In Luke 4, we read Luke’s story of Jesus’ temptation. It is similar to the temptation story in Matthew 4, only it presents the events in a different order.
In Luke 4, Satan first tells Jesus to turn the stones into bread, to which Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone'” (NRSV). Then, Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he will fall down and worship him, and Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Finally, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple and encourages him to jump off. Satan actually appeals to Scripture: “It is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” And Jesus retorts, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
But why did Jesus have to undergo temptation? What’s the point of this scene in Luke’s overall story?
Christians have offered a variety of explanations. Many say that Jesus was doing right what his predecessors had done wrong. Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation of Satan the devil when they ate the forbidden fruit, plunging the entire human race into sin, misery, and condemnation. But Jesus reversed that curse as the Savior of the world and the second Adam, for he represented humanity and resisted the devil. As Romans 5:18-19 says: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Others believe that Jesus was correcting Israel’s past mistakes. In the wilderness, Israel valued food over God’s word, worshipped other deities than the true God, and put God to the test (see Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:16; 10:20; Psalm 78:18-20). But Jesus did the opposite in his wilderness experience, and he quoted Deuteronomy as he thwarted the devil’s schemes. In this scenario, Jesus was giving Israel a fresh start when he embodied her, as he did right what she had done wrong.
Some argue that a temptation scene is typical of most stories. According to Joseph Campbell, most hero-myths present the protagonist encountering trials and challenges as he undergoes his journey (see here). Shamans (the spiritual leaders of tribal communities) often have to suffer as part of their initiation (see here). And, in Buddhist legend, the devil Mara tries to hinder the Buddha from attaining Enlightenment, as he sends his daughters Desire, Hatred, and Lust to keep him attached to the world (see here). But the Buddha remains unmoved, and he’s consequently able to help other people.
I think that all of these explanations are correct, in some way, shape, or form. But here’s something else that entered my mind: maybe Jesus needed to make a clear stand for God in order to prepare for his ministry. And what better opportunity is there for this than a temptation scene right before his career?
I don’t entirely understand all of Satan’s temptations, to tell you the truth. Granted, Jesus not worshipping Satan is obviously a no-brainer, but why couldn’t he turn the stones into bread? He was hungry, after all! And what would be wrong with putting God to the test to see if he’s truly there? Gideon did that with the fleece (Judges 6:36-40), Isaiah told Ahaz to ask God for a sign (Isaiah 7:11), and God tells the Jews to tithe and see if God will bless them (Malachi 3:10). Would Jesus have been wrong to jump?
But I do believe that Jesus was practicing skills that would be essential for him later on in his ministry. The first temptation (turn the stones into bread) taught him that he needed to live by every word that proceeded out of the mouth of God, even when he wasn’t particularly comfortable. He wouldn’t always have a place to sleep (Luke 9:58), and there’d be times when he and his disciples would be hungry (Luke 6:3). Ultimately, he’d have to undergo a great deal of pain at the crucifixion. But continuing to fast in obedience to God’s word was a way for him to prepare for those kinds of hardships.
For the second temptation (bow down to Satan and get all these kingdoms), Jesus obviously couldn’t worship Satan and glorify God at the same time. But he also couldn’t be succumb to the temptations of money, power, sex, and prestige, for he needed to be a pure vessel–one who was more concerned about God and his neighbors than he was about his own personal ego. How many ministries has Satan brought down through those kinds of temptations?
Regarding the third temptation (jump off the cliff), there may be a lot of things going on here. For one, Jesus couldn’t be frivolous with God, for he had to be serious-minded. His task was important, since he was overthrowing the dominion of Satan and bringing in the kingdom of God. He had no time for games, which jumping off a cliff was.
Jesus also needed to trust God implicitly. In this particular temptation, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” The story of Massah is in Exodus 17. In that chapter, we see that the Israelites did not trust God. They were thirsty, so they complained to Moses, saying things like: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (v 3); “Is the LORD among us or not?” (v 7); or, in the account of Psalm 78:19-20, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” The Israelites tested God in that they questioned God’s love for them, his presence among them, and his power to help them.
But Jesus could not continually entertain such doubts. He was about to experience opposition, after all! Even his own home-town and family would think he was weird (Luke 5; 8:19-21). His disciples wouldn’t always get what he was saying (Luke 9:45). He was about to embark on a lonely life, and he needed to be sure in his own mind that God loved him, was with him, and had the power to help him. His faith would be the only thing keeping him going, on a number of occasions!
In my opinion, it’s no accident that the temptation story is where it is in Luke’s Gospel. Prior to the temptation scene, Jesus is coming off of a spiritual high. He’s just received the baptism of John, the Spirit has come upon him, and God has assured him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). And what happens after God has told Jesus he is his son? Satan tries to make Jesus question that he is God’s son! “If you are the son of God,” Satan says over and over. Jesus needed to hold on to who God said that he was, regardless of what Satan or anyone else may carp. That would serve him well in his ministry. Again, the temptation was giving Jesus a chance to practice skills that would be useful as he served God later on. It was an initiation, if you will!
After Jesus’ temptation, he experienced rejection in his own home-town (Luke 5). The people of Nazareth somewhat trivialized what he was saying, since they knew him and his family. Plus, they tried to throw him off a cliff after he offended them. That would hurt my feelings if it happened to me! But Jesus had learned to place God’s will ahead of his personal comfort and ego, and to trust God implicitly regardless of his surroundings. His temptation by Satan had prepared him for what was to come.
Perhaps that’s how it is with many of us. God has a desire to use us, but he wants to see if we can pass certain necessary tests, with the help of his Spirit and word, of course. When we do so, then we can go on to the next level. Sure, God can use crooked sticks (e.g., Samson), since he is God and can use anybody for anything. But he may seek a pure vessel, someone who is committed to him rather than self.