The Gospel of John does not contain the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert as found in the other gospels. However, it seems to capture the conflict in a different story that describes a crisis in Jesus’ career—the feeding of the 5000.
John chapter 6 tells about Jesus providing food to a vast number of people from only five barley loaves and two fish. This was something new!
Though he had performed a few healings, Jesus did no spectacular miracles before this point in the Gospel of John. He had also turned water into wine, but few people witnessed that. This is the first time Jesus performed a public sign of this magnitude—and what was the result?
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
Jesus had to escape to avoid being pressed into political leadership, which was not the way his work was to be established. The incident parallels all three temptations found in the temptation accounts:
Providing miraculous food—specifically bread
Drawing attention to himself and building a following through signs
Accepting the kingdom in the wrong way and from someone other than the Father
Keep in mind that this was Jesus’ first massive event. Because of his healings, for the first time large crowds gathered to hear him. Did you ever work toward a goal and, when the moment finally arrived, wonder how it would turn out? Did you wonder whether you would blow the opportunity or perhaps surge to a new level of success?
In Jesus’ case, it was instant success! It very well might have been tempting to him to continue on this road—it was so easy! But, rather than being the beginning of great success for his mission, it soured and became a crisis.
When Jesus did not appear the next day, the crowds tracked him down in Capernaum. However, Jesus knew they were seeking him for the wrong reason; they wanted more bread. So Jesus told them:
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
In response they ask him to prove himself with a confirmation and suggested what it might be:
What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness.
Just as in the temptation stories, the background to the conflict was the Israelites’ wrong-headed behavior in the desert. Remember that all Jesus’ responses to Satan are quotes from Deuteronomy 6 & 8 that refer to the their unfaithfulness in that experience.
Finally, Jesus lays it out to them in no uncertain terms:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.
Jesus did not come to create miracle bread; his purpose was much more important than that. Had Jesus accepted the terms of his followers, his movement would have mushroomed and he would have become an important political force. But Jesus declined to accept crowds of followers who wanted a political leader to give them bread and miracles.
His refusal led to a quick and drastic result: ‘From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him’. Jesus chose between two options at this crisis point in his career. Just as in the temptation accounts, he rejected easy success as a leader in favor of legitimate success for his mission—to bring the message of eternal life to us.
The crisis was a test for Jesus and also a test for his followers. Jesus stayed true to his mission and many of his followers turned away from him.
Today we face the same test as the followers. Throughout history people have been tempted to use Jesus to further their own causes, and this is true in some Christian circles today. Were Jesus to confront today’s followers with a choice between our agenda and Jesus himself, I suspect many would turn back and no longer follow him.
Yet there are some of us who would answer as Peter did on that occasion: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Next time, we will use insights from this passage in John, along with the temptation passages from the other gospels, to discuss the implications of the temptation in the desert.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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