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.
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
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