In Matthew chapter 4, Luke chapter 4 and Mark chapter 1 we read the account of Jesus being tempted (or tested) in the wilderness. The focus of the story is the encounter between Jesus and Satan, where Jesus is enticed to make bread out of stones to relieve his own hunger, Jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall, and worship Satan in return for all the kingdoms of the world.
The triumph of the story is the triumph of Jesus over his adversary. These are the same three temptations we all face: temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil himself.
But as spectacular as that triumph is, I think we miss a significant aspect of the story, and that is forty days alone. Even as I write this observation, we are in day 14 of what may very well be 40 days of isolation.
What will the lesson be? What did Jesus learn? If I take a literal interpretation of the account, he had a twenty-minute encounter with the tempter. The real lesson was in the thirty-nine days and 23 hours that preceded it.
First, all three Gospels make clear that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested. The Greek word here is peirazō, which means to test, or more completely, make trial of for the purpose of ascertaining the true quality.
Jesus was led to the test, but He chose to fast. Fasting traditionally was intertwined with a great spiritual struggle. Elijah and Moses in the Old Testament fasted 40 days and nights, and Jesus doing the same here invites comparison to these events. But regardless, the practice of fasting connected the body and its physical needs with less tangible values, such as self-denial, and repentance.
I don’t think Jesus had anything to repent, but Luke tells us, “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” And what was the outcome?
Perhaps the best description of the result is a literary one. In Paradise Regained, written by John Milton in 1671, we read the idea of “hunger”, both in a literal and in a spiritual sense. After wandering in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus is starving for food. Satan, too blind to see any non-literal meanings of the term, offers Christ food and various other temptations, but Jesus continually denies him. Although Milton’s Jesus is remarkably human, an exclusive focus on this dimension of his character obscures the divine stakes of Jesus’s confrontation with Satan; Jesus emerges victorious, and Satan falls, amazed.
And that is the true quality revealed in the test. Jesus remains rock solid and never lost his faith in God during the temptations.
There is an interesting interaction in the first temptation. Satan tempts Jesus to turn the stones into bread, Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:4) He is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. The operative word in that verse is alone.
Does man live on bread? Yes, most assuredly. Food is required. But if we have food, we are still not alive, because man does not live on bread alone. If we want to be fully alive, we need God, and we need every connection we have with him. Prayer, God’s Word, meditation, all of it. And then we3 can pass the test too.
And that, no virus can take away from us…