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Jesus In The Wilderness: The Test (pt. 1)

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

session: 3

In our series, we look at Jesus' conversations and interactions with others. We are exploring these interactions to understand Jesus and to discover his purposes. In doing so, we can draw closer to him and deepen our fellowship with him and each other. Today, we will consider a time when Jesus was tempted, by the devil, in the wilderness (Matt. 4).

New To The Bible?

If you are new to reading the Bible (or not), this may seem like a very odd story. How often do we read about the devil (or evil) walking alongside a person and tempting them? That doesn't happen very often. Even in the Bible, we don't read these types of stories that often. So what is going on with this story? Why do we have this account recorded for us? I plan to explore these questions over the following two lessons.


If we step back for a moment and notice the arrangement of this story, it tells us something important. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each include this account in their gospel narratives. This story is important. So important that it is included in three of the four accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. And each places it in the exact location. Each of these gospel authors places this account right after the baptism of Jesus and just before his public ministry. I understand this to be intentional, and we will discuss that later in our lesson.


Before considering the background and context of this interaction, we should discuss a common misunderstanding. So often, there are layers of misconception surrounding the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. For example, how do we understand the devil in this account? Some would not have an issue with the devil or an evil spirit walking beside someone and tempting them. Others, perhaps to a modern western imagination, would struggle with this language and imagery. In his lesson, Testing Jesus in the Wilderness, Tim Mackie (1) demonstrates how Christian art can be helpful in understanding our concepts of the devil. Early artwork, mainly preserved as mosaics on the walls or floors of churches, images the devil as a scaly, reptilian figure with wings. Later paintings from the European renaissance and realism movement often present the devil as a monk with scaly feet. Finally, the early modern period depicts the devil as an angel figure with wings. So, where do we get our understanding of the devil? Most of the depictions of the devil that fill our minds come from Greek and Roman mythology and works such as Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno. But, as Mackie notes, there is no winged human figure anywhere in the Bible. (1)

Each generation seems to remake the devil and demons in their image of choice. However, the Bible presents evil as more complex than an image that can be captured on canvas. Instead, the Bible presents evil as a reality that works in, around, and through selfishness and sin.

Identity of Jesus

Jesus, in part, saw his identity in dealing with evil. Just after his baptism and before his public ministry, Jesus confronts evil in the wilderness. This will not be the only time in the ministry and life of Jesus that he confronts evil (ref. Matt. 16:23). However, one of the first things we have a record of Jesus doing is engaging and overcoming evil. This is very important in understanding part of the identity of Jesus and in part of his purpose and mission. Often, this point is lost in the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding the temptation of Jesus.


Considering this interaction, it is important to understand the context of a larger biblical narrative.

Matthew 4:1 (NIV)

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."

The translations I looked at (NIV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) use the word "tempted" in verse 1. The word in Greek is πειράζω (peirazō), meaning test, put to the test, or tempt. (2) In framing the story, I believe it is essential to recognize what is happening. Jesus is being led by an evil spirit to the wilderness to be tested. Understanding this account in terms of a test connects what Jesus is doing to a larger biblical narrative.

The Wilderness

Considering the larger biblical narrative, when Israel was led out of Egypt, they were led into the wilderness for 40 years. In the wilderness, they were tested.

Deuteronomy 8:2 (NIV)

"Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands."

Instead of trusting the Lord, Israel often grumbled and complained (ref. Ex. 16:2-25; Num. 14:28-29; 32:13). Instead of trusting the Lord, they often shrunk back in fear (ref. Num. 14). Israel, at best, struggled to keep the commands of the Lord. They struggled to trust in the Lord's wisdom and salvation.

The Garden

Moving back in the biblical narrative, we remember another test where an evil spirit, the Garden of Eden, tested humans.

Genesis 3:1–6 (NIV)

"Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'" "You will not certainly die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”

In this test, humans fail to follow the command and trust in the wisdom of God. Seeing the fruit was "desirable for gaining wisdom," humans stretched out their hands and took what the Lord had commanded them not to take. The result ended in the curse of death coming on God's good creation. The man and woman were exiled from Eden and the tree of life (ref. Gen. 3:24).

Bridging the Context

Jesus, after crossing the waters of baptism (ref. Matt. 2:13-17), is led into the wilderness to be tested. He has come to fulfill what humans have been unable to do. He has come to trust in God's wisdom and keep His commands.

The gospel's good news is that Jesus accomplishes what we have been unable to keep. Jesus, in the gospel of John, says:

John 6:38 (NIV)

"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me."

Where we have fallen and failed the test, Jesus fulfills what we have lacked. Tested in the wilderness, Jesus follows the wisdom of the Father.



Scripture quotations: Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

1. Outline and teaching based from Tim Mackie’s lesson: Testing Jesus in the Wilderness

2. Lexham Theological Wordbook, ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

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