The Satan in Jesus’ Wilderness Temptation
Who or what was the Satan that tempted Jesus in the wilderness? For many, the seemingly obvious answer would be the angel that rebelled and fell from heaven. It is the popular belief that Jesus in the wilderness confronted this powerful angelic Satan that goes around opposing God, seducing people and created evil in the world. There are challenges to this assumption.
A simple study reveals that the word Satan is a general term used of any adversary. The very first occurrence of the word is used of an angel of the Lord (Num. 22:22,32). Many other places use the term Satan for human adversaries (1 Sam. 29:4; 2 Sam. 19:22; 1 Kings 5:4; 11:14,23,25). Could that be the case in Jesus’ wilderness temptations? What was the purpose of such an incredible incident? This study seeks to look at the context of Jesus’ wilderness temptation to provide the answers.
Overview of the Temptation
In the record of Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13 there are three temptations:
After a period of forty days and nights without food or water Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread.
Another involves being taken to the “holy city” Jerusalem at the pinnacle of the temple.
The final temptation takes place on a “exceeding high mountain” where he sees the kingdoms of men “in a moment of time” (Luke 4:5).
Each account starts by saying Jesus was “led” or “driven” of the Spirit into the wilderness. This introductory phrase is a key element to understanding the impetus for the temptation. Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into temptation? Why would the temptations be of such spectacular fashion? Had something of similar fashion happened before?
“Led of the Spirit”
This term “led of the Spirit” is a key link back to the prophets when they were given visions from the Lord. Ezekiel was such a prophet who was exiled in Babylon and while sitting in his house (8:1) he was given a vision. The occurrence in Ezekiel 8:3 has many similarities to the temptation account.
“And he put forth the form of an hand, and took me by a lock of mine head; and the spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate that looketh toward the north; where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy.”
Notice the spirit caught away Ezekiel in a vision to the temple in Jerusalem just like Jesus in the temptation.
It happens again in Ezekiel 37:1 and 40:2. This latter occurrence again has echoes to Jesus’ temptation experience.
“In the visions of God brought he me into the land of Israel, and set me upon a very high mountain, by which was as the frame of a city on the south.”
In similar fashion the Apostle John would be taken in a vision as described in Revelation 21:10,
And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
One cannot help noticing the similarities. Jesus’ temptation also involves being “led of the Spirit” into “an exceeding high mountain” (Mt. 4:8) and “the holy city” (Mt. 4:5). Why such striking similarities? Does it not at least suggest that they were all visions? What are visions and why would this be important in our consideration of the Satan in the wilderness temptations?
The visions given to the prophets by God were like dreams but seemingly more real. They were ways to impress fantastic representations in symbolic form of what was to come. Visions are steeped in symbolism. They are not to be taken literally.
This symbolism is best seen in Jesus’ temptation on the mountain. Where is the mountain in any part of the earth which is high enough to view all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time”? (Matt. 4:8 cp. Luke 4:5). The only other time this happened was in dreams like the one Nebuchadnezzar had which was symbolic of what was to take place to the kingdoms of men over time (Dan. 2:44-45). That is the only way you could see all the kingdoms of men in a “moment of time”.
This then brings us back to our question. Who was the Satan in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? Is it meant to be literal or symbolic?
The Satan of Zechariah
At this point, it would be helpful to consider a vision given to Zechariah where Satan is involved (Zech. 3:1-2). Zechariah starts with eight visions that are given him through chapters one to six. Chapter three is the fourth vision that begins with the words “And he shewed me…” Each of the visions has this language where God shows Zechariah a symbolic representation of his time and what was to come (1:8; 1:18; 2:1; 3:1; 4:2; 5:1; 5:5; 6:1). By reading all these visions the student will perceive their symbolic nature.
Zechariah 3:1-2 says,
“And he shewed me Joshua1 the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand2 to resist him. And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”
Here then is a vision that involves Satan but the whole thing is very symbolic. What is the background? Zechariah was a prophet of the restoration after Israel came back from the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 5:1) when Joshua was the high priest (Ezra 4:4). The goal was to rebuild the temple, but it ran into opposition from their adversaries (Ezra 4:1). The Satan in the vision then represents the adversaries, namely Rehum and Shimshai, who wrote a letter “against Jerusalem” (Ezra 4:8 cp. Zech. 3:2). The “accusation” they would bring in Ezra 4:7 is a form of the word “satan”. The Ezra account never describes a fallen angel but gives us the reality of the adversaries of Joshua and Jerusalem while the prophecy of Zechariah gives us the symbolic representation of these men as a plaintiff in a court.
The Purpose of the Jesus’ Wilderness Vision
The vision given by the Spirit to Jesus in the wilderness provides a similar motif. The temptations are symbolic of what is to come in Jesus’ life. The Satan represents his adversaries. The real temptations would occur in his years of ministry.
His adversaries would mainly be the Pharisees and Sadducees. Notice how they seek a sign from Jesus in Matthew 16:1 just like the devil in the temptation. Likewise, they would try to catch him in his words in Luke 11:53-54,
"And as he said these things unto them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to urge him vehemently, and to provoke him to speak of many things: Laying wait for him, and seeking to catch something out of his mouth, that they might accuse him."
The adversaries or Satans would come in many other ways
The Herodians who tried to subtly trick him as in Mat. 22:15-16.
A lawyer who tempted him in Mat. 22:35.
Jesus called Peter a Satan because he was acting as an adversary (Mat. 16:23 cp. Luke 4:8).
The people who try to make him king in John 6:15 after a miracle concerning bread! This is just like two of the wilderness temptations involving bread and rulership.
Those who try and throw Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:29) is the same temptation in the wilderness to throw himself down from the pinnacle (Luke 4:9).
Judas who Jesus called “a devil” (John 6:70) was influenced by the adversaries of Jesus to betray him (Luke 22:2-3, 31).
The chief priest was Jesus’ chief Satan and prince of this word. At the crucifixion he said, “if thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40) which is a remarkable parallel with the temptation.
Never in the record does Jesus combat on an immortal sinful angel.
The reason the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness was to strengthen him by a vision to overcome the trials and temptations in his life. This is why he returned from the wilderness “in the power and the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). He had been given a vision of his triumph over the enemy through the power of the word. It would have invigorated him to see it! It was to help him to overcome what would be the real battle ground for his victory over sin.
Parallels with the Transfiguration
The transfiguration was another time that Jesus was given a vision. Jesus specifically told his disciples to “tell the vision to no man” until after his resurrection (Mat. 17:9). It was a vision of the kingdom and the power of Jesus’ coming (cp. Mt. 16:28 with 2 Pet. 1:16-18).
It is not surprising to see many parallels between the temptation and the transfiguration.
“This is my beloved Son” is said twice in the gospels. Once before the temptation (Mt. 3:17) and once during the transfiguration (Lu. 9:35).
Moses and Elijah were in the transfiguration and they both had 40 days of fasting in solitude (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:7-9, 18; 1 Kings 19:8,11) on a mountain like Jesus (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2).
The term “Get thee behind me, Satan” is used just before the transfiguration with Peter (Mt. 16:23; Mk. 8:33) and in the temptation (Mt. 4:10; Luke 4:8).
A “high mountain” is involved in the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1 cp. Mt. 4:8). The devil “taketh” (paralambano) Jesus into a high mountain in the temptation but in the transfiguration Jesus “taketh” (paralambano) his closest disciples into a high mountain.
Why then was there a transfiguration vision? The answer is in Luke 9:30-31,
“And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.”
It was to strengthen him to endure through the sufferings of the cross. Moses and Elijah were similar characters who endured through all the sins of Israel to overcome. They were uniquely situated to provide that encouragement to Jesus to accomplish the work he was sent to do.
Therefore, we have two visions given to Jesus in the record. The first in the wilderness was to strengthen him through his temptations. The second was to encourage him to be the sacrifice for the sins of the world.
In all of this we are to see that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness was a vision. It represented the temptations of his whole life. The Satan therefore is symbolic of his adversaries. This fits in with the whole Bible picture of how the term Satan is used in different ways but never of an angelic being that is in rebellion against God and causing evil.