Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Each of the Synoptic gospels record Christ’s temptations in the wilderness in ways that evoke different aspects of scriptural background. In Matthew, Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1), much as Israel was led up out of Egypt by the pillar of cloud and fire. In Mark 1:12, Jesus is ‘driven out’ into the wilderness, language of expulsion and exile. The scriptural resonances of Christ’s wilderness temptations are powerfully evocative: Jesus is like Israel, who was tested in the wilderness for forty years; he is like the newly-anointed David, who defeated the serpentine Goliath, after he stood against Israel for forty days; he is like Elijah, who did not eat for forty days in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:8).
Luke’s narration is different again: Jesus is filled with the Spirit and is led in the Spirit into the wilderness. The language here closely resembles that of Ezekiel (e.g. Ezekiel 37:1), where the Spirit-filled prophet is led about by the Spirit, undertaking a prophetic journey in which he receives a succession of visions. We have already seen allusions to Ezekiel 1:1 in the baptism of Christ in Luke: Jesus is about thirty years of age when, like Ezekiel, by the river he sees the heavens opened and visions of God.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness plays out against this Ezekiel background in various ways. The latter part of the book of Ezekiel involves a series of prophetic journeys in the Spirit as part of a succession of visions. Ezekiel is led in the Spirit to the wilderness valley, where the word of the Lord transforms dry bones into living flesh (37:1). He is then led to the high mountain (40:2), where he sees a vision of the coming city. Finally, he is led in the Spirit to various parts of a new temple (40:17, 24, 28, 32, 35; 41:1; 42:1, 15; 43:1), seeing YHWH returning once more to dwell among his people.
This order of events corresponds with the order of the temptations in Luke’s account of the wilderness (in Matthew’s order the temptation on the pinnacle of the temple precedes that of the high mountain). The devil is bringing Jesus on a visionary journey that parodies and opposes the visionary journey given to Ezekiel, presenting him with an alternative to YHWH’s purpose for Israel.
The order of the wilderness temptations also corresponds with the events in Nazareth that follow. The Deuteronomy 8:3 citation in verse 4—Jesus’ response to the devil’s first temptation—uncompleted in Luke’s account (cf. Matthew 4:4), is later alluded to in the marvelling of the Nazarenes concerning the gracious words “which proceeded out of his mouth” (Luke 4:22). Jesus’ resistance to the expectation of his fellow Nazarenes that he serve them corresponds with the second temptation. Finally, verses 29-30 describe an attempt to cast Jesus down from a high place, to which Jesus does not submit himself.
Further Lukan juxtapositions could be seen in the events surrounding the crucifixion. Jesus lives by the word of God as he accepts the cup in Gethsemane (22:39-46). He rejects the ways of the kingdoms of this world by opposing attempts to protect him with violence (22:47-51). Finally, he resists the temptations to save himself by casting himself down from the cross (23:35-43).
Such parallels suggest that the temptations could be playing a more archetypal role in Lukan theology than many might have supposed. Their repetition in various forms represent three paradigmatic ways in which the devil sought to divert Jesus from his mission.
The first temptation involves turning stones into bread, relieving hunger merely by rendering the wilderness more accommodating, making more old food for the devil’s land. As Israel was tempted to return to the bread of Egypt, Jesus is here tempted to abandon his mission for the greater comfort that could be found in pursuing the food of the devil’s land.
The alternative—living by every word of God and fulfilling the mission he had been sent to perform—involves a different sort of ingestion. Ezekiel eats the scroll in Ezekiel 2:9—3:11, which has the honey-taste of manna, the heavenly bread of the Exodus (3:3; cf. Exodus 16:31). As part of this ingestion, he receives his vocation, the word of YHWH then proceeding from out of him. Like Ezekiel, Jesus is handed a scroll later in this chapter and declares his vocation from within it, the words of the text now proceeding from out of his mouth.
Later, he submits to drinking the cup of wrath in Gethsemane. Jesus’ food is to fulfill the mission of the one who sent him (John 4:34), which demands that he draw sustenance from God’s words, rather than the bread in the land of slavery, which will never give true life.
Since Jesus is determined not to accommodate himself to the devil’s kingdom, the devil presents him with a second temptation: if Jesus is willing to worship the devil, he can receive all the authority and glory of the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus is prepared to adopt the violent and vainglorious ways of earthly kingdoms, to serve the devil and his countrymen and to fight with the sword, the devil will give all earthly authority into his hands.
As Jesus resists this temptation, he is faced with one final test, perhaps the most peculiar and difficult to explain of the three. Set on a pinnacle—or, more literally, ‘little wing’—of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus is tempted to cast himself down. The devil cites Psalm 91 and YHWH’s promise of protection for his people within it.
Luke’s description of the ‘little wing’ (πτερύγιον) of the temple might recall the reference to wings in Psalm 91:4—“he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings (LXX: πτέρυγας) you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” The ‘wing’ is a site of protection. Jesus is being tempted to leave the ‘little wing’ of the temple, which symbolizes God’s protective presence, on the assurance that God will protect him even in a state of exile.
This temptation presents Jesus with a choice not dissimilar from that which YHWH presented to Moses in Exodus 32:10, when he declared his intent utterly to destroy the children of Israel on account of their sin and make a great nation of Moses alone. The presence of YHWH had returned to the temple at the end of Ezekiel’s visions, but Jesus is offered the choice to abandon the temple and the people it protected.
Later in the chapter, this temptation takes the form of the temptation to allow the murderous Nazarenes to cast him away from them. While he refused to serve them, Jesus retained a bond with them, which served to protect them, despite their hatred of him. The same thing is seen later when, even as Jesus has been cast out of Jerusalem and is being crucified outside of it, he will not remove himself from the cross on which his fate is bound up with that of Israel. No matter how much his compatriots hated, betrayed, abandoned, and denied him, Jesus’ commitment to them prevented him from casting himself away from them.
The temptations faced by Christ are also faced by his Church. The Church too is presented with the temptation of accommodating itself to, while perhaps lightly ameliorating, the present sinful order. Rather than finding our source of life and our food in God’s word, whatever the pain of the vocation it sets before us, we desire the comfort of social standing, secure employment, leisure, material wealth, and the praise and friendship of our peers.
We might engage in well-regarded charitable efforts, support government programs, and the like, but would not countenance anything that might threaten our comfort, reputation, or economic security. We might render this sinful age more habitable, but never call any to look to another, greater city.
Then there is the temptation of submitting to this age’s powers and their means. We will pursue the kingdom by compromising it at its root, by adopting idolatrous loyalties and wicked means. We will countenance cruelty towards the alien and stranger, the killing of the infant in the womb, the waging of unjust wars, iniquitous and exploitative economic practices, the despoliation of the environment, the celebration of sexual immorality, racial hatred, or a host of other forms of wickedness as the acceptable cost of political power and influence. We will prostrate ourselves before the rulers of this present age, hoping that, if we only serve them, presidents, political parties, or other social institutions will give us the power that we desire.
Finally, there is the temptation to abandon the world to its fate and to retreat into a self-protecting holy huddle. Focused merely on our own safety and security, we place our lamp under a basket and resist being scattered like salt upon the earth. Yet, as the sons and daughters of Abraham, we must be like sand or salt covering the earth and like the innumerable lights in the firmament over it, giving flavor and luminance to all. Our vocation is one that calls us to expose ourselves to the danger of a world that is hostile to us and, even in the teeth of its most venomous hatred, to bear a faithful witness that protects from destruction the very people who would destroy us.
The vocation that the devil sought to divert Jesus from was the way of the cross. He continues to divert Christ’s followers from this path today. The cruciform way is one on which we will encounter countless diversions, points at which we could adopt easier routes that offer pleasant conditions, sparing us the gruelling difficulty, discomfort, and ignominy of the way before us. This is especially true of our politics.
Our Lord trod this way before us and he bids us take up our crosses in our turn and follow him. For those who courageously resist them, the light inducements the devil offers us now—which all turn to ashes in their time—will be utterly outweighed by the fuller life, truer authority, and greater rest that awaits those who, walking our faithful King’s road, attain to the unfading and incorruptible inheritance of his everlasting kingdom.