoting that commandment.
The temptation to control
Next, Satan took Jesus to a high mountain where he could see the splendor of all the world’s kingdoms. Adam had chosen to obey Satan rather than God, so Satan legitimately became the god of this world. It lawfully belonged to Satan.
Now Satan offered to give Jesus control of all of it, on one condition. Satan wanted just one little act of worship.
From Genesis 3:15 onward, Scripture had promised that God would suffer immensely in order to take back the territory that Satan stole. Satan was offering to relinquish it peacefully. That way, there would be no need for Jesus to be the man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. He could avoid the cross.
He would have also forfeited his ability to operate under the power of God. By worshiping Satan, Jesus would have become Satan’s servant.
But again, Jesus never saw the Father making deals with Satan. Jesus’ entire task in becoming a man was to die as a suitable sacrifice for sin, the therefore wrest control of the world from Satan by force.
So again, Jesus rejected the temptation with an appropriate scripture. The devil departed. Angels came and ministered to Jesus.
An additional temptation to despairAfter the failure of these temptations of Christ in the desert, Satan left him only for a while. He waited for an opportune time to return with new temptations (Luke 4:13). It could not have been a long time in coming. Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted in all the same ways we are.
Satan gave him plenty of opportunity to kill (either physically or by improper anger), to steal, to sin sexually, etc.
Isaiah prophecies portray an even more subtle temptation. In the second of the four “Servant songs” (Isaiah 49:1-6), the Servant (Jesus) calls attention to his divine appointment to display God’s splendor. But then he complains, “I have labored to no purpose. I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (v. 4, NIV).
When would Jesus have been tempted to such despair?
- When he healed ten lepers, he expressed disappointment that only one, and a foreigner at that, came back to thank him (Luke 17:17).
- More than once, he was disappointed with the utter cluelessness of his chosen disciples (Luke 9:41 at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration, for example).
- After he collected a large and enthusiastic following, they began to fall away (Mark 14:27, John 6:66).
- How much did people fall away from Jesus? After his entire teaching ministry, including a post-resurrection appearance to 500 people at once, only 120 followers showed up for the Pentecost prayer service.
Yet that in that same verse, the Servant concludes, “Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
It’s only human to view success or failure according to visible results. But only God can truly judge success or failure, and he doesn’t look at it from a human viewpoint. Human though he is, Jesus ultimately didn’t, either.
The temptations and the events of Holy Week
Jesus’ wilderness experience worked itself out in different ways at different points in his ministry.
At the culmination of his ministry, he chose not to do some things that he had done earlier without hesitation.
The stakes were higher, so the sacrifices greater.
If Jesus had wanted security, he could have simply stayed away from Jerusalem. He had once attended the Feast of Tabernacles in secret, because he knew the Jewish leadership wanted to kill him (John 7:1-5, 10). This time he rode into town in a great public spectacle.
The throng that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday were probably visitors from Galilee, where he was popular. Residents of Jerusalem viewed him with more suspicion.
So wouldn’t this week be a good time for some miracles to validate his ministry?
Jesus cursed a fig tree before he made his entrance. No one but his disciples noticed. The gospels do not describe a single miracle during Holy Week. But Jesus made a whip, took it to the temple, and drove out the money changers. Not exactly the way to become popular in Jerusalem!
But from all appearances, he exercised no control at all.
- He allowed Judas to betray him.
- He allowed the temple guards to arrest him.
- He allowed himself to be taken to Annas, then Caiaphas, then Pilate, then Herod, and ultimately to Golgotha without resistance.
- He allowed himself to be whipped, beaten, and mocked.
Only by such extreme weakness could he seize control of the world from Satan by force.
Whatever Jesus may have felt about the meager fruits of his ministry, he knew he had to die by crucifixion. He didn’t want to. He prayed earnestly in Gethsemane for a Plan B. Then he suffered willingly.
On the cross, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Was that a cry of despair? Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. The first part of that psalm describes crucifixion, not even imagined in David’s time, in grisly detail. But it ends exultantly as a song of triumph.
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it! – Psalm 22:22-31 NIV