The Temptation of Christ: Who Is This Man?

Forefeast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos

Temptation_Christ_Square_2.jpegAND JESUS, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, He was hungry. The devil said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” 

And the devil took Him up, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’” 

And he took Him to Jerusalem, and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you.’ And ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” 

And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.  ~Luke 4:1-12

Jesus didn’t wander out into the desert to figure out what His mission should be. Rather, He set out to meet Satan on His own turf as the first gambit in His salvific mission. He also went out to find and rescue the lost Adam who had been cast out into the desert. (St. Ambrose)

Satan is perplexed. Prior to this, Jesus lived an ordinary life. But He did not come to baptism as one who needed to be cleansed. Instead, Satan heard John greet Jesus as the Lamb of God, heard God’s voice declaring His favor, and he was astonished. “He did not know that the Son of God had become man, for God concealed the inexpressible incarnation from him. So he assumed Christ was a man who was pleasing to God because of His virtues.” And Satan was just as jealous of this man as he had been of Adam. (Origen)

Who is this man? Satan thinks, “As long as I have not tested Him by combat through temptation, I will not be able to identify Him.” (St. Ephrem the Syrian)

So begins a great drama between these two vastly unequal adversaries. Satan may think he is in control, but he does not have full knowledge of the divine mind or plan. We forget this. He must try to flush it out through devious means. Jesus, on the other hand, is not the least bit deceived by His adversary. Were He not true God and perfect man, things might have fallen out otherwise. But that would be a different story.

It all hinges on a little, two letter word – IF.

IF you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” The first temptation is through gluttony, much as Adam was tempted by his hunger for the apple and all it represented. But Satan well knows that the Word of God is full of power. By His word the heavens and everything in them were made. If Jesus were God, He could surely turn a stone into bread. This would reveal Him to be the Christ. (St. Thomas Aquinas)

Or, if He were merely man, the attempt would lead Him to pridefully think He could be like God. (St. Ephrem) Unlike the first Adam, however, Jesus did not fall for Satan’s deception. Nor did He play His hand to reveal Himself to the devil, not just yet.

In the second temptation, the devil attacks through avarice and ambition, promising to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world IF only He would fall down and worship him. The lie is in the promise, of course, since the kingdoms of the world are not Satan’s to give. Nevertheless, the enticement of wealth, ambition and power is too great for many to resist. But Jesus is not moved. He already rules all the kingdoms of the world. Again, Satan is left wondering. Who is this man? 

Finally, Satan takes Jesus up to the highest pinnacle of the Temple to tempt Him through vainglory. “IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. . .” Why not? It would be quite a display, with the angels all scrambling to save Him from harm. But Jesus has no need to draw the angels into action, as their legions already serve Him. 

In each case, Jesus has not only concealed the full revelation of who He really is, He has also undone all the ancient errors of the first Adam. (St. Ambrose) First, He uses the medicine of Scripture. Second, He does nothing the devil suggests, no matter how attractive it might appear. Third, He refuses to let vanity offer an easy point of entry for sin. (St. Thomas Aquinas)  

In the end, the serpent slinks away. But he will return as a roaring lion at the crucifixion. He will enter into Judas and betray the Son to terrible torture and death. (St. Augustine) But when Satan thinks he has won, he will be utterly confounded. The stone rolls back, reveals an empty tomb and the Son rises in glory, taking with him a restored Adam. We sons and daughters of Adam will also be tested as we sojourn in the wilderness. But the desert is no longer Satan’s exclusive domain, and we don’t venture out alone. 

Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.


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