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The Temptation

by Tim O'Hearn

Fasting has a long history in many countries. Fasting as means of protest was common, most notably in Ireland and India. In ancient Ireland, the law allowed a person to fast on the doorstep of someone they thought had wronged them or owed them something. There was a similar practice in India, which was only outlawed in 1861. It is interesting that those two countries took fasting to the extreme, in the form of prisoner hunger strikes.

In Ireland, hunger strikes became common protests against the British government. Bobby Sands is possibly the most Most people will say they are tempted by one food or another, such as chocolate.notable of those who died in hunger strikes at Maze Prison in 1981, dying after 66 days. (See Nothing but an Unfinished Song, a book by my brother, Denis O’Hearn.) One of the leading hunger strikers in India was Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, who engaged in multiple hunger strikes: the British released him each time thinking it would not do to have one of his fame die on their hands. One of Gandhi’s contemporaries, Bhagat Singh, set a record by not ending his fast until after 116 days.

Hunger striking was also common in the Suffragist movements in England and Ireland. The most notable hunger strikers, who suffered physical harm by being force-fed, were Mary Clarke (died) in England and Alice Paul (health problems for life) in America.

The Jewish people were commanded to fast (afflict themselves) one day a year, on Yom Kippur. Unlike the Irish, Indians, and Suffragists, this was not a form of protest. This was often interpreted as an opportunity to spend the day in self-examination and repentance. The practice was adopted by some on more than the one prescribed day.

Jesus participated in a forty-day fast. There are some aspects of that fast and what followed that we sometimes miss in a casual reading.

Matthew 4:1 says the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted by the devil. It was no chance thing. God wanted the devil to tempt Jesus at this time. There were apparently other temptations (Lk 4:13) It was important to God that Jesus suffer temptation. Jesus was to become our great high priest.

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15)

It is one thing to be sinless because one has never been tempted, if that were possible. It is quite another thing to remain sinless in the face of temptation. Jesus qualified as our high priest because he was tempted.


The first temptation involved fasting and food. It is unclear whether the forty-day fast was part of the temptation or simply a period of prayer in preparation for what Jesus knew was coming. It certainly opened the opportunity for the first temptation.

Most people like food. We don’t like missing a meal. An obsession with not eating or with unhealthy weight loss is considered a medical pathology. Most people will say they are tempted by one food or another, such as chocolate. To go forty days with only water is generally unthinkable. That is why what Jesus did may have been as much a part of the temptation as what follows.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (Matt 4:3)

Later in his ministry, Jesus would comment on the similarity in appearance of rocks to bread. Loaves of bread were generally a little larger than the size of a hand, therefore the size of a large stone. “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9) Perhaps when he said this he thought back on this temptation.

The response Jesus makes to the tempter may have multiple meanings. He quotes a scripture from the final speech Moses makes in the wilderness.

And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live. (Deut 8:3)

We know he just quoted part of that, but quoting a part includes the context. First, he is telling the devil that he would not need to turn rocks to bread. God fed Israel in the wilderness with manna; he could do the same for Jesus. Second, and most obviously, he says that even if God provided him with manna, the whole meaning of the manna was that man lives by every word from God. Manna was a teaching tool. At another place, Jesus says what his real nourishment is. “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” (Jn 4:34)


Safety. Protection. From our earliest years as a newborn to our oldest years seeking social security, we want to feel safe and protected. Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs. Security came above the basic needs of food, water, warmth, shelter, and rest. He proposed that one could not even have friendships until these basic needs, including security were met. Before you can motivate someone to do something, these basic needs must be satisfied. Many Christians understand that until you meet the basic needs of the homeless it is useless to talk to them about Christ, but if you satisfy those needs they will listen.

The devil played on this need with the next temptation of Christ. He took Jesus to the “pinnacle” of the Temple. Unlike what many people picture as a sort of steeple, the pinnacle was actually the corner of the Temple wall above the deepest valley around the Temple Mount. From here there is at least a 450 foot (45 story) drop.

And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. (Matt 4:6)

Note that the devil may even quote scripture (Ps 91:11-12) if it fits his purpose. In this case his purpose was to tempt Jesus with security.

This could have been a valid temptation. From where they were standing they could be seen by many people. If Jesus were to jump off without harm, that would be a miracle greater than almost any he would subsequently perform, and with a larger crowd. If Jesus saw his purpose on earth as performing miracles, rather than dying for atonement, this would be the ideal time and place.

Instead he responds, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” (Matt 4:7; Deut 6:16) The passage in Deuteronomy continues with an admonition to follow the commands of God.

The selection of this passage may also have served two purposes. It reinforces the response to the first temptation; live by the word of God. We sometimes miss the other purpose. Jesus is reminding the devil that God is even his God. The Messiah, therefore, is also his superior. He is reminding the devil that he is not in control.


Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (Matt 4:8-9)

“Fame. I’m gonna live forever.” It seems most people want to be recognized. We want some degree of fame; some more than others. Even if we never hope to achieve fame for ourselves, we identify with sports figures or entertainers because of their fame. It was with just such fame that the devil then tempted Jesus. What could be more famous than the ruler of the whole world. Alexander had tried it. Julius Caesar had tried it. Napoleon and Hitler would later try.

The devil is a deceiver and has been from the beginning. From the time he deceived Eve until now, he has lied to mankind. He even lies to Jesus. Do you see the subtlety here? I will make you the ruler of the world if you will submit to me. That would make the devil the real ruler.

What the devil forgot was that he was talking to one who wasThe devil may quote scripture if it fits his purpose. already the ruler of the world. He already had all the glory.

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth. (Php 2:7-10)

Knowing who he was, Jesus replied with a quote from the Septuagint (Greek) version of Deuteronomy 6:13. “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” Again this choice of scripture may contain subtleties we sometimes miss.

The obvious meaning of the scripture is that Jesus should not worship the devil because only God is worthy of worship. Below that, however, Jesus may be reiterating that he is the Messiah; he is God. Also it reinforces that the devil should also be worshipping God. Ultimately, by the use of this scripture Jesus is telling the devil that he will not worship him because the devil should be worshipping Jesus.

There are some people who say that Jesus never claimed to be divine. Others say we should not pray to Jesus but to God only. In his responses from the book of Deuteronomy, Jesus is telling the devil, and us, that he is claiming divinity. He is the Son of God. As such he is worthy of or praise, and we can even pray to him.

Jesus may have started his temptation with a fast. But in another sense of the word, he was fast in his response to temptation. The only way we can be that fast is to familiarize ourselves with scripture. Then we can answer the devil the way Jesus did.