Then Jesus was led off by the Spirit into the desert to be tested by the Devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry. Then the Tester approached him saying, “If you are the Son of God tell these stones to become bread.” But he replied, “It is written, ‘Mankind will not live by bread only, but by every word that issues from the mouth of God.’”
Then the Devil took him to the holy city and stood him on the winged projection of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘ He will instruct his messengers about you, and in their hands they will lift you, in case you should gash your foot upon a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “It is also written,’You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again the Devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Off with you, Satan, for it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Then the Devil left him and –See this- God’s messengers came and cared for him.
Question 1. Did Matthew think that Jesus could have turned stones into bread or floated safely down from the Temple wing? Presumably he did, because otherwise these would have been no temptation; or maybe he had a different view of how Jesus could be tested. ( see below)
Question 2.:Did Jesus think he could do those things? Presumably not because he seems to have been sane. Still the only possible source of this story is Jesus himself, and it is an elegant and exciting story. Perhaps Jesus told it with his own understanding of what truly tested him.
Question 3. Who is Satan/ The Devil / the Tester. I think he is half way between the “Devil’s advocate” of Job 1, and the personal power of evil developed by the imagination of the Christian church, and evident in the book of The Revelation. His main function here is the harsh testing of those who want to serve God. This fits Jesus’ prayer as given in Matthew 6, “Do not bring us into harsh testing ( peirasmon in Greek) but deliver us from the Evil One.” Here the Devil is called The Tester, using the same word. Remember that Jesus is “brought into” this encounter by the Spirit: the Devil plays a role assigned by God.
So let’s imagine that Jesus knows he has no supernatural powers. The first two tests seize on this inability: IF YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD, surely you ought to be able to stuff like this? What does that cherished title mean if you are just another human being? In reply Jesus wittily quotes scriptures that forbid that sort of miracle. God would not want his son to do such things. So the Devil gives up trying to destroy Jesus’ faith and simply offers him power. Yes, if Jesus commits his own gifts to the cause of evil, he will surely gain power in the world. Look at Alexander the Great; look at Augustus Caesar; it can be done. Jesus deals with this one by remembering the great commandment to Israel: you shall worship and serve God only.
Matthew does not mean to suggest that these tests were easily passed. How hard it is for mere human beings to believe that they are important for God’s work! How tempting it is to use one’s gifts to gain power over others!
This interpretation suggests that wherever the story came from, its meaning is aligned to Matthew’s view of the humility and obedience of God’s beloved son.
1. The forty days and nights in the desert mimic the forty years that Israel spent in the desert before entering the promised land. They too were being tested, although the tradition also says that they put God to the test. Jesus is the individual Son of God as Israel was the communal son of God and his history mimics theirs.
2. The Greek “peirasmon”, testing , carries the biblical tradition of testing, of Israel in the desert, of Moses by the people’s rebelliousness, of Job by the Devil, of the prophets by ill – treatment and rejection, which means that it is wrong to translate it in contemporary English by “ temptation”, which has narrowed its meaning since the 17th century use of it in the KJV and the Anglican Prayer Book.