Jesus’s easy victory over the devil.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 February

Mark 1.12-13, Matthew 4.1-11, Luke 4.1-13.

Mark 1.12-13 KWL
12 Right afterward, the Spirit threw Jesus into the wilderness.
13 Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, getting tested by Satan.
He was with the beasts. Angels were serving him.

That’s the extra-short version of Jesus’s “temptations,” as they tend to be called: Peirádzo/“test” is often meant in a tempting sense, ’cause part of the test is how badly we want what’s offered. But is it in Jesus’s divine nature to go about getting these things the wrong way? Nah. He’s never gonna put himself above his Father’s will. So let’s not treat these tests like they really made Jesus doubt his commitment to the Father. Any devout Christian can easily resist such temptations.

The Mark version doesn’t have a lot of details: Just Jesus and the devil, out in the middle of nowhere. Didn’t have to be way out in the middle of nowhere; in fact it’d be a stronger test of will if Jesus was just within sight of civilization. (As was the case in the Judean desert. Lots of hermits, nomads, even a few communes.)

If all we had was the Mark version, we’d imagine all sorts of horrors and enticements. (Especially since Mark brought up Jesus “was with the beasts”—something End Times fanatics would have all sorts of fun speculating about.)

Y’know, since it was only Jesus and the devil out there in the wilderness, it leads us to a rather obvious deduction: The authors of Matthew and Luke could only have got the particulars from Jesus himself. He shared the stories of his testing, probably with his students. Probably to teach ’em the sort of stuff the devil tries to use on us. And teach ’em how to resist.

In the Matthew and Luke versions, they’re not in the same order.

  1. Rocks to bread. Mt 4.2-4
  2. Dive from temple. Mt 4.5-7
  3. Bow to Satan. Mt 4.8-10
  1. Rocks to bread. Lk 4.2-4
  2. Bow to Satan. Lk 4.5-8
  3. Dive from temple. Lk 4.9-12

Why? There’s some speculation about the meaning of Luke’s order, but I don’t buy ’em. Luke is more likely the original story’s order. Matthew, in comparison, is focused on the kingdom, so the tests escalate from Jesus’s personal needs, to Jesus impressing Jerusalem, to Jesus conquering the world. Makes sense.

Satan didn’t size up its opponent properly.

I’ll explain the devil in more detail some other time; there’s way too much disinformation floating around about what it is and where it came from. In a nutshell: It’s a heavenly being, whose primary purpose was to play “devil’s advocate” for God—to point out certain humans weren’t all that good, Jb 1.6-12 and sometimes it went out of its way to prove its case. Ge 3 At some point after Jesus’s birth—to which it strongly objected—it rebelled, and was tossed from heaven. Rv 12.1-9, Lk 10.18 It now fights us. Rv 12.17

Here, it was at its usual job of trying to prove Jesus wasn’t all that. Because it didn’t realize, at the time, who Jesus really was: It thought Jesus might actually fold. It didn’t realize that Jesus, while human and therefore temptable, is also God and therefore never gonna give in to temptation. God will never violate his own character. And since Jesus is God, neither will he. No matter how badly he may want something, he’s never take the wrong route to get it.

I know: “How can you mean the devil didn’t know who Jesus was? It kept calling him God’s son.” Yeah, but “God’s son” doesn’t mean what we think it does. When Christians say it, we mean Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the trinity, God incarnate, the divine human, the God-Man, and all that theological stuff. When the ancients said it, they mean God’s adoptive son, the Messiah. Ps 2.7 It’s one of the king’s titles. So the devil’s question was whether Jesus was really Messiah. And if you know your Old Testament, you’ll realize the devil tried every previous Messiah—every king of Israel and Judah—with these very same tests. All of ’em failed at least one of these tests. Many all three.

But God becoming human? The idea goes entirely against the devil’s thinking. Who would voluntarily give up infinite power? What could God seriously accomplish while powerless? The devil would never do any such thing; neither would your average human. We covet power. Giving it up?—we struggle to wrap our brains around the idea. We’re stunned when people who submit, like Jesus did, turn out to wield far more influence than we ever thought possible. It mocks our instincts.

All the devil’s tests had to do with power, with Messianic prophecy, with Jesus taking over the world. So it makes sense to recognize the devil only thought “God’s son” meant Messiah. Nothing more. It had no idea Jesus didn’t need to test the Father; that he knew the Father would easily come through for him if he requested. It had no idea Jesus not only knew the scriptures, but declared them himself from Sinai. It’s more dramatic to depict these tests as a dramatic, divine struggle, so that’s what movies and preachers do. But considering who Jesus truly is, these “temptations” were pathetic.

Art and movies also tend to depict Jesus’s tests as if the devil has some sort of physical form. It’s a spirit; it has no such thing. (Heck, if you could see the devil coming, its tricks wouldn’t work so well.) More than likely when the devil came to Jesus, it dropped its ideas in Jesus’s mind, trying to make him think he or the Holy Spirit came up with them. Of course Jesus immediately knew better. And we have to get to Jesus’s level when it comes to testing. Know what God expects of us; then we’ll ignore the devil’s tests as a waste of our time and effort.

Why’d the Spirit send Jesus to the wilderness to face Satan? Simple: To beat Satan. With one arm tied behind his back: Jesus starved himself five weeks, to the point of near death, near incoherence. And even that weak, he took the devil down. Wasn’t a hard-fought battle. Jesus responded “No,” quoted bible, and was done. This was God squashing a bug. The devil has no power other than what we surrender to it. Lk 4.6 Jesus surrendered nothing to it. All we need to is repeat his example, and it will flee. Jm 4.7

Rocks to bread.

Matthew 4.1-4 KWL
1 Then Jesus was taken to the wilderness by the Spirit,
to be tested by the devil.
2 After fasting 40 days and nights, Jesus was hungry, 3 and the coming tester told him,
“If you’re God’s son, speak so these rocks may become bread.”
4 In reply Jesus said, “It’s written, ‘Humans will not only live by bread,
but by every saying which comes from God’s mouth.’” Dt 8.3
Luke 4.1-4 KWL
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan,
and in the Spirit, was led into the wilderness 2 40 days, getting tested by the devil.
Jesus ate nothing in those days, and was hungry at its end.
3 The devil told him, “If you’re God’s son, tell this rock that it may become bread.”
4 Jesus answered it, “It’s written: ‘Humans will not only live by bread.’” Dt 8.3

In Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson’s 1984 song “We Are the World,” the songwriters showed their profound biblical ignorance by including the line, “As God has shown us by turning stones to bread.” When the song first came out, I suppose most of the public were too busy trying to identify all the different singers to bother with the lyrics beyond “We are the world, we are the children.”

Jesus was in his thirties, so this was hardly the first test he ever experienced. Just the first one the devil lobbed him in the desert, speaking to his specific circumstances: Raving-mad hungry after 40 days of nothing.

Forty days is as long as a human can go without food before the body runs out of fat and starts consuming muscle. Now, if Jesus were as fat as an American, he might’ve gone a bit longer than 40 days, but either way let’s say he hit the point where the body was burning muscle: Mentally he’d have been losing it. Fasting helps you focus, but fast too long, that long, and your mind would start raving, “Those rocks look kinda like loaves. Since I am God’s son, perhaps I could turn one these rocks here into bread…”

And here’s where Jesus realized he didn’t come up with that idea. It was the devil dropping its warped ideas into his spirit.

Now, there’s nothing sinful, nor inherently wrong, about turning rocks to bread. It’s why Ritchie and Jackson, and most of their listeners, didn’t catch their error. God could easily turn rocks to bread, or sprinkle manna on his people, or multiply five loaves into food for five thousand. How’s such a miracle any different than the other ways God miraculously provided?

But see, the reason God became human was to surrender power. Not tap it whenever he felt it was too inconvenient to do things the same way any other human would. We weren’t granted the Holy Spirit so we could have access to miraculous shortcuts. Jesus didn’t need to transmogrify rocks; he could’ve dragged himself to the nearest nomad’s tent, and common Middle Eastern hospitality would guarantee they’d care for him. And doing such a miracle would’ve proven nothing. There was nobody around to see it; Jesus didn’t have to prove his anointing to himself; and it still wouldn’t have convinced the devil.

Jesus’s response comes from Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy 8.3 KWL
“He oppressed you. Made you hungry. Made you eat manna.
Neither you nor your ancestors knew about manna.
This was so you’d learn not only by bread do humans live:
By everything which comes from the LORD’s mouth, do humans live.”

Though a spirit, the devil is a materialist. It recognizes, since we’re physical beings, we’re easily distracted by physical things. And it’s right; we are. Bread’s a material need, and hunger a real issue. So we focus on that, and not so much the provider of our bread. And that was Moses’s point in Deuteronomy.

Bread was meant to distract Jesus from the real issue. Jesus quoting Moses proved he was fully aware of the real issue.

Dive from temple.

Matthew 4.5-7 KWL
5 Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and stood him on the temple’s high point.
6 It told him, “If you’re God’s son, throw yourself down.
For it’s been written: ‘He’ll command his angels about you, and they’ll take you up in their hands.
You might never hit your foot against a rock.’” Ps 91.11-12
7 Jesus told it, “Again, it’s written, ‘Don’t test your Lord God.’” Dt 6.16
Luke 4.9-12 KWL
9 Satan brought Jesus to Jerusalem and stood on the temple’s high point.
It told him, “If you’re God’s son, throw yourself down from here.
10 For it’s been written he’ll command his angels about you, 11 that “they’ll take you up in their hands.
You might never hit your foot against a rock.’” Ps 91.11-12
12 In reply Jesus told it, “It’s been said, ‘Don’t test your Lord God.’” Dt 6.16

Bluntly, this test is fairly retarded. Since when do the scriptures claim we can jump off tall buildings and have the angels catch us? ’Cause that’s precisely what Satan suggested Psalm 91 means. Here’s that quote.

Psalm 91.10-13 KWL
10 Evil gets cut off from you. Inside your tent, plague is expelled.
11 For his angels, God commands to watch you, all your ways surveilled.
12 Lest you strike your foot on rocks, by hand they lift you in protection.
13 Step on lion, cobra; trample cub—and dragon!—his discretion.

The average Christian likes to treat the bible like a giant quote book, full of scriptures which can be plucked out and re-worked into meaning whatever they wish. It’s the Philo of Alexandria technique, popularized by St. Augustine: The Old Testament is nothing but allegory, a “type and shadow” of the truth, and can fit any vessel we pour it into. ’Cause that’s the power the Holy Spirit put into it.

Wrong spirit. ’Cause that’s the technique the devil tried in this test. The psalm’s original context is to describe how God protects those who stay in his shadow. Ps 91.1 Jumping off the temple? Not staying in God’s shadow. Going way, way outside it. God ordered us to commit no such stunts.

The devil may have thought Jesus was too far gone with hunger to realize what it was pushing him to do. And if Satan was right, and Jesus was a nobody, it’d solve its problem: Jesus would splatter himself all over the priests’ court.

Jesus quoted Deuteronomy again—

Deuteronomy 6.16 KWL
“Don’t test your LORD God like you tested him at Massa.”

Unlike Satan, Jesus never quotes bible out of context. Never stretches a meaning, nor changes it, nor cancels it. Those Christians who claim he does: They’re the ones reinterpreting what he meant when he quoted the Old Testament, and never bother to check whether the OT context fits or explains Jesus’s teachings. It always does.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses warned the Hebrews to not test the LORD like they did in Massah, where Moses first hit a rock to get water out of it. Ex 17.1-7 This was the first time they challenged God, asking whether he was really among them—accusing him of leading them to the desert to die. And jumping off the temple would’ve been the very same challenge. It wasn’t a spectacular reveal of Messiah in power; it was Jesus daring the Father to do his will, not the other way round. It would be a power struggle between two persons of the trinity. (Which is impossible, and just goes to show how Satan had no clue who Jesus was.)

Funny thing is, since we know who Jesus was, we misinterpret the Moses quote. I preached on this passage once, and one of the listeners told me afterward, “I always thought Jesus’s response meant, ‘Don’t put me to the test.’ ’Cause Jesus is the Lord our God.” I pointed out, “If that’s what Jesus meant, he could’ve used it as his answer to every test: ‘Don’t test me.’ But he was referring to him testing the Lord: He wasn’t gonna challenge his Father.” Same as in Gethsemane, when he could’ve called off the Father’s plan, and refused to. He knew he could; he knew he never would. Jesus kept the Father at the forefront of his thoughts, not himself. It’s why he could so easily pass these tests.

Bow to Satan.

Matthew 4.8-10 KWL
8 Again, the devil took Jesus to an extremely high hill,
and showed him every kingdom in the world, and their glory.
9 It told him, “I’ll give you all of them when you fall down to worship me.”
10 Jesus told it, Oh, get out of here, Satan.
For it’s written you’ll worship your Lord God and serve only him.”
Luke 4.5-8 KWL
5 Taking Jesus up, Satan showed him every kingdom in civilization in a moment’s time.
6 The devil told Jesus, “I’ll give you all these powers and their glory:
It’s been surrendered to me. If I want, I can give it to anyone.
7 So once you worship before me, all will be yours.”
8 In reply Jesus told it, “It’s written you’ll worship your Lord God and serve only him.”

Most commentaries and bible footnotes say Jesus’s quote is from Deuteronomy 6.13. It’s really not. Here I’ve translated it from three bibles Jesus would’ve had access to: The original Hebrew, the Aramaic Targum Onkelos, and the Septuagint.

Deuteronomy 6.13 KWL
Masoretic text: “Fear your LORD God. Serve him. Swear by his name.”
Targum: “Fear your LORD God. Serve before him. Rise before his name.”
Septuagint: “You’ll fear your Lord God. You’ll serve him.
You’ll weld yourselves to him. You’ll swear by his name.”

They have similar language, but it’s not a direct quote. The Greek Old Testament doesn’t include móno/“only.” It is written, in various verses in the scriptures, that we’re only to worship and serve the LORD. I don’t think Jesus needed a specific direct quote. It’s like when a preacher states, “The bible says we’re to only follow Jesus”—not a direct quote, but it does express the collective view of the bible’s authors. It’s just people really like to have a specific verse.

When Satan showed Jesus the kingdoms, Matthew described it as “every kingdom in the world,” and Luke “every kingdom in civilization.” To the Roman mind, civilization meant the Roman Empire: Everything outside the empire was barbarism. So in Luke the devil tempted Jesus with the very thing Jews really, really wanted Messiah to overthrow: The Romans.

Satan also commented the empire’s kingdoms and glory had “been surrendered to me. If I want, I can give it to anyone.” There’re a few different ways Christians have interpreted that:

  • Ransom theory of atonement. One Christian belief about how atonement works is the ransom theory: By sinning, humanity sold ourselves to the devil. (Think Edmund and the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: He obeyed her, so she owned him.) So the devil’s claim is legit.
  • Surrendered through idolatry. Roman pagans believed the world was under the rule of Zeus, or as they called him, Jupiter Optimus Maximus/“Greatest, Best Father-God.” Various Christians who are big on demonology, and the idea of Satan as the chief demon, claim Zeus is the same spiritual being as Baal (or Beelzebub), Amon-Ra, Marduk, or Wotan; and all these names are different fronts for Satan. And that’s how Satan lays claim to the world: It plays all the world’s false gods, and thus gains the world’s worship.
  • Bare-faced lie. The devil is a liar, and has no such authority. At all. But if it can convince you it does, it can make you bow and scrape before it.

I believe the last option. Mainly ’cause Jesus’s response wasn’t to take Satan seriously: Ýpage, Satana/“Oh, get out of here, Satan.” The verb ypágo, when it’s intransitive like Jesus used it, means “withdraw,” like an army would when it’s retreating. Hence the KJV has “Get thee hence.” (The “Get thee behind me” line, found in the KJV’s version of Luke, was added to the text in the 400s.) In essence, Jesus was telling him either “Back off” or “Get lost.” I phrased it in a way which dismisses the devil as ridiculous. Because it is.

Satan quits.

Matthew 4.11 KWL
11 Then the devil gave up on him.
Look: Angels came and were ministering to him.
Luke 4.13 KWL
13 Jesus having completed every test,
the devil withdrew from him till another time.

When James advised his readers to resist the devil and it’ll flee, Jm 4.7 I believe he got the idea from when Jesus resisted the devil and it left. It realized Jesus was never gonna confuse its whispered suggestions with his own ideas. Not even when weak and starving. Jesus’s will was too strong.

Jesus had unlimited power from the Holy Spirit, Jn 3.34 and one of the Spirit’s fruits is self-control. Ga 5.23 It’s the Spirit’s fruit because it’s part of God’s character; part of Jesus’s character. He has tremendous self-control. He’s never gonna say or do anything he shouldn’t. Tests and temptations are nothing to him.

If we contain the same Holy Spirit as did Jesus, he can empower us to have the very same self-control Jesus has. We don’t have to give in to temptation. We don’t have to fear the devil’s trickery. We don’t have to fear the devil period. Satan is no more powerful than any human. We only think so because we believe its exaggerations about itself. Don’t. Satan’s a fraud, and the Spirit is infinitely more powerful. Follow him, and he’ll defeat the devil easily.

I know; every time I say such things, I hear it from dark Christians who are as scared of the devil as the characters in the Harry Potter novels are of Voldemort. (In fact these dark Christians are gonna point to the Harry Potter reference as “proof” I’ve gone wrong.) They’ve fallen for the devil’s spin: They concede it’s not as mighty as God, but their other descriptions of Satan make it sound as if it’s near-almighty just the same. It can be anywhere, go anywhere, do anything, deceive anyone, so don’t let down your guard for a minute or it’ll get all up in you.

Granted, the devil’s not an utter clown. It’s just mighty enough to do serious damage. But any Christian full of the Holy Spirit is mightier. Like I said, follow him. Not your fears.