The third temptation of Jesus by the devil

Anthony Zimmerman
March 22, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Twice the devil had tempted Jesus unsuccessfully, so he tried a third time. He promised to make Jesus king of all the world at the price of devil worship:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'" (Matthew 4:8-10).

The temptation was to use political power to gain a messianic kingdom. This made Jesus angry, and He told the devil to leave. He used Scripture once more, this time from Deuteronomy 6:13: "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name."

The temptation reminds us of the serpent's temptation of our first parents in Paradise. They should disobey the command of God, and so become very powerful. They fell for the temptation, but Jesus did not.

Might we suppose that Jesus could actually have established a secular messianic kingdom, with armies and navies and civic government? Of course He could have done so, if that had been the way God wanted it to be done. Being the Son of God Jesus could have rallied the Roman Legions to overthrow the Emperor and enthrone Himself as the Head of a World Government. He could have marched at the head of troops not only where Alexander had gone to conquer the Middle-East, but from there to north and south and east and west, until all peoples of the world would obey Him or die. But Jesus would have none of that. He bristled at the devil's suggestion and ordered him to leave. God's kingdom on earth must be of another kind. He is not an iron-fisted dictator, but is anointed with the oil of gladness; He is the eternal priest who establishes a kingdom of priests to worship God:

As priest he offered his life on the altar of the cross
and redeemed the human race
by this one sacrifice of peace.
As king he claims dominion over all creation,
that he may present to you, his almighty Father,
an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.
(Preface of the Solemnity of Christ the King.)

Did Christ really feel tempted to do as the devil suggested? We can well imagine that, since He was hungry after the long fast, changing stones to bread would have relieved that nagging hunger. Yes, that was a temptation of the flesh. Hunger bites. Secondly, He needed to draw attention to Himself, so a stunt like plunging off the temple roof and being saved by angels would have gained an immediate audience. That, too, was a temptation, one of human vanity. He was the God-man, so coercing the people of the world by forcing their wills to obey, would be more practical than being a Good Shepherd, a Father of the Prodigal, a Victim on Calvary. But Matthew does not give us an impression that Jesus was in any way tempted by the devil's third suggestion. He would not join in a partnership with the devil to take possession of the world. His mind was made up to do as the Father asked. He would express it in Gethsemane: "Father, not my will but thine be done." He would draw the world to Himself by hanging on the cross.

Jesus Himself could not be tempted in reality, because He was the Son of God, and God cannot be tempted to offend Himself. The devil may not have been so certain about this, and was testing the situation to learn more. But Jesus allowed Himself to be tempted in order to instruct the future Church what temptations to expect, and how to respond to them. The Church must ever remain a pilgrimage on this earth of the kingdom of heaven, marching on its way toward eternal life. The Church must not be primarily a bread-maker, an agency to assist members to be healthy and wealthy (first temptation) . She must not presume on God to work spectacular miracles routinely in order to gain members (second temptation). Finally, she must not gain converts by use of the sword and by devil worship (third temptation). "Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him" Matthew 4:14). He had demonstrated to the future Church how to deal with temptation. We pass on, then, to the next episode of the Gospel of Matthew:

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned" (Matthew 4:15-16).

The angels were happy that the devil was gone finally, and they could help Jesus come out of His fast and begin His mission. The devil had done his best to try Jesus in the three ways that we sin most easily: appetite, ambition, and pride, as Chrysostom points out:

And how saith Luke, that "he ended all temptation." To me it seems that in mentioning the chief of the temptations, he had spoken of all, as though the rest too were included in these. For the things that form the substance of innumerable evils are these: to be a slave to the belly, to do anything for vainglory, to be in subjection to the madness of riches (On Matthew, 13,5).

The devil will tempt us also, continues Chrysostom, here, there and everywhere. The more he offers, the more you should suspect his wiles and refuse to believe his lies:

Every day also he brings these his machinations to bear on each of His servants, not in mountains only and in wildernesses, nor by himself: but in cities likewise, in market-places, and in courts of justice, and by means of our own kindred, even men. What then must we do? Disbelieve him altogether, and stop our ears against him, and hate him when he flatters, and when he proffers more, then so much the more shun him... Yea, for he is an implacable enemy, and hath taken up against us such war as excludes all treaty (On Matthew 13,6).

Divine Providence and miracles

Before we leave the subject of the temptations, let us reflect about when it might be proper to ask God's help by using human means and asking others for counsel to learn God's ways; and when might it be right to ask for a miracle? An acquaintance of mine was debating whether to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood. He did not ask the pastor for counsel, but wanted to hear an answer directly from the Lord. He was cultivating rows of corn with a team of horses - yes, long ago - and said to the Lord: "If the horses do something unusual when we make the turn into the next row, I will take it from you as a sign that I should go to the seminary." The horses shied and tripped a bit perhaps frightened by a rodent. He took that as a sign from God in response to his request. So he went to a seminary, but did not continue long, realizing that the life was not for him. No great harm came of it, and perhaps the seminary was a big help when he needed it. But in general, we ought not ask the Lord for miracles instead of praying, getting counsel from others, and using common sense.

On another occasion, a man was doing a great project for the Lord's glory in producing expensive Catholic TV shows. He was going beyond his financial resources, but he took the Lord literally: "Ask, and you shall receive." He reasoned that this was indeed a good work for the Lord, and that God MUST keep His promise when asked to furnish the needed finances. His work crashed, however. He had presumed rashly that the Lord must work a miracle when asked to do so for a good reason.

On the other hand, Blessed Mother Teresa presumed on the Lord's help sometimes, even to the point of depending upon Him for miraculous help. The difference between her case, and the cases mentioned above, is that Mother Teresa was closer to the Lord and knew what she was doing. She was bonded to Christ as His bride. I think she sensed God's ways somewhat as husbands and wives sense each other's ways, knowing when to presume and when that would be rash. Whereas we lesser persons must abide by the more usual ways of Divine Providence.

We look to Mary to learn how she dealt with Providence and with possible miracles. She didn't presume to blab to Joseph that her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. It would be presumptuous to ask God to make Joseph to believe that. She didn't presume that God would save the Baby Jesus from the sword of Herod's soldiers, but fled to safety in Egypt. When the Boy Jesus was lost in Jerusalem, she and Joseph did not ask an angel to fetch Him. For three weary and anxious days they sought for Him by inquiring among acquaintances and looking for Him in likely places. Finally Divine Providence helped to find Him in the temple.

But Cana, that was different. The marriage festival was about to crash because they had exhausted the supply of wine. Perhaps she had never seen Jesus work a miracle before, but now she saw a need that definitely needed help. She turned to Jesus: "They have no wine." She presumed that Jesus would help.

Jesus was not ready for this. He had a schedule in mind, to work miracles systematically into His mission, and this did not fit into the schedule. "Woman," He said, "what is that to thee and to me? My hour has not yet come." Mary stood her ground. She "put Him on the spot" by speaking to the waiters, who would expect to hear something from Jesus. He yielded. He tore up that planned schedule for miracles, threw the pieces to the wind, and worked His first miracle here and now for the sake of His mother. He furnished 150 gallons of good wine to last for the rest of the feast.

His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast" (John 2:5-7).

When shall we ask God for a miracle, when would that be presumptuous? When we really need help, let's ask Mary to guide us and to help one way or the other. Not many miracles occur at Lourdes, but some do. However, everyone that goes to Lourdes gets a spiritual boost, which is also a miracle of sorts. Jesus did not give us His mother just to have her to be idle. Jesus gave us His own mother so that she would have plenty to do for us, being concerned for all our needs. And if at times she asks for a miracle, Jesus will remember what a joy it was in Cana to respond to her request. Next we follow Jesus to Capharnaum.