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Who Tempted Jesus in the Wilderness?

Christadelphians are divided over the identification of the devil in the wilderness and whether Jesus’s temptations were internal, external, or both.
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When we start reading about Christ’s life in Matthew’s gospel record, we’re struck by the wilderness temptations and the presence of the devil who appears on the scene without introduction. Who was the tempter in these wilderness temptations?

Of note is the lack of reference to names used in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha for the devil, such as Mastema from the Book of Jubilees. The New Testament continues the language of the Old Testament, not the intertestamental Jewish writings.

Mainstream Christianity would tell us that the devil or Satan, as Jesus refers to him in the record is a malevolent fallen angel bent on turning Christ and his followers away from God. On the other hand, we could go with the Jewish idea that Satan is God’s prosecuting angel. Or maybe it’s the yetzer hara, the Jewish concept of the evil inclination in Jesus, which we know he had because he came in the flesh.

Christadelphians are divided over the identification of the devil in the wilderness. Some take it as a literal individual acting as an adversary (Satan) and false accuser (devil) against Jesus, perhaps someone like the High Priest. Others believe Jesus to be alone with his thoughts in the wilderness, and the devil stands for Jesus’ natural desires of the flesh, like the yetzer hara. The debate centers on whether Jesus’s temptations were internal, external, or both.

We need to clear up one issue first. The temptations had to be internal; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been temptations. If what the tempter said to Jesus wasn’t appealing to him somehow, then the whole scene would have been a charade. 

Internal Struggle

There’s a hint we’re meant to look at Jesus struggling against the flesh by Paul’s allusion to the wilderness temptations in Romans. Notice first, the connection between the beginning of Matthew 4 and the end of chapter 3. Ignoring the chapter division, chapter 3 ends with the voice of God declaring, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17), followed by the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1). 

In Romans 8:14, Paul picks up on both verses when he writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he overcame his temptations by the spirit of God when he used the Word of God to combat what the devil threw at him. The verse immediately before this one in Romans says, “But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We see Jesus as the supreme example of that—someone who put to death the deeds of the body, or as John summarizes it in his first epistle, “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” (1 John 2:16).

Was that it, then? Was Jesus alone with his thoughts, and we’re meant to see the devil/Satan as the yetzer hara or the natural desires of the flesh? 

I do think Jesus was alone, but there’s more to it than this simple explanation. There’s a reason why the words “devil” and “Satan” are used in the record.

In Matthew’s and Luke’s records of the temptations, we’re told that afterward, “The devil left him.” (Matthew 4:11). That’s a problem if we stick strictly to the idea that Jesus’ natural desires tempt him. Those natural desires don’t leave unless Matthew tells us that after defeating the flesh for a time, the temptations have gone away. That can happen; we can have a victory over the deeds of the body, and then whatever it was that was tempting us ceases to be a temptation, at least for a while.

However, Luke records, “When the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13). Luke’s comment that the devil later returned will help us determine who the tempter was.

The Voice of God

To continue our investigation, let’s return to the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism. Just before he entered the wilderness, the voice declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus, knowing the Scriptures, would have understood that God was quoting two passages from the Old Testament: “This is my beloved Son,” from Psalm 2:7 and “with whom I am well pleased,” from Isaiah 42:1. What would have gone through Jesus’ mind when he considered the context of these verses?

“You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7) is prophetical of Jesus as the Son of God. The psalm declares him as the promised Messiah, the one to whom God says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” (v. 8).

Jesus would have known this was spoken about him and his eventual rule as Messiah on David’s throne. However, the psalm begins with the words, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed.” (v. 1-2). So, there was going to be antagonism towards the Anointed (Messiah/Christ), and Acts 4:27 tells us this was fulfilled by “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.”

The second quotation from Isaiah 42:1 is also prophetical of Jesus as God’s Messiah. He is described in the verse as “my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” and then we’re told, “I have put my Spirit upon him,” which is exactly what happened at Jesus’ baptism. The next couple of verses are directly quoted about Jesus in Matthew 12:18-21 and speak about his humility, that he “will not quarrel or cry aloud,” and “a bruised reed he will not break.” In other words, he was not to be a political or warrior Messiah but someone who would be gentle and harmless.

Notice that the section in Matthew 12 is bracketed by some of the antagonism prophesied in Psalm 2. In verse 14, we’re told, “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” and then in verse 38, “Some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’”

The Devil Returns

These connections are important because of the word the gospel writers use for the “temptation” of Christ. When we’re told Jesus was “tempted by the devil,” the word is peirazo. Matt. 4:1 is the first time we come across this word in the New Testament. It’s the same word used in verse 3 and Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:2 in their respective records of the wilderness temptations.

Remember that Luke said the devil would return at “an opportune time.” When did that happen? Well, Matthew uses the word peirazo again in chapter 16 when “The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.” (v. 1). The next time the word is used is in chapter 19:3—“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him,” then in 22:18 when Jesus asked the Pharisees “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” Finally, “A lawyer asked him a question to test him” in 22:35. Each occurrence in Matthew refers to someone like a scribe or Pharisee. We see the same thing in Mark (8:11; 10:2; 12:15) and Luke (11:16). 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all direct our attention later in Jesus’ ministry to the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus’ tempters. Since Luke said the tempter would return, and these are the only occurrences of the word peirazo in the synoptic gospels, a sound conclusion would be to say that the tempter in the wilderness was a scribe or Pharisee.

However, I do not think a scribe or Pharisee was literally there in the wilderness with Jesus, but that he was, in fact, alone. There are a couple of clues that we shouldn’t take the wilderness account literally. During the second temptation, “The devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple.” (Matthew 4:5). Yet, they were in the wilderness unless we think they took a journey together to Jerusalem. That is possible, but when “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (v. 8), that most certainly is not something we can take literally. 

It is more likely that Jesus, alone with his thoughts, pictured himself on the pinnacle of the temple and on a high mountain in his mind’s eye. The question is, why?

A Rabbinical Debate

First, let’s return to the idea that we’re meant to think of the scribes and Pharisees when we read “devil” and “Satan” in the wilderness temptation narratives. Several Bible scholars have noticed that the records are written in the form of a rabbinic debate. For instance:

A typical rabbinical “show-debate.” Such debates were a form of midrash (meditation on Scripture) that displayed an authoritative figure responding to a series of challenges by citing the correct passage from Scripture.1

In form, this narrative is closest to a “controversy dialogue,” and, in fact, resembles the kind of debate one expects from two experts in the law.2

In other words, the wilderness temptations prepared Jesus for his ministry when he would continually debate with the experts in the law. He claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God and the scribes and Pharisees would put those claims to the test.

Jewish Expectations of Messiah

Earlier, we looked at Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12 and how Jesus would be a humble Messiah. However, that’s not what the experts in the law and the general populace of Israel expected of their Messiah. We have many writings from the time period that express Jewish expectations of Messiah, for instance:

Psalms of Solomon 17:21—See, Lord (the misery of 17:1-20), and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel.

Psalms of Solomon 17:37—And he will not weaken in his days, (relying) upon his God, for God made him powerful in the holy spirit and wise in the counsel of understanding, with strength and righteousness.

Philo On Rewards and Punishments 95—There shall come forth a man, says the oracle, and leading his host to war he will subdue great and populous nations. 

The Jews were expecting a militant Messiah who would remove the Roman occupation and usher back in the Kingdom of David. But Jesus didn’t do that, and that’s one reason they rejected him as their Messiah.

There’s also a Midrash (Pesiqta Rabbati, 162a) that states Messiah would manifest himself on the pinnacle of the temple. While that is dated after Christ, it may reflect older Jewish tradition. 

When taking all these things into consideration, imagine what it would have been like for Jesus as he embarked on his ministry. With Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42 ringing in his ears, he goes into the wilderness. He knows he is God’s promised Messiah. Jesus also knows, as Psalm 2 predicts, that he will ultimately be king over all nations. But Isaiah 42 teaches him what kind of Messiah he needs to be. 

He would not use the power of the Holy Spirit incorrectly.

The pressure on Jesus was that the people expected something other than what was taught in Isaiah. Knowing he was their king, the seed of David, the wilderness temptations presented him with an opportunity to train his mind to deal with those expectations. He would not use the power of the Holy Spirit incorrectly. He wouldn’t make an open show of himself by doing something like jumping from the pinnacle of the temple. And he wouldn’t bow down to the wishes of the people and become the kind of Messiah they wanted.

So, we could say the devil was a personification of the people’s expectations, especially the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus dealt with while alone with his thoughts in the wilderness. Those same temptations would reappear throughout his ministry as the devil entered his life again, now in the form of the people, scribes and Pharisees, chief priests, and even his disciples.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

  1. Henry Kelly. Satan: A Biography (Cambridge: C.U.P., 2006) p. 87
  2. Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2009) p. 143
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