The Temptation of Jesus

Lent 1C

Luke 4: 1 13


Our reading for this week is well known and Bible Commentaries cover it in great detail. Our purpose, as has been clearly documented, is not to add yet another commentary, but to offer assistance to those who wish to "unpack" the immense spiritual content of this account. In other words, it is intended to help readers or group leaders in their meditation. Some may feel uneasy, in this age, to speak of "the devil", or of "Satan", (Greek: diabolos = slanderer) and our doing so does not place us in any particular school of thought. We encourage readers to walk with us through the sequence of events, using the language forms St Luke offers, and to focus more on the meaning of what occurs and is presented for our pondering.

Introducing his discussion on our Lord's temptations, Stuhlmueller writes: "It was not a question of proving to the perverted demon whether or not Jesus was able to perform a miraculous deed; the contest lay in the motive for working miracles. The temptations therefore, were not so much personal trials as they were a messianic struggle".

It is with this in mind that our meditation material situates the constant struggle for Christ's Body, the Church, in the contemporary world with its enticements, its distractions, and its dangers.

Notes On Our Text

Verses 1 and 2

Our account opens with Jesus coming freshly from his baptism in the Jordan river, and is, note, "full of the Holy Spirit". He is led throughout his time in the desert by the Holy Spirit, "where for forty days he was tempted by the devil". Although very hungry from not eating during this time, he displays amazing fortitude.

We do not know whether Satan appeared in bodily form or whether what is recorded was a purely mental conflict. Arguments abound over this matter. We shall proceed by focusing on the spiritual content of each incident.

We need to note, as scholars such as Liefeld observe, that there are three kinds of tempting in the sense of testing:

a) Satan (directly or through our lower nature) tempts people, luring them to do evil.
b) People may tempt (test) God in the sense of provoking him through unreasonable
demands contrary to faith.
c) God tests (but does not tempt) his people.

All three forms are identifiable because of God's interactions with humanity in our sacred history.

Most commentaries refer to the temptations of Jesus against the backdrop of Israel's experience in the desert after the Exodus. This is powerful and worth the study. We will look briefly at a more contemporary application, thinking about parallels for his body of followers. This body, the Church, is facing with ever more momentum, essentially the same temptations. Our history shows we are as vulnerable as ancient Israel. It is our Lord's example and victory which show the way we must follow if we would keep our Faith free of what is always threatening to reduce it to gaudy displays of religious entertainment.

Verses 3 and 4

The devil challenges Jesus ("if" he is the Son of God) to tell a stone to become bread. The suggestion is offensive on many counts, not in the least that it distorts the created order of things. However, our Lord treats the suggestion with the disdain it deserves. He responds: "Man does not live on bread alone." Aware that our Lord is quoting Deut. 8: 3, we expect him to add something else. But this is Luke's account — not Matthew's.

Whilst bread is in itself good, necessary and wholesome, Satan in fact tempts Jesus to listen to his feelings, his emotions, rather then his heart. Not surprising this is the first point of subtle attack. We are inclined to let our feelings govern our actions, just as we are inclined to judge the quality of something by how it makes us feel. That has its place, obviously, but is frequently disastrous. In our Lord's case the devil had made a foolish blunder. Jesus is no more ruled by always wanting to "feel good" than he is by selfish use of his powers to live in ease and comfort.

But Satan's attempted deception is aimed at finding a selfish streak in Jesus if he can. "Don't work for your bread if you have authority to just demand it. Think of yourself first and have what you want. If you can live in ease and comfort, then it's your right to do so".

Jesus resists the temptation that gratification of the senses will bring fulfilment. His response is as noted above, immediate and incisive: "Man does not live on bread alone". Luke leaves us to ponder the implications in our own spiritual life.

Verses 5 8

However it occurred, the devil then tries to tempt Jesus to accept from him (of all beings) the power and glory to achieve everything he wants. "The people want a political messiah. Play that role and you will never lack a mob to follow you. Use power and authority to control the world for your own ends and you will suppress all your enemies. That kind of power I am always willing to give. You will never get that from the One you call Father! Why suffer when you can have it the easy way!"

To our Lord, this was odious in the extreme. "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only", he replied, exposing the phony logic and outrageous claims of Satan.

Verses 9 12

And now the third temptation. The devil bids Jesus to hurl himself to the ground from the highest point on the Temple, again quipping, "That is, if you really are the Son of God". Having listened to our Lord quote Scripture to him, the devil now does the same and does it exceedingly well! 

(using Psalm 91: 11 — 12). 

Indirectly the devil is implying: "If you want to be a prophet, you have to tell the people what they want to hear. If you want to be their messiah, you have to show them what they want to see. If they want spectacular miracles and endless hype and surprise - give it to them. They'll keep coming; you can count on it.

Be a popular messiah. Conform to the popular image and you will have a huge following. Do the unexpected and leave it to God to make sure you are not left stranded".

Jesus again treats the devil's suggestion with the contempt it deserves: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test!" (Again, quoting Scripture Deut. 6: 16). It was beneath our Lord to seek special protection, or to force God to perform "at gun point".

Verse 13

]We are left in awe of our Lord but note with a sense of distrust and fear at the prospect of future evil: "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time".

On Reflection

We find it an utter perversion of the Sacred Word to hear Satan quote it in support of his loathsome suggestions. But we had better not be too disdainful. Christian preachers can fall into this trap. As the devil demonstrates, it is easy to rattle off a quotation hoping it will impress the hearer(s). Our Lord does NOT simply retaliate with a quotation. He uses Sacred Scripture correctly and demonstrates that when used thus, it has a unique power. Clearly he is modeling for us a way to handle the deception of evil.

If we want to follow our Lord's example we need to be well armed with understanding Scripture - and this requires pondering it deeply. Jesus showed us how to do it — and there simply is no other way. HE took time to be alone in prayer with this Father and listen.

If we would do less talking at God, and listen to his holy word at the depths of our being, we will begin to leave behind the noisy demands of worldly living and hear — and therefore learn — real wisdom.

Dr La Verdiere provides us with a distillation of this wisdom, which arises from our reading:

"Christians must not expect to be nourished automatically and for the simple reason that they are Christians. They must learn to situate the need for food among other life needs, which are more basic. Christians should understand that their persecutions and political difficulties are normal for men and women bent on divine values. To greet political power with mere political power would be bowing to the enemy. Finally, Christians must not expect God to free them from the human condition. Trust in God should not be confused with the kind of foolhardy behaviour, which tries to control God and limit his freedom…

Jesus' mission marks humanity's complete victory over evil. Adam had fallen short of that victory. No ordinary son of Adam, Jesus rose to its challenge. Unlike Adam, He accepted the limitations of created humanity, and it is thus that he manifested the ideal of divine sonship. Jesus' divine sonship was revealed in his humanity, and his victory over evil was effected in his acceptance of creaturely limitations."

(From "Luke", by Eugene La Verdiere, Veritas Publications, 1980)


Another great scholar of our times Dr Carroll Stuhlmueller, has written:

"Salvation is achieved, not outside the ordinary laws of existence, but within the normal, monotonous, humble, at times sorrowful, way of faith"

As he alludes, this was the secret of sanctity for Joseph and Mary: not by "quick-fix", but long term commitment to fulfilling God's will as their main priority, despite the many trials which arose during their lives. The warnings for the Church today will be obvious. We too must be on the lookout for whatever would deceptively cover what is good, real and authentic. There are many self-proclaimed prophets who appeal to the senses and emotions rather than the heart. They would have us believe that they can help us take a short cut through the real limitations of our human existence. There have always been many people, often in desperate circumstances who have sincerely followed false leaders who told them what they wanted to hear.

Religion can indeed be falsely presented. We must also be on the lookout constantly for what reduces fitting worship of God to mere emotionalism or what is tantamount to popular entertainment with a touch of religion: all, of course, in the name of a bid to appeal to the modern mind. The Lord has shown us not only the traps - but also the way to deal with them successfully.

Thanks be to God.

Dr Ryle (A.D. 1830) provides our last comment:

"Three times we see Him foiling and baffling the great enemy who assaulted Him. He does not yield a hair's breadth to him. He does not give him a moment's advantage. Three times we see Him using the same weapon, in reply to his temptations:— "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6: 17.) He who was "full of the Holy Ghost," was yet not ashamed to make the Holy Scriptures His weapon of defence and His rule of action.

Let us learn from this single fact, if we learn nothing else from this wondrous history, the high authority of the Bible and the immense value of knowledge of its contents. Let us read it, search into it, pray over it, diligently, perseveringly, unweariedly. Let us strive to be so thoroughly acquainted with its pages that its texts may abide in our memories and stand ready at our right hand in the day of need. Let us be able to appeal from every perversion and false interpretation of it's meaning, to those thousand plain passages, which are written as it were with a sunbeam. The Bible is indeed a sword, but we must take heed that we know it well, if we would use it with effect."


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