Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Through our study of the first two temptations of Christ, we can pick out two running themes. The first is that each of Christ’s temptations mirrors a temptation Israel faced in the wilderness. Christ and Israel were both tested regarding bread; where Christ placed his ultimate trust in the word of God, Israel failed to trust the Lord for His steadfast provision. Christ and Israel were both tested regarding the Lord’s presence; where Christ refused to test whether God was really with Him, Israel continually demanded that Moses give proof that God was still with them. This mirroring allows Matthew to make the case that Jesus brings to fulfillment many sub-plots running through the Hebrew Scriptures: that Jesus is the true Son, the faithful substitute and representative of a people who themselves stood in as substitutes and representatives for the world.
The second theme is Satan’s invitation for Jesus to exploit his messianic status for his own gain, outside of the Father’s will. Jesus’ miraculous power could be used to turn stones into bread; such extraordinary acts of provision could convince the Jewish people to crown him as king. If Jesus were to show that God will not allow harm to come to His anointed by throwing himself off the roof of the Temple, he could show the Temple elite that God is truly with him and convince them to follow him. Both temptations are truly tempting because they would allow him to achieve power while avoiding the arduous journey to the Cross, filled with suffering, mockery, and isolation–even if that is the path the Father had ordained for him.
Christians are too quick to use the truth of Jesus’ divinity to explain away the anguish and suffering Jesus experienced in his life and ministry. But in Jesus, the divine and human are inseparably united–Jesus’ struggle over sin was a true struggle, and his triumph over the Devil was a true triumph. None of this was play-acting.
These two themes continue in the third temptation of Christ. Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the powers, kingdoms, and empires in the history of the world. Satan tells Jesus that if he will worship him in the place of God, Satan will give all these kingdoms to Jesus.
In a moment of uncertainty when the Israelites thought that they had been abandoned by Moses and Yahweh in the wilderness, they turned to a golden calf, formed from melted down gold they had brought from Egypt. As recounted in Exodus 32:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
God is so angry with Israel’s unfaithfulness that He threatens to consume them all and make a nation out of the faithful Moses. But Moses, who has been fasting 40 days on the mountain in the Lord’s presence, intercedes for Israel, and begs that God turn away from His wrath for the sake of His name.
With the third temptation of Christ, we are meant to recall not only Israel’s failure but also Moses’ successful intercession. Moses’ plea is accepted by God–though Israel is still punished for its sin, it is allowed to continue on its way to the Promised Land. In the same way, Christ is the faithful, interceding Israelite who stays true to Yahweh, and who suffers punishment for the sake of the world so that the world can be brought into union with Heaven.
In these three temptations, we see how Jesus is the true Israel who reverses the sins of the first Israel: he trusts God for his bread, he refuses to test God, and he does not fall into idolatry. But just like the earlier temptations, this temptation has an additional dimension; It is a real temptation for Jesus to exploit his messianic status for his own gain and avoid the Cross his Father is leading him to.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to Satan to as the “prince of this world,” a “murderer from the beginning,” and “the father of lies.” (See John 14:30 and John 8:44). These all help us understand the nature of Satan’s offer to Jesus in Matthew 4:8-11: Satan does have some kind of authority and power in this world, it is a power rooted in accusation and violence, and his nature is fundamentally untruthful and therefore opposed to God.
In my view, this makes it likely that the third temptation of Christ was rooted in a promise that if Jesus would abandon the way of the Father–the way of the Cross and co-suffering love–in favor of the way of Satanic violence and power, he could conquer the world. Jesus would be the Greater David, who drove out the oppressive Romans by force. He would be the Greater Nebuchadnezzar, the Greater Alexander, the Greater Caesar, who conquers the world with a bloody sword.
Satan’s promises are based on lies, as all satanic words are. Satan’s rule over creation is contingent and finite, not absolute. In Jesus, God has raised up a conqueror who will blot out the satanic lies, accusation, and violence that have plagued human history, but He will not conquer with Divine Violence, but by shedding His own Divine Blood. Lordship over Creation is a precious gift from Father to Son in return for the Son’s loving obedience to the Father.
Jesus rejects the temptation to rise to power through satanic violence, and clings to the worship of his Father, even if it means that he will be led to his death as a lamb to the slaughter. As John writes in the Book of Revelation:
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”
Jesus Christ is the Faithful Son, the Lion of Judah who is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He triumphed over the seductive lies of Satan, where Israel could not, where Adam and Eve could not, and where we cannot. In his triumph we have our hope: For freedom, for everlasting love, and for New Life that swallows up the grave.