Satan had never understood humanity.
In the Garden of Eden, he had enticed the first man and woman to eat the forbidden fruit with the promise that it would turn them from mere humans into gods. “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil,” Satan said, according to Genesis 3:5. And in Job, Satan is baffled by the faithful reverence that man shows God.
As one who had formerly been among the highest ranked of angels, Satan had harbored pride in his own powers and his proximity to God Himself. He could not understand the lowness of the human condition, much less the virtue of embracing such a condition—what we call humility. As Isaiah 14 puts it, in describing Satan:
Thy pride is brought down to hell, thy carcass is fallen down: under thee shall the moth be strewed, and worms shall be thy covering. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning? how art thou fallen to the earth, that didst wound the nations? And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the most High. But yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, into the depth of the pit (verses 11 to 15).
So when he confronts Christ in the desert, Satan instinctively tempts him to relinquish his humanity and display his divinity. This is apparent in each of the three individual temptations.
Consider the first one. Satan begins by emphasizing Christ’s divinity: If you are the Son of God…. This temptation, just like the first one in human history, involves eating. Satan suggests that Christ should satisfy the hunger He is experiencing in the fullness of His humanity by turning the stones into bread. You see for Satan, equality with God is a thing to be grasped.
Jesus’ response is an intriguing one. He quotes Deuteronomy 8:3. Here is the full verse:
He afflicted thee with want, and gave thee manna for thy food, which neither thou nor thy fathers knew: to shew that not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.
In this verse, Jesus identifies with the nation of Israel: just as they wandered for 40 years in the desert and were tempted, so also He is sojourning in the desert for 40 days and facing temptation from the devil. Unlike Israel, Jesus remains perfectly obedient to God.
In remaining obedient and refusing to turn stone into bread, Jesus is humbling Himself before God the Father and embracing the fullness of His humanity. It is precisely in such a posture of humility that mankind answers His calling to spiritual greatness. Man is not meant to live enslaved to mere material needs, but becomes truly alive when he is nurtured on the words of God.
Of course, Christ Himself is the Word of God. He is the true manna, the bread from heaven. And so in this response, He is not only affirming His humanity but simultaneously affirming His divinity as well. His response is very much an Incarnational one: the Son of God was no ghost clothed in flesh but was truly and fully human.
In the next temptation, Satan ups the ante. (Here the sequence and version of events in Matthew 4 is being followed.) He takes Christ to the top of the temple and tries to entice Him to jump off, quoting Psalm 91:11-12,
For he commands his angels with regard to you,
to guard you wherever you go.
With their hands they shall support you,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
Here Christ is being tempted to prove He is the Messiah, according to one nineteenth century commentator:
The temptation here was, that he should at once avail himself of the protection of a promise of safety made to him, and thus demonstrate that he was the Messiah. If he was the true Messiah he had a certain assurance of protection, a promise that no harm could befall him; and thus, by so surprising a miracle, and such a clear proof of the divine interposition, he could at once establish his claim to the Messiahship. How much more easy would this be than to engage in a slow work of years to establish that claim; to encounter fatigue, and want, and poverty, and persecution, before that claim would be admitted!
In other words, Christ is again being tempted to shed His humanity. Ultimately, Satan is proposing that Christ instigates a miraculous affirmation of His special calling by God. What this would amount to is an avoidance of the human suffering on the cross, the very real human death, and the resurrection of Christ in glorified human body that follows. Of course, it was the supreme miracle of the resurrection that also confirmed Christ’s divinity.
In the third and final temptation, the devil takes Christ to a very high mountain, showing Him all the kingdoms of the earth, which the tempter promises to give to Him. (Notice how we have a vertical progression in these three scenes, with the increasing height of location mirroring the escalating pride of Satan and the escalating hubris to which he tempts Christ.)
Once again, Satan is completely consumed in pride. He betrays his own pride in asserting his dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. And he tries to get Christ to claim that earthly glory for Himself—provided of course that Satan retains preeminence.
But Christ did not come to claim any earthly kingdoms. He came to announcing the coming kingdom of heaven. Indeed, He was, in a sense the kingdom of God personified, as Pope Benedict XVI puts it in Jesus of Nazareth.
In the commentaries by the Church Fathers on the temptation, Satan is seen as trying to figure out exactly who Christ is, hence the repeat temptations—aimed at pinning down the true nature of His identity. Here we see Satan utterly confounded by the Incarnation. He has utter contempt for the human condition. And he simply cannot fathom why God would want to become man or how God could be fully human and yet retain the fullness of His divinity at the same time.
For us, Christ’s resistance to the devil’s enticements shows the great importance of humility. As St. Augustine said, the surest way to heaven is the way of humility. In setting an example of humility, Christ showed us how to be truly human that we might encounter the true God. From Satan’s perspective divinity is something to be grasped at. From God’s perspective, participation in the divine life is a gift.