9 things you need to know about the mysterious temptation of Jesus

Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and then was tempted by the devil. What is going on in this mysterious incident?
Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and then was tempted by the devil. What is going on in this mysterious incident? (photo: Register Files)

This Sunday the gospel reading speaks of a mysterious event, just after Jesus' baptism, in which he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness.

How could Jesus--the All-Holy Son of God--be tempted?

Why did this event happen, and what was going on?

Here are 9 things you need to know about Jesus' "temptations" . . . and ours.


1. Why did Jesus go into the desert after his Baptism?

Empowered and led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert in preparation for his ministry, which his baptism inaugurated. Click here for more information on his baptism.

Forty days recalls various periods of preparation in the Old Testament, including the forty days Moses spent fasting and with God on Mt. Zion at the giving of the Law (Ex. 34:28), the forty days the Israelites spent spying out the Promised Land (Num. 13:25), and the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land (Num. 14:34). 


2. How could Jesus, who is All-Holy, be tempted?

The Greek word used here for temptation (peirazo) does not indicate that Jesus had the disordered desire that we refer to in English as temptation. Instead, it means "to try," "to attempt." Here the devil tries to get Jesus to sin--and fails.

The Catechism notes:

The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives among wild beasts, and angels minister to him. At the end of this time Satan tempts him three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time” (Lk. 4:13) [CCC 538].

It also notes that the trials the devil puts Jesus to recapitulate those faced by Adam and Israel in the desert (CCC 538).

Observe that when Jesus responds to the devil, in each case he quotes from Deuteronomy--the final presentation of the Law that Moses gave the Israelites before their entry into the Promised Land. He thus adheres to and fulfills the Law that Israel broke.


3. Jesus' first trial: forbidden food

The first trial is occasioned by the fact Jesus has been fasting for forty days, and so he is hungry. The devil invites him to violate the fast by using his powers as the Son of God to turn a stone into bread.

This echoes Adam eating the forbidden fruit and Israel's complaint against Moses for depriving them of the bread they had in Egypt by leading them into the wilderness.

In rebuffing the devil, Jesus repeats Moses' rebuke to the Israelites' complaint (Deut. 8:3).


4. Jesus' second trial: false worship

In the second trial (in St. Luke's order of presentation), the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he will worship him. This reflects the influence that the devil had in the world order of the time, but which he would lose through Jesus' actions (Rev. 11:15).

It asks Jesus to play into the false, political understanding of the Messiah's role that was popular at the time, but which Jesus himself rejected (John 18:36).

It also echoes the temptation to false worship that the Israelites had in the desert, both at the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:4) and more generally (Lev. 17:7).

Jesus rebuffs the devil by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, reflecting the fundamental requirement of Israelite worship.


5. Jesus' third trial: testing God

In the third trial (in Luke's order), the devil tries to get Jesus to put God to the test. Since Jesus has been rebuffing him by quoting Scripture, the devil now quotes a statement from the Psalms (Ps. 91:11-12) as the basis for the trial.

In doing so, he inverts the meaning of the Psalm, which says that those who trust in God will receive his protection. It does not say that people should take reckless risks or insist on miracles on demand to test whether God will keep his word. That is an attitude of dis-trust.

Jesus recognizes this and quotes back to him Deuteronomy 6:16, in which Moses rebukes the Israelites for having put God to the test in the wilderness.


6. What does this event reveal to us about Jesus, Adam, and the devil?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: 

The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfills Israel's vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals himself as God's Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil's conqueror: he “binds the strong man” to take back his plunder.  Jesus' victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father [CCC 539].


7. What does this show us about Jesus' role as the Messiah?

Many people wanted a Messiah who would seize political power and usher in an age of prosperity and plenty. But Jesus voluntarily undergoes hunger and refuses political power--a very different kind of Messiah!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Jesus' temptation reveals the way in which the Son of God is Messiah, contrary to the way Satan proposes to him and the way men wish to attribute to him. This is why Christ vanquished the Tempter for us: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15).  By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert [CCC 540].


8. How do Jesus' "temptations" relate to ours?

Pope Benedict explains:

Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly matters in human life.

At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.

Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion—that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms [Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 28].


9. How can we relate Jesus' time in the desert to our own experience of Lent?

Pope Benedict explains:

Lent is like a long "retreat" in which to re-enter oneself and listen to God's voice in order to overcome the temptations of the Evil One and to find the truth of our existence.

It is a time, we may say, of spiritual "training" in order to live alongside Jesus not with pride and presumption but rather by using the weapons of faith: namely prayer, listening to the Word of God and penance.

In this way we shall succeed in celebrating Easter in truth, ready to renew our baptismal promises [Angelus, Feb. 21, 2010].


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