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The Reason Jesus Went Into the Desert (A Lenten Commentary)

By: Allison Ramirez

“As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst … He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta

For many, Lent is a time to give up something so as to go with less; one might give up chocolate and television or give a little more money to the poor and spend an extra fifteen minutes in prayer. These actions constitute a time of preparation for Easter, a time to turn from what holds us back from fully embracing life with Christ. But amidst these actions of self-sacrifice, Mother Teresa reminds us that love and rediscovering Christ are at the heart of Lent despite our human weakness or suffering. Jesus conquers the darkness of the desert so as to one day emerge into the light of the Resurrection; Lent is an invitation for us to accompany him on that journey.

In my senior year of college during a New Testament class, I read Matthew 4: 1-11: the temptation of Jesus. This short, eleven-verse passage transformed my understanding of the Holy Spirit, the nature of Christ as God’s son, and the beauty of Christ’s restoration of covenants of old so that we, as his children, might participate in the fullness of life he regains for us. Matthew 4:1-11 has become a cry or victory for me in my own faith journey each year as I walk with Jesus from the dust of Ash Wednesday, through the desert of temptation, to the joy of the Resurrection:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

The Spirit

There is a transitional link between chapters 3 and 4 of Matthew’s Gospel; this link is the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17 we hear:

“After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him.”

Then in chapter 4, the scene right after his baptism, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” The spirit and how he reveals Jesus as “Son of God” in chapter 3 is imperative to the understanding of what takes place in the temptation of chapter 4. When the spirit of God alights and descends upon Jesus, “A voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

The Holy Spirit, I’d argue, is working within the midst of the Father and the Son to reveal who they are to one another. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks also to this view of the spirit as “revealing”. In paragraph #689:

“In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. To be sure, it is Christ who is seen, the visible image of the invisible God, but it is the spirit who reveals him.” CCC 689

The Holy Spirit is continually revealing who the Father is, who Jesus is, and who the Father and Jesus are to one another. The Catholic tradition holds a strong commitment to the spirit in the bestowing of the sacraments of confirmation and in the advocacy of the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit to enliven Christian believers. For the sake of our particular temptation passage, the Holy Spirit opens the doors in allowing the revealing of who Jesus is as Son of God to take place through the temptations to follow. And as the Holy Spirit reveals, he also “leads us into all truth” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit not only leads Jesus into the desert but leads us into the truth of what the Father means when he says “beloved son” in chapter three, thus demonstrating the threefold nature of God.

Divine Sonship

In diving into the richness of the temptation scene, I continually remind myself how, as quoted By Douglas R.A. Hare in Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching:

“This story is less involved with the vanquishing of Satan than with the meaning of Jesus’ divine Sonship. It is, in effect, a theological meditation on the baptismal narrative, addressing the question: What is implied in the heavenly declaration, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased’?” Matthew: Interpretation, 23

Indeed what is meant by ‘divine sonship’ is explored through unpacking Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“In the Old Testament, ‘son of God’ is a title given to the angels, the Chosen People, the children of Israel, and their kings. It signifies an adoptive sonship that establishes a relationship of particular intimacy between God and his creature. When the promised Messiah-King is called ‘son of God,’ it does not necessarily imply that he was more than human, according to the literal meaning of these texts.” CCC 441

Nonetheless, The Catechism goes on to state:

“The title ‘Son of God’ signifies the unique and eternal relationship of Jesus Christ to God his Father: he is the only Son of the Father; he is God himself … ” CCC 479

(while at the same time equally affirming):

“At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father … became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature.” CCC 479

Therefore, Jesus, in overcoming the temptations in the desert, does so by maintaining a balance both between human and divine realities, a key significance. Jesus is fully one of us; he experiences hunger, fatigue, and weariness in a very physical desert. And just like us, he experiences temptations. Yet, as fully God, he does not fall into sin, he does not fail, and he does not succumb to the temptations of the devil. Truly, Jesus reveals to us what it means to live out one’s humanity in the midst of the physicality of temptation, as well as how to lean on the divine, a reality we all share in as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

Fulfilling Covenants of Old

As Jesus is revealed to us as the Son of God, fully God and fully man, he is thus able to fulfill what human men before him could not. According to author Daniel Harrington:

“Mathew presents Jesus as the true Son of God who passes the tests set forth by the devil and emerges as the model of covenant fidelity.” Sacra Pagina, 69

We began our discussion by noting the presence of the spirit in guiding us into all truth by guiding Jesus to the desert so he might reveal to us what it means for Jesus to be “God’s son.”

But in direct opposition to the work of the spirit in Matthew chapter 4 is the work of the devil who in the Catechism is described in paragraph 394:

“Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls ‘a murderer from the beginning,’ who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God.”

This disobeying of God began with the earliest man, Adam. St. John Chrysostom (347-407) says in his Homily 13 on Mathew:

“For the devil would not have assailed you, unless he had seen you brought to greater honor. Hence, for example, from the beginning, he attacked Adam, because he saw him in the enjoyment of great dignity.”

Those whom God looks favorably on, the devil all the more desires to bring to destruction. But as the human Adam fails to obey God and enter into covenant fidelity with God, we see that Jesus in the temptation scene becomes the “new Adam” in fulfilling what the old Adam could not. According to Manlio Simonetti:

“Adam’s temptation was reversed in Jesus’ temptation … Jesus dealt with three temptations—to gluttony, vainglory, and avarice. All three recapitulated the one temptation of Adam.” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 56

Becoming the New Adam

As typical of Matthew’s Gospel, it is particularly emphasized that Jesus fulfills the human failures of Adam who struggled first with the temptation of gluttony (whether or not to partake of eating the fruit from the forbidden tree). For Jesus, this is whether or not to turn the stones to bread to satisfy his hunger. Second, in vainglory, Adam wants to be like God and thinks that he can do things on his own apart from God; in contrast, Jesus knows that he should not test God by throwing himself down from the top of the parapet.

Finally, in avarice, Adam is greedy for knowledge while Jesus recognizes that all that the Father has is his; he does not need the kingdoms in all of their magnificence. All three of these temptations posited to Jesus by the devil are to test his name and true identity as “Son of God,” and, as Hare states:

“The basic underlying temptation that Jesus shared with us is the temptation to treat God as less than God.” Matthew: Interpretation, 26

To treat God as less than God is to either put oneself on the level of God or to think that on one’s own, one’s actions can suffice.

Restoring Relationships

According to Ulrich Luz:

“When he [the devil] says, ‘If you are the son of God,’ the devil is not questioning Jesus’ divine sonship; he is presupposing it and putting it to the test.” Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, 151

Indeed, Jesus affirms the title given to him in the baptismal scene as God’s “beloved son”. He confirms this in that:

“Jesus is the Son of God by being obedient. He is the Son of God by keeping the fundamental commandment to love God. This understanding of divine sonship also opens a perspective for human existence—namely, that the Son of God in an exemplary way loves only from God’s word and obeys God alone” (2007, 154).

But more than just mere obedience to God, Levine Amy-Jill in the “Gospel of Matthew” within the Women’s Bible Commentary reminds us that:

“When the devil wants Jesus to prove he is the “Son of God” by performing miracles, Jesus indicates that true sonship consists in following God’s will, as manifest in the Torah” . “Gospel of Matthew” – Women’s Bible Commentary, 469

Both in Jesus’ obedience to God and adherence to the laws written within the Torah, all of Israel itself is elevated as Jesus stands not just as a representative for what it means to be God’s son, but of what a repaired relationship between God’s chosen people and God himself looks like.

In the Sacra Pagina, Harrington calls the temptation accomplishment of Jesus “the motif of Israel as God’s son” (pg. 68). This understanding connects to the larger idea of covenants with Israel and how Jesus (in resisting the devil) restores the covenants of obedience and faithfulness that God had formed with the Israelites in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God always upheld his side of the covenant, protecting the Israelites from their enemies and bestowing blessings upon them until they would turn away from him either out of spite, ignorance, lack of trust, or idolatry in worshipping false gods. In the desert, Jesus relies a hundred percent on God, remains faithful to him, and thus shows what it means to be in mutual relationship and covenant trust with God.

During this season of Lent, and every Lent to come, I hope you will be reminded of the true identity of Christ as God’s son, the ability of the Holy Spirit to reveal this to us, and the joy that comes from the restoration of God’s covenant with his people and our part in this restoration manifested and the strength and love of Christ in which we are invited to share.

“As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst … He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta
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