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Bible Background and Lesson Objectives

for The Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness

a Writing Team Lesson Set


Matthew 4:1-11

There is a similar version of Matthew's story in Luke 4:1-13.

Key Verse: Jesus rejects temptation, saying, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Matthew 4:10, NRSV)

Lesson Objectives

  • Students will learn the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness

  • They will understand that Jesus had a choice about the kind of Messiah he wanted to be, and chose to follow God's will and Word, rather than give in to temptation to be popular and powerful in ways that the world wanted him to be.

  • Students will know that temptation is (unfortunately) part of being human, and that God has given us an example in Jesus and tools to recognize right from wrong and resist temptation.

Unpacking the Story

An adult discussion about the meaning of the three temptations and Jesus' three answers could fill a book, much less a short article like this one. The teaching challenge is to NOT get lost in the theological weeds.

For children, this is primarily a story about how Jesus allowed himself to be led by the Spirit and guided by God's Word, rather than following selfish desires. 

The story taking place at the beginning of his ministry is another sign of its meaning. Jesus rejected the temptation to be the kind of worldly and powerful Messiah many wanted him to be. Yes, Jesus the Son of God could have turned stones into bread, flown off the Temple, and taken over the world. But he rejected these temptations of quick fixes and power grabs, in favor of serving God's plan, ...a plan of forgiveness, obedience, and humility which was about to unfold.

The question is, "how did he resist such temptations?" (and how can we?)  And the answer begins with, "he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness."

"The Wilderness" is a place of contemplation and reaffirmation

To some, the term "wilderness" evokes wild animals and deprivation. To others, the wilderness is a place of beautiful vistas, peaceful streams, time with your thoughts, and time with God. Your answer probably depends on whether or not you like being alone in nature. 

Throughout history, some Christians have turned "wilderness" into a synonym for "being lost," and "going without," ...a place where one wanders without God, ...a place of sin. 

But that one-sided view is un-biblical.  Any wilderness is certainly a challenging place, but it can also be a place of renewal and preparation. Temptation can come anytime and anywhere. Indeed, temptation often thrives on distractions and "what the crowd is doing." When we have time to think and listen, things often become clear.  Sabbath is like that. Sunday School is like that. A time to renew and prepare.

The Biblical evidence for a positive view of "wilderness"

Undoubtedly, "wilderness" experiences, both literally and figuratively can be challenging, even brutal experiences if you go into them unprepared. But across the scripture, the wilderness is also a place where God feels close, teaches, and leads. God led Abraham and Isaac into the wilderness to worship, and provided a ram. God tracked down Moses in the wilderness and spoke to him through a bush. God led the Exodus into the wilderness and did not abandon them. He guided them by pillars of fire and smoke. In the wilderness God fed them and made the rocks gush water. Elijah fled danger by escaping into the wilderness, was fed there by ravens, and later, by an angel. David found safety in the wilderness. And then in the New Testament, John quotes Isaiah, saying, "a voice cries out: in the wilderness, make a straight path."   (Like me you probably grew up hearing that verse as saying, "a voice cries in the wilderness."  But it has been suggested by many scholars that there should be a comma after "cries," ...which puts a whole new spin on WHERE you should look for God:  "a voice cries, in the wilderness make a straight path."  Expect God in the wilderness.

Jesus often retreated to the wilderness, according to the Gospels, and if you've ever been on a "retreat," or seen the sunrise in the desert, then you know why he retreated.  Wilderness can be a place where God feels especially close, ...where you can clear your head, and prepare your spirit for the things to come. 

Matthew says 4:1 that "Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit...."  and sure, the rest of the verse says, "to be tempted by Satan," ...but let's not get ahead of ourselves or Jesus. According to Matthew, Jesus had 40 days and nights before the Tempter showed up.

What would you do for 40 days and nights with the Spirit by your side?

One of our lessons in this set has illustrations that suggest what Jesus might have been doing. When Jesus looked up at the stars in the heavens, he probably thought of Psalm 8, and wondered about his place under it all.
Haven't you?


In the "Writing & Cooking" lesson in this set, students do what Jesus undoubtedly did during his 40 days —think on scripture. Which is to say Jesus took the time to prepare himself for the challenges ahead, including, being prepared to resist temptation.

The video recommended in the Video Workshop serendipitiously picks up on this by showing Jesus walking into the wilderness and thinking of scripture. 

Jesus was not lost or wandering. He was not "trying to find himself." He was engaging in a well-known* spiritual practice that today we would call "retreating" (sans indoor plumbing and 'smores).  His responses to the temptations show a man immersed in scripture and fully in control of his identify and sense of purpose. "IT IS WRITTEN," he says three times.  "THOU SHALT NOT...." he tells The Tempter.   

The wilderness can have that affect on you. Time to think is like a sharpening stone. Better the Tempter had tried to catch Jesus off-guard among all the distractions of Jerusalem than in God's wilderness.

I'm not saying Jesus' 40 days were milk and honey, but even the desert is beautiful at sunset. And what a great way to prepare yourself for the journey ahead —by taking time to clear your head, confirm your heart, and fill your spirit.

*In Jesus' day, there were religious groups living in the wilderness. The most famous being the Essenes along the Salt Sea. Some scholars have even suggested that Jesus and John the Baptist had been part of that group. 

What to make of the "fasting" ?

Fasting means doing without, and in this story, Jesus is likely following the biblical norm of fasting by eating only at night.  That too will make you hungry, especially after 40 days of doing it, and without the comforts of home or human companionship. And that's when Satan showed up.  

Temptation is strongest when we are at our weakest, —which is one of the reasons people fast, and give up things for a while, test and strengthen their resistance to temptation.  Jesus, however, while perhaps physically weak, was spiritually strong, ...and therein is another example for our students. Jesus was preparing and prepared for the tests to come. (Sunday School does that, too.)

Temptation is (unfortunately) a normal part of human existence. It's our RESISTANCE that we are trying to build up.

We prepare ourselves by spending time with God and his Word. We do it with prayer and deep thoughts (without distractions), and by reminding ourselves that we are here to serve and not be served. 

After 40 days, Jesus was prepared for temptation. 
How are we prepared?
Jesus knew how to answer temptation.
Do we?

What to make of "Satan" or the "Devil" in this story?  **

Please check with your pastor as to how your church wants you to teach about Satan and evil. There is a difference of opinion among Christians, and it is your responsibility to teach what your church approves of —in a way that is sensitive to the needs and psychology of children. (Jesus was confident, not afraid.)

It's important to acknowledge that Christians have different opinions about the existence of a literal Satan. Children will eventually question the existence of Satan themselves, or hear the question as they grow up. Without question the Gospel writers believed in a literal Satan. In a different time and place, the temptations Jesus confronted might have been described as an "inner struggle" between selfish desire and self-preservation –and the sacrificial path God wanted him to take. Each of us knows that struggle too, and are quite good about being our own "devil" about it. The Gospel truth of the story is that Jesus resisted temptation, and so can we —with God's Word and Help.

**Depending on your Bible's translation, the Tempter's name in Matthew 4 will either be Satan or the Devil.  "Satan" is the Hebrew word for "adversary." "Devil" is the Middle English translation of Satan. 

Was Jesus REALLY tempted?

Matthew presents a completely confident Jesus in the face of temptation. Gallant as that may be, we can safely assume that Jesus had to wrestle with his self-identity and desires, just like we do, because he shared our humanity. 

So did Jesus ever think of taking the easy way out?  Of running and hiding? Did he ever make a mistake, or say something he wanted to take back? Probably.  Did the thought ever "cross" his mind that sacrificing his life was a choice he could refuse?  Yes.

Did Jesus need Satan to put those thoughts in his head?  No. Jesus was born of Mary. What made him sinless or "perfect" in the Biblical sense of that word, was not his lack of humanity, but his willingness and ability to resist temptations. Jesus showed us what it means to be "fully" human.  And we can follow his example.

Listen to Jesus in Gethsemane, –a place where Satan is no where to be found. Jesus cries to God, "take this cup away from me." And then his "wilderness resolve" kicks in. "Not my will, but thine." Gethsemane was a wilderness of the soul. Jesus retreated to pray. Alone, he turned to God. Tears turned to blood. And then he returned to wake the sleeping world.

In the end analysis, however, the Lord knows the rest of us are not Jesus. And that is why he had to come forgive us. In that sense, we cannot be like Jesus in this story. We can never fully resist temptation, because we are not God. Which raises a final question just for you my friend: Is temptation part of God's plan to reveal our need for salvation? (We're going to need a few more trips to the wilderness to answer that one!)  

This is a lot to teach our kids, and there's plenty more in this rich passage. That's why the best thing you can do is TEACH THE STORY so that it can continue to unfold its gifts.

~ Rev. Neil MacQueen, for the Writing Team

Illustrations - Copyright Simon Smith http:/ Used with Permission


Images (2)
  • Matt4-WildernessWonder
  • Jesus-Temptation-Logo
Last edited by Amy Crane
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