The Temptation of Jesus in the Gospel of John

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.

Feeding 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.

Photo Credit: Walwyn via Compfight cc
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21 Responses to The Temptation of Jesus in the Gospel of John

  1. michaeleeast says:

    A very interesting take on John’s Gospel.
    You are quite right about the three temptations.
    I had never realized that before.
    The context of bread and the murmuring in the wilderness
    is consistent with your interpretation.
    Well done.

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  2. This is interesting Tim, and the idea that this is a temptation parallel is fascinating.

    In talking about the temptation, and of signs, and of feeding of the 5000, we are delving into stories that (in my opinion) are mixes of myth, midrash, and symbolism. When reading stories such as these, there is really no end to the interpretations and connections we can look for if we can get beyond the need for them to be literal history only (or at all).

    You also highlight a good point here that to read these stories literally, or historically can veil the reader from seeing the true depth of what is being crafted by the writers. The connnections to Moses, the Temptation, the 12 Tribes of Israel, Manna, etc..etc… And this can really be seen when comparing the feeding of the 5000 in Mark to the same story in John, you can see the later writers infusing many more layers of imagination.

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  3. Jon Stallings says:

    Thanks for sharing Tim. I also have never recognized the parallels. Do you think that it might show that Satan’s temptations over mankind really never has changed and he keeps coming back to tempt us in the same areas? Perhaps he did the same with Jesus?

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    • Jon, I certainly would not rule that out, but I think the comparison of the feeding of the 5000 with the story of the desert temptation suggests that temptation is something that happens within us, rather than instigated by a satanic figure.

      Sort of like the passage in James chapter 1 says: Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.

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      • Jon Stallings says:

        Thanks Tim for responding. I know we have very different views on the topic of Satan.I agree with your point about James. From my perspective there are times we give Satan too much credit we need to take responsibility our actions.

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  4. sheila0405 says:

    We Catholics have a different slant on why some of his followers left. We believe that they thought Jesus was promoting some kind of cannibalism, when he doubled down on “my flesh is food indeed…”. We believe he was referring to the yet as unknown concept of transubstantiation. But your Protestant view is also well taken. And yes, we are tempted when we are drawn away by our own desires.

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    • Thanks for your comment Sheila!

      I was not thinking of the crisis of the feeding of the 5000 in terms of transubstantiation, but I do recall this passage being connected to holy communion in certain books and sermons. It arises naturally from the statement Jesus made.

      Early Christians were often accused of cannibalism because of the practice of communion, and I am sure this is sometimes true today as well.

      Whether Jesus emphasized his personal importance in a general sense or in specific reference to transubstantiation, I think he was rejecting the path of popular support based on providing regular food and political leadership.

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      • sheila0405 says:

        And I think I said that interpretation, as used in Protestantism, is a very good one. It is also included in the doctrine of the Messiah, that the israelites were looking for a King to overthrow the Romans. Of course, Jesus really came to overthrow sin, and ensure our eternal life with him. There are many layers found in this passage. It’s perfectly reasonable to consider this a temptation. Jesus was, of course, a man, and surely the idea of power would tempt him.

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  5. Pingback: Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus? | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. Pingback: Encounter in the Desert Part 4: The Battle | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. Zach Van Houten says:

    Great analysis! I’ve struggled with trying to reconcile Jesus’ temptation because of the obvious personification of Satan. This I found borrows too liberally from Persian mythology. And I can’t reconcile a literal Satan because he would’ve been borrowed. Thanks for relating these two.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I am glad you liked it, Zach. I have given it considerable thought and study, and I think the connection to Jesus’ ‘temptations’ at the feeding of the 5000 is likely.

      Like

  8. consultgtf says:

    Sir, As per my understanding as stated in my earlier comments, it was sharing which made 5000 eat, as everyone, who could afford carried a little food, and they shared with each other!
    Jesus offering his body and blood is a very severe sentimental, as, after killing someone and eating his flesh also we are bent upon sinning?! (this is concept)

    He was tempted, after 40 days?, when he was told to convert rock into bread, worship satan than GTF? but everyone of us are also tempted, but we fail!

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Consult, I have heard this idea that Jesus encouraged people to share their food in the story of the feeding of the 5000, but there is no such suggestion in the story about that. In fact, it was the crowds overwhelmingly positive response to this feeding that caused Jesus to back off from continuing to feed them.

      His impulse to feed them was due to his compassion, but the crowd was more interested in this remarkable action than they were of what Jesus was trying to teach them. I don’t think they would have responded to the food so powerfully if it was just a matter of sharing with each other.

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      • consultgtf says:

        True Sir, but food was one of the factor…like healing the sick was another, basically if they wanted they would have never let him crucified! otherwise, they would’ve not asked for Barnabas release than Jesus?
        Messiah was expected to get them out to freedom!, but…

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, a thought here, which the Holy Spirit showed me when I was studying this passage. What can we give to somebody, yet it is not diminished in us: a concept, or words. This is consistent with John’s idea of Jesus being the Word of God and bread, but I do not know whether John intended us to understand that from his words in this passage, or whether this concept is purely one that came from God.

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  9. Lucinda Bassili says:

    Thank you for this article. Very insightful. It connects the four gospels

    Liked by 1 person

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