The story of the temptations of Jesus sounds like a fairy tale. Jesus meets Satan in the wilderness, and Satan tempts him three times. Turn these stones into bread! Jump off the tower of the Temple! Worship the devil and win the kingdoms of this world!
The form in which this story is told by the evangelists is that of folklore, for lack of a better term. The evangelists' job was to tell the story of Jesus' mission in the world, and so when they got to this mysterious time of solitude in which he had a profound inner experience, the only way they had to communicate about this time in Jesus' life was in the form of a story whose folklore-ish elements served as representations of Jesus' inner experience.
To aid in our preparation for preaching and teaching in Lent, I wish to commend a classic study of the story of Jesus' temptations according to Matthew 4:1-11. Austin Farrer's 96 page book, The Triple Victory, was first published in 1965 by The Faith Press in London. It was later reprinted in America by Cowley, and some copies are still available through on-line sales. It is one of the most remarkable theological commentaries on a biblical text. It is a resource for preaching and also for study by small groups. The following represents my own understanding and ways of expression, but they are informed by Farrer's The Triple Victory.
The temptations of Jesus are the tests of one called to be the Messiah of Israel. They come immediately following Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan River. John was the leader of an extraordinary national movement which was shaking the foundations of society and raising expectations for something to happen of historic proportions. Jesus stepped in the waters of the Jordan to be baptized because he identified with this movement and saw it as the beginning of a new divine work in the history of Israel. When he was baptized, he had an experience of being called to the vocation of the Messiah of Israel. Only the Spirit of God could call one to this vocation, and Jesus experienced the Spirit annointing him to be the Messiah. Swept up into a new consciousness of his vocation, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be alone and to test his new identity. The temptations which come to him may have something in common with everyone's temptations, but these are the temptations of the Messiah of Israel.
The Messiah is a representative person: he represents Israel, the people of God. The temptations the Messiah experiences in the wilderness are a recapitulation of the temptations which Israel had experienced during the three main phases of its history. Israel had succumbed to its temptations, and if Jesus is to be the Messiah, then he must win a victory where the people he represents had failed.
The three main periods of Israel's life were the time of nomadic wandering, monarchial leadership, and suppression by empires following the exile in Babylon. (These three phases are indicated by the way Matthew organized the geneology of Jesus into three main periods of generations: from Abraham to David; from David to exile; and from exile to the Messiah. See Matthew I:1-17.) During the nomadic phase, Israel's main concern was for survival, and it was tempted to abandon its vocation to be God's people by putting its own needs of survival first. When Israel obtained its kings, it tended to presume that it would receive divine protection no matter how foolish its kings acted, and so it tempted God's providence. Then, ever since its exile in Bablyon and return to Judea, Israel had been dominated by empires, the last of which was Rome; and it was tempted to commit apostasy or, at least, to compromise with the kingdoms of the world. The three temptations Jesus experienced sound like the melodramatic tales of folklore, but, when they are interpreted intelligently in the context of the historical drama of the Messiah's people, then their moral reality becomes apparent. In accomplishing his mission, this Messiah will not follow in the footsteps of historical Israel, especially he will not compromise with the ways of the pagan powers of the world, but he will teach and practice the way of the kingdom of God.
Farrer's interpretation goes deeply into the intrinsic connection between the story of Israel and the temptations of Jesus who is called to be the Messiah. He also provides some fascinating insight into the psychological dimension of the temptations. Certainly, Jesus' physical condition after a long, severe fast contributed to an altered consciousness. The giddiness of hunger probably suggested the same dizzy feeling one has in a very high place. It is no surprise that two of the temptations involve the imagination of being very high up.
These temptations involve fantasy, such as being carried to a place where one can see all of the kingdoms of the world. There is no such place on earth, but it can exist in fantasy, as in a movie. There is considerable fantasy involved in these temptations. This might suggest that Jesus was dreaming or having visions. More likely, this simply expresses the fact that all temptation is governed by fantasy. Fantasy leads one away from reality, just as Jesus' temptations carried him from the ground to the roof of the Temple to the top of the world. Fantasy is the realm of the devil, and Jesus dispelled this fantasy by being grounded in the Word of God spoken in the Scriptures.
Farrer shows how there are fascinating mental connections being made by word or thought association in these temptations. For example, the mention of "stones" in the first temptation brings to mind the promise in Psalm 91 that the angels of God will guard you so that "you will not dash your foot against a stone." Thus there is a psychological bridge from the first temptation to turn stones into bread with the second temptation to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple. Moreover, Psalm 91 also promised that the Lord would protect you as if you were under the wings of an eagle, and the names of the cornices of the Temple where the devil placed Jesus were known as "wing-tips" by ancient architects--the imagery of the Psalm seeming to evoke the imaginary scene of the second temptation.
In Jesus' temptations, we can see comparison to our own temptations. As in the first temptation, each of us knows that it is not wise to gratify every appetite, desire, or hunger regardless of other considerations. Nevertheless, trying to apply Jesus' temptations to ours is making an imposition on the story it was not intended to bear. (This is the common mistake of people who simply treat the Bible as a source of "principles" for living rather than as the narrative of the history of God's salvation. By a false effort to find relevance, the Bible's interpreters turn it into a glorified self-help book rather than as the witness to God's revelation in history which is the source of our faith by which we are to live as God's people in the new historical situation of our life today.) The meaning of this story to us is that Jesus Christ is the climax of the history of salvation because he was in fact the victor over the powers of sin and evil. We turn to him in faith as both "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2) and the one who "became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" because he "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8-9). This is not pious prattle. This is reality. And what hope it brings to every human being and to human history that there was one who was victorious over the deceptions and powers which ruin human existence!
The victory that Jesus won over temptation was real at the beginning of his public service following his baptism. But what he conquered in the wilderness were threats which pursued him for the rest of his life. As Farrer demonstrates in his book, Jesus refers to these temptations in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He encounters them over and over in his life and always wins the victory over them again. These temptations struck at the heart of his vocation to be a Messiah who was a humble and obedient servant of God, who thought not of himself but of the kingdom of God, and who would make no compromises with the powers and principalities of a spiritually oppressed world.
The three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness are the keys to understanding the victory of Jesus Christ. By this "triple victory" we are inspired, guided, and empowered to live in obedience to God.