The Temptation of Jesus
Author: Jason Buckwalter
Lesson Focus: As we move toward Holy Week, temptation comes, not in the pull to do great evil, but to serve ourselves rather than God’s mission.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should: 1. Understand that Jesus is tempted to misuse his power as God’s Son. 2. Understand that temptation comes, not as a pull to do great evil, but to serve ourselves above God and others. 3. Contemplate the temptations that they suffer and how they might withstand those temptations.
Catching up on the story: Jesus has just been baptized by John the Baptist. His public ministry hasn’t yet started but we have already become acquainted with Jesus, his origins and, to a certain extent, his destiny. Luke has given us an extensive birth narrative, has recorded for us his genealogy and has let us listen in to the voice of God proclaiming that Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus’ public ministry is about to begin.
It will become clear, in the weeks that follow, that much preparation must be done before Jesus and his disciples (us too!) are ready for the events of Holy Week. In this, the first passage we will examine in Lent, Jesus is the one being prepared for his journey toward the cross. What is certain is that there will be many temptations along this journey. Along with Christ, we will have to rely on the power of God’s Holy Spirit to show us the way to resist temptation so that we might be ready for what God is doing.
The Text: Jesus is about to begin his public ministry. He is now fully grown and has received public confirmation that he is God’s Son at his baptism. Not only was Jesus confirmed publicly as God’s Son, he also received the Holy Spirit. We will notice that, at the beginning of the temptation narrative and at other important events in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus does great deeds with the power of the Spirit.
Also, it will be important to note that this entire exchange is deeply situated in Jewish thought and scripture. Both the devil and Jesus use scripture to make their points. The devil uses scripture to entice Jesus to serve himself, and Jesus uses scripture to note that serving himself is antithetical to his mission in life.
Finally, this passage sets the stage for the rest of the narrative movement in Luke’s gospel. Jesus, in refusing to exercise messiahship in the ways that would elevate himself at the expense of God’s mission of salvation, defines for us the true nature of God. It also lays out the way in which we are to see our selves in relation to God’s mission.
The story begins on the heels of Jesus’ baptism by John. The Holy Spirit manifested itself in the form of a dove showing those who viewed the event that God’s Spirit indeed rests with Jesus. After a short break in the narrative for a record of Jesus’ genealogy, the action picks up again.
The first thing we are told is that Jesus, who is filled with God’s Holy Spirit, is led into the wilderness by that same Spirit. Jesus was not forced to go, but was obedient to the direction and leading of his Father through the Spirit. This kind of obedience will mark not only the episode before us, but the entirety of Jesus’ life and mission on earth.
There are two significant facts that arise from the beginning of this narrative. First, Jesus is led into the wilderness. As will become apparent later in the gospel, Jesus’ life has many parallels with the history of Israel’s salvation. Israel is led into the wilderness right after the Exodus event as they began their journey toward the Promised Land. Second, not only is Jesus led into the wilderness, he is there for 40 days. Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years, partly because of their disobedience and partly because they needed to be prepared for entering into the Promised Land. Jesus has no need to be punished for disobedience, but in a way he is being prepared for the experiences he will have during his earthly ministry. The parallels, however, are unmistakable. Where Israel failed, Jesus will succeed.
We are told that the entire time Jesus was in the wilderness he had nothing to eat. By the end of this time, Jesus is rather hungry. We must not lose track of the fact that Jesus, as much as he is God, is also fully human. Not eating for 40 days will make anyone, no matter how fit and healthy they are, weak and hungry.
The First Temptation: Luke 4:1-4 This leads us to the first temptation. As Jesus is wrapping up his time in the wilderness he is approached by the devil. In the original language in Luke it is the diabolos, the wicked, slandering one, the adversary. He immediately challenges Jesus.
The devil says to Jesus, “if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” (v. 3) Keep in mind that we have just heard, a few verses before this story, the very voice of God stating that Jesus is God’s Son.
Jesus responds by quoting scripture saying that one does not live by bread alone. Joel Green thinks that the question is this, “Will Jesus follow the leading of the Spirit and manifest unwavering trust in God to supply his needs; or will he relieve his hunger by exercising his power apart from God? The devil does not deny that Jesus is God’s Son, but exploits this status by urging Jesus to use his power in his own way to serve his own ends; he thus reinterprets “Son of God” to mean the opposite of faithful obedience and agency on God’s behalf” (Green, 194).
In other words, the devil is questioning how it is that Jesus will use his status as the Son of God. Will he use it in a manner befitting his calling to bring about salvation, restoration and wholeness for creation? Or will he use it to further his own needs, desires and wants? The question is one of obedience to the way of the Father, or obedience to one’s own self. Jesus does not serve himself. Instead, Jesus affirms his belief that one’s supreme trust should not be placed in the things that might satisfy our needs immediately, but in the One who created and sustains the universe.
Jesus response to this first temptation is to quote scripture. In fact, each of his responses will rely on quotations from the book of Deuteronomy.
The Second Temptation: Luke 4:5-8 The devil is not so easily defeated, so he tries again. In an instant the devil shows Jesus the entirety of what the devil thinks he controls by way of influence and force. The original hearers of this text would have understood that the Romans controlled most of the known world, but we are being led to believe, in this episode, that there is really a power and a force behind the Roman empire. The devil has been allowed to exercise control over things. Now he offers Jesus the ability to rule all of these things, if only he would bow down and pay the devil some respect. The devil is tempting Jesus with the desire to rule all. Both Jesus and the devil know who it is that really owns and rules all that has just been seen.
Again the issue of Jesus’ status as Son of God is at stake. If Jesus were to take the devil’s deal, then Jesus would be forsaking his true sonship for something that was empty and void. The only authority that the devil owns has been given to him by God. Jesus, on the other hand, is God. He does what the Father does. All of this will belong to him if he remains faithful and obedient.
“Whatever rule the devil exercises is that allowed him by God; he can only delegate to Jesus what has already been delegated to him. What Jesus is offered, then, is a shabby substitute for the divine sonship that is his by birth. Jesus’ reply, again borrowed from the pages of Deuteronomy, is rejection of the devil’s pretension to absolute sovereignty and a reaffirmation of his uncompromising fidelity to God.” (Green, 195)
The Third Temptation: Luke 4:9-12 When it becomes apparent that Jesus has not taken the bait, the devil tries one more time. Jesus is soon transported to Jerusalem, to the very top of the Temple. The location for this temptation as the city of Jerusalem is probably a bit of foreshadowing. At the end of the narrative, Jesus will undergo his greatest test and temptation in Israel’s capital city.
Once again the devil appeals to Jesus’ sonship. If Jesus is really God’s Son, then he will be completely protected if he were to jump off of the highest point of the Temple. The devil, quoting Psalm 91, assures Jesus that the true follower of God will not be hurt because God will send his angels to protect him. If Jesus jumps he won’t even stub his toe!
Jesus is being tempted to exploit his status as obedient Son of God once again. The devil seems to be asserting that if Jesus is God’s Son then obedience to the Father will not lead toward suffering and death, but to prosperity and life. Jesus, in being obedient to the Father will not have to face persecution and death.
Jesus, however, knows that this is indeed not the case. Again Green, “In doing so the devil overlooks the critical reality that the psalm is addressed to those who through their fidelity to God reside in God’s presences; even in the psalm faithful obedience to God is a controlling need. Moreover, the devil fails to recognize an even deeper mystery, known already to the believing community of which Luke is a part, that divine rescue may come through suffering and death and not only before (and from) them.” (Green, 195)
Jesus, however, passes the test once again. He refuses to use his sonship for his own gain. Rather, he knows that right living and being come from placing one’s trust in the Father for direction and sustenance. After Jesus rebuffs the devil for the third and final time, the devil departs until the opportune time. Jesus has not escaped temptation for good. Rather, temptation will return when the time is right.
So What…? Temptation is a common thread that weaves its way all through scripture. Unfortunately, it is also a common thread that weaves its way through the life of every individual who has ever been born, including Jesus. The story before us today unmasks for us the nature of temptation. Temptation does not often come to us first in the form of gross debauchery. We are not first tempted to murder, rape and pillage. We are first tempted to do good things in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.
If we look at the story of the Fall, we find that the serpent’s call to Eve and Adam is for them to grasp the fruit so that they could become like God, not like the devil. Almost certainly this, the story of Adam and Eve, must have been in the back of Luke’s mind as he related Jesus’ own temptation, and similarly, Jesus is not tempted to do anything particularly evil.
Imagine the good Jesus could do if he went around turning stones into bread? Imagine the good Jesus could do if Jesus were placed in a high profile position of leadership as the devil had promised! Who better to lead the world than Jesus? Imagine how many people would come to faith in Jesus if he threw himself off the top of the Temple only to reach the bottom unscathed? What a fantastic stunt!
On the surface it appears that Jesus could have done much good had he succumbed to temptation. It might make you wonder, what kind of temptations might I be submitting to that, on the outside, look like they will produce a great good, but in reality those temptations abuse faith or point glory to the wrong person?
Here are some questions that might help us determine if what we feel like we should do is good and right, or if it is a temptation. Does this action/thought/word serve myself or does it serve those around me? Does this action/thought/word help me establish power (or bring glory) for myself or does it point to the power and glory of God? Time and time again, Israel failed in regards to temptation. Jesus, on the other hand, does not. We don’t have to either. As Jesus was victorious through the power of the Holy Spirit, so too will we be victorious.
Practices for Lent: This week engage in one or more of the following practices: 1. Set apart a special time each day to pray for the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in your life. 2. Fast a meal each day this week. As you do, pay close attention to the temptation you will have to eat during that time. Pray that God will provide for your needs. 3. At work this week, intentionally do something that will give credit to someone else in your office. 4. Write down each temptation you had this week. Offer a prayer of thankfulness to God for those you resisted. Offer a prayer of repentance for those you did not resist. 5. Choose to give something up for the duration of Lent. Here are some examples: a meal each day, caffeine, social media, television, or meat. Each time you are tempted to indulge in the thing you gave up, pray for strength to become more like Christ.
Critical Discussion Questions: 1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? God desires selfless obedience. It is, however, not the kind of obedience that is blind and ruthless. The obedience that God desires is leading us, like Christ, toward ultimate glorification and uninterrupted relationship with God our Father. Jesus shows for us an example of the kind of faith and trust that we must have in God that he will take care of our needs, and that his ways will ultimately lead toward victory.
2. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text? Obedience is at the very center of holiness. We must continually be giving ourselves over to the Lordship of Christ. This means trusting that his ways are the right ways even when we are encountered with a seemingly better offer. Jesus didn’t take advantage of his status. We are called to be like Jesus. Therefore, we must give ourselves away for the sake of the other.
3. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become? It should lead us toward the path of obedience that rests in the fact that we are children of God.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story. 1. Luke makes a point to tell us that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit when he is led into the wilderness. Why do you think this point is important for Luke? 2. Luke draws some parallels between Jesus’ experience here and Israel’s history. What episode from Israel’s history sounds similar to this? How does Israel fare in that story? 3. The devil, literally, the wicked one or the adversary, tempts Jesus three times. What do you notice about each of the devil’s temptations? What common theme runs through them all? 4. Why would it be wrong for Jesus to turn a rock into bread? In response to this temptation, Jesus quotes a part of Deuteronomy 8:3. Read Deuteronomy 8:1-3 to better understand why Jesus quotes it. Who is Jesus saying will provide for him? 5. What kind of good could be done if Jesus went around turning stones into bread? Who would benefit from such actions? 6. Jesus, by virtue of who he is as the Son of God, already has authority of all that has been made. Why then does the devil think he can offer it to Jesus? 7. In the final temptation, Jesus is told to cast himself off the roof of the Temple and God’s angels will catch him. Why would the devil tempt him to do so? How many followers would Jesus gain if he had done a stunt like that? Why would it be wrong for Jesus to do something like this? 8. These three temptations are about Jesus misusing his power as the Son of God to further his own glory rather than God’s glory. The temptations aren’t really bad or immoral in themselves. What kind of temptations might you and I be exposed to that aren’t really bad or immoral in themselves but yet bring glory to ourselves instead of God?
WORKS CITED: Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).