Jesus was Being Tested Before His Ministry, Not Tempted

We often refer to the experience of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 as the temptation of Jesus. Then, draw conclusions about how we can deal with temptations like Jesus. Quote scripture, etc.

But the subheading of the NIV Bible, I think, sums it up much better.

“Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness

NIV

Both Luke 4:2 and Matthew 4:1 have a small footnote that the original word “peirasqh’nai” ( pi-rad’-zo) can also be translated as tested.

Therefore, we can read.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.”

Matthew 4:1

These are not attempts by the devil to get Jesus to sin, there was and will be plenty of opportunity for that during the life of Jesus.

No, “the Spirit” led Jesus away from distractions and possible crutches to test him to make sure he was ready to begin his ministry.

Jesus ministry was the next big step in his life but failure would have been devastating.

Before attempting such an endeavour, God needed to ensure that he was ready for it.

Before claiming that Jesus was born ready.

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Luke 2:52

If Jesus was growing, then there was a time in which he was less mature and capable.

But we do not want to become distracted by that. Just that Jesus was being tested.

Led to be tested by the Spirit of God.

“The Hebrew word nasah, translated “tested” in Genesis 22:1, has the idea of proving the quality of something, usually by putting it through a trial of some kind. “

Chuck Swindoll

Viewing this as temptation helps us to better understand the role of this event in Jesus’ life. Plus, it avoids awkward conversations about what sin is in the actions.

“To change stones into bread, if there were need for it, would not have been a sin.”  “The Synoptic story of the temptation has no intelligible meaning.”

Friedrich Schleiermacher The Quest of the Historical Jesus p.65

It really does not matter if the activities were or were not sinful.

The question is, did Jesus pass the test?

You may ask.

Why the devil?

I do not understand the logistics behind this, but we know it is not without precedent.

The story in the book of Job is about the devil testing Job with the cooperation of God.

I do not know how the two work together, but we can see that it happens in scripture.

If nothing else, Jesus was led into a situation where the devil had no choice but to tempt him in his state of vulnerability.

But again, that is getting more philosophical than what we need to agree to to interpret the actions of Jesus in the wilderness.

We simply need to agree that Jesus was alone, in the wilderness and “the devil” came to him and suggested ideas. Which Jesus refuted. One by one.

What was Jesus struggling with and overcoming?

Those can be summarized under 3 categories or “temptations.”

Turn Stones into Bread

The first test focuses on Jesus’ physical needs. He has been fasting for 40 days and is physically weak and hungry. The devil suggests that he use his power to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger.

This is often considered a temptation of Jesus’ trust in God’s provision and his willingness to rely on him. Rather than meeting his own needs through his divine power.

But as a test, we can see this “temptation” differently.

It has nothing to do with eating or bread. But the use of Jesus’ powers.

And more importantly, its relationship to Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry.

In the gospels, we have a record of over 30 individual miracles. Ignoring the broadening “and he healed many people,” which is often dropped in the narrative.

But still, often, Jesus chose not to use his power.

  • Give a sign (Matt.12:38,39; 16:1 Mark 8:11,12, Luke 11:16ff, Jn.2:18)
  • Fire from Heaven (Lk.9:54)
  • Call Angels to save him (Matt.26:53)

Jesus’ comment of the Son of Man not having a place to lay his head (Matt.8:20, Lk.9:58) or even the cry from the cross, “I thirst” (Jn.19:28). Less obvious is him asking the Samaritan women for a drink (Jn.4). The one who can multiply loaves of bread, asking for a drink. How odd.

But this is all because Jesus limits the use of his power. Both to fulfill his own needs and even that of others.

God needed to make sure that Jesus was able and would limit his power during his ministry.

Maybe even more important is the why.

Matthew has Jesus finish his quote with

“but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Matthew 4:4

Jesus forgoes the use of a miracle or even the simple desire for food.

That was his focus from now on. God’s word.

This can even be transferred into his ministry. Despite often healing and, at times feeding people, his primary activity was feeding them “the word.” The word of God was primary both in his life and ministry.

Leading us to our second test.

Jump from the Temple Wall

In the temptation account of Matthew 4:5-7, Satan takes Jesus to “the holy city and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple.” He even quotes scripture in offering another challenge for a sign.

But Jesus responds to this quote by quoting another scripture.

“Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'”

This is often cited as Jesus refusing the temptation of pride. The fame was brought to him by miraculously falling from the temple wall without injury.

Or that Jesus was trying to cheat the system.

Rather than the long, hard road of ministry in Galilee, who could immediately be declared messiah from his actions at the temple. Supported by the promise of God’s protection.

These are all possible, and if this was the reason, sin crouched at the door to ver take Jesus.

But it is possible this had more to do with dealing with the scriptures accurately.

There are tensions and contradictions within the scripture when seeking guidance on what one should do.

The devil told Jesus a verse about God’s love and protection.

He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

Psalm 91:11,12

But Jesus wisely quoted.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test

Deut. 6:16

The tension in the scriptures must be correctly handled.

It was true that God loved Jesus and could command his angels to care for him. Which Matthew tells us he does shortly (Matt.4:11), but Jesus must use the scriptures correctly. Be able to know when someone is misusing the word of God. That it is correctly applied in his life and ministry.

Is this not what most of his arguments with the religious leader are about? How should we apply the scriptures in our lives?

Through this test Jesus is showing himself capable of “correctly handling the word of God.” (2 Tim.2:15).

He is ready to debate the application of the Bible.

Now unto what Matthew has as the last test of Jesus.

Gaining Control Over the Kingdoms of the World

The final test that Jesus faced in the wilderness was gaining control over the kingdoms of this world. The devil took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, saying, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:9).

Of all the tests, this one deals clearest with sin.

Most who ascribe to be Christians know the first commandment is

You shall have no other gods before m

Exodus 20:3

But for modern readers, there may be an even less obvious test going on here.

A test about how?

Who was the power broker that Jesus was going to work through to establish his kingdom?

The “kingdom of Judea” was currently being directly administered by the Romans. Could he not go to them and pay homage and gain control of the area and people?

In recent history, such a deal had been made.

Herod the Great made such a deal with the Romans to become king of Judea.

A kingdom greater and more prosperous than King David’s. Building a wonder of the world which Jesus had just come from, the Temple. Larger and grander than any temple before.  

Jesus could do something similar. Make a deal with the Romans who “owned the world,” or at least in their minds, and it often appeared on the ground around the Mediterranean. Then, once in control with their backing, bring Israel to God.

Now, that had to have been tempting.

But Jesus chose No.

Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.

Deut.6:13

He was not to get himself in s compromising position of allegiance to another.

He was going to serve God only.

When he returned to Galilee, his message was clear. “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt.4:17).

He was going to set up his kingdom, God’s kingdom, solely through the power of God. Serving him only.

With this, Jesus had passed the test. At least for now, as Luke would remind us. (Luke 4:13)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus would continue to face tests and challenges that would tempt him to stray from God’s plan.

But just as in the wilderness, Jesus stayed true to his calling and overcame.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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