After being baptized by John, “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. / And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered.”—Matthew 4:1-2.

Of the Spirit is an important phrase. He didn’t eat for 40 days. Fasting for spiritual purposes can result in a vision, a trip to the spirit world—which exists alongside the more obvious physical one, and, like dreams, can be metaphorical, literal, or both.

The devil might not be a proper name, since it isn’t capitalized. This could mean that Satan was never really there, only part of Jesus’ vision. What tempted Jesus, then, might not have been another person, but himself.

First Temptation
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. / But he answered and said, it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”—Matthew 4:3-4.

If thou be the Son of God….

The devil used this implication twice during his three temptations. He didn’t say since, but if. Did Jesus doubt himself; doubt that he was the Son of God?

Before I begin a new project (like these essays, for example), I have to overcome my doubts. The Israelites had to endure 40 years in the wilderness. We all have to stand strong enough to survive the desert, but weak enough to accept our vulnerability, and not tempt fate.

It is perfectly natural to doubt yourself; it’s not a bad thing. That’s one of the differences between the absolute nature of faith in the Old Testament, and the more flexible, realistic understanding of it provided by Jesus. Doubt allows us to change.

If the Son of God can suffer doubt, then we are far from immune to its influence.

If we can accept our weaknesses, then we can overcome them.

Command that these stones be made bread.

Besides the implied temptation to doubt his own identity, Jesus was further tempted to end his fast. The wording is a trap. Jesus is the Son of God; that answers the first part of the implication (an if/then statement). Logically, he should then turn the stones to bread. He was fully capable, after all.

“And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.”—Matthew 14:19.

If he could create enough bread to feed 5,000 people, then he could’ve easily fed himself.

This brings up an interesting point. Jesus eventually does everything the devil tempted him to do. But it’s when he does it, and why, that’s important. Feeding himself would’ve broken his connection to God, ending the vision. But when he fed the five thousand, it was for their sake. He used his abilities for the good of others, not himself.

“But he answered and said, it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”—Matthew 4:4.

Jesus answered all of the devil’s temptations by quoting scripture, Deuteronomy, to be precise.

“And he humbleth thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.”—Deuteronomy 8:3.

Only and alone are important qualifiers to consider. Of course we need bread. Our bodies require nourishment. But there is spiritual food, and then there is the physical kind. The devil—whether he was Jesus’ internal doubt, or an external, corporeal being—wanted Jesus to forsake the spiritual, to insure physical comfort.

That’s how we begin to lose our spirituality: Real life consumes all our thoughts, and time, until we are so full on bread that there’s no room for love.

Second Temptation
“Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, / And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. / Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”—Matthew 4:5-7.

Cast thyself down.

This is an extraordinary line. Is Jesus suicidal? Keep in mind, the devil is still in lower case, implying that he is not a separate, actual person, but the manifestation of Jesus’ darkest thoughts. Suicide is the ultimate expression of doubting yourself. But maybe that’s taking the metaphor too literally, so to speak.

Maybe Jesus looked at the stones and wondered how he’d react if they were loaves of bread. And maybe he felt like he was dying of hunger. Temptation can be subtle: brief flashes of emotion and doubt.

Again, the devil tries to trap Jesus with an if/then statement, one that is heavily loaded, since Satan, himself, was cast down. But the devil throws a curve by quoting scripture.

“Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall be no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. / For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. / They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”—Psalm 91:9-12.

Since Jesus is the Son of God, if he tried to kill himself, then the angels would prevent it; that’s the devil’s point. Let us not forget that Jesus did sacrifice himself; he went willingly to the cross.

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”—John 10:11.

Like using his power to create bread out of thin air, what’s important here is why and when. Sacrificing himself for the good of others is a far cry from frivolously jumping off a great height, just to prove what Jesus already knew.

There is worthwhile doubt, and then there is frivolous doubt.

He answered this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy again:

“Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; / (For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth. / Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.”—Deuteronomy 6:14-16.

The Israelites “tempted” God by doubting Him. While this could be interpreted as tempting God’s wrath (which they certainly did), I also see this as putting God to the test—and by “God,” keep in mind, I mean love.

Would you test your spouse’s love by cheating on them?

Third Temptation
“Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; / And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. / Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. / Then the devil leaveth him, and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”—Matthew 4:8-11.

The devil changed his tactics here. He showed his cards, his real thoughts. And since his name is still in lower-case, it’s worth considering that these were Jesus’ thoughts.

If thou wilt fall down and worship me.

Did Jesus consider, even for a brief flash, that he could use his power to be king of the world, without going to the cross, without dying—an immortal despot? Power corrupts. And remember that Eve was tempted by this in the garden.

“For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”—Genesis 3:5.

Again, if Jesus can be tempted by these things, even momentarily, then we must accept that we are vulnerable too. If we can’t acknowledge our desire to exercise power over our lives, and that this compulsion is used, by definition, to the detriment of others, then we’ll never know love.

In other words, the temptation is for Jesus to love only himself, like the Prodigal Son.

To deny the temptation, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy once again.

“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.”—Deuteronomy 6:13.

The Bible also suggested this as a reference, and I like it a lot more:

“Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord.”—Joshua 24:14.

I like that phrase: on the other side of the flood. It reminds me of the Parable of the New Cloth, from my first essay—which is the thesis for all the others. In short: we need new understanding for new situations. The old understanding worked, on the other side of the flood.

The greatest temptation comes from within. It is subtle, beginning with feeding yourself, taking care of yourself. We have to look out for number one, to an extent. This is the obvious, truthful part of the devil’s if/then statements. Of course Jesus is the Son of God; of course we have to eat. The temptation is to take that to the extreme, to be so selfish that one would kill themselves, denying the world of their love; or that one would rule the world, making it so that everything was about them.

Peer pressure can’t hold a candle to self-pressure. We must accept our weaknesses, not deny their existence; but we can’t give in to them either. The only way to have the strength to survive your devil, your time in the wilderness, is to love your neighbor in the way that you would love yourself. When that happens, the devil inside becomes the Jesus inside, and a new covenant is born—between you and the love in your heart.