We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15; NIV).
On Monday morning, a friend asked me how I understand Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which prompted me to re-read Luke’s familiar story:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days (Luke 4:1; NLT).
During this time, Jesus had to wrestle against the temptations caused by his desperate physical hunger (vv2-4), his desire for earthly power (vv5-8), and his longing to test out his trust in God (vv9-12).
Many people have written extensively about what Jesus experienced in the wilderness, but I would like to focus briefly on the mysterious, alarming figure who tempted him.
An immediate problem is raised by the Greek word “diabolou”, which is often translated as “the devil”. However, this word is actually an adjective, rather than a name or a noun. It means “prone to slander, slanderous, or accusing falsely” (Strong’s Greek). Thus, “the devil” is clearly not a being of any kind.
I find this interesting and helpful, as I have never seen the “devil” as a being. Rather, I understand the personification of “accusing falsely” as a way of representing Christ’s inner struggles with the temptations to which all human beings are subject. Welling up spontaneously from the unconscious mind, powerful, disturbing desires and impulses can assail us at any time, especially when we are very vulnerable, as was Jesus in the desert.
Jesus’ understanding of temptation
Jesus came to understand the inner, psychological process of temptation very well, both from personal experience and through observing others. This how he explained it to a crowd one day:
It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness…
It is interesting to note that there is no suggestion at all here that people are tempted by any kind of external force or being. Rather, Jesus concludes his teaching by stating firmly that:
…All these vile things come from within (Mark 7:20-23; NLT).
As a human being, though also divine, Jesus was subject to temptations, just like us (Hebrews 4:15; NIV), and how strong they must have been during those challenging days alone in the wilderness. He had just experienced one of the high points of his life: hearing God’s approving voice, and receiving the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Then, immediately afterwards, he felt compelled to spend many days alone in the wilderness, facing extreme heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and the constant threat posed by wild animals.
What a strange, challenging experience this must have been, causing him much deep physical and mental suffering, so it’s not surprising that the Gospel-writers’ accounts faithfully reflect the vivid, hallucinatory quality of Jesus’ desert retreat. Perhaps this is what leads so many translators to personify the powerful reality of his inner temptations, by turning them into an external being they called “the devil”.