Temptation of Jesus: Prologue

Judean Desert as Seen from Mt Yair, taken by Yuvalr, CC license

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

~Heb 4:15 (NIV)

OK, I know I was going to do a four-part series on the Temptation of Christ, but I am adding this prologue in part to explain why I am calling it the Temptation of Jesus instead.

Firstly, the person we call “Jesus” or “Christ” fulfills many roles. His role as “Christ”, or “Messiah”, will be fulfilled in full when He returns to the earth to rule. However, He had to first be born a human and suffer and be tempted as a human first. It is in this human form that He is known as “Jesus”. So, therefore, the proper title is “Temptation of Jesus” rather than “Temptation of Christ”, since He was still a human being at the time.

And, indeed, I want to emphasize in this series the humanity of Jesus. After all, part of the point of the exercise is to show us how to deal, as human beings, with temptation. I want us to be able to put ourselves in His place and in our mind’s eye go through the exercise with Him.

I can hear the naysayers now. “What right do you have to decide how to portray these events?” they are wagging their tongues with. In short, I have every right.

First off, while I make every attempt to present things from the point of view of the teachings of the Churches of God, this is still my blog and I have every right to portray these things as I see fit as long as I am not engaging in twisting Scripture or doctrine.

Secondly, there is biblical precedent for this, and, in fact, it is the very accounts of Jesus’ temptation where this precedent is set.

Different Timeline? Contradiction?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all present the temptations that Jesus underwent, although, in traditional Mark tradition, Mark’s account is the shortest and least detailed. In fact, Mark only spends two verses, Mk 1:12-13, on the account. Matthew and Luke both go into more detail, but in different order.

This different order is actually presented in a nice chart, if you don’t mind a Catholic source, on the site Psephizo in the article “Why are Jesus’ temptations in a different order in Luke?

So, is this a contradiction? Certainly, those who jump on every opportunity to list every “mistake” of Scripture would say so. However, there are at least two different explanations for this so-called discrepancy:

  1. While Matthew 4 implies that Jesus fasted for 40 days and then was tempted, Luke 4 states Jesus was “Being forty days tempted of the devil.” The emphasis in Matthew is upon fasting for 40 days, but the emphasis in Luke is upon being tempted for 40 days. I somehow doubt that Satan limited the temptations to only three occasions in a 40+ day event. I also doubt that in the Garden of Eden that the serpent only needed one time to lure Eve into partaking of the wrong tree. It just does not work that way. We have to remember that the Bible only presents us with the highlights of events.
  2. Matthew’s language uses “then” as though in chronological order, whereas Luke uses a different word that can be translated “and” which may or may not be in chronological order. The timeline Matthew uses is rather more fixed, while Luke’s account is more fluid. We have to remember that Matthew was addressing a mostly Jewish audience, who would have had certain expectations, and Matthew wrote his account in a style that would have resonated best with Jews. Luke, however, was directly addressing a gentile convert, and gentiles would have resonated with a different theme, so Luke changed the order to grab their attention.

While #1 is certainly plausible, #2 also makes a lot of sense. Let’s dig deeper.

Matthew’s audience would have expected a story to point to the one God, the only One to worship. By leaving the temptation to bow down to Satan last, this would have emphasized that point nicely. It also seems to be a more natural progression of the temptations, as Satan seems to be upping the ante each time. Also, even the phrase “get thee behind me” or “get thee hence” would seem to be the natural ending. The Jewish audience would have been more receptive to such a natural timeline.

Luke’s audience, though, not having grown up with the Shema, would not have seen this as the most dramatic part of the story. Luke’s story revolves a lot around the temple, and remember that gentiles were used to seeing all sorts of temples to all sorts of gods. They would have seen the temple as the naturally central place of the story. In addition, Satan’s temptation to cause Jesus to resist something so human as instant adulation and attention by doing something so miraculous and stupendous and avoid all the suffering and pain involved would have resonated well with the gentiles.

See “Why do Mathew and Luke present a different order of Satan’s temptation of Jesus?” on StackExchange for further reading.

Having said all of this, there are those who will still not believe this was all a real temptation. “Jesus could not sin”, they will say, yet the opening Scripture directly contradicts this. Yes, Jesus could, in theory, sin, but He chose not to because He knew what was at stake and because He was totally devoted to the Father’s will.

Saying it was impossible for Him to sin is a cop-out. It is an excuse for our own weaknesses in a lame attempt to justify our own sins. We then try to console ourselves that is just our weak nature rather than allowing God to work through us. So, rather than offering repentance, we offer excuses.

Jesus did teach us the way to deal with temptation. The question is whether or not we are learning the lesson.


  1. Great prologue. I remember sitting in services one time and the pastor asked the congregation if Jesus could sin. I was the only one who answered, “Yes.” (And the backlash from the congregation was swift and harsh.)

    Yet, if Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then how could he truly empathize (I prefer that word to the KJV “sympathize,” because sympathy just means you feel bad that someone else is going through something, but empathy means you’ve been where they’ve been and you understand – it’s deeper and more personal) with us as we faced temptations (sometimes overcoming and sometimes not, which is why He had to die, so that we could go to the mercy seat and beg for compassion and forgiveness and help to go God’s way and not our own).

    • Forgive me for assuming, but I wanted to jump on this before the trolls rolled in. I edited your comment b/c I am 99% sure you meant something other than what you wrote. In case I am wrong, email me and let me know, and I will change it back. The good news is that I now realize that this version of WordPress apparently does not allow editing of one’s own comments (or, maybe it was a feature of a different theme in the past). So, I added a plugin that gives users 10 minutes to make changes before they are permanently committed.

      “…empathize (I prefer that word to the KJV ‘sympathize,’ because sympathy just means you feel bad that someone else is going through something, but empathy means you’ve been where they’ve been and you understand”.

      Yes! That is exactly why I chose the NIV for this article. Not to beat a dead horse, but Jesus empathizes with our weaknesses, whereas Job’s three friends sympathized with Job. They were not in Job’s shoes, so they really did not understand what he was going through. I honestly think they probably meant well, but you know what they say about good intentions. We can be quite hard on Job’s three friends, but in reality there is a bit of their attitude in each of us. That, of course, is the point. We are to look at their example and not repeat their mistakes. OTOH, Christ can go to the Father and intercede for us because He was once one of us.

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