Luke 4:1-13

The Struggle with Evil is Symbolised

Luke 4:1-13  -  Jesus is Tempted

1 Filled with the Holy Spirit,
Jesus came back from the Jordan
and, under the power of the Spirit,
2 was led about in the wilderness for forty days. 
There he was tested by the Devil.

Mark in his Gospel had mentioned Jesus’ temptation, but had given little detail, other than hinting that it was part of the cosmic struggle of good and evil, as expressed in his confrontation with the destructive power structures of his day. His other source (that Luke shared with Matthew) had elaborated colourfully on the temptations faced by Jesus. The language was poetic, the various scenarios impossible in fact. Their meaning was what mattered.

What is significant is that Jesus’ encounter with evil was the result of the leading of the Spirit. For evil to be overcome, it had to be confronted.

The encounters were situated in the wilderness, traditionally the scene of Israel’s temptations as it crossed the Sinai desert on the way from slavery to freedom. The wilderness was also paradoxically the spot where Israel encountered God and entered into covenant with God. In the human condition, as people move into their unexplored inner world on their way to their truest self , encounter with God and temptation cannot be separated.

Luke said that the temptations occurred over forty days, even though their descriptions seemed but brief moments. The number forty referred in the Jewish mind to an indeterminate but prolonged length of time. By placing the story as introduction to the public life of Jesus, Luke was effectively indicating that Jesus faced the temptations, in whatever guise they presented themselves, throughout the course of that public life. 

He ate nothing during that time,
at the end of which he felt hungry. 
3 The Devil than said to him,
"If you are a son of God,
order this stone to become a loaf of bread."
4 Jesus replied, "It stands written, '
The human person does not live only on bread.’ ”

The temptation took its cue from the voice Jesus heard during his prayer at the Jordan, identifying him as God’s son. What powers or prerogatives did the title imply?

In this instance, as in the two that followed, Jesus’ response to temptation was to quote from the Book of Deuteronomy, the book par excellence that reflected on Israel’s experience in the Sinai desert, where the Israelite tribes were welded into a unified people and first covenanted with God. 

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you
these forty years in the wilderness, 
in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, 
whether or not you would keep his commandments. 
He humbled you by letting you hunger, 
then by feeding you with manna,
with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, 
in order to make you understand t
hat one does not live by bread alone, 
but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
(Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

Jesus’ later ministry would be in line with God’s original vision for Israel and for the world, as celebrated so beautifully in Deuteronomy.

What in fact might Jesus’ temptation have been? Further, how was it relevant to the situation confronting Luke’s community? Perhaps it highlighted the attraction of comfort at the price of integrity, of substitutes at the price of the real, of distraction at the price of purpose, or of a willingness to challenge the standards of the world only from within the limits of the comfort zone. As Jesus would clarify later, his needs for physical survival were subordinate to the life of the human spirit. Life at depth could be achieved only through dying to superficial wants and following the word of God as it echoed in the depths of the human heart and conscience.

5 Then the Devil led him up
and showed him in an instant of time
all the kingdoms of the inhabited world,
6 and then said,
"I will give you all this power and the glory with it -
because it has been handed over to me
and I give it to anyone I wish.
7 If you will fall down in worship before me,
all this will be yours.” 
8 In response, Jesus said, "It stands written,
'You shall prostrate yourself before the Lord your God,
and you shall worship God alone’.”

Recent experiences of the rule of the Seleucid dynasty, of the later Hasmoneans, of the Herodian family, and particularly of the Roman occupiers, spoke to the common conclusion that the kingdoms of the world were in fact under the control of the devil. Such particularly was at the basis of much of the imagery of the Book of Daniel.

This temptation, then, seemed to have been an appeal to power at the price of integrity. In Jesus’ own experience, it may have been felt as the temptation to bring about change in people by ways other than by their true inner conversion. In the Christian community, it could take shape in the desire to control the attitudes and behaviours of others by legislation, imposition, public relations exercises, criticism, etc.. With God, the freedom and informed consent of human persons are paramount.

Jesus’ reference to Deuteronomy showed how he saw right relationship with God as the source of true freedom.

... take care that you do not forget the Lord, 
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery. 
The Lord your God you shall fear;
him you shall serve... (Deuteronomy 6:12-13)
9 The Devil then led him to Jerusalem
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, "
If you are a son of God,
throw yourself down from here,
10 for it stands written,
'For your sake he will order his angels to preserve you from harm,’
11 and 'they will carry you on their hands
so that your foot will not crash against a stone.’ ”
12 In answer Jesus said, It has been said,
'You shall not provoke the Lord your God.’ ” 

It seemed that the devil had learnt from Jesus’ use of scripture, to the extent of quoting Psalm 91:11-12! In fact, in the course of life it can be difficult to discern the will of God. Even in the use of Scripture, isolated texts do not necessarily clarify the mind of God. They need to be interpreted against the background of the scriptures as a whole.

The invitation was to perform a spectacular “miracle” in Jerusalem, the seat of power and the heart of the nation. The temptation, consequently, was that to acceptance and honour, perhaps even the avoidance of apparent failure, again at the price of integrity. The Church community knows the temptation to cover-up whatever might seem to threaten its prestige, refusing to reveal or even to face its sinful dimension, unable to trust that indeed the truth will set your free.

Jesus’ quotation, once more from Deuteronomy, referred to an incident that occurred in the Sinai desert.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test,
as you tested him at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

At Massah, the Israelites had complained because their journey to freedom seemed hopeless and filled with pain. Some preferred to return to the security of Egypt, even at the price of freedom and growth into God. Jesus would show that trust in God was not a question of God’s doing the unusual, but of people’s trusting the presence of God in whatever situation. Even in failure or rejection God can empower life and growth. 

In some ways, the three temptations were grounded in the three basic needs and drives of the human person: survival, control and belonging (or acceptance).

13 Having finished every kind of temptation,
the Devil withdrew until the appropriate time.

Luke’s message was ominous. Whatever about Jesus’ encounter with temptation right throughout his unfolding public mission, a final showdown with cosmic evil loomed just below the horizon. The devil had left Jesus in Jerusalem. There in Jerusalem the devil would engage with him again (22:3).

The fact of persistent temptation revealed the earnestness of Jesus’ mission and the inherent danger of losing focus. 

Luke had finished his preliminaries. He had sensitised Theophilus, the reader of his Gospel, to the various themes that would re-surface in the unfolding public life of Jesus. The moment was ready for Jesus’ public life to begin.

Next >> Luke 4:14-30