Jesus—His Life and Message: The Test

March 10, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, God’s voice proclaimed that Jesus was His Son. At that time, Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit for His ministry of preaching the kingdom of God and fulfilling the task that His Father had given him—bringing salvation to humanity.

All three of the synoptic Gospels tell of a period of testing which Jesus experienced right after His baptism. Mark gives the shortest rendition:

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.1

Luke’s and Matthew’s versions are much longer and are similar to each other, with some variation. They both tell of three specific temptations and the outcome of each, though they reverse the order of the second and third temptations. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story this way:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and 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 will command his angels concerning you,’ and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.3

The Holy Spirit, which descended and remained on Jesus at the time of His baptism,4 had led Him into the wilderness for a time of testing. This tells us that Jesus being exposed to temptations was not due to anything He had done wrong, but was the direct result of God’s leading.5 The wilderness was His pre-ministry testing ground, where the Devil tried to deflect Him from doing His Father’s will.

Jesus’ fasting for forty days was reminiscent of the fasts of Moses and Elijah. He [Moses] was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.6 And he [Elijah] arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.7

As we’ll see, there are other connections which link the temptations of Jesus to Moses and Israel’s past.

The Greek root word translated as temptation, tempted, and tempter has the meaning here and in many other places in the New Testament of testing someone in order to determine or demonstrate their worth or faithfulness, to prove them. It’s seen as a trial or test. Upon being baptized and commissioned, Jesus was tested. His tests were similar to the tests that the nation of Israel (called “God’s son” in the Old Testament8) experienced during its forty years in the desert.

His first temptation is to turn stones into bread: And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In the original Greek, the phrase “if you are” can be understood to mean “since you are,” so Satan is most likely acknowledging that Jesus as the Son of God has the ability to command the stones to become loaves of bread. Both the challenge and Jesus’ response assumes that He could do it if He wished.9

Why was this a test, and what would have been wrong with Jesus turning the stones into bread? This had to do with how Jesus would conduct His ministry, what kind of Messiah He would be, and how He would use the power and authority that He had. Would He use His power for His own ends, to serve His personal needs? Or would He use it according to His Father’s will, and in submission to His Father? Would the One who was going to teach His disciples to trust God to give them their daily bread also trust His Father to do the same when He was famished? Would He trust that God would feed Him as He'd fed Israel for forty years in the wilderness?

At the end of Israel’s time in the wilderness, Moses said to those who were about to enter the promised land:

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.10

God had cared for and supplied for Israel, His son, in the wilderness. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.11 Would Jesus, His Son, trust Him, or would He take matters into His own hands? The decision would shape His ministry and determine the kind of Messiah He would be. This was the test before Him.

Jesus’ response was to quote from Deuteronomy 8 that “man doesn’t live by bread alone” but by every word that comes from God’s mouth. This made a statement that, as God’s only begotten Son, He would do what Israel hadn’t done. He would trust God. He would conduct Himself according to God’s will and direction. He wouldn’t take things into His own hands. If food was to be given to the Son, who had been led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, then He would trust the Father to supply it, rather than working independently. He wouldn’t challenge God’s care nor reject His dependence on His Father. He committed Himself to letting the Father reign in His life.

The next temptation, or test, in Matthew’s Gospel was the Devil’s challenge for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, stating that if He did, God would protect Him. We’re not told how the Devil took Jesus to the temple, only that He did. The Greek word (pterugion) translated as pinnacle, or in some versions as wing, was used figuratively when speaking of the edge or high and visible part of the temple.12 No one knows exactly what part of the temple the pinnacle was, but many commentators believe it was a part of the temple complex with a steep drop into the Kidron Valley, which is a deep ravine.

The Devil said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” Jesus’ reaction to the first temptation was to quote Scripture, and this time the Devil quotes Psalm 91:11–12: He will command his angels concerning you, and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. Why did the Devil bring Jesus to the temple, and why the challenge to throw Himself off it? He was challenging Jesus to put God’s protection to the test, to “force” God to do a miracle to protect Him, instead of simply trusting in God’s promises. Since the temple was considered to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the implication was that the close proximity of God should make such an action safe for Jesus. The Scripture citation made it clear that God’s angels would protect Him. Satan’s argument was that since God would protect Him, Jesus should go ahead and jump. If He did, people in and around the temple would see that God had protected Him and He would have instant recognition, fame, and glory.

Jesus understood that this was an attempt to get Him to test God’s protection. Morris writes:

What Satan is suggesting is that Jesus should needlessly thrust himself into danger; he would be creating a hazard where none previously existed. And for what? To compel God to save him miraculously. It is a temptation to manipulate God, to create a situation not of Gods choosing in which God would be required to act as Jesus dictated.13

The subtle inference in this temptation was that perhaps God wouldn’t protect Him. To put God to such a test would be unbelief pretending to be faith.

The nature of this temptation is that it would dare God on the basis of faith” to supernaturally save his Son after he plunged off the top of the temple. Jesus recognized the fine line between trusting God for the needs of his life and challenging him to rescue him from artificially created difficulties. The former would be an act of faith, the latter an evil challenge and dare placed before God.14

Jesus didn’t object to Satan’s use of Scripture, but He quoted another passage which showed that the Devil’s use of it was faulty. That passage is Deuteronomy 6:16, which in full says: You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. The event which this verse refers to was when the people of Israel in the desert complained to Moses that there was no water to drink. Moses said, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” God told Moses that He would stand before him at the rock at Horeb and He instructed Moses to strike the rock and water would come out of it. Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, Is the LORD among us or not?15

Testing the Lord in the manner the Devil was suggesting would have been a lack of faith on Jesus’ part, just as it was a lack of faith on the part of Israel. Jesus trusted His Father; He didn’t need to challenge or test Him. He had no need of a miraculous manifestation of God’s love and protection. He was committed to a life of faith and obedience and had the peace and assurance that His life was in the hands of His loving Father.

For the third test, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Most commentators consider this to be a visionary experience. Morris writes: The fact that there is no mountain from which all the world may be seen literally favors the view that the tempter brings all this before the mind of Jesus.16 Luke doesn’t mention a mountain in his Gospel: The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time...17 However the Devil managed it, he showed Jesus the glory of the world’s kingdoms and offered them to Jesus. Luke expressed Satan’s temptation this way:

To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.18

Darrell Bock explains the significance of what worshipping Satan would have meant:

Satans condition is that the Son renounce His allegiance to the Father. He is to bow down and worship Satan, an act that would not require just a momentary action, but that would change His life. Often the temptation is described as if all Jesus had to do was hit His knees once and all would be His. But the challenge represents a defection from God, and such a defection would have lifetime consequences. Jesus was to give the devil the respect and honor due to God alone. For by bowing down before the devil, Jesus would be accepting his authority and sovereignty. The meaning of the offer was clear: if Jesus would give Satan His heart and bow down before him, Satan would let Jesus rule.19

Once again Jesus responded with Scripture:

Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”20

This verse comes from Deuteronomy 6, which quotes Moses warning the Israelites against idolatry as they entered the promised land. In the Old Testament, idolatry and demon worship were closely associated.21 Jesus’ response makes it clear that His loyalty was to His Father, for He is the Lord your God, and as such He alone deserves worship and service.22

Satan offered power, authority, and the glory of the world if Jesus would worship and serve him. By rejecting this offer, Jesus showed Himself faithful to His Father and His Father’s plan to redeem the world. He showed Himself a loyal Son who wasn’t interested in worldly power, who chose to walk the path God placed Him on, who would give Himself for the salvation of humanity. He showed Himself a Son worthy of the task before Him. He withstood the temptations, He passed the tests. While the Devil offered Jesus this world and all its glory, by choosing His Father, Jesus was given so much more. He later was able to say: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.23 Had He chosen Satan’s authority on earth, He wouldn’t have heaven’s authority as well.

Matthew tells us:

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.24 Luke ends with: And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.25

This period of testing was over, Jesus had proven Himself worthy and loyal, and angels were sent to minister to Him and attend to His needs. The Greek word used for “minister” means to serve or wait upon, to supply food and necessities of life, to take care of the poor and sick.

The departure of the Devil doesn’t mean that Jesus was never tempted by the Devil again, but He withstood the tests and defeated Satan’s attempts to derail Him at the beginning of His ministry.

The information about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness could have only come from Jesus Himself, as no one else was present. At some point during His ministry, He must have told His disciples of this encounter.

Within the Gospels, there are other instances when Jesus referred to encounters with or temptations of Satan. One such encounter was when He told His disciples that He was going to be killed in Jerusalem. Peter rebuked Him for saying this, and Jesus reacted strongly, saying to Peter: get behind me, Satan. What Peter was saying echoed what Satan had said to Jesus in the wilderness. Peter was suggesting that Jesus didn’t have to die, but that He could take the easy way and avoid suffering. In essence this was what the Devil had offered Jesus in the wilderness.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.26

Jesus referred to His tests when He said to His disciples:

You are those who have stayed with me in my trials (temptations in KJV).27

When Jesus was accused of casting out demons in the power of Satan, Jesus responded in a short parable which made the point that He cast out demons because He had defeated Satan.

No one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.28

When the 72 disciples returned from going out two by two, rejoicing that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name, He responded, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,29 indicating that Satan had been defeated by Jesus, and that through Him, His disciples could “plunder the Devil’s house.” Jesus defeated Satan during His encounter with the tempter in the wilderness, and even though Satan continued to try to defeat Jesus throughout His ministry, Jesus remained ever loyal to His Father even unto death on the cross; through that loyalty He defeated Satan once and for all.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1 1:19:50.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 18:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Mark 1:12–13.

2 “Wilderness”: Land that is basically wild, nonarable, and sparsely inhabited or unfit for permanent settlement. It may be desert, mountains, forest, or marsh. In the Near East the wilderness is characteristically dry, desolate, and mostly rock and sand. It is rough, uneven, and interlaced with dry watercourses.

The English word wilderness serves to translate various Hebrew (and also Greek) words: among others, midbaµr, “a place for the driving of cattle,” designating steppe, land burned by summer heat, generally wasted rocky and sandy land with minimal rainfall, in which only nomadic settlements were found; jeschimon, primarily the uninhabited land on both sides of the Jordan north of the Dead Sea; and arabah, which when used with an article refers to the land on both sides of the Jordan on its further way to the Gulf of Aqaba, but also to any dry stretch of land. Wilderness in the Bible thus designates both mountainous regions and plains that after rainfall can be used as pastures.—L. Ryken, J. Wilhoit, T. Longman, C. Duriez, D. Penney, and D. G. Reid. In electronic ed., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 948–949.

3 Matthew 4:1–11.

4 John 1:32.

5 Bock, Luke Volume 1 1:19:50, 368.

6 Exodus 34:28. Also Deuteronomy 9:9: When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water.

7 1 Kings 19:8. 

8 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:22–23).

9 Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 106.

10 Deuteronomy 8:2–3.

11 Hosea 11:1.

12 G. H. Twelftree, The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 827.

13 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 76.

14 Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 108.

15 Exodus 17:2–7.

16 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 77.

17 Luke 4:5.

18 Luke 4:6–7.

19 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, Luke 1:19:50, 379.

20 Matthew 4:10.

21 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded (Deuteronomy 32:17).

They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood (Psalm 106:37–38).

22 Twelftree, The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 824.

23 Matthew 28:18.

24 Matthew 4:11.

25 Luke 4:13.

26 Matthew 16:21–23.

27 Luke 22:28.

28 Mark 3:27.

29 Luke 10:18.