Cover image: Into the Wilderness, by Eva Koleva Timothy.

More than 40 years ago, I sat in an early morning seminary class in Seattle, Washington, where we learned about the book of Matthew in the New Testament. It was an exciting time, because it was the first year the subject was being taught from a new edition of the scriptures, published just months before by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  But that day, what really caught my attention was not the footnotes in the scriptures or the extensive Bible Dictionary, but a simple one-page handout containing the words of David O. McKay.

The verses we were discussing came from the first 11 verses of Matthew 4:

1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

2 And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.

3 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

4 But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,

6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

11 Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

The quote on the handout from David O McKay taught that the three temptations Jesus faced are the same temptations that everyone faces, which he summarized as follows:

 “Every temptation that comes to you and me comes in one of three forms:

(1)   A temptation of the appetite or passion;

(2)   A yielding to pride, fashion, or vanity;

(3)   A desire for worldly riches or power and dominion over lands or earthly possessions of men.”[1]

Temptations one and three seemed more or less self-explanatory based on the scriptural text, but as a seminary student I didn’t understand how the second temptation (for Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple) would suggest a yielding to pride or vanity .  Two decades later I was asked to teach about these verses in Sunday School, so I decided to finally seek understanding; it occurred to me that to understand the nature of the temptations that Jesus faced, rather than focusing on the devil’s words, maybe I should study the words of Jesus in his responses more deeply, particularly by learning the context of the scriptures Jesus referenced.

Temptation One (the Body):

For the first temptation, it was easy to find the source of Jesus’ words because the Bible’s footnotes showed the verse that Jesus was quoting, Deuteronomy 8:3—

3 And he humbled thee [Israel], and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.

Seeing Jesus’ response in the larger context was revealing.  First, it tied the bread of the temptation of Jesus in his wilderness to the manna that fed Israel in their wilderness, the manna upon which the people were wholly dependent during their sojourn.  Second, it gave purpose to the hunger, which was divinely designed to make the Lord’s people know not to live by bread only.  How often were the Israelites afraid of running out of food, yet the Lord provided for their daily needs!  Would it have been so wrong for Jesus to use divine power to provide food for himself?  Apparently so.  (Particularly considering whose idea it was!)  Through the lens of Pres. McKay’s statements, this constituted a temptation of the appetites or passions—one of the physical body, or of the natural man at the most fundamental level.  Jesus demonstrated that he would rely upon his Father in heaven for his daily bread just as he relied upon the Father in spiritual matters.

Temptation Two (the Mind):

Jesus’ response to the second temptation was not referenced directly in the footnotes, but its location was identified in the Bible Dictionary’s list (under “Quotations”, an invaluable reference) of places in the New Testament that quote or paraphrase Old Testament verses, leading me to another Deuteronomy passage, this one from chapter 6.  This temptation was particularly difficult for me to understand because I had never really understood how “tempting God” worked, but Deuteronomy gave me the context I needed to begin to understand.

  1. Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.

So, what happened at Massah, and does that relate somehow to how Jesus is being tempted?  I did not find an entry for Massah in the Bible Dictionary or the Topical Guide, but from other online sources (which were just emerging at the time I was searching) I learned that the name Massah actually means “trial or temptation”, being the name applied to the place, also called Meribah, where the Israelites provoked God to anger by their murmuring about water.[2]  The episode is described in Exodus 17:

1 And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the Lord, and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink.

2 Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the Lord?

3 And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?

4 And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me.

5 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.

6 Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

7 And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, Is the Lord among us, or not?

To me, this was beginning to look like another variation on the 1st temptation theme, moving simply to thirst/water, instead of hunger/bread.  But then why does the passage about tempting God occur in the context of a passage in Psalms about the angels lifting up Jesus when he is tempted to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple?  We learn from other scriptures that Massah/Meribah was about more than just thirst.  Hebrews 3:8 appears to be referencing this episode when the author counsels: “Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness”, which quotes part of Psalm 95:8-9:  “Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work.”  But the NIV translation makes the reference even clearer:

Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.

In other words, this was not just about thirst, but about the hardening of Israel’s heart, even after the many miracles that they had already witnessed.  But again, how does this relate to the temptation to jump from the temple and how does that relate to the demand for water?

Curiously, there is a second episode in the Torah (the five books of Moses that begin the Old Testament) about Moses bringing water from rock.  The second story comes from the Book of Numbers.  There is some debate about whether this is actually a second occurrence or is simply a variation of the telling of the same event.[3]  Regardless, the account in Numbers shows that it was not just Israel that erred in the Wilderness, but also—at least on this occasion—Moses who succumbed to temptation.

  1 Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.

2 And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.

3 And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord!

4 And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?

5 And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.

6 And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto them.

7 ¶ And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

8 Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.

9 And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him.

10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?

11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.

12 ¶ And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.

13 This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and he was sanctified in them.

This second account shows that Moses was commanded to speak to the rock, not strike it with the rod. And Moses said to the murmuring multitude, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” The Lord then says that it was this act of disobedience and failing to give the Lord the credit for the water coming forth that disqualified him from leading the children of Israel into the promised land.[4]  From this we note a dual temptation at the place where Israel quarreled with God.  The people provoked the Lord by demanding water instead of waiting upon the Lord, but Moses also provoked the Lord by not providing the water in the manner, or rather, within the bounds that the Lord had established.  In other words, when Moses lost patience and said, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?”, he was himself in the act of a rebellion, which—though small in and of itself—carried tremendous symbolic weight.

The Jews, in their apostate condition under Roman governance, were looking for a dramatic savior who would throw off the yoke of their bondage. They tempted the Lord to save them as much as their forebears demanded water at Meribah.  But it would have been just as improper for Jesus to demonstrate his Messiahship through an unauthorized miracle as it was for Moses.  Jesus came to bring “living water” not by striking a rock or opening a well, but by the words he spoke.

Clearly, Jesus was aware of both of the Exodus and the Numbers accounts of Massah/Meribah, and for him to remember not to tempt the Lord would have suggested both the perspectives of the multitude and that of Moses.  Suddenly, Pres. McKay’s suggestion that the 2nd temptation reflecting a “yielding to pride, fashion, or vanity” begins to make a lot more sense, in that it includes a range of temptations of the mind rather than the hunger or thirst of the body.  Wanting to be the hero for Israel, even if just as a reflection of impatience or to get the people to quit murmuring, is still revealed as a temptation; it is not “doing a good deed” when it involves disobedience, such as steadying the ark of the covenant when one is not authorized to do so.[5]  In this context, then, to “tempt the Lord” is not just to make improper demands but also to take improper actions that provoke Him: exercising unrighteous dominion; using compulsion; taking His authority (e.g. his Name) in vain; and taking revenge.

Temptation Three (the Heart):

Inasmuch as the first two temptations were met with scriptural quotations from Deuteronomy, we are not surprised to find the third temptation answered in a similar fashion.  In response to worship the Devil in exchange for all the world, Jesus quotes again from Chapter 6:

5  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

These verses show that the third temptation is one of the heart, and that the temptation to worship the devil in exchange for all that the world has to offer is a false or idolatrous worship contrasting sharply for the obedient with those who worship God only.  What President McKay describes as a “desire for worldly riches or power and dominion over lands or earthly possessions of men” may differ from desires derived only from the passions of the body or the pride of the mind, yet true worship of God ultimately involves heart, mind and body.

As Matthew guides us from the temptations in the wilderness to the Sermon on the Mount in the next section, we may see that Jesus, having withstood these temptations, is about to teach his disciples how they can follow his example.  In fact, bolstering the disciples in their ability to withstand all three temptations even appears with particularity in both the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.

For modern disciples, the ability to be able to discern the nature of the temptation one is facing can help bolster one’s ability to resist individually, but it can also help us show empathy for the struggles of others whose temptations may be in slightly different forms from our own but still be of a similar kind.


[1] These ideas were later published in the  Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, 81ff. (Chapter 9).  Note that Luke’s account of the temptations in the wilderness flip the order of temptations two and three in Matthew’s account.  For most purposes, the order probably doesn’t matter, but the symmetry and symbolism of the Matthew’s order appear superior in specific instances that will be explored in a later installment, and for that reason we stick with Matthew’s order.

[2] See, e.g.,

[3] Jonathan Jacobs, “Moses Strikes the Rock in Exodus and Numbers: One Story or Two?” (2019).

[4] Lest we presume that the Lord is not merciful and forgiving when a prophet should err, as he is with the rest of the multitude, we should note that Moses is not just a person but a symbol.  Moses, individually, is taken to the Lord without tasting death, later ministers to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, and in modern times restores the keys of the gathering of Israel in the Kirtland temple.  But Moses, as the symbol of the so-called Law of Moses, cannot lead Israel into the promised land just as the Law Moses cannot lead Israel to ultimate salvation without the intercession of the Messiah, whose name ultimately turned out to be Yeshua (in English, Joshua).  And it was also a person named Yeshua/Joshua who led the people of Moses across the Jordan River and into the promised land.

[5] 2 Samuel 6:6-7.  In his excellent 1982 devotional address at Brigham Young University, then BYU president Jeffrey R. Holland contrasts Satan’s “appeal to our appetites” from the first temptation with the “temptation of the spirit” that followed.  (See  Both the temptation of the mind and the temptation of the heart may be described as temptations of the human spirit, and a variety of alternate variations are used in different contexts:  body, mind and spirit; body, mind and soul; etc.  Body, Mind and Heart work best in the current discussion for reasons that will be better understood in later installments.  Thanks to Nick Wells for reminding me of the Holland address.