The first three Gospels tell us that after he was baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean wilderness and that at that time Satan appeared to him and tried to tempt him (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The three temptations aimed at Christ (to turn stones to bread, to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, and to worship Satan) have been interpreted in various ways.
But there is one way in which Jesus’ wilderness temptations can be viewed which is directly grounded in the biblical record – as a reflection of the temptations of ancient Israel in the wilderness. Just as the people of Israel went into the wilderness after their figurative baptism in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2) and were there forty years, Christ spent forty days in the wilderness (the Bible frequently uses the equivalency principle of a day for a year) and communed with God just as Moses (a type of Christ – Deuteronomy 18:15) did during Israel’s own time of wilderness wandering.
Notice the further important parallels between the two wilderness accounts. First, we see the Israelites gave into temptation regarding their physical desires in not trusting God for bread and their rebellious complaining in the incident where God supplied manna for them to eat because of their lack of faith (Exodus 16:2-3 and Deuteronomy 8:2–4).
We also see the Israelites giving in to the temptation to argue or try to work out God’s plan for them in their own way, when they did not see evidence of God’s presence despite what He had done for them. We see this sin of tempting God repeatedly (Ex. 17:1–7, notice particularly verses 2 and 7 and Deuteronomy 6:16).
Finally, we see the Israelites falling to the temptation to worship something other than God in their bowing down to the golden calf and other idols and pagan gods (Exodus 32:1-4, Deuteronomy 6:13–15).
We know that these three failures of ancient Israel directly paralleled the temptations endured by Christ in the wilderness because Jesus quoted specific references to exactly the same stories from the Book of Deuteronomy in response to each of the three temptations he underwent. Jesus resisted the temptation to turn stones to bread by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “… man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” – which comes from the section of Deuteronomy talking about the Israelites’ sin regarding food. He resisted the temptation to tempt God by throwing himself from the temple pinnacle by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16, in which Moses rebukes the Israelites for putting God to the test. Finally, he resisted the temptation to worship Satan by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:13-15 – the section faulting the Israelites for worshipping other gods.
In all his temptations in the wilderness, the responses of Jesus – in his words and actions – were directly opposite those of ancient Israel in their failure to handle temptation. In fact, we see in these verses from Deuteronomy the very core of what Jesus’ testing was all about – that the temptation to push God and his way aside and to choose our own desires over his lies at the heart of all temptation. We see this in the temptation to not trust God with our physical needs, the temptation to tempt God regarding the fulfillment of our emotional desires, and the temptation to elevate something other than God in fulfilling our psychological desires.
Falling to these three types of temptation was a mistake that ancient Israel made repeatedly. But Jesus did not make this mistake and overcame Satan’s deliberate and carefully calculated attempts to destroy him. Jesus overcame temptation in the Judean wilderness not only by knowing and quoting precisely relevant scriptures, but also by understanding the nature of temptation and by acting on that knowledge through the power of the Spirit of God. We see this underlying truth in the words of Jesus himself: “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). Unlike the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus’ response to temptation was based on his desire to please God more than himself.
If, with God’s help, we are to successfully overcome temptation in our own lives, we too must know God’s word, must want to please God more than ourselves, and must understand what lies behind the choices every temptation offers.