One of the most notable confrontations between God and Satan that we see recorded in scripture is the temptation of Christ in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. All three of the synoptic gospels refer to this incident and as would be imagined each of them has a different focus. Let us examine each of the three accounts and draw some conclusions about Satan based on these accounts and the information they receive.
First, Mark 1:12-13 provides a very short account of the temptation of Christ immediately after His baptism: “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.” This account gives a very bare-bones picture of the temptation, not even stating how Jesus was tempted, but saying that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to face the temptation is quite interesting, as it once again points out that this whole temptation was a setup by God and that Satan admirably filled into his role of providing temptation in such a way that would demonstrate God’s control over the universe and also His ultimate victory over evil.
Luke 4:1-13 provides more detail: “Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’ ” Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” Then he brought Him to Jerusalem, 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 shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” And Jesus answered and said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.”
Before we examine this scripture in detail, let us compare Matthew 4:1-11, which offers the same temptations in a different order: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’ ” Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.”
There is a great deal in this passage as relates to both Satan himself as well as the relationship between God and Satan. We have already noted that, like many of the interactions between God and Satan or between Satan and mankind, that this incident is a setup. It is striking that Satan is set up by God so repeatedly and that Satan allows himself to be setup so often. Whether it is in the Garden of Eden or when dealing with Job or David, Ultimately Satan is only free to act to the extent that he is allowed by God, and only for the purposes of God’s ultimate glory, and yet Satan never seems to act upon the realization that he is being used in such a fashion. This is puzzling.
Indeed, Jesus Christ, through the promptings of the Spirit, sets up this particular scenario in a fashion that could not be more favorable to Satan. Jesus Christ is alone in the wilderness, and has fasted for 40 days and is at his physical weakest. And yet the interaction itself is no contest. Satan tries various angles of attack and is continually rebuffed in ways that would be instructive for us to learn from and imitate in our own struggles against evil. For one, Satan attempts to attack Jesus with his physical vulnerability and is rebuffed, tries to attack at Jesus’ vanity and is rebuffed, and then tries to offer Jesus success in this life at the cost of eternal life through political power and is rebuffed. All of these areas are temptations for humanity and areas where we tend to fare far worse than Jesus Christ did.
We may also see here that Satan attempted to misuse scripture in ways that are very common in our own lives as well, using scriptures in isolation and out of context and in such a way as to attack others and to encourage self-serving responses. We see this use of scripture in quite an obvious way. For example, people whose lives and behavior demonstrates no interest in accepting the authority of scripture over themselves will try to weaponize scripture to attack others with false accusations of bowing down to idols for supporting political figures and ideals that they disapprove of. Such a use of scripture is satanic and we ought to avoid it strenuously. In contrast, Jesus’ use of scripture is masterful, as he uses scripture not for His own personal glory but to remind Satan of the ultimate intent of scriptures to reflect God’s authority, trumping Satan’s abuse of scriptures with contextually relevant uses of scripture that remind us not to tempt God and that our duty is to serve God above all else. And even if we do this imperfectly, this awareness of our responsibilities is always to be considered welcome.
And so it is that the second effort of Satan to tempt mankind failed miserably, in stark contrast to the first. In the Gulf between this scene and the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden we can see the gulf that separates the behavior of God towards Satan from the naive and ineffective ways that mankind tends to deal with Satan and his temptations when not led by the Holy Spirit. As human beings we are vulnerable when our longings and desires are not filled and disinclined to value the restraint of such desires until they are appropriate. Likewise, we are easily provoked by our vanity and our desire for power here and now and not sufficiently aware of the potential consequences of seeking power in corrupt regimes or of the pitfalls of our impatience and rashness. And all of these have very negative consequences that we are often sadly blind to. The temptation of Christ and its resounding victory for Christ reminds us that there is a better way than our mistaken instincts.