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Temptation of Christ

All three synoptic gospels record that Jesus was tempted after His baptism and before He began His ministry. The account in Mark is very brief (Mark 1:12f.). Matthew and Luke give fuller accounts, the only substantial difference being the order of the last two temptations (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Matthew's account seems to work toward a psychological climax while Luke's appears to be more governed by geography. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple so that God will rescue Him spectacularly, and to gain control of the world through worshiping Satan. Each of the temptations seems to be directed both to His personal relationship to His Father and to His mission on earth. “If you are the Son of God . . .” echoes the declaration made at His baptism and is heard again when His other period of intense testing in the passion reaches its climax on the cross (Matt. 27:40,43).

The temptations to be dissatisfied with God's provision, God's methods, and God Himself are all answered from the Book of Deuteronomy. This signifies Jesus' understanding that He was in His forty days in the wilderness recapitulating the experience of Israel in their forty years in the wilderness. Similar examples of Israel's temptations as also being experienced by Christians are found in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. It seems as if there is also a parallel with the temptations of mankind as a whole as shown in Genesis 3 (cf. 1 John 2:16). Thus Jesus faces and overcomes representatively the temptations of all men (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:14- 16, 5:7-10). The season of Lent, which was originally a preparation for the Easter baptism, in due course became a forty- day remembrance of the temptation of Jesus.

CHRIST, TEMPTATION OF (πειράζω, G4279). The term has two general meanings in the Gr. (1) “To try, to put to the test”; in the good sense, God “tested” Abraham (Gen 22:1) and Job. This is akin to chastening and is necessary to develop mature character. (2) In a bad sense it is enticement to sin. As stated by James, “God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13, 14).


The temptation of Christ is recounted in the synoptic gospels (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-13; cf. Heb 2:18; 4:15, 16). There is also strong evidence that Jesus encountered similar temptations during His later ministry on several occasions.


The traditional site of the temptation is Mount Quarantania. It is not far from the probable site of Jesus’ baptism and is in accordance with the scriptural statement that immediately thereafter the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). It is the highest hill in the vicinity and commands a spectacular view of the Jordan valley. In addition it fulfills the condition of being “in the wilderness,” an area uninhabited because of its extreme dryness.

The occasion.

At the time of Jesus’ baptism the account reports a voice from heaven saying, “Thou art my beloved son” (Luke 3:22). For John it was a time of recognition of the long-anticipated Messiah; for Jesus it was the momentous event marking His introduction to public life after three decades of relative obscurity.

The nature of the temptation.

It is not unlikely that the author of the first epistle of John had this temptation, together with that of Adam and Eve, in mind when he summed it up by saying, “All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). This would seem to be a summarization of the temptation of Eve, who saw that the tree was good for food (“the lust of the flesh”), that it was a delight to the eyes (“lust of the eyes”), and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (“pride of life”) (Gen 3:6). Jesus’ temptation also bears some similarity to this analysis.

“Lust of the flesh.”

It is stated that Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, the maximum time a person can do without food without endangering his health. During this time He was no doubt engaged in prayer and concentrated thought as He faced the issues resulting from His awareness of being the Messiah. Jesus was the only One in history who accepted this role without losing His sanity. During this time of emotional stress it is not strange that appetite was lacking. When the stress was over, however, normal hunger pangs asserted themselves imperiously. To Jesus, conscious of His God-given powers, the urge to satisfy the hunger craving in this manner must have seemed plausible. Surely that which is natural cannot be sinful. Why would it not be right to produce bread by the available supernatural power? Jesus instantly rejected it on the basis of Deuteronomy 8:3, the gist of which is that spiritual nourishment is more than the gratification of physical appetite. Jesus rejected cheap bread as quickly as He would have rejected cheap grace. He refrained from using the miracles for selfish gratification. This would have been an unlawful gratification of lawful desire.

“The lust of the eyes.”

The second temptation was in the opposite extreme. He stood the test of faith; now He had to withstand the temptation to fanaticism. Again He resorted to Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:16). The temptation to cast Himself from the “pinnacle of the temple,” possibly an allusion to the portico of Solomon's Porch|Solomon’s Porch, which rose over 300 ft. above the Kidron Valley, was a temptation to do something spectacular in order to win quick public approbation. It was also tempting the Father; it was daring God to rescue Him. Later Jesus was to encounter a similar temptation, to be acclaimed king by an enthusiastic multitude (John 6:15). A similar temptation was presented to Jesus when Peter tried to dissuade Him from the way of humiliation and suffering, to which the Master replied, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matt 16:23). Jesus rejected it on the basis that it would be a challenge to the providence of God; it would be daring God to intervene in a dramatic manner. It would represent a refusal to wait upon the Lord. This was a temptation to which King Saul succumbed when he took it in hand to offer the sacrifice himself without waiting longer for Samuel.

“The pride of life.”

The third and last temptation was that of gaining a legitimate end by unworthy means. The devil, to whom Jesus once referred as the ruler of this world (John 14:30), is quoted as saying that he would give to Jesus the allegiance of the world in return for an act of worship. This is a temptation implying that “the end justifies the means.” It means that one can accept the services of the devil or of evil men if they will further what seems to be a worthy cause. This was the devil’s last and final bid and apparently he himself thought that Jesus would not accept it. Jesus again replied in the words of Matthew 4:10, “You shall worship the Lord your God...only.” In so doing Jesus chose the hard, slow way of persuasion rather than the use of force. In this respect, Christianity differs radically from the methodology of Islam, a fighting faith. With His answer Jesus repudiated the means which promised quick and spectacular gains at the sacrifice of principle. Following this audacious challenge, the devil left and angels came. Probably the devil came then as he has since, not in visible form, but in the area of thought and motive.

Could Jesus have sinned?

To some it is inconceivable that Jesus could have done anything but withstand temptation. The writer of the Hebrews stated that He was tempted in all points as we are (Heb 2:18; 4:15), implying that the temptation was real and that He could have yielded, just as anyone could yield to temptation. To deny that Jesus could have sinned is to deny His humanity and to fall into the error of Docetism, which maintains that His humanity was only an appearance and not actually real. Because Jesus was truly human, He could have yielded to these temptations and others like them and forfeited His messiahship and sonship. He refrained from using His divine status to minimize the temptations, but permitted them to be felt in their full force. Thus He was truly man as He was truly God.

See Temptation of Christ.

TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Immediately after Jesus was baptized, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days He was exposed to the tempting of Satan (Mark 1:12, 13). Since the baptism was the inception of His public ministry, it is not surprising that the culmination of the days of temptation involved profoundly the meaning and method of that ministry.

Mt. Quarantania, the traditional place of the temptation, is a desolate area seven m. NW of Jericho. If Jesus was baptized at Bethany beyond the Jordan (John 1:28), however, it may be that the place was the barren, rocky shore of the Dead Sea not far from Qumran. Only the conclusion of the days of testing is revealed, although the whole period during which He fasted must have involved a constant battle. Whether Satan appeared visibly or not, the gospels speak of an actual spiritual conflict. “...it was not inward in the sense of being merely subjective; but it was all real...a real assault by a real Satan, really under these three forms, and it constituted a real temptation to Christ” (Edersheim, p. 297).

Many people, confusing temptation with sin, are troubled at the thought that Jesus could be tempted. It must be recognized that temptations are appeals to legitimate needs and desires. The error is in suggesting that these desires should be fulfilled in a way contrary to God’s will. It is when men place the fulfillment of their own wills before the will of God and give way to the temptation that there is sin (James 1:14, 15). Jesus steadfastly refused to satisfy His needs or fulfill His purpose in any way that would for one moment take Him outside the will of His Father.

The first temptation was on the level of His physical nature, an appeal to turn stones to bread in view of His obvious hunger after forty days of fasting (Matt 4:1-4). This was a basic test not only of the reality of the incarnation but also of the nature of His kingdom. Did He only appear to be a man, using the prerogatives of deity to overcome all difficulties? And was His kingdom to be primarily a satisfaction to the flesh? Jesus answered both temptations. He had become man fully and completely. Led by the Spirit, He had fasted in the wilderness and the continued fulfillment of God’s will was more important than the satisfaction of His hunger. Furthermore, His kingdom was to be of the Spirit and not of this world (cf. John 18:36).

Following Matthew’s order, the second temptation also has a double significance. It was an appeal on the level of His spiritual nature to prove His faith in God. At the same time it was an appeal to manifest Himself spectacularly to Israel by throwing Himself from the Temple parapet. Jesus was no more willing to depart from the will of God in the spiritual realm than in the physical. To throw oneself into danger unnecessarily is not to trust but to question the faithfulness of God: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Matt 4:7). Neither would Jesus convince Israel by astonishing them but by the working of the Spirit.

The third temptation involved the very purpose of His coming into the world, that the kingdoms of the earth might be restored to the kingdom of the Father. To obtain this goal in Satan’s way, by using his powers, would be to gain a world still sinful and lost. Jesus had come to redeem men, not simply to rule them. Satan’s way, still followed by many, required no suffering and death, but Jesus chose God’s way, the way of the cross. See Jesus Christ.


G. C. Morgan, The Crises of the Christ (1903), 150-210; J. Denney, “Holy Spirit” HDCG (1908); A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1953), vol. 1, 291-307; W. Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (1961), 31-39.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. The Sources:

The sources for this event are Mr 1:12,13; Mt 4:1-11; Lu 4:1-13; compare Heb 2:18; 4:15,16, and see Gethsemane. Mark is probably a condensation; Mt and Luke have the same source, probably the discourses of Jesus. Matthew is usually regarded as nearest the original, and its order is here followed.

2. Time and Place:

The Temptation is put immediately after the Baptism by all the synoptists, and this is psychologically necessary, as, we shall see. The place was the wilderness; it was "up" from the Jordan valley (Matthew), and was on the way back to Galilee (Luke). The traditional site, Mt. Quarantana, is probably a good guess.

3. Significance:

At His baptism, Jesus received from heaven the final confirmation of His thought that He was the Messiah. It was the greatest conception which ever entered a human mind and left it sane. Under the irresistible influence of the Spirit, He turned aside to seek out in silence and alone the principles which should govern Him in His Messianic work. This was absolutely necessary to any wise prosecution of it. Without the slightest precedent Jesus must determine what a Messiah would do, how He would act. Radical critics agree that, if such a period of meditation and conflict were not recorded, it would have to be assumed. By this conflict, Jesus came to that clearness and decision which characterized His ministry throughout. It is easy to see how this determination of guiding principles involved the severest temptation, and it is noteworthy that all the temptation is represented as coming from without, and none from within. Here too He must take His stand with reference to all the current ideas about the Messiah and His work.

4. The Reporter:

Jesus alone can be the original reporter. To this Holtzmann and J. Weiss agree. The report was given for the sake of the disciples, for the principles wrought out in this conflict are the guiding principles in the whole work of the kingdom of God on earth.

5. Exposition:

(1) Fasting.

Jesus was so intensely absorbed that He forgot to eat. There was nothing ascetic or ritualistic about it, and so this is no example for ascetic fasting for us. It is doubtful whether the text demands absolute abstinence from food; rather, long periods of fasting, and insufficient food when He had it. At the end of the forty days, He woke to the realization that He was a starving man.

(2) The First Temptation.

The first temptation is not a temptation to doubt His Messiahship, nor is the second either. "If thou art the Son of God," i.e. "the Messiah," means, simply, "since thou art the Son of God" (see Burton, Moods and Tenses, sections 244, 245; Robertson, Short Grammar, 161). There was not the slightest doubt on this point in Jesus’ mind after the baptism, and Satan knew it. There is no temptation to prove Himself the Messiah, nor any hint of such a thing in Jesus’ replies. The very point of it all is, How are you going to act, since you are Messiah? (Mt 4:3 parallel Lu 4:3).

The temptation has these elements:

(a) The perfectly innocent craving for food is imperious in the starving man.

(b) Why should He not satisfy His hunger, since He is the Son of God and has the power?

Jesus replies from De 8:3, that God can and will provide Him bread in His own way and in His own time. He is not referring to spiritual food, which is not in question either here or in Deuteronomy (see Broadus’ just and severe remark here). He does not understand how God will provide, but He will wait and trust. Divinely-assured of Messiahship, He knows that God will not let Him perish. Here emerges the principle of His ministry; He will never use His supernatural power to help Himself. Objections based on Lu 4:30 and Joh 10:39 are worthless, as nothing miraculous is there implied. The walking on the water was to help the apostles’ faith. But why would it have been wrong to have used His supernatural power for Himself? Because by so doing He would have refused to share the human lot, and virtually have denied His incarnation. If He is to save others, Himself He cannot save (Mt 27:42). In passing, it is well to notice that "the temptations all turn on the conflict which arises, when one, who is conscious of supernatural power, feels that there are occasions, when it would not be right to exercise it." So the miraculous is here most deeply imbedded in the first principles of Messianic action.

(3) The Second Temptation.

The pinnacle of the temple was probably the southeast corner of the roof of the Royal Cloister, 326 ft. above the bottom of the Kidron valley. The proposition was not to leap from this height into the crowd below in the temple courts, as is usually said, for

(a) there is no hint of the people in the narrative;

(b) Jesus reply does not fit such an idea; it meets another temptation entirely;

(c) this explanation confuses the narrative, making the second temptation a short road to glory like the third;

(d) it seems a fantastic temptation, when it is seriously visualized.

Rather Satan bids Jesus leap into the abyss outside the temple. Why then the temple at all, and not some mountain precipice? asks Meyer. Because it was the sheerest depth well known to the Jews, who had all shuddered as they had looked down into it (Mt 4:5-7 parallel Lu 4:5-8).

The first temptation proved Jesus a man of faith, and the second is addressed to Him as such, asking Him to prove His faith by putting God’s promise to the test. It is the temptation to fanaticism, which has been the destruction of many a useful servant of God Jesus refuses to yield, for yielding would have been sin. It would have been

(a) wicked presumption, as though God must yield to every unreasonable whim of the man, of faith, and so would have been a real "tempting" of God;

(b) it would have denied His incarnation in principle, like the first temptation;

(c) such fanaticism. would have destroyed His ministry.

So the principle was evolved: Jesus will not, of self-will, run into dangers, but will avoid them except in the clear path of duty. He will be no fanatic, running before the Spirit, but will be led by Him in paths of holy sanity and heavenly wisdom. Jesus waited on God.

(4) The Third Temptation.

The former tests have proved Jesus a man of faith and of common sense. Surely such a man will take the short and easy road to that universal dominion which right-fully belongs to the Messiah. Satan offers it, as the prince of this world. The lure here is the desire for power, in itself a right instinct, and the natural and proper wish to avoid difficulty and pain. That the final object is to set up a universal kingdom of God in righteousness adds to the subtlety of the temptation. But as a condition Satan demands that Jesus shall worship him. This must be symbolically interpreted. Such worship as is offered God cannot be meant, for every pious soul would shrink from that in horror, and for Jesus it could constitute no temptation at all. Rather a compromise with Satan must be meant--such a compromise as would essentially be a submission to him. Recalling the views of the times and the course of Jesus ministry, we can think this compromise nothing else than the adoption by Jesus of the program of political Messiahship, with its worldly means of war, intrigue, etc. Jesus repudiates the offer. He sees in it only evil, for

(a) war, especially aggressive war, is to His mind a vast crime against love,

(b) it changes the basis of His kingdom from the spiritual to the external,

(c) the means would defeat the end, and involve Him in disaster.

He will serve God only, and God is served in righteousness. Only means which God approves can be used (Mt 4:8-11 parallel Lu 4:9-13). Here then is the third great principle of the kingdom: Only moral and spiritual means to moral and spiritual ends. He turns away from worldly methods to the slow and difficult way of truth-preaching, which can end only with the cross. Jesus must have come from His temptation with the conviction that His ministry meant a life-and-death struggle with all the forces of darkness.

6. The Character of the Narrative:

As we should expect of Jesus, He throws the story of the inner conflict of His soul into story form. So only could it be understood by all classes of men in all ages. It was a real struggle, but pictorially, symbolically described. This seems to be proved by various elements in the story, namely, the devil can hardly be conceived as literally taking Jesus from place to place. There is no mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen. This view of the matter relieves all the difficulties.

7. How Could a Sinless Christ be Tempted?:

The difficulty is that there can be no drawing toward an object unless the object seems desirable. But the very fact that a sinful object seems desirable is itself sin. How then can a sinless person really be tempted at all? Possibly an analysis of each temptation will furnish the answer. In each ease the appeal was a real appeal to a perfectly innocent natural instinct or appetite. In the first temptation, it was to hunger; in the second, to faith; in the third, to power as a means of establishing righteousness. In each ease, Jesus felt the tug and pull of the natural instinct; how insistent is the demand of hunger, for instance! Yet, when He perceived that the satisfaction of these desires was sinful under the conditions, He immediately refused their clamorous appeal. It was a glorious moral victory. It was not that He was metaphysically not able to sin, but that He was so pure that He was able not to sin. He did not prove in the wilderness that He could not be tempted, but that He could overcome the tempter. If it is then said that Jesus, never having sinned, can have no real sympathy with sinners, the answer is twofold: (1) Not he who falls at the first assault feels the full force of temptation, but he who, like Jesus, resists it through long years to the end. (2) Only the victor can help the vanquished; only he, who has felt the most dreadful assaults and yet has stood firm, can give the help needed by the fallen.


Broadus on Matthew in the place cited.; Rhees, Life of Jesus of Nazareth, secs. 91-96; Sanday, Outlines of the Life of Christ, section 13; Holtzmann, Hand-Commentar, I, 67 f; J. Weiss, Die Schriften des New Testament, I, 227 f; Weiss, Life of Christ, I, 337-54; Dods, article "Temptation," in DCG; Carvie, Expository Times, X (1898-99).

F. L. Anderson