EDITOR’S NOTE: In this new Bible study series, we explore the words of Jesus and how they apply to our lives. Much of Jesus’ teachings are figurative parables and phrases which are subjective, defying one absolute interpretation. This study in no way represents the final authority on scripture or topics discussed. We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments, recognizing there is abundant room for disagreement without being disagreeable.
As previously noted, there were three temptations given us, but scripture is clear — there were 40 days of continuous temptation, not just three on the last day. The three given us represent the essence of all temptation, the consolidation or condensed version of what every human being goes through in the course of a lifetime.
The three temptations, tests, or trials of Jesus in the wilderness deal in a figurative way with three categories or dimensions of life. They can be viewed as allegories for living, a hierarchy of needs or priorities that help guide us to what is important.
The first temptation is an allegory of the body, the physical. In “hunger,” we find all the things our bodies need to survive, the physical things of life. Hunger can symbolize the rent or mortgage that is due, the food on our table, the clothes on your back, the gas in your car, the bank account balance, or the roof over our heads. It is a metaphor for all the things we “hunger” for in this life.
The second temptation is an allegory of the soul, or our mental or emotional well-being. It is the promise of a positive outcome, of angels “bearing thee up,” of security and a worry-free life, a life without “dashing your foot against a stone” or pain. It is a metaphor for faith and fear, our anxieties and confidences. It is the feeling of control we wish we had over our lives. It is the empty assurance that God and the future are manageable.
The third temptation is an allegory of the spiritual part of who we are. It is human worship, dedication, and loyalty at its core. It is what we live for, eat, breathe, and love. It is the internal compass and the internal dialogue, the occupant of the heart. It is that which sits on the throne of the kingdom of your mind within the deepest parts of who you are. It is a metaphor of that part of us that comes from and ultimately goes back to God.
It is not surprising that we find these three dimensions within the temptations of Jesus, setting the stage for many of his teachings. In first Thessalonians 5:23, Paul speaks of this hierarchy within humans: “May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Note Paul’s order: first the spirit; second, the soul; and lastly the body, signifying that it is the spirit that holds the rest of life in balance. Jesus tells us plainly of our priorities when viewing these three aspects of life.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. — Matthew 10:28
In Jesus’ estimation, “fear” (ultimate respect or worship) is reserved only for God who is Spirit. He alone is overall, including over both body and soul.
Yes, we can be viewed as three-dimensional creatures, dimensions that flow together and intertwine, forming who we are. Of these three, the spiritual gives meaning to the mind, which in turn gives purpose to the physical. Like a pyramid, the physical aspects or “body” form the base upon which the soul or mental dimension rests. At the pyramid’s pinnacle is the lighthouse of life, the treasure within an earthen vessel, our spiritual depth, and communion with Him.
Jesus taught about these three dimensions:
(The Physical) Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? — Matthew 10:28
(The Mental & Emotional) Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ — Matthew 6:31
(The Spiritual) But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. — Matthew 6:33
In Jesus’ teachings, we find the pyramid inverted or upside down. The physical and the mental needs are both nourished and supported by and find their truest expression within a deeper spiritual reality, God’s kingdom.
This upside-down pyramid thinking can be seen in Jesus’ teachings, which reveal life’s priorities.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. — Matthew 6:19-20
Jesus constantly addressed our need not to focus on physical “treasures” but on the greater coming kingdom. For Jesus, it is not about what is, but what will be.
Much like Paul, Jesus taught that the spirit is to rule over the physical, mental, and emotional needs within the Christian heart: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)
Jesus confronted our lack of confidence that God can be trusted with our future, that God always has our best interests in mind and is completely committed to our well-being, bringing the mental into the subjection of the spiritual.
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? f you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. — Luke 11:11-13
The Lord’s Prayer also brackets physical and mental needs within a spiritual blanket, beginning and ending with the spiritual, giving meaning and relevance to the physical and mental within.
It begins with the spiritual:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
— Matthew 6:9-10
Then continues with the physical:
Give us this day our daily bread.
— Matthew 6:11
Then addresses mental and emotional needs:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
— Matthew 6:12-13
Then concludes as it began with the spiritual:
For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
— Matthew 6:14
In our Red Letter Bible Study, we will continue to examine each of these allegories individually. These three temptations, tests, or trials of Jesus during His wilderness walk can help guide us through our very own wilderness.