Christ’s Temptation in the Synoptic

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Do you believe that  the devil exists in life? It seems probable that a large number of Christians would find it somehow difficult to say “yes” or “no”.  However, we find evil present in the Gospels.  Undoubtedly, in the Gospels, evil is not only present as a passive factor, but it is present actively as an enemy of God. Satan is as a symbol of evil in the world.  Satan ceaselessly disturbs the life of all Christians; especially all those who are good servants of God. In the Gospels, we clearly see that Jesus was tempted by Satan. Why did God permit Satan to temp his beloved Son? There is no other reason than “He transformed us into himself when he willed to be tempted by Satan….he could have kept the tempter from him; but had he not been tempted he would not have given you who face temptation the power to overcome.” (St. Augustine)[i].  In order to deepen this topic, I will have a look at it in the eyes of the synoptic Gospels, especially in Matthew (4: 1 – 11) and Luke (4: 1 – 13).  I will present it as follows: (1) the first temptation, (2) the second temptation, (3) the third temptation and finally (4) the meaning of this topic to me when I look at Jesus who conquered his temptations.  To illustrate this paper, I mainly refer to An Introduction the New Testament (Intro. NT), The Broadman Bible Commentary (BBC), and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC). Hopefully, by presenting this topic, I can understand some main points about the different and similar theological themes of each evangelist in this topic; and moreover, based on these themes, I will learn how to apply them in my spiritual life.

However, true faith and true love will not try to compel God to act, but it is “a trust of his loving and wise will, not simply trust in his power to provide”

The First Temptation: Stones or Bread

According to Matthew:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'”

According to Luke:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

Both Matthew and Luke presented the first temptation in the same chronological order.  After being baptized, Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Holy Spirit into the desert”.  According to the NJBC, “The Spirit does not lead him into temptation, but is the sustaining power with him during temptation.”[ii] The temptation happened “in the desert” where He fasted for “forty days”.  The mention of forty days recalls the forty years of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites during the Exodus (cf. Deut 8:2), and “connects the 40-day fast with Moses and Elijah in the desert”[iii] where during forty years Israelites were tempted to rebel against the divine plane by complaint and false worship.  After forty days of fast, Jesus was hungry; the devil said to him.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  This temptation aimed at “If you are the Son of God”, you can do anything you want.  In effect, he is saying: You used to use your power to turn stones into bread to feed your Israelites in the desert for forty years (cf. Ex 16:4), why don’t you turn these stone into bread to feed yourself? The time of fasting is over; you do not need to be so disciplined.  You have to take care of yourself first. Moreover, the first temptation not only tempts Jesus into gluttony but further, it also tempts him to use his power to serve himself instead of God’s will.  Obviously, Jesus needed food to eat, but it was not the food that Satan would provide.  It reminds us that we sometimes want “to employ the wrong means to achieve goals which at least in part represented valid human needs [and] to make a short-cut to the meeting of an immediate need”[iv].  This temptation frequently happens in our life.  We often want to achieve our goals with a low price.  We want to satisfy our desires instantly.  We want to be happy without the Cross of Jesus.  Obviously, Satan had never ceased tempting Jesus and later, all his disciples in the same way.  “Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him” (Mt 27: 42).  But “that enticement does not come from the one who called you” (Gal 5: 8), it is from Satan.

We often want to achieve our goals with a low price.  We want to satisfy our desires instantly.  We want to be happy without the Cross of Jesus.

The Second Temptation: The Dangers of the Pinnacle

The order of this temptation between Matthew and Luke is different.  Matthew puts it in the second temptation, while Luke puts it at the end. Why do the evangelists present it in a different order?  What is the meaning of this temptation?  According to Matthew, “Then the devil took him to the holy city” (4: 5); Unlike Matthew, Luke clearly named Jerusalem “Then he [Satan] led him to Jerusalem,… If you are the Son of God, throw your self down from here” (4: 9 -10), and he puts the order of this temptation at the end.  It was not accidental when he purposely mentioned this temptation with the scene of Jerusalem.  It may be concluding that Luke wanted to connect this temptation with the final temptation in the Agony and eventually Jesus overcame the final temptation in Jerusalem.  Moreover, it is surprising to see that Jerusalem is the place in which Luke ends the Gospel (24: 52 – 53). The Holy City, Jerusalem was a good place to perform wonders.  It was a good chance to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel.  From both Gospels, we may see that first of all, “this temptation relates to the popular clamor for “signs and wonders”[v].  It is the temptation of messianic power.  For Jesus, He could gain this wonder easily.  He could perform miracles in order to attract people and make them follow him. However, it is the temptation of fame and reputation.  His mission was not to perform miracles, but He “came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).  In addition, this temptation is not as simple as the temptation of fame and power, but Jesus was tempted to trust in God’s love.  The devil repeated: “If you are the Son of God”, and went further when he used Scripture to tempt Jesus: “He will command his angel concerning you.”  It is the test of the faith.  Do you believe the angels always take care of you? Are you sure that your Father will protect you always?  If yes, I want you to show me His love for you! The devil wanted to provoke Jesus to test God’s love.  However, true faith and true love will not try to compel God to act, but it is “a trust of his loving and wise will, not simply trust in his power to provide”[vi].  In Matthew, after tempting Jesus, “the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him” (4: 11).  On the other hand, in Luke “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time” (4: 13).  Once again, Luke wants to emphasize the connections from the first temptation to the last temptation of Jesus in Jerusalem.

Luke has no angels come to minister to Jesus and specifies that the devil left him till an opportune time. At the beginning of the passion, Luke alone among the Synoptics will be specific about the presence of Satan, the power of darkness. Luke 22:3, 31-32, 53.   And on the Mount of Olives when Jesus is tested again, an angel will come to strengthen him (22: 43 – 44).[vii]

The Third Temptation: God or gods?

As I have mentioned above, although there is a difference between Matt and Luke in chronological order, the context of this temptation is the same.  However, Matthew wanted to emphasize his theology when he mentioned “the devil took him up to a very high mountain” (Mt 4: 8), while Luke did not emphasize this point as well as Matthew did. “Then he took him up” (Lk 4: 5).  Undoubtedly, it was not an accident when Matt presented this scene.  There are at least eighteen times[viii] Matthew mentions “the mountain” while obviously no other Gospels mention it as many times. Obviously, “the mountain” is one of the important theological themes of Matthew when he wanted to present Jesus as the Messiah who took the place of Moses and fulfilled the Law of Moses.  According to R.E. Brown,

There are parallels between Moses and the Matthean Jesus.  The OT conveyer of divine revelation encountered God on a mountain; the NT revealer speaks to his disciples on a mountain,… the Matthean Jesus, speaking more confidently than any 1st – century rabbi, implies that he is more authoritative than Moses”[ix]

When the devil led Jesus up to the very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, the devil said to Jesus “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me” (Mat 4:9).  In the Old Testament, Israelites fell many times when facing this temptation.  It recalls Israel’s worship of false gods. “You shall not follow other gods, such as those of the surrounding nations” (Deut 6:14).  One more thing we should consider is that the maliciousness of this temptation not only aims at worshiping false gods but also aims at desiring to have authority.  As that time, many Israelites “expected the Messiah to be a world ruler who would “restore the kingdom of Israel”[x].  Satan seduced Jesus to choose another way to rule the world instead of the road of the Cross, to have “the kingdom of world” instead of the “kingdom of God”.  It means that Jesus would need to pay the devil one price to gain “the kingdom of the world”, while choosing to obey the Father; Jesus had to pay a lot of prices, and even the price of death on the cross.  However, unlike Israelites in the Old Testament, Jesus did conquer the devil so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend” (Phil 2: 10).  Once again, the connecting point between the final temptation and the final event of Jesus in Matthew was found at the end of the Gospel.  On the Ascension Day, “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them” (Mat 28: 16).  At this time, the power of resurrection was manifested and Jesus asce[xi]nded into Heaven in front of his disciples on the mountain.  Could Matthew have arranged Jesus’ final temptation on the mountain with this purpose?

The maliciousness of this temptation not only aims at worshiping false gods but also aims at desiring to have authority.

What Is the Meaning of this Topic to Me in the Christian Life?

Needless to say, Jesus was “tempted as we are” (Heb 4:15), but He conquered all the temptations.  His triumph over temptation gives us hope to follow him who “has put all his enemies under his feet” (I Cor 15: 25).  For us, no one can avoid temptation; learning from Jesus, we also deal with temptations by having recourse to the Word of God, trusting in God’s love and being faithful in worshiping God.

First of all, we all need to realize that there is no favor for all those who have worked for the salvation plan.  “My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepares yourself for trials” (Sirach 2:1).  Realizing the presence of temptation and facing it is one of the ways to deal with it. Like Jesus who used the Word of God to conquer it, so do we use no other means to conquer temptation than the Word of God.  “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Ps 119:105).  Today, Satan also tempts us the same way as he used to tempt Jesus.  We easily fall into bad passions and use our own ability to serve ourselves rather than to serve God. We are sometimes faced with both physical and spiritual hunger; and we often search for the bread of Satan but not God’s.  However, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Mat 4:4).  Second, lack of trust in God is another kind of temptation that we often deal with.  The fact is that the way God loves his children is different from what people imagine; and the way He saves us is different from ours.  “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55:9).  This temptation is one of the most malicious ones because it makes us doubt the presence of God in our life.  We are often faced with this temptation when we fall or are subjected to miserable situations.  It seems to be that God is absent from our life.  Remember that “Can a mother forget her infant….even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15). Finally, searching for a new god is another kind of temptation that we often encounter.  This temptation easily leads us to many false gods, such as money, fame, beauty, lust, etc.  The more we follow them, the less we receive from them; the more they promise, the less they provide. “Indeed, all the associates of anyone who forms a god, or casts an idol to no purpose, will be put to shame” (Is 44: 10).  Yes, Jesus did conquer this temptation by saying: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve” (Lk 4:8).  This is a resolute answer for all His disciples.

In conclusion, in the eyes of the Synoptics, especially Matthew and Luke, both present the temptation of Jesus with a similar context but the different orders.  We may conclude that each evangelist wants to present Jesus with his own theological theme.  Matthew emphasized the role of the Messiah, taking the place of Moses, whom the Israelites were expecting.  Whereas Luke wanted to emphasize Jerusalem where Jesus finally conquered sin and the new mission of the Church began in Jerusalem. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Act 1:8).

“My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepares yourself for trials”

Br. Huynhquảng


Works Cited

Aken, Clifton J., ed. “Mathew – Mark,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol 8, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1969.

– – -. “Luke – John,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol 9, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1969.

Brown, Raymond E. “The Gospel According to Mathew” in An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Karris, Robert J. O.F.M. “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S. , Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

Vann, Gerald. O.P., and P. K. Meagher, O.P. The Temptations of Christ, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1957.

Viviano, Benedict T. O.P. “The Gospel According to Mathew,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990.


[i] Gerald Vann, O.P., P. K. Meagher, O.P. The Temptations of Christ (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1957) 15.
[ii] Robert J. Karris, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 688.
[iii] Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., “The Gospel According to Mathew,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm,, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 638.
[iv] Clifton J. Aken, G. ed. “Mathew – Mark,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol 8. (Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1969), 97.
[v] Aken, 98.
[vi] Aken, 98.
[vii] Raymond E. Brown, “The Gospel According to Luke” in An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 236 – 237.
[viii] Mt 4:8, 5:1, 5:14, 8:1, 8:32, 24: 23, 15:29, 17:1, 17:9, 17:20, 18: 12, 21:1 21:21, 24: 3, 24:16, 26:30, 27:60,  28:16
[ix] Raymond E. Brown, “The Gospel According to Mathew” in An Introduction to the New Testament ( New York: Doubleday, 1996), 178 – 179.
[x] Clifton J. Aken, G. ed. “Luke – John,” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol 9. (Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1969), 43.
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