And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” (Luke 4:9-11 ESV)
Luke 4:1-13 (Psalm 91)
Jesus’ third temptation in Luke’s gospel is the strangest of all: throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple because God will catch you. If a person told me that he heard voices telling him to throw himself off the roof, he and I would be taking a little walk to Community Mental Health. Suicidal ideation and magical thinking are a bad combination.
It is impossible to place myself in Jesus’ experience. This is another instance of a temptation that, in its particular form, is unique to Jesus. Was Jesus tempted to put on a show of power to win converts? Was he tempted to validate his own identity? Was he delirious from hunger? It is just not possible to say any more about the psychology of Jesus’ temptation than the text itself relates.
The theology of this temptation, however, is clear, and that is found in the scriptural texts quoted by both parties.
The devil quotes a passage from Psalm 91, a passage that is familiar to almost every Christian or Jewish Soldier who has deployed to war. It is a Psalm that is dear to those in combat.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. (Psalms 91:1-7 ESV)
The Psalmist envisions a God who protects his own and delivers them from death. As Jesus looks forward to walking the way of the cross, he must wrestle with the promise of Psalm 91. Ultimately, Jesus does not have the option of keeping his head down or staying in cover if he is to be faithful to his calling. Can a God who makes the promises of Psalm 91 allow his chosen one to suffer and die? Can such a God be trusted? Is God’s word in Psalm 91 true, and if so, how can it true be true in the shadow of the cross? “If you are the Son of God, why won’t God protect you?”
Jesus answers the devil one last time with the words of Deuteronomy, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
There is an obvious difference between trusting God and testing God. I carried a card with Psalm 91 on it during combat, but I still kept my head down when rounds were flying. The issue for Jesus, however, is even larger than that.
Deuteronomy 6:13 explicitly points back to Israel’s experience at Massah during the Exodus. At Massah, the people faced an impossible situation: they had no water in the hot, dry desert. They feared for their lives and did not believe that God could provide for them under these circumstances. Exodus says that the people “tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'” (Exodus 17:7 ESV)
Jesus remembered, then, this episode in Israel’s history when the circumstances looked as if God could not possibly be true to his word. At Massah, the desperate situation led some to doubt that God was with them at all. The LORD called the people of Israel to put their faith in him despite the apparent impossibility of the situation.
In similar fashion, God called Jesus to trust him throughout the coming difficult days. Jesus’ resurrection would ultimately fulfill the promise of Psalm 91, but not without a journey to the cross.
In the wilderness, when tempted by the devil, Jesus determined to trust God’s word and move forward with the costly and sacrificial mission God had given him. He determined to take the risk of faith and entrust his future to God, whatever the cost might be.