In Matthew 4, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Throughout the account, the nature of Satan’s temptation is toward the abuse of power.
Satan first entices Jesus to turn a stone into bread. Jesus had fasted for forty days up to this point. His hunger was an obvious, legitimate human need. Since he was hungry, he could have rationalized that turning the stone into bread was his right, particularly as the one Son of God and one with the power to make it happen. This scenario is the perfect storm: one in authority having a legitimate need, feeling a right to have that need met, and having the power to make it happen—incentive, rationalization, and ability.
This is exactly the kind of situation where leaders make moral blunders. In an interview with Dan Rather, Bill Clinton said he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky “just because I could.” But in his temptation, Jesus understood that not even a legitimate need should be met in illegitimate ways. It was not God’s timing, nor was it the way that God wanted to meet this need. In this instance, turning the stone into bread would have been an abuse of his power.
The hardworking pastor who has legitimate financial needs may justify an abuse of power by taking money from the church offerings. He might say, “I work so hard for this church, and they don’t pay me as they should,” or “My family has needs, and look at all I have given to the church.” His needs may be real, and his rationalizations may be accurate. He does have financial needs, his family should be provided for, and he might work very hard for the church. Yet, no matter how legitimate, those needs must not be met illegitimately.
Next, Satan tempts Jesus by telling him to cast himself off the temple and to let the angels catch him. The devil, in fact, props up his perversion with Scripture (Psalm 91:11) in order to make his point and illustrate what leaders do—they prove their power in very public ways! The only point of jumping off the temple was to display power and to command others in the exercise of that power. It was to wield power for power’s sake. This was the essence of the second temptation—to put on a grand display of the power Jesus held. But Jesus resisted.
Finally, in the third temptation, Satan appeals to the very real human desire for power in the form of material acquisition—one of the common results of an abuse of power.
Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:8–9).
On this side of heaven, in an opportunity consistent with Jesus’s human nature and the craving of the flesh within it, Jesus could have sought to acquire material fortune. He could have jumped on the prospect of having something of great material value to call his own, rather than serving as a steward throughout his entire human existence with everything only on loan to him. But Jesus, having the attitude of a steward, knew that all the kingdoms of the world were not ultimately the property of anyone but the Father. He knew, too, that Satan, as the prince of this world, only temporarily possessed the earthly realm. He did not own it. It was merely on loan to him from God above. Despite appearances, Satan did not have it to give in the first place.
Notice the phrase the devil uses in the first two temptations: “If you are the Son of God.” In other words, “You say you are the Son of God, but you’re not acting like it. Do these things and you will prove yourself, validate your title, and give evidence of your authority to all.” But Jesus chose not to use his power in this way. Why? Because when you have power and authority and are secure in it, you do not have to prove it to others. Only insecure, self-minded leaders must prove their power to themselves and others.
When these three components come together, power abuse is possible: incentive, rationalization, and opportunity. Incentive is the internal motivation. Rationalization is that one can logically justify the action. Opportunity means that one has a favorable occasion; i.e., the ability to take an action.
Jesus had all three, yet withstood the temptation.