Having failed at his first attempt to tempt Jesus in a direct and relatively crude way, the devil plays a subtler game: “The devil took him higher and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant” (Matthew 4:8).
This is the more refined temptation of power. Power is one of the greatest motivating factors in all of human history. Alexander the Great, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Charlemagne, the Medicis, Charles V, Henry VIII, Louis XIV, and Napoleon—these are all people who have been seduced by the siren song of power.
We notice something very disquieting in the account of this temptation: the devil admits that all the kingdoms of the world have been given to him. He owns and controls them. That is quite a sweeping indictment of the institutions of political power. Isn’t it true that it seems extremely difficult for someone to attain high positions of power and not become corrupt?
It might be useful to recall here the two great names for the devil in the Bible: ho Satanas, which means “the adversary”, and ho diabolos, which means “the liar” or “the deceiver.” Worldly power is based upon accusation, division, and lies. It’s the way that earthly rulers have always done their business. A tremendous temptation for Jesus was to use his Messianic authority to gain worldly power, to become a king. But if he had given in to this, he would not have remained a conduit of the divine grace. He would be as remembered today as, perhaps, one of the governors of Syria or satraps of Babylon.
No, Jesus wanted to be the one through whom the divine love surged into creation, and so he said to Satan, “Scripture has it, ‘You shall do homage to the Lord your God; him alone shall you adore.’”