The Temptations of Jesus in the New Testament by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
The Temptations of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels:
The temptations that Jesus faced in the desert just after being baptized are mentioned only briefly in Mark's Gospel (and not at all in John's Gospel). According to the accounts in other two Gospels, the devil confronted Jesus with the same three temptations, but in a different order, which shows the slightly different emphases of Matthew and Luke, respectively.
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts...
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' " (cf. Deut 8:3cd)
3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.' " (cf. Deut 8:3c)
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " (cf. Deut 6:16)
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" (cf. Deut 6:13)
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" (cf. Deut 6:13)
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11 and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " (cf. Deut 6:16)
13d - and the angels waited on him.
11 Then the devil left him,
and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
13 When the devil had finished every test,
he departed from him until an opportune time.
Biblical Terminology: The Greek verb πειράζω/peirazo (used 38 times in the NT) is sometimes translated "to tempt" (or passive: "to be tempted"), while at other times it is translated "to test" or "to try" (or "to be tested" or "to be tried"). Similarly, the noun πειρασμός/peirasmos (used 21 times in the NT) is variously translated "temptation," "testing," or "trial." The related verb ἐκπειράζω/ekpeirazo (used only 4 times, in Matt 4:7; Luke 4:12; 10:25; and 1 Cor 10:9) is usually translated "to test" or "to put to the test."
Literary Context: In all three Synoptic Gospels, the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness occur just before he begins his public ministry and immediately after his baptism in the Jordan river, when the Holy Spirit had descended upon Jesus "like a dove" and a voice from heaven was heard to say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:9-11; par. Matt 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22).
The Holy Spirit and the Devil/Satan: All three Synoptics indicate that Jesus was "driven" or "led by the Spirit" into the wilderness in order to be tested/tempted by the devil. Thus, Jesus is not alone; the Holy Spirit is with him to help him resist the temptations he must face. Jesus is not running away from God, nor has God abandoned him. On the other hand, God and/or the Holy Spirit are not doing the testing/tempting (cf. James 1:13). Rather, the one who confronts Jesus is the supreme personification of evil, referred variously as the devil (διάβολος/diabolos), or the tempter (πειράζων/peirazon), or Satan (Σατανᾶς/Satanas).
Fasting: Contrary to what we might assume, Mark's Gospel does not mention anything about Jesus fasting while he was in the wilderness; only Matthew and Luke say that Jesus fasted for forty days (Matthew adds "and forty nights," while Luke emphasizes that "he ate nothing at all").
Forty Days: This temporal indication does not need to be taken literalistically (as if it were exactly 40 days, not 39 nor 41); rather, the number forty symbolically means "a long time," and alludes to other biblical events that are said to have taken either forty days or even forty years.
Use of Scripture: Jesus responds to each of the devil's temptations by quoting a passage from Scripture, specifically the Book of Deuteronomy (part of the "Torah" or "Instructions/Law" that God gave the ancient Israelites through Moses), thereby showing Jesus' reliance upon and adherance to the Word of God. Only in the temptation at the Jerusalem Temple (second in Matthew, third in Luke) does the devil also quote scripture in an attempt to persuade Jesus, but to no avail.
The Main Temptation that Jesus Faced: In two of the three specific temptations that Jesus faces, the devil begins by saying, "If you are the Son of God..." Recalling that Jesus' experience in the wilderness occurs immediately after his baptism, where the voice from heaven proclaimed, "You are my beloved Son...," we come to see that the devil's primary objective is to get Jesus to doubt or deny his identity, that he is truly the Son of God!
Differing Emphases in Matthew and Luke: The last temptation in Matthew's account is that Jesus could receive supreme political power ("all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor"), if only he worshipped Satan rather than God. This clearly connects with the emphases throughout Matthew's Gospel on the "Kingdom of Heaven" and on Jesus as the true "King of the Jews." In contrast, the last of the three temptations in Luke's version takes place at the Temple of Jerusalem, the same location where Luke's Gospel both begins and ends (cf. 1:5-25 and 24:50-53). Click here for larger images of Jerome Nadal's depictions of the First Temptation and the Second and Third Temptations, as depicted at right.
Luke's conclusion: Whereas Matthew concludes his account by saying that "the devil left him [Jesus]," Luke adds "until an opportune time," thereby implying that the devil will return again later in the story, which he indeed does, not only entering into Judas (22:3) and testing Peter (22:31), but also testing Jesus once again at Gethsemane (22:39-46; cf. 22:28).
Satan in Mark's Gospel: Although Mark does not narrate the three temptations in the wilderness that are well known from Matthew and Luke, Jesus struggles against Satan throughout Mark's Gospel, as seen especially in his exorcisms (casting out demons or unclean/evil spirits; 1:23-28, 32-34, 39; 3:11; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29) and in some controversies with human opponents (3:22-27; cf. 8:33). Jesus also involves his disciples in this struggle against Satan by giving them authority to perform exorcisms (3:15; 6:7, 13).
Other "Temptations" of Jesus: Elsewhere in the Synoptics, Jesus is "tested" by people who demand that he show them "a sign from heaven" (Mark 8:11; par. Matt 16:1; Luke 11:16), by some Pharisees who question him about the Mosaic law of divorce (Mark 10:2; Matt 19:3), or about paying taxes to Ceasar (Mark 12:15; Matt 22:18), or about which commandment of the Mosaic law is the greatest (Matt 22:35), and by a lawyer, who asks him, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 10:25). In all these passages, the NT uses forms of the words πειράζω/peirazo, ἐκπειράζω/ekpeirazo, or πειρασμός/peirasmos.
"Temptations" of Jesus' Disciples in the Synoptics: In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to God, "Do not bring us to the time of trial" (εἰς πειρασμόν; Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4); and at Gethsemane, Jesus tells his closest disciples to pray "that you may not come into the time of trial" (εἰς πειρασμόν; Mark 14:38; Matt 26:41; Luke 22:40, 46).
The Devil or Satan in the Gospel according to John:
Although the Fourth Gospel does not tell us of Jesus being tempted or tested by Satan at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus does face various conflicts with Satan throughout the narrative. Moreover, in John's Gospel Jesus' opponents several times accuse him of being possessed by Satan (cf. Mark 3:22-27 & par.).
6:70-71 - Jesus asks his disciples, "Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?" (referring to Judas Iscariot, who will later betray him).
7:20 - When Jesus plainly tells his opponents that some of them want to kill him, they reply, "You are possessed! Who is trying to kill you?"
8:44, 48-49, 52 - In a highly polemical exchange with some of his opponents, Jesus says, "You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies..." In response, his opponents say, "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed?" Jesus answered, "I am not possessed; I honor my Father, but you dishonor me..." (So) the Jews said to him, "Now we are sure that you are possessed..."
10:19-21 - When Jesus again speaks of his intimate relationship with his Father in heaven, the Jews have various opinions and reactions, including wondering whether Jesus himself is possessed by demons: "Many of them said, 'He is possessed and out of his mind; why listen to him?' Others said, 'These are not the words of one possessed; surely a demon cannot open the eyes of the blind, can he?' "
13:2, 27-30 - At the beginning of the Last Supper, the evangelist tells us, "The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over..." Slightly later during that supper, Satan enters into Judas, who then goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus.
"Temptations" mentioned in other New Testament Writings:
On several occasions various apostles warn that one must not put God, or Christ, or the Spirit of the Lord "to the test" (Acts 5:9; 15:10; 1 Cor 10:9; cf. Heb 3:8-9).
The Letter to the Hebrews not only recalls how Jesus "was tested by what he suffered" and thus "he is able to help those who are being tested" (Heb 2:18), but also emphasizes that Jesus "in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (4:15), just as Abraham also was "put to the test" when asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac (11:17).
Paul assures the Christians in Corinth that God will faithfully stand by them throughout their trials: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (1 Cor 10:13).
The Letter of James commends Christians who endure temptations and trials of any kind, and emphasizes that temptations do not come from God, but rather from one's own evil desires (James 1:12-14).
Christians are sometimes even told to "test yourselves" (2 Cor 13:5) or to "test those who claim to be apostles" to see if they are living the faith properly (Rev 2:2).
Temptations/Testings faced by various Christians in the past, present, or future are mentioned in several other NT writings (see Acts 20:19; 1 Cor 7:5; Gal 4:14; 6:1; 1 Thess 3:5; 1 Tim 6:9; 1 Peter 1:6; 4:12; 2 Peter 2:9; Rev 2:10; 3:10).