What the devil are The Temptations all about?

  • A talk about Jesus & the satan
  • based on Psalm 91: 1-12. God’s protection.  Luke 4:1-13. The Temptations.


Diabolical talk





A diabolical talk ... about the devil



‘diabolos’ is the Greek word used in Luke’s gospel for ‘the devil’, and diabolical literally means ‘about the devil’. So, this is a ‘diabolical’ talk – about the devil!

  • Luke 4:1-13 is a vivid account of a confrontation between Jesus and ‘the devil’ that has become well known as ‘The Temptations’. There’s a similar, though not identical, account in Matthew 4:1-11 and a brief account in Mark 1:12-13. In both the other two accounts, we find ‘the devil’ referred to as ‘Satan’, so it looks like we’re on safe ground if we assume that ‘the devil’ in Luke’s account is also a reference to ‘Satan’.
  • Let’s look at what this encounter with ‘Satan’ really meant to Jesus, and what it would have meant to a Jewish audience in Jesus’s own lifetime. Because the way we might view this account today is very different to how Jesus and his Jewish followers would have viewed it.


River Jordan




Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan


  • We need to start by putting this story into context. It comes immediately after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. John, in the role of the ‘promised Elijah’ – the forerunner of the Messiah – confirmed to the crowds that Jesus really was the Jewish Messiah, the ‘Christ’ or ‘anointed one’. And, symbolically, to add God’s seal of approval, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus ‘like a dove’ (Matt 3:16). The Jewish crowds would have associated being baptized in the River Jordan with the Jewish people escaping from slavery in Egypt and crossing through the Jordan river on their way to ‘new life’ in the ‘promised land’ of Israel.
  •  Luke 4:1-13 follows on and takes up the same ideas, telling us that, “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert where the devil tempted Jesus for 40 days. Jesus ate nothing during that time …” (Luke 4:1-2) Hearing these words, 1st century Jews would, once again, immediately have been reminded of the Exodus of their Jewish ancestors from Egypt. In the Sinai desert, Moses had gone up the mountain to meet God and “stayed there with the LORD 40 days and 40 nights, and during that time he did not eat food or drink water.” (Exodus 34:28) After that came one of the most momentous events in Jewish history as this great leader presented God’s Ten Commandments to the people. God then led them in the desert for 40 years during which time the Bible tells us how they were tempted on many occasions not to follow God’s ways. Being tempted in the desert  to follow other gods was nothing new to the Jews, and the ’40 days’ is a highly symbolic number which should warn us that this story is not, perhaps, to be taken quite as literally as it appears at first sight!
  • Most people reading this account today, appreciate that ‘the devil’ didn’t really take Jesus to the top of a high mountain, and then 2 minutes later, whisk him to the Pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. These ‘journeys’ were more in Jesus’s mind, or in his imagination, than actual physical journeys; but many Christians still find it quite difficult to appreciate that the rest of the story is also full of symbolic meaning, rather than being literally true.
  • So, after Jesus – full of the Holy Spirit – is led into the desert, we have this inner conflict – known to us as ‘The Temptations’ – where the promptings of the Holy Spirit conflict with the promptings of ‘the devil’ or ‘Satan’.
  • But what do we mean by ‘the devil’ or ‘Satan’, and, more importantly, what would Jesus and his Jewish followers have understood by these words?
  • If I asked what images the words ‘Satan’ or ‘the devil’ conjure up in your mind, I’d probably get 2 or 3 dominant responses: Firstly, some might suggest a devilish fiend with horns and a tail. If you do a Google search on the Internet, this is the most common image you’ll find. Secondly, others might picture ‘Satan’ as the angel of light – ‘Lucifer’ – who rebelled against God and was cast into ‘hell’, where he reigns over the ‘damned’. And, thirdly, others might identify ‘Satan’ with the serpent, or snake, in the Garden of Eden, that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and so engineered the fall of mankind, original sin, and death itself.




Horned devil
with a tail

Art Gallery


  • But none of these ideas would have been familiar to Jesus or his early disciples. Each of these ideas about ‘Satan’ was developed after the earthly life of Jesus, and we need to put aside any later concepts of ‘Satan’ to see what Jesus himself would have understood by ‘Satan’ or ‘the devil’.
  • So forget about devils with horns and tails – that’s just a product of the over-imaginative mind of medieval artists! Forget about the devil being ‘Lucifer’, the fallen angel of light – that idea began with the apocryphal Book of Enoch, surfaced again in the Book of Revelation, and was developed into a full-blown theology by St Augustine of Hippo. And forget about ‘Satan’ tempting Eve because the association of ‘Satan’ with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, was only first hinted at in John’s vision at the end of the 1st century, was developed in the 4th century, and owes more to works of fiction like Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s Paradise Lost than it does to the Bible.
  • So, what would Jesus himself have understood by ‘the devil’ or ‘Satan’?
  • First of all, ‘Satan’ is not, in fact, a personal or proper name in the gospels. The word ‘Satan’ is simply a Hebrew word meaning “the accuser” or the “adversary” or “enemy”. There’s no suggestion of a capital ‘S’ in the original Greek gospels. In fact, ‘Satan’, in the gospel accounts of ‘The Temptations’, should be written as “the satan” with a little ‘s’, in the same way as “the devil” is always written with a little ’d’.
  • ‘Satan’ isn’t a personal name in the gospels, and the fact that it has appeared with a capital ‘S’ for centuries in the King James Bible, and is still there with a capital ‘S’ in many modern translations just goes to show that translators often give us what they want the Bible to say, rather than what is actually there in the original Greek. (The only 2 places - out of c.28 - where "Satan" has a capital 'S' in the New Testament is in John's vision in Revelation 12:9 & 20:2, but it still says "the Satan"!)


Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi where Peter
was rebuked by Jesus

So when Jesus says to Peter in Matt 16:23, for example, “Go away from  me, Satan”, he doesn’t say this at all! He actually says, “Go away from me, adversary”. It’s the translators who have made ‘Satan’ a personal name here instead of translating it into “adversary” or “enemy”.

  • Secondly, “the satan” (or ‘Satan’) is only specifically mentioned 3 times in the whole of the Old Testament. – Not a key theological theme in Jesus’s day! What was this Old Testament “satan” or “adversary” with which Jesus would have been much more familiar?
  • In Job 1&2 and in Zechariah 3, the satan is presented as the “accuser” or chief prosecutor at God’s heavenly court. In Job 1:1-12, the “accuser” – the satan – returns from a trip to earth and God asks him if he saw Job on his travels. God says Job is upright and blameless, and shuns evil. The satan – playing the ‘devil’s advocate’ – says Job only looks blameless because God has blessed him; but he suggests that, if God took away Job’s flocks and herds, he would curse God for making him poor. So God agrees to test Job by taking away his wealth. But Job remains faithful. The same happens in Chapter 2, where the satan – the accuser – suggests that God should test Job again by inflicting him with painful sores. But Job remains faithful again, and continues to worship God and follow in his ways despite his infirmities.
  • The point is that the satan – the accuser – is not presented here as a particularly evil being! He’s part of God’s heavenly council, and his God-given role is to test whether people are following in God’s ways or not. Because of his role, he is, of course, regarded by mankind as “the enemy” or “adversary”, but he’s no more ‘evil’ here than the prosecutor in a court today, whose job is to identify the wrongdoings of the accused before the judge!
  • In Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan is again presented as “the accuser” in God’s heavenly court. In a vision, Zechariah is shown the high priest of his day, Joshua ben Josedech, appearing before God, with “Satan standing by Joshua’s right side to accuse him.” But God cuts the accuser short and declares Joshua to be a righteous man who walks in the ways of God.
  • In the third Old Testament passage, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, the satan is presented as the “enemy” or “adversary” who misleads King David into taking a census of all the fighting men in Israel, instead of relying on God’s strength whatever the size of his army. Again, the satan is seen as the one who tests whether a person – David in this case – is following in God’s way, or in man’s way.
  • It’s in this Old Testament sense – with which Jesus would have been familiar – that we ought to see the role of “the satan” in the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4:1-13. In each of the 3 temptations, the satan – the accuser – is testing Jesus to see whether he will fulfill his role as the Messiah – the Christ – by following in God’s way, or in man’s way.

Judaean Desert



The Judaean Desert
where Jesus was tempted


  • In the first temptation, Jesus – recently declared to be the Messiah at his baptism, and filled with the Holy Spirit – is confronted with the issue of whether he should use his miraculous powers as the Son of God to achieve God’s kingdom on earth (as the people want him to do), or if he should lay aside these powers and rely on the power of God’s word to change peoples’ hearts and so bring in the kingdom? “If you are the Son of God, tell this rock to become bread” says the accuser. But Jesus is prompted by the Holy Spirit to rely on the power of God’s word. “A person does not live by eating only bread” he says, quoting God’s word to the Jews wandering in the desert in Deuteronomy 8:3, and where the verse continues, “but by everything the LORD says”.
  • In the second temptation, Jesus is confronted with the same choice that the Jewish people faced when they were in the desert about one thousand five hundred years earlier. Should he follow the way of the one true God, or should he follow other so-called ‘gods’ and the ways of the world?  “I will give you all these kingdoms and all their power and glory … if you worship me” says the accuser. But Jesus is again prompted by the Holy Spirit to stick to God’s path. “You must worship the LORD your God and serve only him” says Jesus, again quoting from Deuteronomy, this time from 6:13.
  • In the third and last temptation, Jesus is again confronted by a dilemma; As the Jewish Messiah, should he bring about God’s kingdom in the way the Jewish people expect – by defeating the Romans in a miraculous show of force – or should he do it God’s way by suffering and dying on a cross? Jesus knows that God could save him from pain or suffering. But when the accuser takes him to th pinnacle of the Temple and says “jump down” and quotes Psalm 91:11 & 12, “He has put his angels in charge of you… so that you will not hit your foot on a rock”. Jesus replies, once again quoting Deuteronomy 6 v.16, “Do not test the Lord your God”. Again, the Deuteronomy passage actually continues “as you did at Massah”. Now you may never have heard of Massah, but all the Jews of Jesus’s day would have known that, at Massah, in the Desert of Sin, the Jews had grumbled against Moses for leading them out of Egypt into this dry, barren desert; and they hadtested the LORD when they asked, ‘Is the LORD with us or not?’” (Exodus 17:6-7).
  • Conclusion. The satan’s role was to test whether a person was following in God’s way or in man’s way. Moses – the great leader of the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus – had followed God’s prompting at Massah, not men’s; he struck a rock, and water had come gushing out of it for the people to drink. In exactly the same way as Moses, Jesus would bring about God’s kingdom, not by following the much easier way suggested by the accuser, or by following the way the people wanted and expected, but by giving the living water of the Holy Spirit to the spiritually thirsty and by suffering on the cross to usher in the start of God’s kingdom here on earth.

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