And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. – Luke 4:1-2
Tempted by the Devil
The temptation of Jesus is a strange story. Living 40 days without food is a miraculous fast. Don’t try this at home. At the end of it all, Jesus was hungry. What else did he experience in this physical state? Turning stones to bread, we can understand. Visions of power and fame, we can understand. Throwing oneself down from the pinnacle of the temple, how strange is that?
The three temptations themselves are a sort of Rorschach test for interpreters. How many different sermons have been preached on this passage? The meaning of the temptations is not self-evident because they are not tightly integrated into Luke’s literary or theological framework.
With trepidation, then, let me tell you what I see in the inkblots. The message of the temptation is this: “Serve the God who made himself known in Jesus, even if your own needs don’t get met, even if it doesn’t make you powerful or famous and even if it doesn’t exempt you from suffering.” How different this is from the gospel is sometimes preached!
We will look at these temptations in more detail in later posts linked below, but first, let’s get our bearings.
Four Gospels and One Book of the Law
The three synoptic gospels all report some form of this temptation narrative. All three synoptics agree that the period of temptation was 40 days and that it occurred in the wilderness.
John does not report this event and it would be hard to fit it into John’s chronology.
Only Matthew and Luke specify that Jesus fasted and enumerate the three specific temptations. The temptations are very similar in content in both gospels, but the order is slightly different. Luke’s second temptation is Matthew’s third, and vice-versa.
In characteristically Lukan fashion, the third evangelist emphasizes the presence and leadership of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). Jesus isn’t helpless and his experience isn’t random or pointless.
As has been widely noted, Jesus’ answers to the devil are all quotations from the book of Deuteronomy.
- 8:3 – not by bread alone
- 6:13 – fear the Lord and serve him
- 6:16 – do not put the Lord your God to the test
Jesus was shaped by Old Testament scriptures (which were the only scriptures he knew). When contrasting the Old and New Testaments, don’t draw the line too sharply. Jesus was a product of the Israel’s scriptures.
Additionally, note how the Spirit and the Word are both essential for Luke. Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit,” but his faithfulness is formed by and expressed in the words of the Bible.
The devil’s third temptation quotes Psalm 91:11-12. By placing this temptation third (and not second as in Matthew), Luke builds a certain dramatic progression. If Jesus responds to the first two temptations with quotations from the Bible, the devil also turns to the scriptures to propose the third temptation. In Matthew’s version, the dramatic conclusion comes with the rejection of Satan and an affirmation of loyalty to God alone. Luke’s version climaxes with Jesus choosing to trust God without testing him.
The meaning of the temptations is not self-evident because they are not tightly integrated into the literary or theological framework of either Matthew or Luke. The temptations don’t introduce themes or images that reoccur prominently within the gospels. For this reason, I believe the synoptic evangelists for the most part are simply repeating a tradition that was strongly embedded within the gospel story. You couldn’t tell the story of Jesus without including the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil.
Remember that the temptation narrative is gospel: the proclamation of good news about God’s victory in Jesus. It’s not just good advice.