January 28, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Satan tempts Jesus

See Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13

After Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit led him into the desert for a retreat, during which he thought about the mission he was about to begin. The Gospels say that he fasted for 40 days, which may or may not be an exact count. Forty was a standard number in Scripture, and here it was to remind us of the 40 days that Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandments the second time, the 40 days that Elijah fasted on his journey to Mount Horeb, and the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert.

Then the devil tempted Jesus. As much as modern people might wish to deny the existence of the devil, he does exist. We will encounter him frequently in the Gospels and Jesus even called him “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31). Whether called Satan or Beelzebub, he is one of the angels who refused to follow God and became his enemy. He is a pure spirit with an intellect that towers over that of humans and with a perverted will.

Satan was undoubtedly curious about Jesus. He had heard Jesus called the Son of God, but he would not have known that that meant God himself. He had never seen God; that was the reward for the faithful angels. He knew that God had called Israel “my son” (Ex 4:22), and in the Book of Job three references to “the sons of God” meant the unfallen angels. But he looked on Jesus as a worthy adversary.

How did Satan appear—as a man or the way he tempts us? Probably the latter, just as he didn’t physically take Jesus to the top of a mountain or the pinnacle of the Temple. He made three proposals, each resembling the way the Israelites were tempted in the desert and later in Canaan. And each time Jesus responded with a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy (Dt 8:3, 6:13, 6:16).

First, Satan tempted Jesus to perform a miracle, probably to see if he could do something that a mere human cannot do. There is no evidence that Jesus had performed a miracle up to this time. When Jesus responded, “Man does not live on bread alone,” the one word “man” might have relieved Satan. Perhaps it convinced him that he was dealing with a man, nothing more.

He quickly learned otherwise, though, after the next test. When he tempted him to call on the angels to protect him, Jesus replied, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” After that, we have to wonder why Satan would even attempt the third test—asking Jesus to fall down and adore him. Surely he didn’t expect Jesus to do so.

By this time, Jesus had enough of this parrying. Uttering the only words in this episode not previously in Scripture, he said, “Get away, Satan!” Satan did—“for a time.” Luke’s phrase is ominous. Satan would be back before Jesus’ Passion and death. †


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