Jesus is Tempted by the Devil in the Desert: Part 1

By: Tony Capobianco


Artwork by: John Ritto Penniman. 1818. Christ Tempted by the Devil. This work is in the public domain. {{PD-US}}

[1] Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. [2] And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry. [3] And the tempter coming said to him: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. [4] Who answered and said: It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. [5] Then the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple,

[6] And said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written: That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. [7] Jesus said to him: It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. [8] Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, [9] And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me. [10] Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve.

[11] Then the devil left him; and behold angels came and ministered to him. [12] And when Jesus had heard that John was delivered up, he retired into Galilee: [13] And leaving the city Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capharnaum on the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim; [14] That it might be fulfilled which was said by Isaias the prophet: [15] Land of Zabulon and land of Nephthalim, the way of the sea beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles:

[16] The people that sat in darkness, hath seen great light: and to them that sat in the region of the shadow of death, light is sprung up. [17] From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. [18] And Jesus walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishers). [19] And he saith to them: Come ye after me, and I will make you to be fishers of men. [20] And they immediately leaving their nets, followed him.
— (Gospel According to St. Matthew 4: 1-20)

The above passages from Sacred Scripture are of the utmost importance to the life of Christians. The Holy Ghost leads Jesus into the wilderness to fast, to pray, to be tempted by and to do battle with Satan. This is a microcosm of the Christian life in the Church Militant. Each soul is ever at war with the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Even those who do not believe, are nevertheless, participants in this spiritual battle and their unbelief has not, does not, and will not spare them the eternal consequences of this battle. Far from protecting souls, ignorance of the reality of this spiritual warfare all but ensures that Satan, the enemy of God and man, will ensnare them and drag them into his hellish kingdom of darkness. To not know the enemy and his tactics is to be defenseless to him and his assaults. To not know Christ and to not know that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to be but a traveler lost without direction and witless of the final destination. If Christ is not followed then a person will errantly follow their own poorly formed conscience as they are seduced by the pleasures offered by the world, the flesh, and the Devil. In the spiritual warfare of this earthly life there are only two kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan. These two kingdoms are at war until the consummation of the present world. Peace and victory over the world, the flesh, and the Devil are only won through Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity. True peace was won by Christ and True peace can only be received from Christ within the pilgrimage through this veil of tears. Holy Mother Church, always a wise and nurturing Mother, puts the above Gospel passage before Her children during the First Sunday of Lent. The temptation of Christ in the desert by the Devil is a theologically rich event from the life of Christ, which each soul ought to study and meditate upon.

To properly study Sacred Scripture, a quality Scripture commentary is essential for understanding Sacred Scripture in accordance with the mind of the Church. A sound commentary protects the Catholic from forming errant interpretations of the Word of God based on private judgement. Cornelius a Lapide wrote one of the best, probably the best Scripture commentary of all time, it is called The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide. This article will make use of Cornelius a Lapide’s magnificent commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew and in particular his commentary on the temptation of Jesus in the desert.

Matthew 4: 1, “Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.Cornelius a Lapide comments:

Was led, Gr. α̉νήχθη, i.e. was withdrawn, and taken away out of the midst of the multitude of the people with whom He had hitherto dwelt, that He might have time for prayer and fasting. Mark has, the Spirit driveth him, where the word drive denotes the power, efficacy and alacrity of the Spirit which was in Christ, and which was to be in the Apostles and all other Christians, and which was to drive or impel them to heroic acts of virtue, according to the words (Rom. viii. 14) ’For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.’ (Vulg.) Christ then was led by the Spirit, not rapt through the air, but through the impulse of the Spirit, going with the utmost alacrity upon His feet, to the scene of His contest with the devil. The desert was Christ’s wrestling ground of prayer and fasting and an angelic life, where He entered upon His duel with Lucifer and vanquished him.
— (Cornelius a Lapide Commentary)
Of the Spirit. Not the devil, but the Holy Ghost. This is clear from the sixteenth verse of the third chapter. This Spirit of God, therefore, was the possessor and charioteer of Christ, driving Him into the desert. Whence the Syriac has, of the Spirit of holiness, i.e., the Holy Ghost, the fountain of all holiness. This is clear, too, from the presence of the Greek article, τοϋ Πνεύματος. And The Spirit is here put in opposition to the devil, who follows as the adversary of Christ and the Holy Ghost, that Christ’s Own Spirit might lead Him where the evil spirit might find Him to tempt Him, says St. Gregory.
— (Cornelius a Lapide Commentary)
That he might be tempted by the devil. The word that does not signify that the Holy Ghost directly intended that the devil’s temptation should assail Christ, for that were an evil thing: but only that the temptation should be permitted for the sake of Christ’s profit and victory, which He surely foresaw, and so opposed Christ, as it were an athlete, to the devil.

1. In the first place, the Holy Spirit intended by this temptation to afford to Christians, baptized and converted to God, an ideal of religious life, whereby they should know they must fortify themselves against the temptations which are sure to attack them. So Saints Chrysostom and Hilary. Whence Tertullian (de Baptism., last chapter) teaches, that it is here signified, that no one without temptation shall attain the Kingdom of God.

2. The Holy Ghost would show that there is no temptation which may not be overcome by grace, by prayer and fasting, by repeating the words of Scripture, the precepts and promises of God.

3. Christ, who was often tempted by Satan, thus showed Himself to be like unto all other men, His brethren, as the Apostle teaches, Heb. iv. 15.

4. That He might show that those who are about to become doctors, preachers, prelates, apostles, must needs be first proved by temptations, and be strengthened by prayer and meditation in solitary retreats, and there drink in a large supply of the Spirit, which they may afterwards pour forth upon others. They who be wise, first go apart with Christ into the wilderness of prayer and meditation.

5. That challenging Lucifer to battle, He might vanquish him, and his whole army of demons with him. This duel between Christ and the devil is as when the sun struggles with the surrounding clouds, with this motto, ‘Splendour is from me.’ ‘For the sun,’ as St. Ambrose says, ‘is the eye of the world, the pleasantness of day, the beauty of the heaven, the measure of seasons, the strength and vigour of all the stars. As the sun dissipates the clouds, so does Christ all the temptations of the devil.’ And again, ‘As the sun makes brilliant the darkest clouds, so does Christ, by the splendour of His grace, convert desolation into consolation, temptations into victories, war into triumph.’

6. That by His temptation as an example, He might overcome our temptations, and might teach us to fight with and overcome the same antagonist. For although the faithful, conscious of their own infirmity, ought to avoid temptations as far as they can, according to the words of Christ, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ yet when temptations do come, they must, relying upon Christ, valiantly resist them, remembering His words; ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ Whence St. Augustine on Psalm xci. says, ‘Therefore was Christ tempted, that the Christian might not be overcome by the tempter.’ For as St. Ambrose says, ‘When thou art tempted, recognize that a crown is being prepared for thee. Take away the contests of the martyrs, you take away their crowns. Take away their torments, you take away their beatitudes. Is not the temptation of Joseph the celebration of his virtue? Is not the wrong of his prison the crown of his chastity?’
— (Cornelius a Lapide Commentary)

Innovators and those seduced into a revolutionary mindset imprudently advocate for changing the ancient translation of the Our Father prayer, taught to us by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. They wish to change “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation”. The innovators claim that the nearly 2,000 year old translation is a bad translation and that suddenly they have discovered a better translation as they object and assert that God doesn’t lead us into temptation. The commentary of Cornelius a Lapide clearly and decidedly refutes the premise of the modern day innovators. God can and has led people into temptation so that they may be tested as steel is tested by fire. God does not and never will do the tempting because tempting souls to do evil is evil and God is goodness itself. Yet the Sacred Scripture is clear that the Holy Ghost led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. The Traditional understanding of this passage is quite clear and requires no correction.

After receiving the Sacrament of Baptism the Christian soul must follow her Lord and together with Him, withdraw from the world and enter into the desert as she learns from Christ how to die to herself. Within the spiritual desert, the soul learns that which to the world seems like folly, she learns that she must empty herself of everything in order to be truly full. It is to this end that the Holy Ghost leads each baptized soul into the wilderness in order for that soul to conform itself to the will and perfect example of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the divine potter as well as the mold of sanctity and the faithful servant is but clay in His divine hands. It is only within the barren desert that the soul is able to violently turn the spiritual sword against herself as she cuts out the attachments of the spirit of the world, the flesh, and the Devil so that she may then fill herself up with the Spirit of God and be made receptive to absorbing the abundant showers of grace which God wishes to lavish upon her.

St. Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, understood this apparent mystical paradox more clearly than most. This mystery was the inspiration of one of the most beautifully prayerful meditations ever put to paper as St. Augustine wrote it in his spiritual classic, The Confessions. The following excerpt from THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE, AD 401, Translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey, brilliantly captures the longing of the soul for God:

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation. Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.
— (St. Augustine, The Confessions, Kindle)

In the Old Testament, the great Prophet Elijah, translated as Elias in the Douay Rheims Bible, traveled through the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to seek God and an angel assisted him through his travails:

[7] And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said to him: Arise, eat: for thou hast yet a great way to go. [8] And he arose, and ate, and drank, and walked in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights, unto the mount of God, Horeb. [9] And when he was come thither, he abode in a cave: and behold the word of the Lord came unto him, and he said to him: What dost thou here, Elias? [10] And he answered: With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant: they have thrown down thy altars, they have slain thy prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away.

[11] And he said to him: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord: and behold the Lord passeth, and a great and strong wind before the Lord over throwing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake. [12] And after the earthquake a fire: the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air. [13] And when Elias heard it, he covered his face with his mantle, and coming forth stood in the entering in of the cave, and behold a voice unto him, saying: What dost thou here, Elias? And he answered: [14] With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant: they have destroyed thy altars, they have slain thy prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away. [15] And the Lord said to him: Go, and return on thy way through the desert to Damascus: and when thou art come thither, thou shalt anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.
— (3 Kings 19: 7-15)

While the soul finds God in the silence of the desert, the ancient serpent, Satan, lies in wait as he cunningly looks for the most opportune moment to strike. As a Christian performs fasting and mortification to subdue the flesh in order for their soul to soar towards the mountain of God, the Devil looks to pounce on any opportunity to tempt the Christian and clip the wings of the soul so that it will crash into a valley of darkness. The Devil will do all the evil that he is permitted to do to separate a soul from God and to choke the seed of faith in that soul. Returning to the commentary of Cornelius a Lapide:

Of the devil, namely Lucifer, the prince of all the demons. And it was just that Christ should now contend with him, as He had afore contended with him in heaven, when He cast Satan ambitiously seeking the hypostatic union, and envious that He was about to become man, down to Tartarus, as some suppose. Lucifer therefore, at this time, came forth from hell, and taking the form of a man—of a holy man, says Carthusianus—tempted Christ, (1) that he might make trial whether He were God’s own Son in very deed, and (2) that he might entice Him to sin. As therefore Lucifer, through Eve, tempted Adam, and overcame him, so he tempted Christ, and was overcome by Him. We are here taught that when the devil foresees any one will be an illustrious doctor of the Church, he is accustomed to assail him with various temptations, that he may cast him down, and destroy the harvest of souls which he sees he may reap, that he may choke the fruit in the seed, as now he strove to strangle all Christians in Christ their Parent.
— (Cornelius a Lapide Commentary)

Thus far in part 1 of the series, the importance of entering the spiritual desert to seek God has been discussed. The next part of this series will focus on the temptations and tactics which the Devil deployed against Jesus in the desert. Of course because Jesus is The Way, He shows us how He overcame the Evil One and how we must follow His example in order to resist the diabolical assaults of the Devil. The next part will illustrate Christ’s victory in this battle.

*The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide comes from the iPieta app which is available in iTunes.

*The excerpt from The Confessions of St. Augustine comes from an ebook in the public domain.