Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered.
And the tempter came and said unto him, “If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But he answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:1-4).
Thus begins what seems to be a rather strange incident in the life of Jesus, recorded both by Matthew and Luke (Luke 4:1-4), and mentioned quickly by Mark (Mark 1:12-13). After His baptism by John, right at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus is compelled to go out into the wilderness and to withstand the temptations of the Devil.
Most of us spend our times attempting to avoid temptation; such seems to be the reasonable thing to do, considering our predilection for falling into temptations and sinning (James 1:13-15). Nevertheless, the ultimate glory is for those who endure despite temptation (James 1:12)– and Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, must prove Himself to be able to withstand temptation (cf. Hebrews 4:15).
Why the temptation had to take place in the way it does is never revealed. Perhaps Jesus must first take on Satan face to face before He can truly minister to the people. Maybe Jesus is fully experiencing the travails of humanity so that He can understand the difficulties of His people. Or perhaps He is fulfilling the example of Elijah, enduring the wilderness and temptation without sin (cf. 1 Kings 19). All we know for certain is that He goes out into the wilderness– a desert landscape– for forty days and nights.
Forty days and nights represent a complete period of time. Such is the duration of the rains during the Flood (Genesis 7:17). In a close parallel, such is also the duration of the time that Elijah spent journeying on in the wilderness toward Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Spending forty days and nights in the wilderness– a remote and quiet place– would be challenging enough; to do so while fasting is unbelievably challenging for a person. All one can do in such a circumstance is think. The feelings of hunger and thirst would become more and more acute. It would be easy to see hallucinations in such a condition. One can easily imagine food or water to satisfy the earnest desire of the flesh to persevere and continue!
It is only after this time that the tempter– the Devil, Satan– comes to Jesus. His first temptation for Jesus involves that which is most acutely felt by Him in His humanity– hunger. Satan challenges Jesus to make bread from stones. After all, if He is truly the Son of God, He certainly has the power to sate His own hunger, does He not? What kind of Son of God is He if He cannot even provide food?
Could Jesus have made bread from stones? He Who turned water to wine (John 2:1-11) and Who fed over five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes (Matthew 14:15-21) could most certainly and easily make bread from the stones. But that was not the heart of the matter.
It is easy to be a little confused by this “temptation” from Satan. Jesus eats bread on many occasions (cf. Matthew 26:20-26, etc.). There is no sin in taking one’s daily bread and being sated (Matthew 6:11). So what’s the temptation?
We learn why it is a temptation from Jesus’ answer. Jesus responds by quoting what is written in Deuteronomy 8:3: man does not live by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God. It is right that we emphasize how Jesus uses the Word of God to combat the temptations of the Evil One, but the substance of this Word is extremely important.
How was Jesus sustained over the forty days and nights? For that matter, how is Jesus sustained throughout His work? As He says in John 4:32, 34, He has food that we do not understand. He is sustained by doing the work of God, and this is only possible because God the Father is the One sustaining Him.
An unaided human could not have lived in the wilderness forty days and forty nights without food and water. Even if Jesus brought water with Him, chances of unaided survival would still be low, considering the temperature extremes and the lack of vitamins. Therefore, to survive in such conditions required something beyond food and water– the strength of God. God, after all, provided the Israelites providentially throughout their wanderings in the Wilderness, as Deuteronomy 8:2-3 attests. Elijah is sustained for forty days and nights on his journey because of the food and drink God gave him (1 Kings 19:5-8). Jesus is currently surviving through the sustenance He derives from God His Father.
This is why Satan’s temptation is so strong. Satan is tempting Jesus to rely on the flesh and satisfy its impulses. We can only imagine how strong a pull his words had on the fleshly impulses of Jesus. And yet Jesus remains strong in the face of that temptation, remembering the connection that is truly important. Food is not truly life. The words that come from the mouth of God are truly life.
No disciple is above his teacher (cf. Matthew 10:24), and so it is with us and Jesus. We do not have to go out into the wilderness and fast for forty days and nights in order to experience the same temptations, for Satan tempts us in similar ways all the time. He appeals to and flatters our fleshly impulses, attempting to provoke us into satisfying our lusts despite our inclinations to serve God (cf. Romans 7:15-25). There may be times when the actual impulse satisfied is not sinful, as with eating food, but when we do so by betraying our confidence in God, it has become sin to us!
Choosing the physical over the spiritual– the lusts of the flesh over the direction of the spirit– has been one of Satan’s most pervasive and successful temptations of humans since the Garden. By our own strength we will always ultimately fail; yet in Christ we can succeed, as He succeeded in the wilderness (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). We can only succeed, however, when we have crucified the flesh with its passions and have determined to always look toward God our true Sustainer and not the temporal pleasures of the world (Galatians 5:17-24). Let us stand firm against temptation; let us be sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry