When I was young, the first time I read the temptation story in Matthew’s Gospel, one clear impression stood out in my mind: this is a showdown; it is like an epic battle of good vs. evil. As I read, it was like watching a gripping movie, sitting on the edge of my seat, rooting for the good guy, hoping that he can see through the enemy’s clever traps.
As I grew in faith and knowledge of the Bible, the story took on a new flavor for me. Concerned more with my own temptation battles, I began to see the story not as an epic tale of victory, but as a means of instruction, a primer on outwitting the devil. But there was one problem: I wasn’t quite sure what I was meant to get out of the story. I can’t recall a time I’ve ever been tempted the way Jesus was. I have never had the slightest urge to turn stones into bread. I have never felt like jumping off a building to see how fast God’s angels could fly. And I have never felt like engaging in open Satan-worship.
As I’ve grown even more in my faith, I find myself returning to my first childhood impressions of this story. To be sure, I still see Jesus as my rabbi who can teach me to fight temptation—someone I am meant to observe closely and emulate. But most importantly, Jesus is my Savior. The victory He won in the wilderness was more than just a way to teach me—it was the first in a long series of battles to save me.
Bread in the Desert
Moses stands before millions of men and women to deliver his last sermon, his final message. Through his undimmed 120-year-old eyes he can see millions of eager faces staring back at him. Soon his younger protege Joshua will lead this ragamuffin group into the Promised Land.
As he stands before them, he utters this sober reminder:
“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. . . .
“Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:1-6,11-18, italics added).
As the past 40 years flash through Moses’ mind, he remembers the first day the manna arrived, which was only a couple months after they had walked out of Egypt in the midnight hour and shortly after seeing the sea stand up in a heap in front of them. Yet even after that incredible deliverance, Israel had still murmured against God. Before Moses could control the situation, the whole camp of Israel had grown bitter as they thought back to their life of slavery in Egypt. At least there, they thought, they ate around pots of meat and had all the bread they wanted. The wilderness had no such luxuries.
God told Moses that soon He would rain bread down upon the people. Sure enough, the next morning, the manna appears: a fine, flaky substance like frost on the desert floor. Everyone gathers as much as they can eat. Despite their grumbling, there, in the dusty desert, they feast on the sweet bread of angels (Psalm 78:23-25).
Moses also remembers another time in the wilderness of Paran, when a rabble among the people had broken out in which they craved the food of Egypt. “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Number 11:5-6). That day the fire of God’s anger burned at the edges of their encampment, and again they learned how deeply God was offended by their ingratitude and selfishness.
And so it was, the people of Israel ate manna for forty years, until they came to the border of Canaan (Exodus 16:35). These forty years had truly tested their hearts—God let them hunger and gave them specific commands about gathering their bread so they would learn: “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
It was about 1,500 years later, listening to the Tempter’s subtle lies, that the Son of God found His strength in these specific words of Moses in Deuteronomy. Why?
Quoting Deuteronomy to the Devil
I’ve often wondered why Jesus chose to quote only the book of Deuteronomy to the devil. The Bible is a large book, and yet, as Pastor John Piper says, when Jesus drew the sword of the God’s Word in the desert, he drew it only from “the scabbard of Deuteronomy.” Why?
I believe it is because Jesus can’t help but see the parallel of Moses’ text to his own experience.
- He had just heard the majestic voice of His Father speak clearly on the Jordan bank, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” With this in mind he remembers Moses’ words, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5).
- Jesus has been clearly led by the Spirit to walk into the wilderness. With this in mind, he remembers Moses’ words to Israel about “the whole way that the Lord your God has led you” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
- Jesus has just spent 40 days in the wilderness; Israel had been in the desert 40 years.
- Jesus knows, just like Israel, that He has entered the wilderness to be tested. Perhaps He even hears the Scripture ringing in his ears: God is “testing you to know what [is] in your heart” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
Israel shows its true colors in the wilderness, and now it is time for Jesus to show His.
The First Temptation
Satan comes to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Perhaps Satan’s first temptation sounds more like mockery: “Prove yourself, so-called Son of God.” Or perhaps it sounds more like flattery: “Since you are the Son of God surely you can turn stones into bread.” We can’t be sure. What we do know is the Tempter shows real craftiness in his statement. First he plays on Jesus’ obvious hunger: this is when Jesus’ physical appetites are screaming the loudest. Moreover, Satan’s tempting words are laced with all sorts of subtle biblical notions: Aren’t you the Son of God? Didn’t God give His children manna in the desert? Didn’t God call water from the rocks? Couldn’t the long-awaited Messiah make bread from stones? In this sense, the devil is right.
Satan shows great finesse at twisting the Scriptures to fit his purposes. He sites Jesus’ obvious authority and power to perform a manna-like miracle, but he completely ignores the reason that God had given manna in the first place. Read Moses’ words again:
“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
1. Israel was meant to learn that there was purpose in both the filling and the hunger.
It is easy to fixate on the presence of this peculiar, miraculous food called manna. But it is a miracle with a message. There is a rhythm to the giving of manna. God waits until Israel’s Egyptian provisions are completely gone, waits until they are facing famine, before He starts giving them bread. Each morning Israel needs to trust that the manna will be there on the desert floor. Each day they must gather only what they can eat that day. Hoarding manna is not allowed, and any leftovers will spoil and rot. Each Friday they need to gather twice as much, trusting God will keep the manna fresh for two days so they can rest on the Sabbath. Each step of the way requires trust in and obedience to God’s specific instructions, training them not to revolve their lives around bread, but around every word that comes from His mouth.
There is a purpose to Jesus’ time of fasting, and Jesus knows it. There, in the lonely, cruel wilderness, Jesus is at the mercy of the elements and his physical limitations. Will He take the devil’s bait and rush to the quick fix for His hunger, or will He trust His Father’s purpose for this time of fasting? Jesus chooses the latter.
2. Israel was meant to learn God is the one who feeds us.
At God’s command the manna appears. It is not bread made by human hands. When God rains bread upon them, the message is clear: He is their Provider. In fact, Moses warns them to keep this in mind, even after they enter the land of Canaan and become wealthy, lest they say in their heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” They need to remember that the Lord is the one who gives the power to get wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
Notice there is nothing inherently evil in Satan’s suggestion to make bread, which makes the temptation all the more subtle. There is nothing wrong about meeting one’s physical needs. But Jesus easily detects the underlying temptation. The real temptation Jesus faces is whether he will act independently on His Father, plowing ahead to take control of His situation. Will He rest in His Father’s love and sovereignty, or will He murmur and complain like Israel did. Will He focus on the God as the Bread-Giver, or will He let his stomach be His god and focus on the bread?
Even in the midst of a 40-day fast, Jesus is not preoccupied with food, but rather with His mission and the One who has sent Him. His food is to do His Father’s will (John 4:34). It is the Spirit who leads Him into the wilderness to fast, and it will be the Spirit who will lead Him out. Jesus will say, later on, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). The heart of Jesus’ righteous life is that he is unwilling at every point to do or say anything without the approval of His Father’s heart.
When we think of encountering temptation, we typically think of being enticed to obvious sorts of sins—gossip, lust, slander, prideful boasting, spiteful anger, etc. But when do we spot the subtle temptations to rush ahead without God in the small, day-to-day matters of life? When do we spot the subtle temptations to do our own thing in the seemingly “secular” activities—like eating, drinking, traveling, casual conversation, buying, and selling? This is where all sin starts, in an independent spirit, a desire to live autonomously.
If we are going to win against the devil’s schemes, then we must be willing to see the root sins underneath the obvious sins. If Jesus’ first temptation shows us anything as disciples, it is that we must be willing to let our heavenly Father be the Lord of all of our lives, even our eating and drinking. We must be willing to fight the battle with the deeper temptation to live independently from God, the temptation to believe a part of our lives still belong to us.
At the heart of every temptation is being enticed to delight in something else more than God. Jesus overcomes the temptation to eat by focusing on the superior delight of knowing God’s will and doing it. He delights in the knowledge that His Father’s word is perfect, knowing that He could live by it and never be put to shame.
But we must also read this story not only as a disciple trying to mimic Christ, but as a sinner being saved by Christ.
Paul explains the reason why God inscribed the story of Israel’s wanderings on the pages of the Bible: “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11); written “as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (v.6). Paul specifically sites Israel’s grumbling in the list of their evil deeds (v.10). We all are guilty of this. Haven’t we all been faced with a stressful situation in which we chose to complain rather than pray, in which we chose to rush ahead rather than wait on God, in which we chose to doubt rather than trust? Haven’t we all impatiently made our own agenda and impulses our gods? The story of Israel’s wanderings acts as a mirror for us: aren’t we all guilty of these sins?
And yet Jesus does not give into this temptation. He comes up against the great enemy of our souls and stays faithful to His Father. And because He does this, He goes to the cross as the spotless Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. Because of this He stands now in heaven as the sinless High Priest who prays for us and secures our ultimate hope, our hope that we will not be condemned in the last day, but embraced by our God.
Thoughts for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Read all of Deuteronomy 8. What stands out to you? What in this passage is the most convicting or encouraging to you?
2. Have you ever been tempted to think there is no purpose for the depressing times in your life? Think of a time when you seemed to be walking through a desert—a time when you lacked money, employment, energy, emotional stability, healthy relationships, opportunity, time, or simple pleasures. Were you inclined to believe you only had to “get through” the desert to a place of plenty? Or did you trust there was a purpose for the desert time?
3. Read Philippians 4:11b-13, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” What do you think was Paul’s “secret”?
4. When was the last time, or a very memorable time, you saw the subtle temptation to rush ahead of God? To act autonomously? To do you own thing? What would your life look like moment-to-moment if you could fill your own name in the blank of John 5:19? – “Truly, truly, I say to you, _______ can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that _______ does likewise” (John 5:19).