The Three Temptations of Jesus

30 Aug
Temptation - 3

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Luke tells us that Jesus was led in the wilderness and was there tempted by the Devil for forty days (Luke 4:1-2), and the sense seems to be that this was done immediately after his baptism. At his baptism, Jesus was identified as God’s Son (Luke 3:22; cf. Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11), and Luke also identifies him as God’s Son through Adam in Luke 3:23-38. Knowing this, the words: “If you are the Son of God…” (Luke 4:3, 9) seem to be a direct challenge of what God says in Luke 3:22. Therefore, it suggests the challenge’s nearness to the proclamation of God. Nevertheless, the account in John seems to dispute the account of Jesus’ temptations we find in the Synoptics, because Jesus seems to enter Galilee two days after his baptism (John 1:29, 35, 43), and already seems to be choosing his disciples. There doesn’t seem to be room for a 40 day temptation period.[1]

The tension between John and the Synoptics dissipates in the understanding that Jesus didn’t enter a wilderness or desert of Judea, as is normally understood but, rather, entered a wilderness of people (Ezekiel 20:35). That is, when he entered Galilee (John 1:43; Luke 4:14), Jesus found himself in a wilderness of doubt (Luke 4:3), a wilderness of misinterpretation of God’s word (Luke 4:9) and a wilderness of confrontation over his being Messiah (Luke 4:6-7). The wilderness of Jesus’ temptations was not a literal, uninhabited place but a spiritual, ungodly place.

Jesus’ first temptation had to do with changing stones into bread (Luke 4:3), and his reply points to Israel’s trial in the Wilderness of Sin, when they complained to Moses about the lack of food there (Exodus 16:1-4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). It should be understood that the people weren’t actually hungry. Rather, they foresaw their flocks wouldn’t have enough food to eat and would soon die, and this would bring hunger, poverty and death to the people. What they lacked was faith and murmured against God. This is why God gave them the Sabbath, to test them and see, if they would trust him (Exodus 16:23; cf. Deuteronomy 8:2-3). The irony of Jesus’ first temptation is that he is the Bread of Life. The problem was Israel doubted him, and they wouldn’t rest in him as their Sabbath (Exodus 16:29; cf. Luke 4:22, 28-29). Instead, they continually sought him out (cf. Luke 4:42) to see one miracle after another to assure themselves of Jesus power to take care of them (Luke 5:12-16).

Jesus’ third temptation in Luke (second in Matthew – cf. Luke 4:9-11 and Matthew 4:5-7) points to the theology of the first temptation. The idea here is to take away God’s freedom—name-it-and-claim-it by forcing God to keep his word whenever and however man presumptuously desires. The enemy points to Psalm 91:11-12, but leaves out a phrase. Notice:

Luke 4:10-11 KJV  For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee [in all thy ways]:  (11)  And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. (emphasis mine)

The bracketed portion of the text was left out by the tempter. He mishandled Scripture causing it to mean something it was never intended to mean. The context of the Scripture is found in Psalm 91:1 “He that dwells in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty,” and it calls for trusting God in “all thy ways.” Jumping off a high place when God hasn’t commanded such a thing is tempting God to keep his word according to one’s own desires. And, this is exactly what Jesus points to in his reply “You shall not tempt the Lord your God, as you tempted him at Massah (Deuteronomy 6:16; cf. Luke 4:12). At Massah Israel tempted God when they wanted water, saying : “Is the Lord among us or not.” In other words, they didn’t want to wait for God to provide water, so they demanded water as proof he was among them. In Jesus’ case, the rabbis and Pharisees questioned Jesus’ understanding of the Scriptures (Luke 5:21, 30, 33) and wanted Jesus’ understanding to fit theirs (Luke 5:36-37), because they didn’t care for what Jesus was claiming.

Luke’s second temptation (Matthew’s third) in Luke 4:5-7 represents a desire to abandon the covenant (rebel against God) and come over to (in Jesus’ case) the rabbinical way of thinking (Luke 6:11; cf. Matthew 12:14, 24, 38). In other words, the enemy (the Pharisees and the rabbis) was telling Jesus that, if he wanted to rule the people as Messiah, he would have to cater to their desires. They slandered him before the people who began to look to him as the Messiah (Matthew 12:23-24), and demanded a sign of their own choosing (Matthew 12:38)—not just any miracle, like Jesus had been doing, but a miracle they commanded. If it didn’t fit their criteria, then Jesus must be acting in the power of Beelzebub, and only they could determine that, and Jesus had better bow to their wishes (Luke 4:5-7). This was nothing less than rebellion against God, just as Israel did, while Moses was up on the mountain with God for 40 days (cf. Exodus 32:1, 7-8), and in the incident that developed in the matter of Baal-peor (Numbers 25).

In all three temptations, Jesus was tempted in the same manner as the people (cf. Hebrews 4:15), but he succeeded where they sinned, showing he is an able Savior. He is able to save us out of any temptation and keep us from sinning. Jesus’ wilderness was and is us (Ezekiel 20:35). Wherever we are in our ungodliness, Jesus is there and able to save us out of our defeated state. Do we lack faith (Luke 4:3)? He helps us to trust him as our Bread of Life. Are we confused (Luke 4:9-11)? He is our wisdom (WWJD) and will teach us in the way we should walk (cf. Psalm 91:1, 11-12). Are we in a state of rebellion (Luke 4:5-7)? He is able to bring us back, because he would rather shed his own blood than ours (cf. Matthew 12:39-40).


[1] I intend to address the problem John presents us in a separate blogpost. In this study, however, I intend to address Jesus’ temptations or trials, as they are found in the Synoptics, but I mention the problem of John, so the reader understands that I know it is there and will address it later.


Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Gospel of Luke


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4 responses to “The Three Temptations of Jesus

  1. Eddie

    August 31, 2016 at 06:14

    Greetings Clifford, and thank you for your friendly reply. Yes, I understand (I think) how frustrating it may be when one thinks another has gone too far in his interpretation–figuratively or literally. I have debated with folks (usually atheists, but sometimes gnostics) who want the word of God to say one thing, when I know it means another.

    As for us, I don’t know what the answer might be. Perhaps the better path is the one you seem to have chosen above: “So in order to avoid strife, I will try to hold my peace regarding this area of your study.” I know I tend toward a willingness to debate. Perhaps it comes from being a part of a large family that always argued. My Mom at times would refer to me as the “Philadelphia lawyer” and not in a good way! :-)

    So, I’ll try to do the same. Lord bless you.

  2. Clifford the tekton

    August 31, 2016 at 00:30

    Hi Eddie,
    I’ve been trying to discipline myself to use my limited time and energy towards work on my own novel, as I’ve mentioned. But also, yes, this area of study which I consider allegory troubles me a lot and I’m trying to avoid it.
    Of course the Bible is rich with allegory, simile, symbol, etc. I have no problem with this. But I have always been convinced that to take liberty claiming symbols or allegory, etc., when the context does not specify such is to diminish the actual meaning of the text, and runs the danger of nullification of the power of God’s word.
    I do not agree that because you don’t see how the chronology of the fourth gospel fits with the others that this is a license to throw the entire literal sojourn, sufferings and testings of Jesus in the desert into something figurative.
    To what else can we now apply the same loose interpretation? Were the miracles literal or figurative? And so on. It seems to me that when we leave off the literal and plain reading of the word, unless instructed by the context, then the words themselves no longer have any meaning, since any and all meanings may now be assigned.
    So in order to avoid strife, I will try to hold my peace regarding this area of your study.
    Peace be with you.

  3. Eddie

    August 30, 2016 at 20:04

    Greetings Clifford, and thank you for reading and for your comment. You’ve been away for awhile, I hope it isn’t because of something I said.

    Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and I wouldn’t seek to take yours from you. You are in great company. All the scholars I know (not personally btw) believe just as you do, so it would be asking a great deal to believe as I do. I understand, but this is what the Lord has shown me (or so I believe).

    You brought up the question of how the phrase is found in other translations of the Bible, saying “the wilderness of people” should be “the wilderness of **the** people”. I agree that most translations use the article with “people”. However, of those translations that I have that put it as you think it should be translated, the vast majority make it “the wilderness of the peoples” making **people** plural. In doing this those translations point to “the wilderness of the **nations**”. In such a case, where would that be? Where would “the wilderness of the nations” be? I know we have “Galilee of the gentiles” (Matthew 4:15), and this would support my idea that, if Jesus were tempted in Galilee of the gentiles, it would be a “wilderness of the nations” — **wilderness** being a place where there is no spiritual understanding (common among gentiles of the 1st century AD).

    As far as my understanding not having much support in the Scriptures is concerned, I believe the Scripture “a virgin shall conceive” in Isaiah 7:14 is not only unique (unsupported by other Scriptures saying: “a virgin shall conceive”), but it has become very controversial considering the importance placed upon it by Matthew in in Matthew 1:23. Many scholars seek to undermine Matthew’s interpretation. While I don’t seek to be controversial, I am not afraid of controversy.

    Concerning allegory, one cannot read the Bible without running into many literary tools, including metaphor, simile, hyperbole etc. **Lamb** of God; **all** Judea (going out to John the Baptist) etc. are examples of such literary tools. I am not **alegorising** everything. I believe Jesus was literally tempted, but by the people and authorities of Galilee. The people, devoid of spiritual understanding, were his “wilderness”.

    Lord bless you Clifford in your study of his word.

  4. Clifford the tekton

    August 30, 2016 at 12:13

    I see a literal wilderness in the full context of Ezekiel 20. That one verse that you cite does not appear to me to be a wilderness “comprised” of people at all, but rather the wilderness that belonged to the people [of Israel]. In a possessive sense.
    There are diverse translations, of course.
    This ‘wilderness made up of a bunch of people’ theory should have a lot more scriptural support than this, for the amount of weight you’re giving it.
    Going down Allegory Road never ends and there are many twists and turns, but no one has yet made a reliable road map of it.

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