Jesus faces physical, spiritual and political temptations in the wilderness, and he does not compromise. Instead, he shows us resistance that is substantial, solid and grounded in scripture.
Sixty years ago, Virginia politics were controlled by the political organization of Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. He, along with more than 100 southern members of Congress, opposed the integration of the public schools. In 1956, Byrd called for what became known as Massive Resistance, a movement designed to prevent racial integration.1
Massive Resistance included the creation of a pupil placement board, which had the power to assign students to schools based on race. Tuition grants were established so that students could attend private, segregated schools. And the most powerful tool in the movement was a law that closed any public school that tried to integrate.
When several schools attempted to integrate in 1958, they were seized and closed. But the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the school-closing law. The next year, a few courageous black students began to integrate the public schools.
Massive Resistance was a major failure for the segregationists of Virginia, a fact that we can celebrate today. But the phrase “massive resistance” can be used in a positive way when discussing the devil’s temptation of Jesus. Jesus responds with resistance that is substantial, solid and grounded in scripture — in other words, massive.
The items offered by the devil are certainly alluring. Richard Hays, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, observes that Satan offers Jesus an attractive package of bread, fame and power. “The lure is real. Jesus is hungry in the wilderness, wrestling with a vocation sure to lead to suffering and death. The devil offers a way out, offers perks, proposes the big splash in the big media market. ... Who could resist?”2
Good question. Who could resist? Given an offer of bread after 40 days of fasting, fame as the one and only Son of God, and total world power at the beginning of a career, how many of us would say no? How many would turn away from offers that met physical, spiritual and political needs? How many of us have the courage to offer massive resistance when confronted by similar attractions?
Not many. Most of us are not very good at resisting temptation. As the poet Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything except temptation.”3 We are much better at compromising than we are at resisting — we make compromises between our desire to serve God and our desires for food, fame and power. But Jesus does not preach or practice a message of compromise. Instead, he teaches massive resistance to temptation, and offers his life as an example to the church.
Notice that the temptation of Jesus occurs right after his baptism, at the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus is baptized, he receives the Holy Spirit, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son,”4 and immediately he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. You might think that he would get a grace period, a time to simply relax and enjoy God’s blessings, but no; the temptation comes right away. The only advantage is that he is “led up by the Spirit” as he fasts and spars with the devil.
The temptation of Jesus is a kind of model, writes preaching professor Ronald Allen. In this model, the Spirit-filled life of Jesus is “the pattern for the Spirit-filled life of the church.” Just as the Holy Spirit led Jesus to be tempted by the devil, so the church can expect to be led to places of temptation and struggle. Fortunately, we are never alone in these difficult places — Allen says that “the text assures the reader that the Holy Spirit sustains the community in the face of such painful struggle.”5 The question for us is whether we will follow Jesus in resisting temptation or give in to the devil through a thousand compromises.
We begin to follow Jesus by taking a close look at how he responded to temptation with massive resistance. The first thing the devil dangled in front of Jesus was bread, knowing full well that Jesus was famished. “If you are the Son of God,” said the tempter, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus was terribly hungry, he had a physical need for bread, and he had the God-given power to make a rock edible. But instead of filling his stomach, he said, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus was quoting the book of Deuteronomy6 in this answer, and in so doing he used scripture as part of his massive resistance. There is more to life than the meeting of physical needs, according to Deuteronomy and Jesus: Much more important is striving to live by the word of God. Since it was the devil who suggested that he satisfy his hunger with bread, Jesus had to resist. He chose instead to be nourished by God’s word.
A problem for us is that our culture teaches us to take our needs very seriously. Tony Walter has written a book called Need: The New Religion, in which he points out that some psychologists describe the self as “a bundle of needs” and define personal growth as the process of meeting those needs. This contrasts with the approach of the Christian church, which has long talked about dying and rising with Christ. Unfortunately, says Walter, the church has “eagerly adopted the language of needs for itself. We now hear that Jesus will meet your every need ... as though God were there simply to service us.”7
Walter is onto something here. Since when is God to serve us? We are supposed to serve God. Since when is Jesus to meet our every need? We are challenged to give of ourselves to become more like Christ. The emphasis we place on meeting our needs has, in many ways, turned our relationship with God upside down. Jesus certainly could have met his physical needs by turning a stone into bread, but instead he decided to live on every word that came from the mouth of God.
Jesus showed massive resistance to this physical temptation by focusing on the word of God. He trusted God during his 40 days in the wilderness, just as the people of Israel trusted God during their 40 years of wandering. In all such wilderness experiences, God provides us with what we need for life. It may not be what we want, but it is exactly what we need.
Next, the devil used the word of God to try to seduce the Son of God. He took Jesus to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple. He said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up.’” This was Satan’s spiritual temptation, since he used a portion of the Psalms to get Jesus to make a leap of faith and show the world that he was God’s only Son.8
The devil can be devilish, especially when he uses scripture to lure people away from God’s will. At this point, the deck seemed stacked against Jesus, because Satan was pointing out that Jesus was God’s Son and that scripture promised him protection. Correct on both counts. But Jesus was suspicious of anything that pointed away from God, even a mention of his own special status and a good quotation from the Bible.
“Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’” said Jesus, laying an even stronger set of cards on the table. His ace was another line from Deuteronomy that warned against challenging God to prove himself.9 Even those who are baptized, and masters of scripture should resist trying to force God’s hand. Although we might think that we know what God should do, only God is the master of God’s will.
At times, we are tempted to believe that we will get healing because we have prayed for it, get ahead because we have lived good lives or get justice because the wicked deserve to be punished. But we should never allow ourselves to put God to the test. God will be God, and God is not bound by our interpretation of scripture or our ideas about how God should act. “Those who love me, I will deliver,” says God in the Psalms.10 God promises to deliver us, but probably in ways that are beyond our comprehension.
Finally, the devil tossed out a political temptation. He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Satan saved his political power play for last because he knew that it was a tricky temptation. If Jesus had said yes, he could have made the world a better place. Just imagine the possibilities: He could have eradicated poverty and disease, eliminate warfare and extend his loving influence around the globe. World domination was a very real possibility, since it had been achieved just 300 years earlier, when Alexander the Great extended the influence of Greek thought to the edges of known civilization. How much better it would be for Jesus to extend the influence of his thought.
The temptation to rule the world must have been a strong one for Jesus. He was the age of Alexander at the height of his power, and the devil was offering him all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus showed massive resistance, once again returning to God’s word: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”11
We face similar temptations when we think that the ends justify the means, when we believe that compromise is necessary to get anywhere in life, when we feel that it is okay to cut corners because everyone is doing it. At times like these, it is critical to remember what Jesus said and did. All power and glory and authority mean nothing if they require you to stop worshiping and serving the Lord your God.
Matthew tells us that the devil left Jesus at this point, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Jesus would be tempted again, of course, and he would face additional challenges throughout his ministry. But out of this story comes a lesson in offering massive resistance to physical, spiritual and political temptations — resistance that is always grounded in the example of Jesus and the word of God.
 “Massive Resistance,” Virginia Historical Society, www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/massive.
2 Richard B. Hays, “Clinging to the Word,” The Christian Century 109/5, February 5-12, 1992, 124.
3 Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, www.goodreads.com/quotes/18741-i-can-resist-anything-except-temptation.
4 Matthew 3:17.
5 Ronald J. Allen, Preaching Luke-Acts (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 75.
6 Deuteronomy 8:3.
7 Tony Walter, Need: The New Religion (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 5.
8 Psalm 91:11-12.
9 Deuteronomy 6:16.
10 Psalm 91:14.
1 Perhaps referring to Deuteronomy 6:13.