I have been working my way through the Gospel of Matthew, looking most recently at Jesus’ temptations by the devil. Much has been written about this incident, but a particular aspect of Matthew’s account has intrigued me. I cannot help but wonder what Jesus was doing for the forty days that he spent in the desert before he was tempted. Since the account does not tell us what he was doing, we can only speculate. Several clues, however, suggest a probable answer.

Just before Jesus went into the desert, he was baptized by John the Baptist, who was preaching in the desert to the people who came out from Jerusalem and Judea to hear him. John was doing this in fulfillment of a promise made before his birth:

And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)

John’s message was simple—“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”—and he baptized those who responded positively to it. While the roots of such a ritual are not clear, and it is hard to find a use of the word baptizo that points clearly to a cultural precedent for John’s ritual, some evidence suggests that the Jewish practice of requiring Gentile converts to Judaism to be circumcised and ritually bathed may have served as the inspiration for John’s ritual. If so, then baptism would have signaled the conversion of John’s audience, who were already Jews and therefore circumcised, to authentic Judaism. This would make good sense of the ritual: baptism marked the participant’s turn to the true spirit of the Old Testament teachings.

This understanding of the baptism ritual fits with John’s intense criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees because they took for granted their standing before God; they thought that being born a Jew was sufficient to enjoy God’s blessing, but their actions did not reflect a sound understanding or appreciation of what God requires. John warned them that judgment was coming and that those who were not truly repentant of their wayward ways would not be spared; only those who were committed to authentic Old Testament Judaism would survive the judgment.

Jesus’ coming to John to be baptized created an awkward moment for John because John was preparing the way for Jesus. Baptism was a symbolic way of cleansing away sins in keeping with a spirit of repentance; John understood that those receiving his baptism were expressing their commitment to repentance in preparation for the coming king. Such a ceremony was not appropriate for the king himself. At first, John did not want to baptize Jesus, but Jesus reassured him saying, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Although Jesus had no need to repent, he wanted to show his solidarity with those who were humble before God and devoted to obedience—those who were committed to authentic Judaism.

When Jesus was baptized the spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice out of heaven said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This must have been a powerful moment for Jesus. On the one hand, knowing he was the Son (the Messiah) was nothing new. Surely Mary and Joseph had told Jesus about the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth, including his divine conception. Surely he already knew that he was the one the prophets had predicted, the one to whom all of human history pointed. So although the voice from heaven said nothing new about Jesus’ identity, it must have impressed upon Jesus the reality of his Sonship; it was more than just family legend. When Jesus went into the desert, this must have been on his mind.

Matthew’s account gives us virtually no description of what Jesus did in the desert. He was led there by the Spirit, but we do not know what form this leading took or how the Spirit made his leading known. The text makes no mention of things Jesus might have taken with him. He does not appear to have taken any food because we do know that he did not eat and became hungry. The Greek word does not allow us to conclude that his non-eating was intentional. He could have been so lost in thought that eating just slipped through the cracks. Simply not bothering to eat would suggest that Jesus had been working very hard to get something figured out or fixed clearly in mind.

At the end of his forty-day stay in the desert, Jesus was tempted by the devil, who made three attempts to coax Jesus into sinning. Jesus responded to each temptation by quoting an Old Testament passage—all from just a few chapters in Deuteronomy. This suggests that Jesus had a fresh recollection of this small section of text, that he had spent at least some of his time in the desert reflecting on the meaning and significance of these few chapters.

If we examine Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, we can get a sense of what Jesus gleaned from his reflections on Deuteronomy. The devil’s first attempt to seduce Jesus was seemingly innocuous: he suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. Jesus was very hungry and, after forty days, in dire need of food. And to heighten the appropriateness of turning the stones to bread, the devil prefaced his suggestion with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God….” The devil intended to point to the incongruity of the one to whom all of history was pointing starving in the desert. Jesus could have given several reasons why the Son of God should not starve to death in the desert, and furthermore, no commandment in the Old Testament law prohibits turning stones into bread, but instead he quoted from a passage in which Moses explains the purpose for the Israelites’ forty years of wandering: God led the people into the desert to test them. God led them into the desert and allowed them to grow hungry and then fed them miraculously in order to discipline them to learn humility and obedience. The test was also designed to teach them that the essence of life is not minimizing discomfort; it is living life in faithful obedience to God.

Jesus apparently viewed the devil’s suggestion as a direct challenge to this perspective. Just as the people of Israel were led by God to wander in the desert for forty years, Jesus was led into the desert to be tested for forty days. The devil was suggesting that to be starving to death in the desert was inappropriate for one with such a lofty status; he was suggesting that Jesus deserved better. But Jesus recognized that the Israelites’ error was their resistance to acknowledging that in good times and in bad, God was lovingly guiding them. And Jesus’ unique and important position in no way obviated his obligation to be similarly humble and obedient. Humility and obedience to God is what transforms mere temporary physical existence into meaningful life—eternal life. This is what Jesus learned when he read in Deuteronomy (8:3) that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

To tempt Jesus a second time, the devil took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. (Whether Jesus was physically transported to the temple or whether the temptation happened in some kind of vision does not matter as long as Jesus’ choice was real—that is, he thought he was at the temple.) Standing on a corner of the temple overlooking a cliff, the devil urged Jesus to jump, which would result in certain death unless God intervened miraculously. The devil himself quoted from the Old Testament this time, selecting a Psalm (91:11-12) to support his claim that such a jump would be perfectly safe and might even display superior faith: “He will give his angels charge concerning you,/ …They will bear you up in their hands,/ Lest you strike your foot against a stone.” The passage assures that God will protect those who trust and love Him, the point of the Psalm being that God is willing and able to forestall any threat against those who are committed to him. The Devil, however, quoted the Psalm as proof that if Jesus jumped, God would save him from death—and especially so if Jesus were the true Son of God.

In response to the devil’s proposal, Jesus quoted from chapter six of Deuteronomy, where Moses is urging the people of Israel to be obedient to God’s commandments. Moses stresses the importance of both teaching the commandments to one’s sons and studying them regularly. He warns the people of Israel that when they become comfortable as a result of all that the land of Palestine has to offer them—including already-built buildings and already-producing vineyards—they will be tempted to become lax and follow other gods. He tells them they should be careful to keep the commandments. And he gives them the warning Jesus quoted to the devil: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” as they had tested God at Massah (Deuteronomy 6:16).

At Massah, the people of Israel had become very thirsty. Moses had led them out of Egypt and into the desert, where they had been several months. During their journey through the desert, they had been hungry and thirsty by spells, but each time God miraculously provided for their needs. On one occasion, God directed Moses to turn bitter water sweet so the people could drink. On another occasion, God provided food in the form of manna that rained down from the sky. On yet another occasion, God provided meat in the form of quail that were too exhausted to flee. Through these acts, God had clearly demonstrated His care and concern for the people of Israel. But at Massah the people were thirsty again, and they complained to Moses, accusing him of simply bringing them out into the desert to die. Their complaint betrayed an underlying refusal to trust the goodness of God. They refused to accept the fact that even the lack of water had a constructive purpose in their lives; they refused to accept that God was constantly working for their good. For this reason, the place where they complained about lacking water was called Massah (testing) “because they tested the Lord, saying, ’Is the Lord among us, or not’” (Exodus 17:7)?

In the passage from the Psalms that the devil quoted, God is assuring those who love and trust Him that He is looking out for their security, and therefore they can put their hearts and minds at ease no matter what threats might come their way. But there is a difference between counting on something and presuming on something. Imagine a situation in which a friend of yours is having difficulty making his rent payments, so you offer to help him whenever he does not have the money to pay his rent. If he were to make a serious effort to make his rent payments, then you would probably be happy to help him out whenever he could not do it. But if his attitude were “I can spend all my income on things I want because my friend will pay my rent,” then you would probably resent paying his rent. Your friend would be presuming on your good graces. Similarly, Jesus understood the devil’s suggestion that he jump from the temple to be presumptuous in spirit—just like the spirit of complaint the people of Israel manifested at Massah.

To tempt Jesus a third time, the devil took him to a high mountain from where he could see all the kingdoms of the world. The devil offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms if only Jesus would fall down and worship him. This was a direct assault; it was not disguised in the least. The devil was bribing Jesus to worship him instead of God. Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.”

The context of the Deuteronomy passage shows Moses was warning the people of Israel that they would experience many blessings from God when they entered into the Promised Land. They would have plenty of food. They would inherit many things they did not have to labor to create: houses, cisterns, vineyards, olive tree orchards. They would enjoy the benefits of all these things and have plenty of food even though these were just given to them. In spite of all these blessings, however, once they became settled, they would tend to take these blessings for granted. And once they took the blessings for granted, they would be tempted to abandon God who had provided them and would be drawn to other gods. Moses was warning the people of Israel not to take God’s blessings for granted.

Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:13 in recognition of the blessings he had received from God, and he therefore refused to worship the devil no matter what the prize would be. The devil finally gave up and left, and angels immediately came to minister to Jesus.

So what did Jesus learn from his reflection on the book of Deuteronomy? Deuteronomy roughly divides into three sections: the first section encourages the people of Israel to obey God’s commandments; the second section lays out those commandments afresh for the people of Israel; and the third section describes the curses and blessings that await depending on whether or not the people obey the commandments. In responding to the devil, Jesus’ quotes only from the first section of the book.

The encouragement to obey God is anchored in God’s history with the people of Israel as they made their way through the wilderness. Deuteronomy begins by recounting the events of the forty-year wandering in the desert. Then the account records Moses’ speech to the people of Israel, which begins with a listing of the ten commandments. Then, before Moses begins listing the more detailed laws, he gives a series of reasons why the Israelites should obey God’s instructions. This section includes rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience and also recounts some of God’s gracious actions on behalf of the people of Israel.

Throughout their forty years of wandering, God was looking after his people. He guided them, provided them with food and water. But theirs was not an easy or carefree life. On several occasions they ran short of food and water; and these were not just mild inconveniences—the people thought they might die. Whenever they were hungry or thirsty, however, God eventually came through with the necessary provisions. These periods of want did not happen because God stopped loving His people or lost interest in them; rather, they happened as part of a deliberate process. God was disciplining His people. He was stretching them. He was training them to endure the hard times with patience, to understand that although their fortunes might vary, God’s devotion to them would not. The more they reflected on and came to appreciate all that God had done for them, the more confident they could be that God loved them. The hard times were designed to test and develop their faith. By learning to cling to God in good times and bad, they would learn to rely on God as the only firm anchor point in life. Through this process, the Israelites were to learn that a meaningful and fulfilling life can only come through obedience to and faith in God. This is what Jesus learned by reading Deuteronomy, and this instruction served him well.