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Luke 4:1-13 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 4:1-13. THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS
In Matthew (3:13 – 4:11) and Mark (1:9-13), the temptation immediately follows Jesus’ baptism. Luke inserts a genealogy between the two stories, perhaps modeling his account after Exodus 6, which inserts a genealogy between Moses’ call and ministry (Craddock, Preaching…, 139). The genealogy also helps to establish who Jesus is. He is “the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (3:38). This title, son of God, is important to both the baptism and temptation stories.
“the son of Adam, the son of God” (3:38). We might think of Adam, created in the image of God, according to God’s likeness (Genesis 1:26-37) as the first Son of God. Like Jesus, Adam was also tested. Like Jesus, he was tempted by food (fruit rather than bread, but food nevertheless). Unlike Jesus, who was famished after a long fast, Adam had plenty of food at his disposal—but Adam failed the test anyway (Genesis 3). Unlike Adam, Jesus proves faithful even under the most severe testing.
Luke has already told us of evil forces at work in the world—evil forces that will affect Jesus (1:79; 2:34; 3:19-20). Satan, the personification of evil, now tries to divert Jesus from his mission—but Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit” and so is empowered to resist (v. 1). Thus, these verses “present a clash of cosmic proportions” (Green, 192).
Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted, but does not describe the temptations (Mark 1:12-13). Matthew lists three temptations in this order: bread, pinnacle, and kingdoms (Matt. 4:3-9). Luke reverses the last two temptations—changing the order to bread, kingdoms, and pinnacle. He does this as part of his emphasis on Jerusalem. Nearly half of this Gospel consists of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51—19:44), and Jesus’ ministry climaxes in Jerusalem with his death and resurrection. Luke therefore has his temptation story build toward Jerusalem in keeping with the movement of the larger story (Fitzmyer, 507).
The author of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus bore these temptations for our sake. He was not an “ivory tower” high priest, far removed from the experiences of ordinary people. Jesus had “been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). As a result, “he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
The three temptations correspond to temptations that Israel experienced in the wilderness:
• The temptation to make bread from a stone (vv. 2b-4) is really a temptation not to trust God for sustenance—and is therefore analogous to Israel’s failure to trust God for sustenance in the wilderness. The Israelites complained to Moses, “We wish that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). In response, God gave them manna, but forbade them to gather more than the day’s supply—except in preparation for the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5). God told Moses that this was a test to see “whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4). “Notwithstanding they didn’t listen to Moses, but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and became foul” (Exodus 16:20).
• The temptation to gain the kingdoms of the world by worshiping the devil (vv. 5-8) is analogous to Israel’s temptation to worship other Gods. God commanded, “You shall fear Yahweh your God; and you shall serve him, and shall swear by his name. You shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the peoples who are around you; for Yahweh your God in the midst of you is a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15a). The Israelites first failed this test at the base of Mount Sinai when they made and worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 32:4; Deuteronomy 9:16)—but that was only the first of many such failures.
• The temptation for Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (vv. 9-12), forcing God to protect him, is really a temptation to test God. This is analogous to Israel’s testing of God at Massah and Meribah, where the people complained to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). Moses named the place Massah (which means “test”) and Meribah (which means “quarrel”) “because the children of Israel quarreled, and because they tested Yahweh, saying, ‘Is Yahweh among us, or not?'” (Exodus 17:7; see also Deuteronomy 6:16).
Each of these temptations has embedded in it a particular pitfall, but there is an overarching reason to avoid all of them. If Jesus were to succumb to any of these temptations, he would be allowing the devil to set the agenda. The devil would be in the driver’s seat, and Jesus would just be along for the ride. Who knows where the devil would take him! Jesus needs to avoid temptation because of its evil source.
We will do well to learn from this. We should automatically question any offer by a person of unreliable character—should assume that their apparently innocent proposal has embedded within it a fatal flaw—that it is designed to put that person in the driver’s seat and us in the passenger’s seat. If we accept such a proposal, who knows where we will end up!
Note Jesus’ treatment of the three temptations. He uses two not-so-secret secrets to parry the devil’s thrusts:
• The first is the Holy Spirit. Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit,” (4:1) and the Spirit helps him to survive temptation.
• The second is scripture. Jesus quotes scripture in response to each of the three temptations. He knows scripture—has studied it from his boyhood. In his hands, scripture becomes a “sword of the Spirit” for his defense (Ephesians 6:17). His intimacy with scripture is so complete that he can, without hesitation, find the exact verse with which to counter the particular danger at hand.
We have the same not-so-secret secrets at our disposal. We received the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptism. The scriptures are readily available—translations and Bible software abound. What we lack is Biblical literacy. The Bible in our hands is like a toolbox in the hands of an unskilled person. Given time, such a person might succeed with a simple carpentry project. Given time, we might counter temptation. However, temptations seldom afford us the luxury of time. Temptation comes—snares us—destroys—and moves on. We need to be always training, like a soldier or football player, so we will be ready when the crunch comes. Biblical knowledge readies us for the crisis.
LUKE 4:1-2a. FULL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT—TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness2afor forty days, being tempted by the devil.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (v. 1). For Luke, the Holy Spirit is the beginning of everything important.
• The angel Gabriel explained to Mary that she would bear a son, even though she was a virgin, because “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” (1:35).
• John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).
• At Jesus’ baptism, “the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form as a dove on him” (3:22).
• Jesus does not go into the crucible of the wilderness alone, but is “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” (4:1).
• At the conclusion of the temptations, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and news about him spread through all the surrounding area” (4:14).
• In the synagogue in Nazareth, the scriptures proclaim, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me” (4:18) and Jesus says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).
• At Pentecost, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (Acts 2:4). Just as the Spirit accompanies Jesus in his ministry, so the Spirit will also accompany the church in its ministry.
“for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (v.2a) Forty is a conventional term meaning many. The connection between forty and hunger is a recurring theme in Israel’s salvation history:
• Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai without food or water (Exodus 34:28).
• The people of Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness, where they complained that they were in danger of perishing from hunger (Exodus 16:2-3).
• Elijah journeyed forty days without food (1 Kings 19:8).
Thus, the words, “forty days,” connect Jesus with the most significant people and events of Israel’s history.
LUKE 4:2b-4. THE FIRST TEMPTATION
2bHe ate nothing in those days. Afterward, when they were completed, he was hungry. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.'”
“He ate nothing in those days. Afterward, when they were completed, he was hungry” (v. 2b). Verse 2a sounds as if Jesus is tempted for the entire forty day period, but verses 2b-3 give the impression that the temptation comes after Jesus is weak from forty days of fasting. Mark 1:13 is brief and inconclusive on this point. Matthew 4:2-3 strengthens the idea that the tempter came after the forty days of fasting.
“If you are the Son of God” (v. 3b). Luke just reported Jesus’ baptism with the voice from heaven that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Now the devil, like a karate expert, seeks to turn Jesus’ strength against him—to use Jesus’ Sonship to tempt him to turn his power to selfish purposes.
• They say that you are the Son of God. If that is true, you should have no trouble managing this small project.
• If you are the Son of God, your Father surely does not expect you to deprive yourself of that which is essential to life. Be sensible! Make a loaf of bread! Take care of yourself! You must maintain your strength!
This is a powerful temptation. Men especially are easily caught up in a challenge that starts with “If you….” We are tempted to prove ourselves—to do what the tempter is tempting us to do—and thus to allow the tempter to set the agenda. Instead, we need instead to stop and ask what right the tempter has to tell us to prove ourselves (Hendriksen, 238).
But Jesus must do now what he will later teach his disciples to do—to pray, “Give us day by day our daily bread” (11:3)—to strive for God’s kingdom rather than food and clothing (12:22-31) (Stein, 146).
We can imagine the devil saying to us, If you are the boss…. If you are the one who is supposed to…. If you are my friend…. If you are a good mother…. If you are a patriot…. If you are an expert…. If you are a team-player…. If you really believe…. Even, If you love the Lord….
Listen carefully to what follows. If it is from the devil, it will be wrapped in treachery. Note that the tempter points each of the above at one of our points of strength (i.e., being the boss or a good mother), rather than our points of weakness. The devil often attacks the high wall that we thought it unnecessary to guard.
“command this stone to become bread” (v. 3b). Luke’s account differs from Matthew’s in a small, but possibly significant detail:
• In Matthew, the tempter says, “command that these stones (plural) become bread” (plural) perhaps suggesting that Jesus should make bread, not only for himself, but also for other hungry people.
• In Luke, the devil says, “command this stone (singular) to become bread” (singular), suggesting that Jesus should relieve his own hunger.
These are very different temptations. In Matthew’s account, the appeal seems to be to Jesus’ compassion for others. In Luke’s account, the appeal is more basic—more personal. While the appeal to compassion is strong, the appeal to self is often stronger. People (and Jesus is human) have a strong will to survive. It is possible to make a good case for personal survival. Flight attendants are taught to insure their personal survival in a crash so that they will be alive to help surviving passengers. Parents need to survive to care for their children. Jesus needed to survive so that he could carry out his ministry—didn’t he!
Note that the first temptation is insignificant. What can be the harm of one loaf of bread? It will strengthen Jesus for ministry. Certainly nobody will miss one stone from the many that carpet the desert floor. The second and third temptations are dramatic, but the power of the first temptation lies in its subtlety.
“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone'” (v. 4). The quotation is from Deuteronomy 8:3, which reads in full: “He humbled you, and allowed you to be hungry, and fed you with manna, which you didn’t know, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh.”
Note the connection between manna (Israel’s bread in the wilderness) and the bread with which the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.Both the Israelites and Jesus were tempted in the wilderness by bread. The difference was that Israel stumbled over the temptation because they lacked faith, but Jesus held steady in the face of temptation.
LUKE 4:5-8. THE SECOND TEMPTATION
5The devil, leading him up on a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6The devil said to him, “I will give you all this authority, and their glory, for it has been delivered to me; and I give it to whomever I want. 7If you therefore will worship before me, it will all be yours.”8Jesus answered him, “Get behind me Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only.'”
The second temptation tempts Jesus to worship the devil—a false god—to accomplish a good end (glory and authority) by evil means (worshiping the devil). Jesus has come for glory and authority, but he will obtain them by being lifted up on a cross—not by kneeling before the evil one. His glory and authority comes from God, not Satan.
We, too, are tempted to accomplish good ends by evil means. Tobacco companies sponsor charities to legitimize their death-dealing business. State governments find it easier to win support for lotteries than for school taxes. Casinos provide jobs for Native Americans, but prey on vulnerable people. Executives enhance stockholder profits (and their own bonuses) by firing loyal employees. Schools promote self-esteem by passing students to grades for which they are unprepared. Students pass tests by cheating. Preachers fill pews by telling people what they want to hear instead of calling them to cross-bearing. We are all tempted to accomplish good ends by bad means.
“The devil, leading him up on a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms (basileias) of the world (Greek: oikoumeme) in a moment of time” (v. 5). Luke usually uses he word kingdom in connection with the kingdom of God. Here, however, he reports the tempter’s words that speak of many kingdoms––the kingdoms of the world (oikoumeme). The usual Greek word for world is kosmos, which the New Testament portrays as the world opposed to God. The word oikoumeme is softer, being derived from oikos (house or home) or oikeo (dwelling place). That softer tone makes this temptation more attractive––intensifies its appeal.
“I will give you all this authority, and their glory” (v. 6). This is the first mention of authority in this Gospel, but the issue of authority will surface again and again:
• Jesus will astound the people by teaching with authority (4:32).
• Jesus will command unclean spirits with authority, and they will obey (4:36).
• The Son of Man will have authority to forgive sins (5:24).
• A centurion, a man “placed under authority,” will acknowledge Jesus’ authority (7:8).
• Jesus will give the disciples authority over demons (9:1) and to tread on snakes, scorpions, and “all the power of the enemy” (10:19).
• Jesus will warn the crowd to fear, not the person who can kill the body, but the one with authority to cast into hell (12:5).
• The priests, scribes, and elders will demand to know by what authority Jesus acts (20:2).
“For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only'” (v. 8). The quotation is from Deuteronomy 6:13.
LUKE 4:9-12. THE THIRD TEMPTATION
9He led him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
‘He will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you;’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest perhaps you dash your foot against a stone.’ “
12Jesus answering, said to him, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'”
“He led him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” (v. 9a). We aren’t certain which pinnacle this might be, but the temple afforded any number of high points that would qualify.
“If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you, to guard you;’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest perhaps you dash your foot against a stone'” (vv. 9b-11). Jesus used scripture to counter two temptations, so the devil couches the third temptation in Biblical language, quoting from Psalm 91:11-12. This is not a Messianic psalm—a promise to protect the Messiah from harm—but is rather a hymn of praise for the protection that God affords the faithful.
Ironically, the devil tempts Jesus be unfaithful to God by putting God to the test and, while being unfaithful, to trust in the promise that the psalm affords to the faithful. It is backwards language—a dangerous half-truth calculated to confuse.
Again, this demonstrates why we should not associate with people of questionable character. Such people know how to make bad sound good—to make no sound like yes. They use language as a magician uses sleight-of-hand—now you see it; now you don’t! By the time we see the glint of their hook, they have embedded it in our flesh. Fortunately, Jesus is not so easily taken in.
In Luke’s mind, the challenge to jump from the pinnacle is the climactic temptation, because it tempts Jesus to let Satan save him from death—perhaps not just now but also at the cross. Jesus must also find this offer quite tempting. He knows that the Father’s will is that he die on the cross, but perhaps the tempter can find an easier way for Jesus to fulfill his mission.
“It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God'” (v. 12). The quotation is from Deuteronomy 6:16, and refers to an incident in which “the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is Yahweh among us, or not?'” (Exodus 17:7).
LUKE 4:13. UNTIL ANOTHER TIME
13When the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until another time.
The devil does not give up, but just bides his time:
- He will inspire the scribes and Pharisees to attempt to ensnare Jesus.
- He will inspire others to demand a sign from Jesus (11:16, 29-32).
- He will surely be present with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, hoping that Jesus can be dissuaded at the last moment from his mission (22:39-46).
- He will wound Jesus with the betrayal, not only of Judas, but also of Peter (22:3, 54-62).
- At the cross, he will mock Jesus through the voices of the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminal (23:35-39).
And yet, the devil will fail, because Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and is led by the Spirit (v. 1).
LUKE 4:14-15. JESUS RETURNED IN THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT
14“Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and news about him spread through all the surrounding area. 15He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.”
These verses are not in the lectionary passage, but are a fitting ending to this passage. In verse 1, Luke said that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit,” and in verse 14, he tells us that Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit.” Verse 14 seems like a recap of the verses that precede it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Campbell, Charles L., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Bowie, Walter Russell, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Lindberg, Paul H., Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Luke, Lent-Easter (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 1978)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Ringe, Sharon H., Westminster Bible Companion, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
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