Luke 4:1-13 — Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
Jesus is suffering. First of all, he is in the desert wilderness—a barren, desolate, hot, and dangerous place to be. Second, there is no one with him. He has been alone out there for forty days. And third, he has not eaten for that entire time and is hungry. In that weakened and vulnerable state, the devil comes to him.
But before we look at the temptation, we should ask why Jesus is in such a terrible predicament. Did he take a wrong turn and get lost unintentionally? Did bad people take him out there to die? Why must Jesus suffer so much, or to use the title of an old book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Jesus was the best person who ever lived; perfect and sinless in every way. Why all the suffering, both here at the beginning of his ministry, and then even so much more at the end of his life, dying that terrible death on the cross?
The answer is in the first verse of the text. It says there that Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Spirit, by God Himself. God was making him suffer. God will do that, you know, if that suffering will, in the end, serve some greater purpose. The devil also causes suffering, and some suffering we bring on ourselves, and other people can cause us to suffer. There are many possible sources of our suffering, so we should not ask every time something bad happens to us, “Why are you doing this to me, God?” But neither do we want to decide ahead of time that God is never involved in our trials and tribulations. God is always involved in everything, and if he doesn’t directly cause the trouble, he certainly chooses to allow it, and can help us learn from it.
When he was a young man, early American preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote out several resolutions to guide his conduct in life. One of these resolutions was: “Resolved: after all afflictions to ask myself how I am the better by them, and to see what good I might have gained by the troubles I have endured.” That is a good way to approach, endure, rise above, and learn from our suffering. Instead of blaming God for our troubles, we can ask how we may use them to grow closer to God.
Jesus is enduring these forty days of suffering in the desert because God the Father Himself is putting him through it. Why would God do that? Part of the answer can be found in Hebrews 5:8: “Although he (Jesus) was a son, he learned obedience by what the suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of salvation for all who obey Him.” It doesn’t say Jesus had ever disobeyed God. He never did. But it does seem to say that Jesus had to suffer in order to learn and be made stronger; perhaps for a deeper kind of obedience, the kind of obedience that in three years would enable him to endure the suffering he would face on the cross.
The devil begins by attacking Jesus in his weakness caused by his hunger, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
That seems harmless enough, and Jesus had the power to do it. Later on in his ministry he would feed thousands of people with just a few loaves and a couple fish. What would be wrong with turning a stone into a loaf of bread? No one would be hurt and someone would be helped. Jesus would be helped, and he needed it. Besides, what good could he do for anyone if he starved to death out there in the wilderness? After forty days he was probably getting close to that point. It would be easy to rationalize giving in to that temptation. If Jesus was going to save the whole world from their sins, he was going to have to first make it out of the desert.
But there is a always a deeper level to our temptations. The devil isn’t just trying to get Jesus to make a lunch, he is trying to get him to switch sides. If God had led Jesus into the desert, it was up to God to get him out of there. But the devil was trying to lead Jesus in another direction. It was as if the devil was saying, “Look Jesus, you have been doing what God says long enough now, and look where it has gotten you—nowhere, and you are almost dead. Now for once, try doing what I say. You have the power. Do what I say and you will be better off. Food is good. There is no law against eating. Go ahead Jesus, and do what I say.”
But it wasn’t a matter of getting something to eat. It was a matter of who Jesus was going to obey. Without hesitation Jesus said, quoting the words of Moses, “Man does not live on bread alone.” There are more important things in life than food, things even more important than life itself. God was most important, and Jesus would not disobey God, even it meant continuing to starve. Jesus not only always refused to do the wrong thing; he also refused to do a very good thing in the wrong way or for the wrong reason.
The second temptation is described: “The devil then led Jesus up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” This has been interpreted in many ways over the years, but anyone who wants to say anything about it has to deal first of all with the devil’s claim that all those kingdoms of the world are his to give away. They aren’t, of course, and it comes as no surprise to anyone to see that here and everywhere else in the Bible, the devil is a liar. The lesson for us is to keep in mind that the devil also tempts us with such ‘deceits and empty promises’ to use the words of an old prayer.
The devil has no blessings of his own to give, but works his evil by tempting us to approach the gifts we receive from God in all the wrong ways. Instead of giving thanks to the Giver, we are tempted to focus only on the gifts, expecting to receive more from such gifts than they can ever deliver. So we come to expect that marriage or money or the new job or the new home or the cabin in the mountains will finally make us happy and solve everything. But nothing ever does the trick. Only faith in God can, in the end, solve everything. But the devil tempts us to trust in the gifts and not the Giver, and tempts us to be not grateful, but resentful when the gifts do not satisfy. The devil has nothing of his own to give us, but he can be very successful at tempting us to be led away from God by the very gifts and blessings God so abundantly showers upon us.
Again, Jesus responds with a sentence from the Scriptures: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’”
In the final temptation, the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and told Jesus to jump off. And then the devil quoted a verse from the Psalms which said that God’s angels would take care of Jesus. Jesus was already trusting the Father to take care of him, and he wasn’t about to force God’s hand like that. So again quoting Scripture, Jesus said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Then, finally, the devil left Jesus, “…until an opportune time.” That ‘opportune time’ comes late in the Gospel, and those same words are used when the devil enters Judas to tempt him to betray Jesus. Then, the devil forces of evil finally get their way with Jesus, and they win, and Jesus is dead.
But the victory is short lived, and on Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the dead to proclaim the final defeat of the devil and all evil. I Peter 5:8 tells us that the devil will still roam about on this earth for a while, “seeking whom he may devour.” But his time is limited, and in the Kingdom to come, there will be no devil and no temptation and no evil.
Save us from the time of trial.
–Lord’s prayer, contemporary version
The Temptation of Christ, Titian (1490-1576)
In this brilliant interpretation of the temptation story, Titian paints the devil as an innocent child, appealing to Jesus to turn the stone he is holding into bread. He is illustrating the fact that temptations can appear to be very innocent, as it says in II Corinthians 11:14 “Satan can even disguise himself as an angel of light.”