The Three Temptations of Christ in the Desert
After forty days of fasting and prayers Our Lord is tired and hungry. He has not yet begun His public life. Saint John the Baptist has given testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is baptized by John and he retires to a desert place to prepare for His Messianic public ministry.
The fast is about over. It has been forty days. The devil has been watching Him, waiting for the last day, thinking then this Jesus will be most vulnerable. The devil, as far as we know from scripture, did not assault John the Baptist who lived his life in the desert fasting on honey and locusts. The demon knew that John was not the Messiah. He was not of Juda, a son of David, he was from Levi. But Jesus of Nazareth was of Juda, the kingly tribe, a son of David. The time for the advent of the Messiah, prophecied by Daniel, had come. The seventy weeks of years were complete: “Seventy weeks are shortened upon thy people, and upon thy holy city, that transgression may be finished, and sin may have an end, and iniquity may be abolished; and everlasting justice may be brought; and vision and prophecy may be fulfilled; and the saint of saints may be anointed” (9:24). The anointing of the Saint of saints was by the Holy Ghost who effected the anointing in the fruition He made in the womb of Mary in the Incarnation. Messiah, is a Hebrew word, meaning “the anointed one.”
Forty days is a long time to fast. Imagine how weak Our Lord was in His body! How hungry!
There is a stench in the air. Satan approaches Our Lord. Jesus allows it.
How could Our Lord be tempted? Only from the outside, not from within. His will, though human, was immovable in its union with His divinity. That is why in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus could have never prayed to His Father, “Not thy will but mine be done.” Rather He prayed, “Not my will, but thine by done.” In His humanity, Jesus could feel the urge to abandon the passion. He could only feel it. He was a Man. There was a fear there along with the weight of the sins of the world. Every sin. Every circumstance, every nook and cranny, of the offenses of the fallen race of sinners offending God.
And the tempter coming said to him: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (Matthew 4:3)
Notice the “If.”
Satan, which means “adversary,” does not know if this Man is the Son of God. He suspects it. Christ is the adversary of Satan and vice versa. The devil attempts to engage the Holy Man in combat He seeks to convince Jesus to perform a miracle. He knows Jesus can do it. The prophets have performed miracles, although John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, did not. Had he done so, perhaps the devil would have tried to tempt him. Whatever the case, God protected the Precursor who was not to be distracted from his mission call to penance.
Jesus quickly rebuked the devil. Know that in Greek, the word for “devil” is diabolos. It means, “one who hurls.” Like an evil adversary hurls accusations against the just, Satan hurls a challenge against Christ. By getting the Holy Man to perform a miracle in changing stones into bread, Satan wills to make bread into a stone, a stumbling block. He wills to conquer this Man. Get Him at His weakest point to abandon the fast and, instead, feast. Not so! The angels were also watching. They would do the feeding when Christ willed it.
Jesus says: “It is written, that Man liveth not by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Jesus gives nothing for the devil to grasp unto. He does not even say “I live not by bread alone.” He just quotes the Old Law and leaves it at that. The devil knows the law. He is vanquished. Jesus does not do the devil’s beckoning, nor does He show any inability to perform the miracle.
We must know our enemy. The prayer to Saint Michael, with the Holy Rosary, is powerful against the evil spirits. As long as we refuse to confess our sins, we give space for the evil one to accuse us, to “hurl” our sins at us. He has no power to do that come judgment day if we have hurled our sins at the priest, the alter Christus, in confession. Those stones have been cast away. Nevertheless, the devil is subtle. If he cannot accuse us, he can tempt us to accuse ourselves by a morbid recall of our past sins, doubting the merciful forgiveness of God. This is a terrible thing to question the mercy of God. It leads to despair. In such a situation we must run to Our Lady , the Refuge of Sinners, the Consoler of the Afflicted. How can we not trust in hope when we have such a mother?
End of Round One
Satan could not budge Christ through His bodily senses. He now must try the spirit. Yes, he thought, vainglory may work!
Satan takes Our Lord to the pinnacle to the temple. Not by force. Jesus allows it for now. He would allow the children of the devil later to take Him by force and crucify Him for our salvation. That would be His ultimate victory over the devil and sin.
And [the devil] said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written: That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone (Matthew 4:6).
“Cast thyself down.” Satan was cast down from heaven, Jesus said, “like lightning.” He wishes to try to get Jesus to cast Himself down. And thus, by tempting God, to be humiliated. The whole city will see it. “Look,” the devil seems to say, “this is a better way to reign. Their hearts are Yours, if You only do it my way, not God’s way.” In this way, he hopes to get Jesus to dash His foot against a stone. Yet Jesus is the cornerstone, rejected by the builders, who will build His Church from the Cross of suffering and humility.
The devil, of course, knows scripture. He knows the Messiah has the protection of the angels, should He desire their assistance. If Jesus summons His angels to save Him and bear Him up, then the devil wins. His sole ambition is to get this Nazarene to do his will. Notice, too, that the devil cannot bear to quote the rest of the text from Psalm 90: “Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon” (vs. 13). These are metaphors for Satan and his minions. They are the asp and the basilisk, the lion and the dragon, upon whom the Christ shall tread in victory.
Jesus’ reply is chaste and decisive, quoting Deuteronomy: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (6:16).
Jesus does not say, “Thou shalt not tempt Me,” lest He give away His identity to the evil one. He simply asserts that no one can put God to the test by rash actions. All good deeds must arise out of prudence and trust in divine providence. No one is permitted to put their life in danger when there is a recourse that is born of the greater good. God will make it known when it is time to give one’s life for Him. Then, and only then, will grace be given unto a holy death, be it from another (martyrdom, hopefully) or from natural causes.
End of Round Two
This final temptation is difficult to understand. The first two were easily dismissed by Our Lord. This third was very subtle, even mysterious. We must remember that these temptations were thrown at the humanity of Christ. The devil could not tempt God, but the question remained, “Was this Man the Son of God or not?” He did not know for sure. So, he took Jesus to a very high mountain. And, again, Jesus allows it.
To a very high mountain. Stupid strategy. If this Holy Man is the Son of God, He sees all things, all the kingdoms of the world. He does not need a better view from a mountain. Nevertheless, the devil opens up for Our Lord’s view all the worldly kingdoms and the glory of them.
And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me (Matthew 4:9).
First of all these kingdoms were not the devil’s to give. He was “the prince of this world” (soon to be cast out, John 12:31) but he does not own anything. He is a liar and the father thereof. Any kingdom that he has has been seized by theft, murder, or money, and only then if God allows it for a time. All the earth is the Lords,”For God is the king of all the earth: sing ye wisely”(Psalm 46:8). And, again,
“But the saints of the most high God shall take the kingdom: and they shall possess the kingdom for ever and ever” (Daniel 7:18). “The meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:4).
Could Christ be tempted to vainglory or riches? No!
So, what was this temptation? It was the offer of a Novus Ordo Saeculorum (a New Order of Things). If this Faster from Nazareth would give the devil the worship of latria, not just dulia (reverence) but divine worship (latria) then, (Satan says to Him), “all these will I give thee.” Satan knows that Jesus is a Holy Man. He offers a lie. “If you adore me, you can have all these nations. You can be their leader. At my bidding they will submit to your kingship.” Thus, the devil hopes to divert this Man, whom he thinks may be the Christ, from His Messianic mission, which is to establish a universal kingdom of justice on earth that would last forever. He vainly hopes to have Christ fall and adore at his cloven feet.
This temptation manifests the contempt Satan had for the Christ. Here, on the mountain, he thinks he can seduce Christ, or Him whom he suspects may be the Christ. Three years later, Satan will throw all caution to the winds. He will be unable to contain his hatred. How great shall it be? Consider this: even though by getting the Jews to have the Savior killed on the Cross and knowing that he would lose his power over men, the devil still chose to forfeit that power out of hatred for the Just One. His hatred overcame his knowledge.
The beginning of the end for the devil was the Fiat of Mary. The end would be, the consummatum est, on Calvary.
Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve. (Matthew 4:10)
Then the devil left him; and behold angels came and ministered to him (Matthew 4:11).