Luke 4.1-13 — The First of Many Temptations To Follow

Here’s the famous temptation scene. Of course, Luke tells it differently than the others do (as we might expect), so we have to look at what he’s saying. Here we finally hear Jesus speak, though at this point it’s still minimal. But we at least get to hear him. Here’s the deal.

The set up has been huge. We aren’t quite sure what to expect from this man, because the expectation is over the top. In verse 1 we find out that he is “full of the Holy Spirit.” OK, so the prophecies predicted this. Last text was about the baptism, when the Holy Spirit came to him. It sounds like he has been endowed with supernatural power, knowing the full presence of God inside of him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first thing this Spirit does is lead him into the desert. Deserts usually symbolize trials and problems, spiritual dryness, separation from God, and spiritual suffering. The same Spirit who just a moment earlier was the visible image of the Father’s love, sent by the Father to show Jesus he is beloved, pleasing, and symbolized the beginning of something wonderfully new, now drives the beloved into a place of separation and trouble. The very first act of this guiding Spirit and loving Father is to toss him into the fire, so to speak. Drive him away from all friends and family, from the comforts of his village, and away from all moral and spiritual support, including his Father God. Whatever’s coming, he is going to have to face it alone.

God so loved his Son that he sends him into some kind of hell? The mind is spinning. What sense does this make? A love that casts out? A love that withdraws all loving presence? A love that drives us to the limits of sanity and stability? Ha. “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.”

40 days he was tempted. “40”, of course, is the symbol of temptation. It probably isn’t a literal 40 days, but it could be. The point of the “40” is its severity. The three temptations listed probably aren’t literal (though they could be), but instead are representative of the kinds of things that were happening.

Texas Falls rocksThe first one: Tell this stone to become bread, to me, is the quintessential question of “If you (God) are all powerful, then why is there suffering in the world? Do something about it.” Since you are God, do what you want to do. Get what you need. Do what you need to do. Is there a problem here? What’s wrong with that? Sometimes there is, but in this case, what’s wrong with that?

Jesus answers: “All that matters is God’s will and God’s kingdom.” Jesus refuses to act in self-interest. And he won’t bow to the conundrum: But if God is all-powerful, and there is suffering in the world, then God is not good. But if God is good, and there is suffering in the world, then He is not all-powerful. But Jesus says that life, and God, are not defined by the problem of evil; they are not defined by suffering. God is defined by God, not by our life situation. Life is defined by God; God is not defined by life.

So we have a temptation that taunts our most fundamental theological problem, but it’s also socio-economic, as some of the prophecies hinted. It has been prophesied that this man will exalt the poor and provide justice for the underdogs of life. The temptation includes that his messiahship will be expressed by providing a banquet for his followers: food for all! Equality and power! That this is no idle imagination, the later story of the 5,000 was to demonstrate: “Feed the crowds and you shall be king!”

“Man does not live by bread alone.” We are dependent on God; he is the higher power. Life with suffering was the only way it could be, as we have discussed. But that doesn’t define God, or reduce him. He is not just a Santa Claus to intervene and change our circumstances. That’s a reductionist view of God that Jesus won’t tolerate.

A view of Athens from the Acropolis 2005Then Satan shows him the kingdoms of the world, a panorama at least partially mental and imaginative. It’s an interesting temptation, since Jesus’ mission was to achieve world-wide dominion. Israel had fallen to this temptation time and again for the sake of political advantage. The voice from heaven had quoted Ps. 2.7 about the beloved son; now the tempter simply goes on to the promise of Ps. 2.8: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.” I think the temptation is a call to power. Again, it is addressed to the Son who is a king, just like the first (“If you ARE the Son of God…”)

So the temptation is this: Is God just like man in that all he wants is power and control? The will to power describes what Nietzsche believed to be the main driving force in man: achievement, ambition, the striving to reach the highest possible position in life—these are all manifestations of the will to power. Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This is a temptation because Jesus’ mission was after worldwide dominion. It’s a trap: all you want is power and dominion, so any use of your power shows you’re just as corrupt as the rest of us. In Genesis 2.15 we find out that true dominion can only mean stewardship, and stewardship is ultimately interpreted as love: sacrificial, self-giving love.

Jesus’ answer: You misunderstand the true nature of power. God is not defined by our circumstances. God’s power is not defined by man’s corruption. God’s dominion is also stewardship and love, not power and corruption. We are to submit to the power that’s true and that’s pure.

We’ve had a theological/social-economic issue. We’ve had a socio-political issue. Now on to the third. A little background: The Mishna prescribes execution by being thrown down from a tower of the temple wall, followed by stoning, if necessary, as a penalty for blasphemy. The testing would then mean that Jesus was tempted to see himself as taking on himself the penalty for his claims to divine authority, yet being miraculously saved from the consequences. It is a quasi-blasphemous claim to divine kingship which underlies the testing.

Also, you’re supposed to trust God. You’re supposed to be a man of faith. You can do ANYTHING then, and God is obligated to honor you with his protection. If God is trustworthy, then you can live by faith. Run out in front of traffic—in faith. Make a commitment requiring way more money than you have—in faith. Put a fleece out in front of God, and force him to decide one way or the other through your circumstances. And God will take care of you. He HAS to.

This is pride at its peak: “God HAS to honor what I do. God HAS to protect me. God HAS to provide. I can jump off this building, and when I float to the earth, then people will believe. I can move mountains with my faith—WATCH ME.”

Jesus’ answer: don’t misapply God’s promises of protection. Don’t misunderstand and misuse your faith. God is not defined by your tests.

Brilliant. He doesn’t fall to reducing God by theological arguments. He doesn’t fall to making man’s problems God’s problems. He doesn’t fall to philosophical boxes making God just God. Instead he thwarts them all: God is not defined by us, our circumstances, our philosophies, our paradoxes, our politics, or our faith questions. God is the source and is self-defining.

At this point Satan leaves him, but he’s not done with him. He will be back, tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and the next…

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