Temptation of Jesus- Luke 4:1-13

4 Jan

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.This part of the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. After all, why would God subject His own people to temptation? Why is it necessary to petition God not to lead us into temptation?

This theme is a proper continuation of that found in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ Baptism and of His genealogy. Luke ends his baptism narrative with the description: “…the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven, ‘You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:22)

Firstly, I will focus on two phrases from within this verse: the mention of the Holy Spirit, and the depiction of the Holy Spirit as being “in bodily form”. Before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the same Holy Spirit fills Christ and leads Him into the wilderness. (cf. Luke 4:1) The Incarnate God is led toward forty days of solitude and of fasting. He is in perfect union with the Father and with the Spirit. He is of course the same Godhead as these, but He freely takes on our human nature, including our bodily form. The Spirit that descended upon Him in the form of a dove is within Jesus as He goes into the wasteland, and fills Jesus such that the Spirit overflows from inside Him and is shared abundantly with all who believe. (cf. John 14:6, Psalm 23:5)

Jesus’ superlative strength is made manifest here. But the stronger He is, the more He is made subject to loneliness and temptation. Satan will not go down to defeat without a struggle. Jesus intimately shares in our battle with the devil. The Lord participates in the story of Israel, our “struggle with God”. He knows us even better than we know ourselves, because He is human like us. Thus the Lord, who has divested Himself of the glory of His divinity, is best prepared to wrestle with the slanderer* in the desert (cf. Luke 4:3), just as Jacob clashed in isolation with the man- God, actually, though this is not revealed at first- and was victorious at Peniel. (cf. Genesis 32:22-32)

Jesus is voluntarily led into battle in the wilderness by the Spirit. He, unlike us, is able to overcome temptation by His own power. We need His power. We are the formless void that requires God’s creative force to sow His goodness within us. (cf. Genesis 1:1, 1:31) Without God, we are a desert wasteland. We are nothing.

Christ knows this, so He invites us to petition the Father not to submit us to temptation to which we will succumb in God’s absence. In our petition, we ask Jesus therefore to fill our nothingness, our desertedness, just as the Holy Spirit fills Him. If we allow Our Lord to do so, temptations become mere tests and no longer pressures toward sin. Temptation will occur in our lives, as people from humanity’s beginning have been tempted. Not only is the Lord aware of this pressure on His people, but Scripture says that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Scripture also provides other important insights into Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation, especially the many Old Testament references to the number forty. For example, the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness relates back to the forty days during which Moses fasted on Mount Sinai. (cf. Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9) Elijah is told repeatedly by an angel to eat in order to prepare himself for the journey to Horeb, the Mount of God. The food and drink that Elijah consumes lasts him until journey’s end, when he finds himself in the presence of God after forty days and forty nights. (cf. 1 Kings 19:4-10) The Lord led the Israelites into the wilderness, where they fought to build and to preserve their faith for forty years. (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2-6)

In Luke’s temptation story, Jesus quotes from or refers to Deuteronomy three times:

– “(One) does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3, Luke 4:4)
– “The Lord your God you shall fear; Him you shall serve, and by His name alone you shall swear.” (Deut. 6:13, cf. Luke 4:8 )
– “Do not put the Lord your God to the test…” (Deut. 6:16, Luke 4:12)

Jesus’ three references to the Old Testament here highlight Luke’s likely intention to portray Him as one who came not to change existing Jewish law, but to fulfill what was written by His death and resurrection in accordance with the Father’s will.

Luke’s Gospel leans heavily on Scripture, not only to convey the perfection of God’s law, which Jesus quotes three times (the number three is shown again to be an important symbol of completeness or perfection in the Bible), but to warn against improper use of holy text. Satan referred to the Psalms to tempt Jesus:

“(For) it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Luke 4:10-11, cf. Psalm 91:11-12)

Jesus withstands this enticement by the devil to put God to the test, thus to subordinate the will of the Father to His own will. He overcomes this temptation to push God aside, this force which has felled human beings since the first people bought into Satan’s deceitful words: “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” (Genesis 3:4-5)

Appeals to authoritative texts are attractive, though false applications of Scripture often sway us toward evil. Shakespeare alludes to this in The Merchant of Venice:

What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?

However, Satan’s lies and misuse of Scripture fail to sway Jesus. Only the total unity with the Father, such that the Father and the Son are the same God whose love begets the Holy Spirit, satisfies the hunger of the fasting Lord…

Lastly, a brief comparison of the temptation accounts of Luke and of Matthew is useful in understanding the authors’ intentions. The order of the last two temptations is reversed in Matthew from that in Luke. Matthew concludes his temptation narrative with the devil taking Jesus atop a mountain and showing him the kingdoms of the world that Christ could have possessed had he bowed to Satan’s wishes. Mountains are important in Matthew’s Gospel. Many of Jesus’ important teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5-7), were delivered from mountaintops according to Matthew. Luke places a different importance on mountains.

In Luke’s Gospel, mountains are sites of solitude, prayer, and contemplation. In contrast to the Gospel of Matthew, the setting for the most important events of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is in or near Jerusalem. In the Lucan temptation account, the devil makes his third attempt to trick Jesus in Jerusalem, “at the pinnacle of the Temple”. (Luke 4:9)

Also, though Luke has more of a tendency than Matthew does to accompany the high points of Jesus’ life with the presence of angels, there are no angels present when the devil departs from Jesus. This differs from Matthew’s focus, where angels wait on Jesus after He is tempted for the third time. In Luke’s Gospel, Christ is alone and is filled with the Holy Spirit, just as He was when He first went out into the wilderness. Furthermore, Luke ends on an ominous note: the devil will return “at an opportune time”- during Christ’s Passion. (Luke 4:13)

Lord Jesus, your apostle Paul commanded us to make our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). The wasteland of human weakness becomes a temple of beauty that you fashion and sustain. You were tempted on the top of the Temple in Jerusalem; be with us in mercy when our temple is crumbling under the advance of the prince of darkness. Do not submit us to temptations that are insurmountable, but aid us to overcome evil. Thank you, Lord for being one like us in flesh. Though we struggle with temptation as you did, we take comfort in your presence and we welcome you into our lives. Amen.




* In another difference between Matthew and Luke, the Lucan Gospel names Jesus’ tempter as “the devil”, which comes from the Greek word “diabolos”, meaning “slanderer”. Matthew names him as Satan, “the adversary”.A good reference I’ve been using on the Gospel of Luke is Fred B. Craddock’s “Luke”, from the series “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching”.



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