The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is one of the most striking and memorable in the New Testament (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-13). Temptations to turn stones into bread, to leap from high pinnacles, and to worship at the feet of evil make for a larger-than-life plot — a heroic battle fought against a canvas of cosmic significance.
Tempted . . .
As we read these accounts, it’s easy to miss the connection between an epic struggle and our own daily lives. We know that the Son of God was “tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But the accounts of Jesus’ wilderness temptation often seem distant from our experiences: the ongoing pull toward wrong thoughts, words, or deeds as we view images thrust at us through various media; the provocations of traffic snarls; or the desire to repay an injury.
Our struggles certainly pale compared to Jesus’, yet ours can seem so constant, so endless — especially if we battle against a recurring temptation. In contrast, Jesus seemed to have fought the Devil in one great showdown, after which “the devil . . . left him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Near the end of Jesus’ life, the first three Gospels show the Tempter did return. We remember Jesus’ response to Peter when that disciple claimed He would not have to die (Matthew 16:23), and His agonizing struggle with the temptation for self-preservation in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:39). But these recorded struggles and the initial wilderness temptation are focused into just two parts of Jesus’ ministry: its beginning and its end.
As we are . . .
How then was Jesus tempted as we are? Where do we see in Him the continual conflicts we face? Is there some biblical evidence to tie our ongoing challenges to His?
The Gospel of John may provide an answer to this question. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John does not recount the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but the disciple who was closest to Jesus does record important occurrences of temptation that the other Gospels do not.
John alone records three specific temptations that beset Jesus at various points in His ministry. Although the incidents are different, they closely parallel the three temptations in the wilderness that appear in the other Gospels. We can learn much from what John tells us.
In the first example, John says, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Matthew and Mark both tell us that Jesus went alone up on a mountain to pray, but not why. Only John points out that it was because Jesus faced the same pressure to accept authority and rulership that He had faced in the wilderness when Satan offered Him kingship over the nations.
In the second of John’s three examples, he tells us that Jesus’ brothers asked Him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (6:30, 31). Of all the Gospel writers, John alone reports this incident when Jesus resisted pressure to use the power at His disposal for His own purposes. The specific temptation — a request for a sign to parallel God’s miraculous gift of manna — directly parallels His wilderness temptation to turn stones into bread.
In John’s final example, the disciple tells us, “Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do’” (7:3). In this incident, John shows that the half-siblings of Jesus tried to urge Him to make a display of His power before many more people — just as in the wilderness He faced the temptation to throw Himself from the temple pinnacle and be saved by angels so that great crowds assembled in the courts below would see and accept Him.
But without sin
John’s unique recorded temptations of Jesus remind us that although a Gospel does not contain other temptations, it doesn’t mean they didn’t occur. Just as many of Jesus’ small acts of kindness are not recorded in the Gospel accounts, He doubtless suffered many unrecorded temptations also. But the intimate details John gives of three additional struggles Jesus faced during His ministry should drastically revise any thoughts that His temptations were not identical to the recurrent battles we face. Rather than the climactic battle fiercely but decisively fought, John shows us an ongoing struggle against recurring pressures that match our day-to-day lives.
John also shows us that in every instance, Jesus met temptation with immediate, obedient, and complete rejection, and in every case He overcame it. We may never respond with such godly decisiveness in our own lives, but knowing that Jesus was probably tempted frequently throughout His life and ministry — repeatedly as we are — greatly encourages us. No matter how many times He was tempted, Jesus overcame every struggle by staying close to God.
The lesson for us is a simple one: We have the same opportunity to stay close to God that Jesus did.