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What Is the Inner Meaning of the Temptation of Jesus?

I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Bahá’í).

An artist impression of the devil in action

An artist impression of the devil in action

Circumstances Surrounding the Temptation of Jesus

The temptation of Jesus by the devil is narrated in the 4th chapter of the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke while also being mentioned in the 1st chapter of Mark. The episode is preceded by the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, his forerunner. Immediately following the baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove. Then…

Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. And... the tempter came to him.... (Luke 4:1-3)

The above citation is taken from the King James Bible, as are all other biblical references in this piece. So, Jesus was baptised, received the Holy Spirit, and was then led by the same Spirit into the wilderness for a forty-day period of fasting. This ended with his temptation by the devil.

It must be noted that all these had transpired as a prelude to the launch of his prophetic mission.

Is There a Significance to Jesus’ Temptation?

But what does this story really mean? Why did Jesus need to go to the wilderness to fast and be tempted by the devil in the first place? And did an actual creature called Satan come to test and tempt him in real life? What purpose could such an encounter, whether literal or otherwise, have played in the overall context of his prophetic mission?

A wilderness

A wilderness

Satan’s Three Tests

According to the biblical narrative, the devil had three tests for Jesus. In the order presented in Matthew’s Gospel, the first test was for Jesus to turn stones into bread (for the alleviation of his hunger after his forty-day fast). The second was to jump from a pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem to prove his credentials as “the Son of God” (who could depend on the appearance of angels to arrest his fall thus preventing any injury to his person). The third and final test required Jesus to worship the devil himself in exchange for the power and glory of “all the kingdoms of the world.” In the words of the Gospel:

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (Matthew 4:8-9)

Issues With a Literal Reading of the Story

It is an extraordinary story, but here is why it cannot be literal: It says, the devil took Jesus away from the wilderness to Jerusalem and set him on “a pinnacle of the temple” to be tested, before continuing from there to “an exceeding high mountain.” But how could the devil have taken Jesus to those two locations? By carrying him? While so much craftiness has been ascribed to the devil, the carrying of people from place to place is not known to be part of his capabilities or modus operandi.

Again, which high mountain? Even from the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, there is very little of the world to be seen. And let’s not also forget that the world is spherical and not flat, hence seeing “all the kingdoms of the world” from anywhere on earth is plainly impossible.

Someone on a high mountain

Someone on a high mountain

The Messengers of God as the Embodiment of the Holy Spirit

Jesus passes all three tests by brushing aside each of the suggestions of the devil. But let’s try to find the inner meaning of what happened—if, indeed, there is an inner meaning.

All the Manifestations of God and Founders of true religions are only able to carry out their sacred missions with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what John the Baptist must have meant when he pointed out, in relation to Jesus, that:

For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. (John 3:34)

While the Holy Spirit is part of the reality of each of the Holy Ones, the way it manifests itself does not follow a similar pattern in each case. Let’s review how it was manifested at the inception of the prophetic mission of some of the Manifestations and Messengers of God.

1. Zoroastrianism

Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) might have lived around 1000 B.C. According to legend, Bactrian peasants, hoping for an answer to their supplications for help from the Supreme Being, saw a nearby mountain suddenly become ablaze one night with fire. Zoroaster, who stood unharmed in the midst of the fire, was then seen descending with the sacred fire in one hand and a wooden rod in the other, ready to begin his prophetic mission.

Here, the Holy Spirit encountered by Zoroaster at the start of his sacred mission is symbolised by the sacred fire.

2. Judaism

The prophetic life of Moses began when he, on the slopes of Mount Horeb, encountered the voice of “God” or of “the angel of the LORD” “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2; cf. Exodus 3:4). It was during this encounter that Moses was invested with the mantle of prophethood.

Bahá’ís consider the burning bush and the voice from it merely as a representation of the Holy Spirit that would guide and sustain Moses during his prophetic ministry.

Burning bush on a mountainside

Burning bush on a mountainside

3. Christianity

As previously noted, Jesus began his divine mission only when the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove after his baptism. The Gospel clearly identifies the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit on that occasion.

4. Islam

Before assuming prophetic office, Muhammad used to retire often to a cave on Mount Hira, not far from Mecca, for prayer and meditation. During one such visit, in AD 610, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him with some holy utterances, utterances which became the inaugural verses of the Islamic holy book—the Qur’an.

So, in the holy mission of Prophet Muhammad, the Holy Spirit becomes personified as Angel Gabriel.

5. Bahá’í

Bahá’u’lláh received his mission during his imprisonment by the Persian authorities in an underground prison in Tihran. This was punishment for associating himself with the cause of the Báb, who was his forerunner. It was in this dungeon, while weighed down by heavy chains around his neck, that the Holy Spirit, personified as a maiden, appeared to him and called him to prophetic service.

6. The Holy Spirit and its Varying Representation

We can see from the above that the Holy Spirit marks its initial presence in the prophetic life of the Chosen Manifestations of God by different outward semblances: fire (element) in the case of Zoroaster, burning bush (vegetable) in the prophethood of Moses, a dove (animal) in the mission of Jesus, the Angel Gabriel (man) in the ministry of Prophet Muhammad, and a maiden (woman) in the cause of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Dual Nature of the Prophets of God

The Prophets and Manifestations of God do have a dual nature—the human nature (which they share with all humans) and a divine nature (which is the reality of the Holy Spirit working through them).

A Prophet of God can only arise to execute his mission after being infused with the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, before the Holy Spirit can take full charge in the unfoldment of a new religious enterprise, the human aspect of the Chosen One will have to give way and be subordinated to the divine Spirit.

The Clash of the Divine and the Human

It is at this point that a conflict emerges between the Prophet's human nature and the divine Spirit.

It happens at a period of transition when the Chosen One is beginning or about to begin his assigned mission and is yet to find his feet after his unexpected appointment to prophetic office. It is here that his human self pushes back against the changing reality, in a manner that is peculiar to each Prophet and to the circumstances of his life and mission.

Let’s examine how this tension between flesh and Spirit has been dramatised in the scriptures, chronicles, and traditions of some of the religions:

1. Moses

With Moses, the initial reaction, when face to face with the divine Spirit, was fear:

And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. (Exodus 3:6).

The conflict between his human self and the divine Spirit then continued in the form of bewilderment, hesitation, arguments, and negotiations between him and the voice from the burning bush. An assignment is given by the voice, to which Moses responds by highlighting his deficiencies, weaknesses, and unworthiness:

And Moses said unto the LORD, O my LORD, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. (Exodus 4:10)

So, the one resisting is the human side of Moses. At the end of the encounter the Holy Spirit, represented by the burning bush, triumphed over the human self, and Moses was liberated and made ready to begin his God-given assignment.

2. Jesus

In the case of Jesus, the conflict is dramatised as an encounter between Jesus and the devil. In reality, though, the face-off is between the Holy Spirit (which led him to the wilderness) and the devil (which came to tempt him). We know what the Holy Spirit is, but what does the devil represent?

The devil who tempts Jesus is not an external entity—as the narrative might seem to suggest—but a symbol of Jesus’ own human nature. Human nature, as we all know, aspires for material things and delights in the things of the senses. So, in this case, Jesus’ human nature prompts him about the benefits at his disposal should he choose to subordinate his divine nature to the material glories of the world. But the Holy Spirit within him objects and refuses to even contemplate the idea. After all, worshipping the material things of this world cannot compare to the joy of service to the Heavenly Father.

And so, the Holy Spirit embodied in him triumphed over his human self, the ego was subdued, the person of Jesus was liberated and merged with the Christ, in readiness for the divine mission at hand.

(For a deeper discussion about the reality of the devil, read my article: Who or What Is Satan?).

The devil is not a living entity.

The devil is not a living entity.

3. Muhammad

At their first encounter, on Mount Hira, Muhammad was shown a tablet of holy verses by Angel Gabriel and commanded to recite them. He being illiterate replied that he could not. Then, according to legend, the angel held and squeezed him and commanded him again to recite. This happened one more time, and then he found he could read. But this unearthly interaction with the angel left Muhammad frightened and unsettled. He could not fathom what it all meant as he hurried home and sought the comfort of his wife. And just as Jesus’ period of preparation went on for forty days, so the perplexing encounters with the angel did not go away immediately but continued for some time.

Later, he came to understand that he was God’s chosen Prophet, and Gabriel (the Holy Spirit) was the intermediary between him and Allah. Thus was completed his preparation for the divine assignment.

Satan Is Personified Ego

So, as pointed out, the transcendental work of the Manifestations, Messengers or Prophets of God can only be accomplished with the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, before the divine Spirit can take full charge and assert its indomitable power over the life of the Prophet and over all other created things, it needs to subdue the human aspect of the holy Personage and turn it into a willing instrument for the execution of the holy mission.

This process of taming the human self and bringing it into line with the divine purpose is what is dramatised in the Old Testament Bible as discussions and negotiations between Moses and the burning bush and in Islamic tradition as a series of unearthly interactions between Muhammad and Angel Gabriel.

In the case of the Gospel, we have seen this dramatised as Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness at the behest of the Holy Spirit, followed by a succession of tests from Satan. As already indicated, Satan (or the devil) should not be seen in the gospel narrative as a living entity outside of Jesus. Rather, it is the personification of Jesus' human reality, the self, at the time it was being subdued and readied for the full assumption of his prophetic office.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Kobina Amissah-Fynn