1 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”
5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”
13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (CEB)
The temptation of Jesus is a familiar story to most of us. It’s most often interpreted as a story that tells us how Jesus was tempted in every way, just like we are tempted each day. But Luke closely connects the temptation of Jesus with Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Luke has already identified Jesus as such. Even before Jesus was born, the angel Gabriel told Mary that her son “will be called God’s Son.” (Lk 1:35, CEB).
The three temptation scenes each give a different interpretation of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. They each show us the meaning and nature of being the Son of God: the kind of Son that Jesus is in contrast to the kind of child Israel turned out to be.
The temptations also show us the meaning and nature of being God’s adopted children in this called-community named the church. Each temptation Jesus experienced teaches us something significant about the Christian Life and how it is to be lived.
For each temptation scene, we need to explore the Old Testament context of each of Jesus’ responses in order to make sense of what is being said.
In the first temptation, the devil suggests to a very hungry Jesus that he make bread from one of the stones lying around him. This act would be perfectly harmless. No one would be hurt. At the same time, it would supply Jesus’ need for food, satisfying his intense hunger after a forty-day fast. Why should Jesus not use his divine power for this? It appears to be a win-win solution. No harm, no foul.
Jesus’ response, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” makes little sense without remembering the biblical context from which it comes.
1 You must carefully perform all of the commandment that I am commanding you right now so you can live and multiply and enter and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors. 2 Remember the long road on which the LORD your God led you during these forty years in the desert so he could humble you, testing you to find out what was in your heart: whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 He humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so he could teach you that people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the LORD says. (Deuteronomy 8:1-3, CEB).
Here, Moses reminds the people of their sojourn in the wilderness—and specifically—of God’s gift of manna. The people’s hunger and God’s gift of manna occurred because, “people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the LORD says.” (Deut. 8:3, CEB).
The people’s need for bread was secondary to Israel’s need to understand that God alone provides bread. The need for physical sustenance was not as important as their understanding that God is their sole provider of physical sustenance. Because Jesus understands that the Lord alone provides bread, he can resist the temptation to take matters into his own hands.
Oh, that we had such understanding! That we understood that God is our provider, and our need for sustenance and the things of the world is secondary to our need to understand that God has gifted to us everything. Maybe, then, we would be more willing to give back to God all that God requires of us.
In the second temptation, Jesus is offered political power. Who among us, after all, has not said to themselves at one time or another, “If only I were in charge…” And really, what better person to have in charge of the world’s politics than Jesus? Especially in light of the field of candidates for President. All Jesus has to do is bow down and worship the devil, and he’ll receive dominion over all the nations of the earth. As the devil said, “It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want.” (CEB).
Yet, in the context of Israel’s history, certain concerns about power are at play here. Israel always acted like the jealous little neighbor kid. Israel always wanted to be like its neighbors: to worship their neighbor’s gods, to have kings like their neighbor’s kings, to have clout and power like their neighbors. The only reason the people of Israel had a king at all is because they rejected the Lord as their king in the first place. That’s the accusation God laid against them when they asked for a king.
“So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the LORD. 7 The LORD answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request–everything they ask of you–because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshiping other gods.” (1 Samuel 8:4-8, CEB).
Israel wanted to be a political power like their neighbors, the wanted to have a king like their neighbors, more than they wanted to be a faithful people with the Lord as their king.
Jesus’ response is from Deuteronomy 6:13, “Revere the LORD your God, serve him, and take your oaths in his name!” (CEB). This response rejects the devil’s demand for worship. In doing so, Jesus insists that real power only comes from God. After all, the devil had said himself that authority over the world had been “entrusted” to him. The devil had no authority apart from what had been given to him. God gave the devil authority over the earth before the devil rebelled and misused his power. The Lord is the only source of power in heaven and earth. Any time we think otherwise we’re deluding ourselves.
The third temptation is the climax of the three temptation scenes, and it’s centered on the Jerusalem Temple. This time, when the devil speaks, he uses the Holy Scripture itself in order to reinforce his suggestion. I’d wager that the devil knows what the Bible says better than most Christians.
If Jesus is God’s Son, then he can force God to prove it and protect him, just as Psalm 91 suggests. “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written [in Psalm 91]: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.’” (CEB).
Jesus again responds with words from Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 6:16, Moses warns the people that God should not be put to the test as they had tested him at Massah when Moses struck the rock at Horeb and water came forth from the rock. While God’s promises are true, we are not allowed to try and force God’s hand to fulfill promises according to the ways we think those promises ought to be fulfilled. God is not our servant; we are servants of God. It’s when we attempt to reverse those roles and make God our servant that we put God to the test.
At the end of the three temptations, Luke tells us “the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.” (CEB). That next opportunity was the crucifixion of Jesus. So here at the beginning of Lent we already look forward to suffering and death on the cross.
These temptations tell us something about Jesus as God’s Son. We can see that Jesus is a different kind of child of God than the people of Israel proved to be, and even – often enough – than we Christians prove to be. Israel thought it needed bread alone to live. Israel gave in to the temptation of idolatry. Israel tested God by trying to make God do their bidding.
Jesus’ resistance to the temptations of the devil proves that he is not that kind of Son. Jesus understands that the Lord is God alone. He never once turned aside from that understanding. God alone is God.
We, on the other hand, are very often very much like the people of Israel. We try to take matters into our own hands and selfishly use our time, energy, and possessions for our own benefit rather than for the benefit of the world. We’re guilty of seeking earthly power, authority, or prestige for ourselves. In fact, our culture calls the gaining of these things virtuous.
We’ve turned away from the Lord in order to worship the false gods which our culture props up. We’ve put the Lord our God to the test. We want God to prove to us that God exists or that God really cares. Until God does so, we’ll continue to pursue these other false deities. God has already revealed to us everything we need to know. God has revealed to us who God is, and what God expects of us. Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God to humanity.
So what does the temptation of Jesus mean for us who are called to live as God’s children? Being a child of God means that we don’t take matters into our own hands, nor do we work only for our own benefit. Instead, we rely on God to give us what we need for our every day.
Being a child of God means that we don’t seek power for ourselves, but recognize that the Lord is the true and only source of power and authority in the world.
Being a child of God means that we don’t put God to the test by trying to force God to prove to us that God is God, or by trying to make God our servant.
For Christians, being a child of God means living as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It means resisting the temptations of the devil by allowing the Lord our God to be the king of our lives.
During this time of Lent, let’s refocus. Let’s refocus our lives on the God who provides, the God who upholds, the God who reveals. Lent has always given Christian people an opportunity to be serious about turning away from sin. It gives us a chance to make amends in our lives; to turn back to Lord.
Even Jesus was subject to temptation, as Luke reminds us in his Gospel. This Lent, we’re invited to rededicate ourselves to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, the study of Holy Scripture, fasting, worship, service, and generosity.
John Wesley called the spiritual disciplines means of grace. They’re the means by which we receive grace and connection to God’s presence. It is only by God’s grace that we will persevere through the daily moments of temptation and trial. Only by God’s grace – and our choice to seek it – can we live as God intends us to live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!