Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus?

The story of the temptation of Jesus is very dramatic and insightful, but was Satan really in the desert with Jesus trying to lead him astray in his mission? Let’s consider several factors.

Russian painter I.N. Kramskoi - Christ in the Desert

The Temptation in the Gospel of John

Does the the feeding of the 5000 reflect the same crisis as the temptation in the desert, or is it something different? The feeding of the 5000 and the temptation in the desert involve exactly the same issues for Jesus:

  • 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

If Jesus resisted the temptation to create bread during the desert experience, it seems odd that he would do that very thing so soon after.

Both the feeding of the 5000 and the desert temptation story use the same backdrop from the Old Testament—the experience of the Israelites in the desert. Notice that in the desert story, told in Matthew chapter 4 and Luke chapter 4, all of Jesus’ responses to the adversary are from Deuteronomy chapters 6 & 8, which reflect on the wrong choices of the Israelites in response to the manna from heaven as a provision of God.

The question of manna arises also in the context of the feeding of the 5000. The two stories may refer to the same thing.

Peculiar Elements of the Temptation Story

The temptation story includes some very unusual elements. Matthew chapter 4 says: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down.’”

How did Satan do that? Teleportation? Magic? Did it really happen or was it symbolic or mental?

After that, “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Same questions about the travel but, in addition, how could Satan show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor? Luke even states Satan showed them to him in an instant. How is this explained? Perhaps it was a mental battle.

Finally, who witnessed the desert event and described it to the person who first wrote it as a story. There was no one in the desert besides Jesus and Satan. Did Jesus set his disciples down and say, ‘Hey guys, let me tell you what happened to me in the desert’? Or is it more likely that that someone first told the story, perhaps in a sermon, as a symbolic representation of Jesus’ crisis resulting from the feeding of the 5000?

Satan as Adversary

Jesus’ experience in the desert is called a ‘testing’ or ‘temptation’. In what way was it a test? It was a test of which path he would take to establish the kingdom. As Jesus was grappling with his mission and how to go about it, it must have been like battling an adversary. I am sure we all have felt a battle within ourselves to choose one path or another in a critical moment.

The word ‘satan’ is not documented as a proper name in the Old Testament until the time of the Babylonian captivity. Before that, ‘satan’ was employed in the sense of the word itself—satan means adversary.

Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus?

Whether Jesus experienced this conflict in the desert or at the feeding of the 5000, I think it was most likely a conflict within his own mind. The urge to consider the easier and more exciting path of receiving kingship from the adoring crowd, rather than establishing the ‘kingdom of God’ non-politically by sharing the message of the Father and eternal life, would have been adversarial even if it did not involve a personification of the ‘adversary’.

In other words, it must have been a mental battle; it was psychological. Thankfully, Jesus chose to not meet the expectations of his crowd of followers and receive kingship from them. Instead, he established the kingdom described in Luke chapter 17:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

I cannot say for certain that there was no person called Satan in the desert with Jesus, but I consider it very unlikely. This leads, of course, to the question of whether Satan exists at all. We will talk about that next time.

Articles in this series:

Is the Fall of Satan a Myth?
The Fall of Satan in Isaiah 14
The Fall of Satan in Ezekiel 28
The Fall of Satan in Revelation 12
The Fall of Satan in the Book of Enoch
Satan in the Old Testament
Was Satan the Serpent in Eden?
Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus?
Does Satan Exist?
Do Demons Exist?

Image credit: Russian painter I.N. Kramskoi – Christ in the Desert
I invite your comments and observations below.
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46 Responses to Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus?

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    Three Questions:

    (1) You wondered if the desert story is someones attempt to tell the feeding story in a metaphor. But do you agree that BOTH could just be myths created to try and convey a message.
    Note: Of course I think they are both myths. And I am still not convince that their intended messages are the same — but the parallels you point out are interesting.

    (2) You said,

    “As Jesus was grappling with his mission and how to go about it, it must have been like battling an adversary.”

    In your theology, what was Jesus’ mission?

    (3) Do you believe that the Exodus story (in Deut) was a contrived myth too — one meant to convey a message instead of actual history?
    It is interesting that you tell us that the Exodus tales is the source of these tales. As we watch some films, it is fun to see films subtlely refer to classic films that came before them — as using similar archetypes to convey different messages or feelings.


    • Sabio, I think Jesus’ mission was something along these lines:

      1. To tell us about the Father
      2. To point us to relationships instead of rules as a way of life
      3. To tell us about eternal life
      4. To defeat death in the resurrection

      ‘Myth’ is too complex to discuss in a comment, but I assume that I take parts of the Bible more factually than you do.


      • Sabio Lantz says:

        Thanx, concerning question 4, let me rephrase:
        Do you the OT story of Jews mass exile and return to Israel actually historically happened?
        I am assuming you are not a post-modernist who will quibble with words like “actual”, “historical” and stuff and take this question in the normal way we say things like, “Do you think that it is historically true that the USA actually put men on the moon?”


        • I understand that archeological evidence does not support a massive military conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua. In addition, there is no archeological evidence that a large group of individuals traveled throughout the Sinai desert for 40 years.

          So I assume the story of a migration from Egypt to Canaan in the large numbers indicated by the Old Testament documents was not historical.


          • Sabio Lantz says:

            (1) Jesus’ Mission
            We read a lot about “Jesus’ Mission” in Christian writings. Thanks for sharing your view. Is see that you don’t list that his mission was to warn people that God’s Kingdom was coming. Did you accidentally leave that off or is it subsumed under one of your four?

            (2) Missions based on Fiction
            Well, many Christians think part of Jesus’ many missions were to tell of the coming of the “Kingdom of God” and then writers after him seemed to tell us (depending on their theology) that either it happended at his death or at his resurrection or at the coming of the holy spirit or … lots of different models. But most models I know, make coming of the Kingdom part of his mission.

            If that is true, many NT stories which are use to justify/rationalize/persuade listeners that Jesus was the Messiah are based on those fictional accounts of Moses and David, then the whole thing seems highly questionable.

            How do Progressive Christians get around that.
            I know of lots of Christians and Jews on learning of the fables of the OT which were held as facts for to justify and fill the life of Jesus with messiah stories gave up their faith because of that. Apparently they felt it all connected.


          • I believe Jesus came to introduce a community based on understanding God in a new way–as a loving father who wants to resolve the alienation we feel between us and God. This involves good news for us both in this life and in the afterlife.

            The Jews of the day expected a messianic, political ‘Kingdom of God’, but Jesus appropriated and redefined the term. The term was very relevant at that time, but it is less so today as fewer countries have functioning kings or emperors, and those countries that do are considered bad models of government.


          • michaeleeast says:

            The model of kings is responsible for a lot of projections onto Jesus and God.
            We project our experience of earthly kings onto the divine.
            But Jesus and God are not like earthly kings.
            They are transcendent and sublime.
            They do not reward and punish.
            The image of the Messiah as an earthly king is misleading.
            It will never happen.


          • I agree Michael. Your comment that the Messianic image will never be realized is particularly useful, because that is exactly what dispensationalists anticipate.


          • Sabio Lantz says:

            Tim, concerning “The Kingdom” you said,

            Jesus appropriated and redefined the term

            So, do you think Jesus was the Messiah predicted by OT prophets and such?


          • Sabio Lantz says:

            Do you think the early church fathers and perhaps the gospel writers and paul also were deceived about the King and the Kingdom issue as the wrote about God and Jesus?


          • Sabio, you asked whether I think “Jesus was the Messiah predicted by OT prophets and such?”

            Truthfully, this issue doesn’t matter much to me. I believe messianic expectation, emphasizing the permanent rule of David’s descendants, were written into the later parts of the Old Testament. Messianic expectations were very high after the time of the Maccabees and into the Jewish culture of the New Testament.

            I think Jesus, and/or the gospel writers, appropriated and redefined some of these expectations to apply to the work of Jesus, but they were stripped of many of their original key elements such as a political kingdom of God.

            Perhaps this helped the Jews of that day to see Jesus in the light of a ‘spiritual’ fulfillment of these messianic expectations. But I am not Jewish with messianic expectations, so it is not an issue that concerns me much. I believe the kingdom of God is an effective way of describing the community of followers of God, but I don’t think the imagery of kingdom is the only was to think of that community.

            I was raised a dispensationalist, which means I believed an actual political and powerful kingdom of God would be set up at the end of the age and would rule the entire earth with a rod of iron for a thousand years. I now consider those expectations to be unbiblical and simple fantasy.

            To whatever extent Jesus fulfilled supposed messianic prophecies, it is of no consequence to me.


          • Sabio Lantz says:

            Thanx, Tim, that is what I suspected you believed.
            It seems you have a unique form of Christianity.
            Another question(s):
            (1) Do you actively go to church or member of a church.
            (2) Do you know other Christian writers who believe pretty much exactly like you do?


  2. michaeleeast says:

    How could anyone know what Jesus experienced in the desert?
    As in Job I think that this is a literary device to refine the message of Jesus.
    It says what Jesus is not.
    And as such it is helpful to us.
    We can discern the intended message more clearly.


    • Sabio Lantz says:

      Do you also feel that the Feeding of the 5,000 story was also just a literary device to tell us who Jesus was — as opposed to the Desert one saying who he was not?


      • michaeleeast says:

        The Feeding of the 5000 is a miracle story which seems unlikely to me.
        Tim’s interpretation is an interesting one.
        That it involved the same three temptations as the desert story.
        I am undecided about this miracle.
        I believe that some spiritual; healing may have taken place.
        But this is of a different magnitude.
        It seems likely that it is a story to tell us who Jesus was.
        But I would not dismiss it entirely.


        • Sabio Lantz says:

          Actually, you are a bit unclear to me.
          So either it is a miracle that happened or it didn’t.
          I never dismiss that fables and made-up stories can be useful — I get that, of course.
          I am addressing the miracle stuff.
          You know what I mean.
          I am not totally dismissing the other stuff.
          OR, are you saying you think it actually could have happened — the food multiplied miraculously — just like mana fell from heaven miraculously.
          So that is what is unclear.
          And if you don’t dismiss it as a miracle, do you believe miracles reported in Buddhism, Jainism, Shinto, Islam and Hinduism could actually happen by the hands of their gods too.

          OR were you just saying, made up stories can be useful?
          Because, heck, I agree with that.


          • Sabio, Michael’s answer seemed clear enough to me.


          • Sabio Lantz says:

            But of course it would. You aren’t me, are you.
            Are you saying, “It was clear enough for me, and should be for you, so stop asking?”


          • michaeleeast says:

            My mind is open to the possibility of miracles.
            I do not, however, believe that all the miracle stories are literally true.
            This applies for other religions as well as Christianity.
            Also I do not throw out the baby with the bathwater
            if one story proves to be non-factual.
            There is much of value in the Bible which should be retained.


          • Sabio Lantz says:

            Thanx for answering, michaeleeast, and not dismissing my question.

            (1) My mind is open to miracles too. But I have never seen evidence of them, so it is open to miracles as it is to my winning the lottery in several countries all on the same day. But I am certainly into testing miracle claims and assuming them false until proven otherwise, due to all the other data.
            (2) Do you have a list of Jesus’ miracles that you DO believe were literal true, and if so, how did you rule them in and the others out?
            (3) If any given story in any text is not factual, I don’t throw the baby out with the wash water either — I check out the other stuff the same way and see what possible values they could be.

            So maybe we have more in common than your think. OR, you just didn’t say stuff strongly enough or clearly enough to show our differences. I think it is fun to be clear on differences.


  3. sheila0405 says:

    All I can say about this is: well written. Lots to mull over. My favorite kind of article/blog post. Thanks for this! You’ve obviously put quite a bit of thought into this one.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.


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  7. lotharson says:

    I think this raises the fundamental question: are miracles such as those of the New Testament possible?
    I like science fiction and I believe in truth of Clarke’s third laws:

    “1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
    3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    While it is not possible to create bread out of nothing, a alien civilization much more advanced than ours could very well do something indistinguisable from it WITHOUT violating the laws of physics.
    It becomes even easier if very advanced extraterrestrials are SIMULATING our reality, a possibility which is far from being absurd:

    Now it stands to reason that if aliens can do it, God can do it too.

    However I must say there is another problem which makes it hard for me to believe in miracles such as the multiplication of the breads.
    If God did it in the past for helping people in need, then why does He do it so rarely? Why does he allow so many people to starve in intense suffering while helping only a few of them?

    Okay Tim, this was quite a long comment and I apologize for this :=)


    • No need for apology Lothar; I think your contribution is delightful!

      You are correct that this raises a question about miracles in general, and my answer is precisely the same as you suggest. For decades I have cherished Clarke’s statement: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

      I do not think God overrides the rules of physics as he pleases. If Jesus multiplied the fish and bread, I think it was by some method even we could use if we knew the process involved. What that process might be, I have no idea.

      Your second issue is a good one also. Why would God intervene to relieve suffering on a few occasions but not frequently or always? Again, I do not think God tinkers with normal affairs of cause and effect. However, I think there will be a time when suffering and death no longer exist.


  8. Sabio Lantz says:

    One of my favorite books by Arthur C. Clarke is “Childhood’s End” — very short. Ever read it?

    As I am sure you know, Clarke was an outspoken atheist, and since you are quoting him, a few others quotes of his may help:

    “The statement that God created man in his own image is ticking like a time bomb in the foundations of Christianity.”

    “It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him.”

    I wonder how Clarke would react to Christian mining his quotes to support their faith. For I doubt he felt that god(s) have used technology we just don’t understand yet. I highly doubt it.

    Concerning Aliens — A talk radio station in my town broadcasts Conservative talk shows, Religious talk shows, Alternative Medicine shows and Shows about ESP and Aliens. I think they are clever in reading their audiences.

    Here is a post showing why more Christians should believe in Aliens.


  9. Hey Tim, nice post. Of course I can’t say 100% but I would profer that the temptation is an evangelical myth, just like the feeding of the 5000…. and Gethsemane for that matter, as we can’t really mention The Temptation as a myth without it’s other bookend of Gethsemane.


    • I would not use the word ‘myth’ because it has a variety of connotations, but I would say the temptation in the desert is a story referring to a turning point or a process in Jesus’ work.

      It is interesting that you bring up Gethsemane. This is another story that raises the questions: Who witnessed Jesus’ thoughts and actions when he was alone in the garden? And what inside information did the person have who told the story, perhaps in a sermon, to the one who first wrote it down?

      Neither of these seem to be eye-witness accounts; perhaps they are reconstructions to make a point.

      On the other hand, the incident with the 5000 seems to be based on some actual event, though I have no opinion on what the multiplication of food represents. I do not rule out that it occurred, but I don’t think it was by overriding the laws of physics. As Clarke states: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’


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