If: The Issue in Christ’s Temptation

Word of the Week

March 5, 2022

If: The Issue in Christ’s Temptation

And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

Matthew 4:3

I used to assume that the Devil came to Jesus in the wilderness and tried to make Him doubt His identity as the Son of God.  “You claim you’re the Son of God – well, let’s see you prove it!”

But that wasn’t the point of the temptation.  The Greek grammar of each of the three temptations makes it clear that Satan was crafting his attacks in a different way.

How do we know that?

There are four different ways to say “If” in Greek, and you can understand the temptation of Jesus much more accurately when you know how to recognize how the Devil said “If.”

First, let’s list the four variations.

  1. Assumes that the “if” statement is true.
  2. Assumes that the “if” statement is false.
  3. Doesn’t assume either true or false – it could go either way.
  4. Assumes that the “if” statement is remotely possible.

How do you tell the difference?  By looking at the verb that follows “If.”  The Greeks loved to change the spelling of verbs to convey different shades of meaning.  If they spelled the word one way, it would be a statement of fact.  If they changed one or two letters, it became a statement of something that would probably happen, but it wouldn’t be an established fact.

For those of you who love technical details, the “statement of fact” form is called an indicative verb.  The form that just gives probability is called a subjunctive verb

Now let’s look at the temptation of Jesus.  There were three temptations, each containing an “If.’

  • “If you are the Son of God, command that these loaves become bread” (Matthew 4:3)
  • “If you are the Son of God, throw Yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple] (Matthew 4:6).
  • “All these things [the kingdoms of the world] I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:9).

The question is, “Which kind of if did Satan use in each of these temptations?

In the first two, he used “If #1,” which assumes that the statement is true.  To paraphrase, he was saying, “If you are the Son of God – and we both know that You are – you can change bread to stones or jump off temple walls.”  When you encounter this kind of “If,” you can often get the right idea by translating it as “since.”  Since you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread.

The third temptation takes a different form.  This time, the Devil uses “If #3,” which doesn’t assume one way or another.  Will Jesus fall down and worship him?  We know the answer, but Satan didn’t know whether Christ would succumb to the temptation or not.

The real issue in this set of temptations was Christ’s willingness to obey the Father and stick to the divine plan, rather than launching out into an independent plan of His own.

There may be times when we are tempted to doubt the reality of our position as children of God or the reliability of the biblical message.  However, the issue often pivots on the question of whether we will stay within the boundaries of God’s will.  Ever since the Garden, mankind has had the urge to do things our own way, rather than following God’s plan.

Study Hint:

There are many passage that we can understand more easily when we know about the four ways to say “If.”  Colossians 3:1 uses “If #1” when it says, “Therefore IF we have been raised with Christ” – and we have been! 1 John 1:9 declares, “If we confess our sins” using “If #3.” Maybe we will confess our sins, maybe we won’t, but if we do, God will forgive our sins.  You can see “If #2” in 1 John 2:19 – “If they had been of us, they would have remained with us” – but they weren’t really part of us, so they didn’t remain.

One caution about using this principle:  The first way to say “If” doesn’t guarantee that the statement is always true.  It means that the writer assumes it is true.  Occasionally Paul may use it in a debate-style statement:  “Let’s assume that this is true for the sake of argument.”

Want to know how to recognize the 4 ways to say “If”?  Keep your eyes open for upcoming announcements about a new online course in Greek grammar that will soon be available from Ezra Project.

More on Grammar:

If you appreciated this insight on the various ways to say If, you will want to get the FREE fact sheet, “Myths and Insights: The Most Useful Facts of Greek Grammar.”  It contains my 10 favorite grammar hints, plus 5 myths to avoid.

To get the fact sheet, just send an email to info@ezraproject.com and say, “Send me the fact sheet.”

Coming Up

Next week we will focus on another verse where grammar makes a difference.  We will dig into a verse in 1 Corinthians that uses two Greek verb tenses to show how our efforts mesh with the work of God to accomplish His purposes.

©Ezra Project 2022

2 Responses

  1. Hj John, would you have time to expand on the verb that follows each in the three temptations so.that the ready can better understand the verbal concept with each?

    1. Good idea! I will include an explanation of these ideas in the Word of the Week blog that I send out this weekend.

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