Commentary on the Texts
This account of the temptation of Jesus in Luke is very similar to the account in Matthew 4:1-11, the major difference being that the order of the second and third temptations in Matthew is switched in Luke. Luke may have had a reason for changing this order, as will be seen later.
The story begins in Luke 4:1 by connecting it to the baptism of Jesus in 3:21-22. Luke separated the baptism and temptation of Jesus by inserting his genealogy between the two. Luke introduces the genealogy with the remark that Jesus was thirty years old as he began his work. Luke wants us to understand that the temptation of Jesus had to do with the kind of ministry upon which Jesus was about to embark and the manner in which he was to accomplish his Father’s mission in the world.
Jesus departed from the River Jordan filled with the Holy Spirit and is now in the wilderness still being led in the Spirit. By using the divine passive (“was led”) and the preposition “in” before the Spirit, Luke is emphasizing the fact that it is God who is leading Jesus by means of the Spirit. Luke is drawing a parallel between Jesus and Israel in the Old Testament whom God led in the wilderness, “testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut 8:2).
Luke clearly connects the temptations of Jesus with his earlier baptism in the Jordan. The theological significance is that this episode in the wilderness is no less part of the divine presence in the life of Jesus than the exalted experience at his baptism in the Jordan when the heavens split open, the Holy Spirit descended on him, and the voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am delighted.” But now in the desolate wilderness, with no heavenly vision and no divine voice, God is no less present with Jesus than at the banks of the Jordan.
However, the wilderness is a place of struggle, temptation, testing. Here holiness is put on trial. Jesus must decide what it means for him to be Son of God, as the voice from heaven had declared earlier at his baptism. So the tempter begins with that proposition: “Since you are the Son of God…” The translation of the conditional clause with “since” probably best suits the context. The point of this particular temptation is not to cast doubt on the divine sonship of Jesus. That fact is recognized and established. Luke already wrote three chapters to show that Jesus is not the son of Joseph and Mary, even though the genealogy might lead one to presume so–note the disclaimer added by Luke in 3:23, “as was thought.”
The miraculous conception of Jesus from the Holy Spirit was established in chapter 1. In chapter 2, when Jesus was 12 and was left behind at the temple, his mother gently and anxiously rebuked her son for treating his parents this way, to which Jesus replied that he must be about his Father’s business. In chapter 3, the testimony of the heavenly voice at the baptism of Jesus proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. And finally, the genealogy of Jesus has shown that he is the Son of God through Adam (3:38). The point has been made abundantly clear not only to Jesus but to all of us who read the gospel. Since Jesus is indeed the Son of God, what then? Where will Jesus go from there?
It is important for Luke to establish this point because the story of Jesus will unfold in such a way that it will create misunderstanding, disappointment, confusion, and shattered expectations. One would not expect someone who is the Son of God to face such opposition and hostility as Jesus will. And the greatest of all paradoxes, this Son of God will be rejected by his own people as well as the Romans and will be condemned and executed on a cross. It is in this larger context, that we must understand the thrust of these three temptations in the wilderness.
The story of the temptation of Jesus is told in the form of a dialog between the devil and Jesus which makes use of quotations from the Book of Deuteronomy. Exactly how the temptations were suggested to Jesus we will probably never know. We must bear in mind that biblical stories are often pictorial. Just as it would be a mistake to think that a painting is itself the thing that it portrays, so also with this story of the temptations. It is a painting. It would be useless to ask what the real thing looked like. We cannot answer that question. Did the devil physically whisk Jesus from the wilderness, to the top of a mountain, and then to the pinnacle of the temple? Must the story be taken so literally in order for it to be true? Luke does not mention a mountain as Matthew does in 4:8. Luke simply says that the devil “led him up.” But even if we took that to mean a mountain, what mountain in Palestine, or anywhere else for that matter, is high enough that one can stand on it and see all the kingdoms of the world? Luke says instead that all the kingdoms of the world were seen by Jesus “in an instant,” implying that the vision which Jesus saw was a mental picture.
Be that as it may, our focus in this story should be on the meaning of the temptations in the context of the Gospel of Luke. That context is the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. In this account we are given a glimpse of the inner struggle of Jesus as he faces the issue of how to accomplish his ministry.
The first temptation could not have been better timed. Jesus had been fasting for forty days. He was entitled to eat. Even Israel in the Old Testament was miraculously fed by manna. Why not the Son of God? Turn this stone into a loaf of bread. Use your power to satisfy your physical need. You are entitled to food after a forty-day fast.
This first temptation of Jesus was not merely the urge to satisfy his hunger by some miraculous deed. It also had implications as to how Jesus would respond to the physical needs of others, especially their need for food. We know, for example, that Jesus fed the five thousand (9:12-17). In a subsistence economy where people lived from hand to mouth, the symbolism of miraculously providing abundant food would not be lost on prospective followers. Jesus would be seen as the messiah who provides for their pressing needs. But the problem is that for Jesus the kingdom of God is not a matter of feeding oneself or others, as essential as that may be. To a prospective disciple who wanted to follow him Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (9:58). Jesus tells his disciples as he sends them on their mission, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” (10:4). In his instruction to the disciples he says, “…do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink… Your Father knows that you need them… Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:29-31).
It would not be a big deal to tell North Americans not to worry about their next meal. But to say such words to people who live from hand to mouth would be political suicide. The temptation for Jesus would have been to promise prospective followers that the kingdom of God for them will mean full stomachs. But if that is the motivation for responding to the kingdom of God, have they truly experienced the reality of the kingdom of God?
It is easy enough for a North American Christian who has three square meals every day to say that the kingdom of God is not food or drink. But Jesus here in the wilderness is himself on the verge of starvation and lives among people who are in extreme need. The struggle for him in this temptation is beyond our imagination. How can he be compassionate with needy people and provide for their needs and yet present to them a life of discipleship that calls for wholehearted seeking after the kingdom of God rather than for food and drink?
It is no wonder that the Gospel of John has taken the Feeding of the Five Thousand to the next level of interpretation and instruction. Jesus says to the people who had been miraculously fed and had come running after him, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life . . . .” (John 6:27).
The Gospel of Luke has several parables and other forms of speech that sound a warning against greed, wealth, and lack of concern for the needs of others. Consider the parable of the rich fool who builds bigger barns and says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). But God tells him that that very night his life was being demanded of him. Likewise in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) the rich man ends up in torment while Lazarus the poor beggar is taken to eternal bliss.
There is no question that Luke presents Jesus as one who is genuinely concerned for the poor, the outcasts, the needy, the hungry. In the beatitudes in 6:20-23 Jesus pronounces a blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping. How will Jesus conduct his ministry of compassion to the poor and needy? One easy way would be to use his miraculous powers to turn stones to bread. But his answer to that suggestion was that one does not live by bread alone. The kingdom of God is more than bread.
In the second temptation the devil “leads” Jesus up. The same verb “lead” was used earlier in v. 1 to speak of the Spirit’s leading of Jesus in the wilderness. Now “the tempter reproduces action of the Holy Spirit” (Danker). He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises to give him all their power and glory if he would only worship him. Interestingly, Jesus does not dispute the claim of the devil that the kingdoms of the world belong to him. The corrupting influence of power and glory is pervasive in the world. The devil wants Jesus to enter the world of political power. After all, doesn’t Jesus want to see the kingdom of God take hold in the world? Why not do it the way it’s done by nations, kings and governors. Later in the Gospel of Luke when the disciples argue as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest, Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you . . . .” (22:25-26).
The temptation for Jesus was whether he would opt for political power and success or will he choose the path that may lead to suffering, humiliation and death? Will he play the game of power politics, jockeying for position, climbing to the top by hook or crook, or will he take the hard road of the suffering servant? Political ambition and the desire for success could, of course, be easily rationalized as being for a good cause, God’s cause.
Look at all the good that could come if Jesus were to succeed in grabbing the helm of world government. Not Caesar, but God would be king. Not the Roman empire but the kingdom of God would become a reality in the world. Why not compromise a bit? Why not strike a deal with the evil powers? Why not beat them at their own game? Without some give and take the mission of Jesus may fall flat. If Jesus does not learn how to get along with Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas and the powers that be, he is not going to get anywhere except on a cross. What will it be? Jesus decides right then and there that he will let God be God. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Going God’s way will be costly, but there would be no compromise here no matter the cost.
Now the tempter tries a third time to lure Jesus. One more time he “leads” Jesus, this time to Jerusalem. Luke may have switched the order of the second and third temptations (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) to make the third temptation end up in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is significant in the story that Luke will tell in his gospel and in Acts. In the middle part of the gospel, for about ten chapters, we have what scholars have called the travel narrative which repeatedly tells us that Jesus was on a journey with his face set toward Jerusalem. The disciples are going with him but they are not very clear as to what this journey is all about. The journey is not only a travel narrative to describe the geographical route from Galilee to Jerusalem, but it is more significantly a continuous commentary on what it means to travel with Jesus on the journey of discipleship.
Throughout this journey Jesus is resolutely moving toward this ominous future, expecting rejection, betrayal, arrest and death–in Jerusalem of all places. No wonder that when he finally comes near and sees the city, he weeps over it saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (19:42). First Nazareth (ch. 4), now Jerusalem –both cities had the potential of experiencing the power of the kingdom of God but were too blind to see.
Luke then wants the third temptation to be something of a climax in Jerusalem. In so many words, Jerusalem, the holy city, will itself be the scene of the final temptation of Jesus, not only here in the wilderness, but in reality in the city itself when he makes his final journey there at the end of his ministry.
Irony of ironies, the holy city, Jerusalem, indeed the temple itself, the very seat of religious life, becomes the scene of the last temptation. The devil places him on the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down, quoting a promise from Psalm 91:11-12 that God would command his angels to protect him. Why was this a temptation for Jesus?
The devil was suggesting that on the basis of Scripture Jesus must believe and insist on divine protection. Suffering and death would be a sign of weak faith. Vulnerability to life-threatening situations would be a sign of divine displeasure. He after all is the Son of God! As Son, the least he should expect is safety and protection from his heavenly Father. He should jump off from this great height with the confidence that God will protect him. Jesus responds by quoting another text from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The first readers of the Gospel of Luke needed to be apprised of these deliberations in the wilderness to be prepared for the utterly ignominious and incomprehensible end that Jesus would eventually face–death on a cross. He would be condemned to death by the highest religious authority in the land, a crowd of compatriots demanding his crucifixion, and a governor who represented all the power and dignity of the Roman Empire itself. Can this man really be the Son of God when the whole world seems to be against him? Ultimately he will be hanging on a cross and hear the scoffing of the leaders saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” (23:35).
Now the full force of the earlier words of the hometown folk of Nazareth, “Physician, heal yourself,” are shouted at him as he hangs in agony and shame. Jesus had already decided in the wilderness and in Nazareth not to test his divine Sonship. He had already decided that he would not insist on a divine guarantee against suffering and death as he carried out the divine mission in the world. Can a man who was seemingly condemned by the whole world be the Son of God? In the temptation account the reader is ushered into the mind and heart of Jesus as he begins to make some agonizing decisions that will set the course of his life and work. In the end the reader must decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, a charlatan, or a fool.
The story ends with the ominous statement that the devil departed from him until an opportune time. That opportune time was not long in coming. It came at the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth. It came when people demanded signs to prove that he was who he said he was. And ultimately it came in Jerusalem when he was on the cross.
One way that this text could be used in preaching is to explore the meaning of temptation. Jesus was genuinely tempted. By definition temptation is something that appeals to us. But how can the Spirit-filled Son of God be tempted by something that is potentially sinful? Spirit-filled, sanctified, spiritually vibrant Christians are still subject to temptation. Jesus was hungry. There was nothing wrong with craving bread after a forty-day fast. All of us have certain desires, wants, needs, both physical and emotional. We crave food when we are hungry. We need companionship, acceptance, approval of others, love and appreciation. These are legitimate needs that are not in themselves sinful. And even our wants are not necessarily sinful. How then do they become sinful?
The devil is often viewed as the source of our temptations. But we need to understand something about ourselves. It is doubtful whether the devil would have suggested that Jesus turn the stone to bread had Jesus not been hungry. The source of our temptations is almost always our own legitimate, normal, natural desires (note James 1:14-15). The desire for food, sexual intimacy, approval of others is not from the devil. These are wholesome, normal, legitimate desires. How do they become sinful?
Jesus was hungry and of course needed something to eat. So why not say a word and turn the stone to bread? The temptation was that Jesus use his miraculous powers to provide for himself. Jesus chose a pattern of life wherein he would always use his God-given powers for others, never for himself. He healed the sick. He opened blind eyes. He raised the dead. His power was always used for others, not for himself.
That tells us something profound about the Spirit-filled life. Do I seek my own advantage? Do I want things for myself that others cannot have? Do I use the powers that God has given me–physical, financial, mental, spiritual, or whatever– for myself or for the well-being of others in the community? That is exactly the point that Paul makes about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 14. They are not for one’s own use to gain advantage over others. They are to be used in service to others. Jesus refused to use his powers for himself. He used them for others.
But Jesus also struggled with the issue of what it was that others needed. They certainly needed bread, health, healing, life, comfort. There is something profoundly Christian about compassionate ministries in the church today because Jesus himself set an example for us in this area. Yet we also know that Jesus did not produce miracles on demand. In fact, the temptation to give people what they want can be very attractive.
But perhaps the church’s call is not simply to give people what they want. The ministry of Jesus also included preaching and teaching that sometimes offended, angered, and shocked his hearers. He did not sugar-coat his call to discipleship. It is costly. Will the church be faithful in doing the Christlike thing even if it is costly, or will it do what is expedient in order to appease people who are politically and financially advantageous to the church?
The second temptation of Jesus points to the subtle attraction of doing the right thing using the wrong means. Jesus was tempted to win the world by worshipping the devil. We don’t have to be enemies, the devil was saying to Jesus. Achieve your objectives by facing reality. The reality is, the devil says, this world operates by my rules. So why not accept my rules, and things will go well. But if not, you will have to pay an exorbitant fee. You give in a little, and I’ll give you the whole thing. Let’s cooperate. Why make it hard on yourself? But Jesus says no deal.
What’s going on in this conversation? The devil says to Jesus, You can accomplish your goals, you can win the world, you can fulfill God’s purposes, but do it my way. Do you have to be so honest and candid all the time? People in power are going to be turned off if you always talk about their sinful ambitions. This world cannot stand people like you. If you are going to get along in this world, you need to compromise now and then. If you are in business, you have to cut corners sometimes to make a go of it. After all, that is the way most of the world does business. If you decide to be a person of integrity one hundred percent, you may lose the shirt off your back.
Will the church do its work in the spirit of Christ and in response to the demands of the kingdom of God, or will it operate by the policies and practices of a worldly system? Is any style or method of being the church acceptable as long as it attracts a greater following? Does the end justify the means? “[T]he long history of the institutionalized church will reveal how difficult it is to keep distorted political ambition from contaminating the mission of the People of God” (Danker).
The price that Jesus would pay for his unwavering obedience to God was incredibly high. It would cost him his life. Was he prepared to take such a risk? Jesus did not hesitate to answer with a resolute, “Yes!” The devil may have thought it was suicide. But there was no question in the mind of Jesus. He would remain steadfast in his absolute obedience and surrender to the will of God all the way. That is what sanctification is all about.
In the final temptation Jesus is pressured to doubt God. The tempter suggests that Jesus put God to the test. Why not devise a test, such as Gideon did by putting out a fleece to test God? But putting out a fleece is not a sign of faith. It is really a sign of lack of faith. Why would it be necessary for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple to see if God would protect him? Why such an artificial test?
Sometimes people are angry at God because in their minds God did not come through a test that they had set up. The test they devise might run something like this: If my husband is healed of cancer, then I’ll know God loves me. If my boy comes back safely from an overseas mission, then I’ll know God is on my side. If I get the job that I’ve been praying for, then I’ll know that God cares about me.
But what if the husband dies of cancer? What if the boy is killed overseas? What if the job that I pray for goes to someone else? Will I still love and serve God regardless of the outcome? Will I walk with God whether or not I get that job, whether or not that cancer is healed, whether or not my loved one pulls through a life-threatening situation? Or, am I going to put God to a test and say, If you do this for me, then you’re my God, but if not, I will have nothing to do with you. The Spirit-filled life which Jesus lived was a life that was unconditionally surrendered to God regardless of the outcome.
Jesus lived out the Spirit-filled life of complete obedience even though he was faced with temptations not only once in the wilderness but every moment of his life all the way to the end. The ominous note at the end of the temptation account and the rest of the gospel will show the truth of Hebrews 5:7-8: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” He was saved from death? Indeed he was, but not without tasting it first.