Luke 4:1-13 – Desert Dust-up!


Whenever I read this passage my thoughts turn to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3. “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”  Why does the Evangelist present the story of the testing of Jesus? What purpose does it serve?

The narrative of the temptation presents two conflicting world views: one Satanic (chaos) and the other divine (cosmic). More on this later.  Because the conflicts cannot be resolved, because there is no possibility of compromise, the hearer is asked to listen and to make a decision. The way the narrative is presented suggests that the dialogue is meant to be heard, and hearing demands movement. The listener can never be passive but must be engaged in the dialogue. The conflicting world views, this age and the age to come, indicate the influence of an active apocalyptic tradition. That tradition presents a cosmic conflict, chaos and cosmos refusing to share the same space and time, the struggle between the divine and the satanic, the light versus the darkness, good against evil. The divine vanquishes the satanic, but the battle does not come to an end. Luke 4:13 is picked up again in 22:3 to continue the warfare. It is repeated in the lives of individuals and communities, materially or in cultic activities.  Conflicting world views demand choice, decision, faith. The narrative lays out the options. The kerygma which is uncovered in the hearing of the word asks the listener to make a decision for or against God.

The influence of Ps. 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14 is worth exploring regarding the terminology of “son of God,” and I suspect that an examination may be instructive and illuminating. I will not pursue that in my analysis.

Matthew and Luke use Q. At least, that seems to be the majority opinion. Whether Q exists or not is a matter for discussion. That discussion is not conclusive. In any case, if Q does exist, it certainly does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. It has no interest in his passion, death or resurrection. The Q material originates in a Palestinian community with a belief in the Son of Man, integrating both apocalyptic and wisdom ideas.

If Matthew has the original Q order of the temptations as most commentators believe, then Luke changes it. Luke reverses the second and third. Matthew has 1,2,3. Luke has 1,3,2. Why does Luke do this? What is his purpose?

The temptations take place during the forty days of fasting. If Mt is authentic Q, then Luke changes the first temptation from “tempter” to “the devil.”  Luke wants to identify clearly who the opponent of Jesus is. “If you are the Son of God” is the refrain of the devil.That phrase fits into the context of Q’s opposition to Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus as the Son of God is challenged again in 22:70; as the Chosen in 23:35; and as the Christ in 23:39. At issue is the identity of Jesus. The legendary story of his baptism and the divine attestation of his sonship did not satisfy the critics, perhaps in the Palestinian Church. In this first temptation Luke does nothing to clarify it. Luke has “this stone” instead of “these stones.” The devil if anything is pointedly specific. He knows exactly what he wants. But God can do a lot with stones. Jesus certainly heard John say, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Luke 3:8. He himself teaches, “Give us each day our daily bread.” Luke 11:3.  “For life is more than food.” Luke12:23. But I suspect that the last thing on the mind of the devil is bread. I believe he is challenging the will of Jesus that took him through forty days of fasting. John’s gospel has this interesting feature: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” John 4:34. The devil wants Jesus to surrender his will. But Jesus refuses to follow the devil. Jesus bases his answer in Scripture, “It is written.”  (4:4, 8). The devil shows that he, too, can say “It is written.”  (4:10). Luke does not quote the whole of Deut. 8:3 as Matthew does, and significantly omits “every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” Does Luke intend to suggest that since it is Jesus who is speaking, who is already proclaimed “Son of God” he does not need to cite the whole verse?  Behind all this, the devil is asking Jesus to perform a miracle. Performing a miracle is doing something, that is, action, behavior. Is there an ethics implied? What is ethically permitted in the interest of saving a life? What is ethically demanded for the salvation event? Is this the place where ethics and eschatology converge? Does eschatology ever nullify or suspend ethical action?

I do not believe that the Evangelist has a polemic in view here. I believe that the response of Jesus is a message to the early church, a message that says as a church you stand upon a strong foundation which is “written” and is Scripture. A church that is fighting for its life in a chaotic world is given assurance and consolation, courage and hope. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Jesus is saying to the church that the future will be about more than bread, it will be about life that is not affected by what is material. He is offering the church a new, emerging spiritual reality within which they will find redemption. Keep in mind that the Evangelist always presents Jesus as acting by and through the Spirit. See the assurance that Paul offers to the Romans. (Rom.8:18-25). The trans-historical, that is, mythical narrative of the temptation of Christ must be deconstructed to reveal the eschatological hope that will characterize the unfolding history of the ekklesia. Deconstruction will not resolve oppositions and contrasts, but will allow the text to field its multiple meanings and possibilities.  Again, Romans 8:28-39 is both instructive and hopeful.

The second temptation: The devil “took him up.” There is no mountain in this scene as in Matthew. He showed him “all the populated kingdoms , oikoumene” not as in Matthew “all the kingdoms of this kosmos.” Oikoumene is used in Luke’s apocalyptic prophecy, 21:26. (See also its apocalyptic use in Heb. 2:5; Rev. 3:10; 12:9; 16:14). In an instant, chromos, the vision of kingdoms pass before his eyes. How is this possible? I will suggest later that Jesus is experiencing an apocalyptic vision. Without leaving his place everything comes to him. The devil says, all the authority and glory in the inhabited world has been delivered to him, and he will give it to Jesus if Jesus will worship him. Satan does not have any authority or power or glory that has not been given to him. The use of the perfect passive voice indicates that it is God who has given Satan whatever he has, and since this is so, God is still in control of what happens. Later in Revelation 12 Jesus will defeat Satan and everything will be delivered to Jesus. Satan pretends that he can give authority and glory to anyone, but that gift is ultimately a gift of the divine. Satan wants to take the place of God, and that is what is stated in Luke 4:7. That is, the “prostrate yourself to me” to which Jesus replied that worship belongs to “the Lord your God, and HIM ONLY you shall serve.”  The devil wants Jesus to surrender his soul. Jesus does to want to gain the whole world and lose his own soul. The Evangelist insists on a monotheistic message. This is in view of the fact that in the Hellenistic Church to which he is speaking his audience did not have a sense of a transcendent God who was at the same time imminent. We learn this from Paul who speaks of the people “who do not know God.” I Thess. 4:5. It is because of monotheistic preaching that these people “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. See also Gal. 4:8-9. The devil calls upon Jesus to act. Again, Jesus takes his stand on the word that is written.

The third temptation: the pinnacle of the temple of Jerusalem. “If you are the Son of God”

The devil asks Jesus to throw himself down from the top of the temple.  Eliade says, “The Temple was an imago mundi; being at the Center of the World, Jerusalem, it sanctified not only the entire cosmos but also cosmic life – that is, time” The devil, the root of whose name implies “to cast down” (see Lk.10:18; Rev. 12:9) now asks Jesus “to cast down” himself. The devil is asking Jesus to surrender his life. Jump off this temple and see if you live or die. In the first temptation the devil asks Jesus to surrender his will. In the second temptation he asks Jesus to surrender his soul. In the third temptation he asks Jesus to surrender his life his life. But Jesus does not believe that his life is his to save or to give up. His life is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and he has to abide by the demands of the Spirit. I find it curious that the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and asks him to sacrifice himself by jumping off the pinnacle. Jerusalem is the place where the Spirit will lead Jesus to the cross, to be lifted up, and then after a while to be taken down by his friends and then again to be lifted up by the Spirit in the resurrection. The devil’s task is to cast down; the Spirit’s task is to lift up. Certain, the angels will bear him up if he strikes his foot against a stone. Jesus replies, “You shall not tempt THE LORD YOUR GOD.” Deut. 7:16. When Jesus quotes this verse he is suggesting that the temptation of God consists in attempting to force God to respond to an irresponsible act. Forcing God to send angels to rescue a suicidal Jesus is pitting human will against the divine will. To manipulate the will of God is the essence of temptation. The devil finished the temptations and departed until a more fortuitous time. Kairos is used but not in a technical theological sense.

Why does Luke’s version differ from Matt? I believe that Luke’s arrangement of the episode of the testing is his basic understanding of the mission of Jesus. It serves the interest of his Passion Christology, which will be disclosed in Jerusalem.  In this episode, Jesus moves from the desert/wilderness, vs. 2, to Jerusalem, vs.9. This is one of the motifs of the Evangelist. He methodically marks out the geographical path that Jesus takes from Galilee to Jerusalem. See 9:57; 10:38; 13:22; 14:25; 17:11; 18:35; 19:1, 11, 41. Jerusalem is the sacred center of the cosmos, the eschatological center of salvation. No writer emphasizes the role of Jerusalem more than Luke. In Rev. 21 the New Jerusalem will descend from heaven, and will need no temple because the Lord will rule over all.

How shall we understand the episode of the testing of Jesus? The devil is certainly not a flesh and blood adversary standing before Jesus challenging him, as for example the Pharisees and Sadducees. What are we to make of the dialogue? Is it really a monologue between two distinct personas of Jesus? How are we to understand the movement in the text? The wilderness, the “took him up,” the showing of “all” the populated realms, the movement to Jerusalem and the pinnacle of the temple, and then back to the desert where the devil “departed from him.” How to understand all this?

My own understanding of this episode is that this is an ecstatic apocalyptic vision in which Jesus is caught up, as John was in Rev. 1:10. John was “in the Spirit,” when he was caught up. Jesus entered this episode, “full of the Holy Spirit,” and he “was led by the Spirit for forty days.” When the testing was over Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit,” to Galilee. See also Paul’s apocalyptic vision, 2 Cor. 12. The demonic is hostile to the divine. An apocalyptic vision does not need to include each and every item that defines the content of apocalyptic. Mark 13 is an example of this. Here in Luke there is a supernatural entity offering itself in place of the divine. There is symbolic apocalyptic language, the kingdom of this world as opposed to the Kingdom of God. There is also transport of the visionary without leaving the scene as in Revelation. There is a gradual progression within the narrative that culminated in the victory of the divine. “The devil departed from him.” But he will return in 22:3 to lead Judas. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God will be victorious. See 9:1-2; 9:27; 10:9-11; 11:20.

Each of the visions, that is, the testing, addresses a contemporary problem in the church, sometimes two problems are combined materially. Vs. 3, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Is fasting also an issue? Is famine an issue, see Acts 11:28; Luke 6:20; 11:3. That will need to be explored. The devil asks this question against the background of the hunger of Jesus. However, hunger does not seem to play a major role here. What is at issue is whether Jesus is really “the Son of God.” This is combined with the issue of miracle. In the Hellenistic Church, miracle is an essential feature of the work of the redeemer.  In this scene, Luke refuses to use miracle as evidence of the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus answers the devil on the basis of hunger, avoiding the issue of his identity. The devil suggests that Jesus can save his life by performing a miracle. Jesus responds that true life does not depend on bread alone. The historical background may well be the suffering of the early church. The church needs an answer for its survival and the answer is not material but spiritual.  Jesus does not address the issue of his identity or that of the role of miracle. He rejects the assumption of the devil.

The second temptation deals with the issue of monotheistic faith. This would have been a problem for the Hellenistic church rather than the Palestinian community. The third temptation brings Jerusalem into the picture, I suggest, as the scene where the cosmic battle will be waged and won.

The movement in the narrative is from the desert, wilderness, to the city, Jerusalem, the inhabited world. The mythological framework is a demonstration of the movement from chaos to cosmos. Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane says, “One of the outstanding characteristics of traditional societies is the opposition that they assume between their inhabited territory and the unknown and indeterminate space that surrounds it.” He calls the inhabited world the cosmos and the indeterminate space “still shares in the fluid and larval modality of chaos.”

The temptation narrative in Luke is an apologia for the Passion Christology that he is developing. He uses the vehicle of an ecstatic apocalyptic vision to present a decidedly kerygmatic announcement: the Son of God has conquered chaos and its satanic forces and has established the eschatological cosmic kingdom of God, materially represented by Jerusalem. Further, the narrative of the temptation serves as a prolegomena to Luke-Acts. It introduces themes that will appear later, and gives an “executive summary” of what is to be expected at the end time.

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