Luke 4:1-15 – Gives us the account of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness or desert. This is one of those narratives that we’ve learned since childhood and heard preached repeatedly. It is the inspiration for the season of lent, that we as the Church, are participating in at the very moment. However, most of the focus our pulpits make of this story probably miss what may be the actual point of the entire temptation scene. So much can be drawn from this passage, but as I reflected upon it this week, I found three things I believe everyone should take away from this well known story.
1. The desert is a place of testing and trial that all of us go through.
We all have those Job moments where we tend to ask God the proverbially “why,” when we find ourselves in those difficult situations. It may be cavalier and over simplifying to simply label all tribulation a “desert season,” but the connection between wilderness and testing are an essential metaphor throughout Scripture. Israel finds herself in the wilderness for forty years at the hands of God. The author of Hebrews compares our time here in this already, but not yet period of God’s salvation with the wilderness experience of Israel, encouraging the community that those who endure will enter into “rest” (another metaphor for the promised land – new creation). Here in Luke 4, Jesus enters the wilderness like Israel did. Jesus begins his ministry in victory where Israel failed.
When reading this passage, one should first be stuck by the fact that Jesus is led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. It is God who leads Jesus into this place, into this dry and thirsty land. The desert is the place where our lives are tested, where our faith is challenged, where our identity comes into doubt. It’s where the ugliness of our heart’s rises to the surface. It is a place of struggle, of loneliness, where temptation rears it’s ugly head in defiance of our life’s purpose and mission. We find our motives, our will, and our dependence upon God challenged.
Sometimes we may feel like the desert is thrust upon us, that we have no choice. Maybe like Moses we have fled into the desert because of circumstances, or like Israel we’ve gotten ourselves stuck in this position. But, like Jesus this may be exactly where the Spirit of God has led us. The desert may be a dry place, a location where life struggles to be seen, full of briars and hard places, but it is also the place of refinement, preparation, and purification. It is a process we all need to regularly submit ourselves to if we are ever to be imitator’s of Christ.
2. Jesus’ temptations were authentic struggles that he was victorious through and we are invited to stand beside him in them.
Sometimes there is this inclination to minimize the struggle that Jesus faced because the nature of the temptations are for the Son of God. In fact, Satan’s first temptation begins, “If your the Son of God.” And maybe for some people, you say, “See look even Satan recognizes he’s divine, of course he didn’t give in, he is God!”
Obviously this line of thinking foolishly misjudges the entire nature of this story. It misunderstands the title Son of God and misses what Luke is inviting us to do within this narrative. We are to be imagine ourselves in Jesus place, a place we have all been and failed. Jesus has learned great self control and command of his body, but he is not relying on some sort of super power to resist Satan. In Hebrews we are told that we have a high priest who can sympathize with our struggles.
Most of us know very little of temptation. In the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis raises the point that one can only understand temptation if one resists giving in to it. The more that one resist’s temptation the greater the difficulty. Someone who has urges to do this or that and immediately gratifies them, has never felt temptation. This story invites us to imagine Jesus’ struggle. When we are able to envision the reality of these temptations for sustenance, ambition, prestige, his own security and the great lengths to which Jesus victoriously withstood them, we will find our hearts knit close to his with the strength to rely on his word against the quiet voices trying to pull us to the left and to the right.
3. The nature of the Jesus’ temptation concerns his identity and mission.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we need to discuss the actual content of the temptations and their responses. First, it must be said that the nature of all three temptations are connected. They do not remain isolated temptations that simply address another area of human frailty, as if Satan is running down the list of human weaknesses. The key to understanding these temptations can be found in the events preceding this pericope.
At Jesus baptism, the Spirit (same one that led him into the desert after this) descends upon him and in very trintarian character, YHWH speaks from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” What follows is a genealogy that seems oddly sandwiched between baptism and desert trials. The secret in understanding this order and the entire temptation scene is this declaration of Jesus as the Son of God.
It has been popular to understand this term in a Western manner as a term of divinity. Something akin to Hercules, or simply just an emphasis on Jesus being the omnipotent creator of the universe. I have no desire to question Jesus’ divinity, but it is an easy mistake to immediately assume this is Jesus’ divine side being affirmed. Go to John’s Gospel for some more outspoken divine christological titles.
The Son of God phrase most assuredly has in mind Psalm 2:7 – “YHWH has said to me, ‘You are my Son.’” This also includes Isaiah 42:1 – Behold my servant whom I uphold, my elect One (Anointed One) whom my soul delights. I will put my Spirit upon Him (baptism scene = check^) He will bring justice to the Gentiles.
These references are messianic and royal. They are both being drawn upon at the Baptism scene. It is no wonder that when Jesus returns from the desert he quotes Isaiah 61 – “The Spirit of the YHWH is upon me.” Isaiah 42 helps get a better idea of what it meant in Second Temple Judaism to saying something like Son of God. It was directly connected to the messianic mission. Herein lies the secret to the temptations Jesus’ faces, which begins with “If you’re the Son of God.” The temptations are all ultimately about Jesus vocation and whether he will fulfill the messianic calling of justice via the path of humiliation and denial on the cross. Don’t believe me, let’s take a look -
Jesus first temptation is to turn stone or stones into bread. One should know you don’t break a fast with bread. Even though this temptation is one that includes physical hunger, one should not stop reading into it there. As Jesus feels the pangs of hunger, his messiahship would require him to provide a banquet for others. The temptation to feed the crowds will show up again. The temptation is one concerning all the hungry, all the poor, one with economic consequences. If Jesus feeds the masses his kingship can be established. Certainly the images of manna in the wilderness and the role of Moses lie beneath this first temptation scene.
The second temptation is the most noticeably socio-political. If indeed the Son of God reference has it’s background in Psalm 2, than it would logically bring to mind verse 8 of that Psalm, “Ask of Me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance.” Satan in the second temptation offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, which seems to fit with the promise of being the Son of God. Here, the idolatrous power of politics and the hunger for nationalism have tried to tug Jesus into their tooth and claw world.
The depth of difficulty in this temptation only comes to light when you consider that if Jesus were to give in and accept the kingship of the world in the manner that Caesars and other Kings did, one could only imagine the war and pain he could prevent. Would not the ends justify the means? A little Satan worship and all that he needed to accomplish through the cross could be done without all the mess and pain. Luke is equating the ends justify the means ethics with Satan worship. Jesus quotes in response, Deuteronomy 6:13, a passage found in the middle of a discussion concerning the mission and election of Israel. Jesus is denouncing the worship of any other god, a monotheistic exclamation akin to declaring the salvation and mission of God, but also affirming that he will remain in the river of God’s will flowing toward the cross and making YHWH king as the suffering servant. Jesus will not be swayed to do God’s mission or establish the Kingdom in a manner that is not God’s will.
The last temptation is not Jesus just toying with the idea of being beyond suicide or desiring some angelic visitation. Jesus being taken up to the apex of the temple and jumping off only to be saved in dramatic angelic fashion would have elicited responses similar to the transfiguration. The symbolism would not be unrecognized. Here is Jesus with the temptation of religious domination. Regularly in the gospel he chastises those who look for signs and here he is tempted to win the people to his side with exactly that. Instead he will enter the temple and judge it and lament over its eventual destruction. When one considers that he could, with such an action, save the religious institution that his entire people and culture was built around, than the weight of rejecting such a method becomes clear. Moreover, Jesus rejects the challenge to force God’s hand or demand intervention merely to suit his fancy and whim. Jesus will do only what the Father has sent him to do.
Jesus is being tempted to doubt his identity and mission as the Son of God who will redeem God’s people and creation on a road filled with suffering. He not tempted with absurd ideas, but with options that even appear like common sense. However, Jesus is victorious, where all of us have failed. This lent, what voices are calling you out to you to draw you away. What struggles has the desert been revealing? To what Scriptures will you turn to like Jesus. Remember in these seasons that it may just be God’s Spirit calling you into this season. Do not let the trials make you forget your identity nor let them co-opt the manner in which, we as God’s children, are to follow after him on the road to the cross. And do not forget that He was faithful and victorious in the desert. When Jesus emerged from the desert he went forth in spirit and power proclaiming the gospel all over Judea. The desert is where we’re prepared to be empowered as his Spirit led imitator’s.