The Meaning of Christ’s Temptation at the Temple

We tend to forgot that one of Christ’s three temptations in the desert actually wasn’t.

Following the order of the Luke, the third temptation was a world away from the desolation and deprivations of the desert. Instead, it was on the roof of the temple. Here is how it is recorded in Luke:

Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written:

‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and:
‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’ (Luke 4: 9-12).

In placing this one last, Luke helps us to see it as the culmination of the other two. Briefly recalling what was at stake in those, then, should help us to better understand what is happening here. Again, following the order of Luke, the first temptation was to turn stones into bread. The second was to receive all the kingdoms of the earth in return for worship of the devil.

In an Angelus address, Pope Benedict XVI says that each of the temptations involves a false image of man and God. (An idea I have previously explored in depth here.)

In the first one, we can see that Satan is tempting Christ to affirm His divinity at the expense of His humanity—to use His divine power to convert stone into bread, thereby ending His all-too-human experience of hunger. This is reversed in the second. Having demonstrated His humanity, Satan now asks him to deny His divinity—to deny that His kingdom is not of this world by accepting all the earthly kingdoms.

So, in the first and second temptations, Jesus refuses to deny His humanity and His divinity. Although a true understanding of the Incarnation—as the fullness of humanity and divinity, distinct yet united and centered in one person—probably eludes Satan, he has come to at least grasp this much: Jesus is likely the true Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

Thanks to the extraordinary vision of Daniel 7, the Jews of Jesus’ time had some understanding that the Messiah had to be more than a mere man—perhaps an angelic or semi-divine being. Jesus had proved at least this much to Satan.

The preceding temptation would reinforce this conclusion.

In the vision of Daniel, the Son of Man is presented as a ‘heavenly king’ rather than an earthly one, as one scholar puts it. True he does take dominion over all the earthly kingdoms, but this is a dominion he receives from the Ancient of Days—the only Old Testament depiction of God that can be, with certitude, associated with God the Father.

In refusing to accept the kingdoms from Satan, then, Jesus indicates that he is not some earthly wanna-be Messiah, but the true thing, descended from heaven, and, for that reason, confident in His expectation that God Himself would bring all things in subjection to Him.

Heading into the second temptation we can reasonably surmise that Satan suspects Jesus is the Messiah. In tempting Jesus to cast Himself off the temple, Satan is asking Him to reveal His true identity. The devil’s taunt to Jesus confirms this. In the first temptation and in the third he begins with this premise, “If you are the Son of God”—using what was then a term for the Messiah. (Daniel 7 had used parallel language, calling the envisioned figure the ‘Son of Man.’)

The words of the third temptation itself are taken from Psalm 91, which speaks of trust in God when all the forces of evil seem arrayed against the supplicant. Certainly this would apply to Jesus? (Moreover, the verse after the last one quoted by the devil says this: “You can tread upon the asp and the viper, trample the lion and the dragon.”)

One interpretation of this event holds that the Jews of the time were expecting the Messiah to confirm His identity “in a very dramatic way.” One scholar elaborates, “By leaping from the pinnacle of the temple and then being rescued in a spectacular manner, Jesus would fulfill Jewish expectations and thus convince those who witnessed this dramatic display of power that He was the Messiah.”

This would certainly seem to be a fitting culmination to the temptations.

In the first Jesus, did not deny His humanity. In the second, He did not deny His divinity. Now, he is being asked to effectively affirm both. (In His humanity, there is a risk of bodily injury. But as divine Son, He presumably could also expect a miraculous rescue.)

But Jesus doesn’t reveal Himself here. Why?

The setting seems to serve as a bit of a clue. Remember, we are on the roof of the temple. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus will, when asked to produce a sign justifying His cleansing of the temple, suggest that it be torn down so that He could raise it up in three days. As The Gospel of John notes, Jesus was really talking about His own body.

It’s hard not to think of that episode in the context of the third temptation. In asking Jesus to cast Himself off the roof, Satan is asking Him to, at least theoretically, put Himself in danger. But, as Satan presents the situation, there shouldn’t really be any risk as angels are supposedly at hand to rescue Jesus in mid-air.

Such a dramatic display would surely have been the unmistakable sign that Jesus was the true Messiah. But He does no such thing. Instead, the only sign that Jesus promises to give during His ministry is his crucifixion. He refers to it obliquely in the Gospel of John when he talks about tearing down the temple and he mentions it again in the allusion to Jonah—whose descent to the abyss of the seas and three-day sojourn in the belly of a whale foreshadows the crucifixion and descent to hell. (See Matthew 12 and 16.)

So, in effect, what Satan is asking Jesus to do is forgo the crucifixion.

The previous temptations were enticements to deny His humanity and His divinity. Here the temptation is an affirmation. But it is preciously at this point that Jesus now must deny Himself—‘deny’ in the sense that He called on any would-be follower to ‘deny himself’ and take up his cross (see for example, Luke 9:23). Paradoxically, it is this last denial that would become the greatest affirmation of who Jesus really was.

image: Temptation of Jesus Christ by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • bwc

    Thank you. Stephen. I always enjoy your biblical exegesis.

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