Luke divides the period in the desert into two: he mentions the period of forty days and then he mentions a shorter period in which Jesus faced three particular temptations. We would like to know what Jesus did during those forty days because it looks like it was a period of intense consecration as indicated by it also being a period of fasting for Jesus. All Luke says about the forty days is that Jesus was tempted throughout them and that he did not fall to any of the temptations. We don’t know what those temptations were, and since we are not told there is no point speculating.
The Gospel writers, however, tell us about the three specific temptations that occurred after the period of forty days was over. What do they tell us about what the devil was trying to do as he fought back against Jesus?
The first temptation in Luke’s order is connected to two things. One of them is linked to the endorsement that the Father gave at the baptism when he said that Jesus was his beloved Son. Here the devil says, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ The second connection is linked to the physical state of Jesus at that time – he was hungry and the devil suggested to Jesus that he could turn stones into bread. What was the devil tempting Jesus to do? It looks as if he was suggesting to Jesus that he should use his deity to help his humanity. Imagine if Jesus were to do so. Instead of making chairs as a carpenter, he could create them immediately. Instead of having nowhere to lay his head, he could create a house everywhere he went. Instead of being hungry, he could create the best bread that had ever been seen.
This was a subtle temptation that Jesus should cease to be a servant. Instead of doing what the Father wanted him to do, he should do what he was capable of doing. Jesus had the power to avoid pain, but what would have happened to us if he had chosen that path? Of course, Jesus did use his divine powers to help others when they were in situations of need, but he did not used them to benefit himself.
The second temptation was connected to the promises found in Psalm 2 where the Father says to his Son that when he asks for them he will be given the nations for his inheritance. Here the devil claims that he is the one who can give this to Jesus. We should be appalled at the flagrant assertions that the devil makes here, lying in the presence of the eternal Son.
I doubt if the devil knew how Jesus would obtain universal authority – it would be his reward for his achievement on the cross. Yet the devil’s ignorance would not have diminished the force of the temptation, which was for Jesus to get glory without the cross.
The third temptation involved the suggestion that Jesus perform a spectacular stunt that would show to everyone that he was being looked after by the heavenly host. Satan quotes from Psalm 91, although the promise in the psalm is not connected to jumping off the temple. Instead it is a promise about how one walks through life. The devil was taking a verse out of its context, and he still uses that method. Jesus refused and again quoted from a verse in Deuteronomy. Satan tried to get Jesus to make a leap of faith that would be presumption rather than faith.
Did the devil realise that with this third answer Jesus was claiming to be God? After all, Satan was trying to test Jesus, and the Saviour’s response was to rebuke the devil for suggesting that Jesus should test God. Yet the reply of Jesus could be a claim to deity, as if the devil was being told that he should not be testing Jesus because he is God. Whether the devil realised it or not, he decided to leave the field of battle. Jesus had won in the wilderness.