5. Jesus' Temptation (Luke 4:1-13)

Gospel Parallels §8
Audio (27:26)

James J. Tissot, 'Jesus Carried Up to a Pinnacle of the Temple' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 8.75 x 6.25 in. Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Jesus Carried Up to a Pinnacle of the Temple' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 8.75 x 6.25 in. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"1  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, 2  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. 3  The devil said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.' 4  Jesus answered, 'It is written: "Man does not live on bread alone."'

5  The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6  And he said to him, 'I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7  So if you worship me, it will all be yours.' 8  Jesus answered, 'It is written: "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only."'

9  The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 'If you are the Son of God,' he said, 'throw yourself down from here. 10  For it is written: "He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; 11  they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."' 12  Jesus answered, 'It says: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."' 13  When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time." (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus has just been baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit for his messianic ministry, and acknowledged by his Father as "My beloved Son. I'm very pleased with you." But he isn't allowed to bask long in the glow of this moment. There is work to do.

Led by the Spirit into Temptation (Luke 4:1-2)

The work, however, begins with a time of intensive preparation. Notice the role of the Holy Spirit in this preparation. Jesus is described as "full of the Holy Spirit." The event at the Jordan was profoundly significant. Now Jesus is "led" by the Spirit in the desert. Mark's Gospel uses much stronger language: "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness" (Mark 1:12). The verb in Mark is ekballō, "to cast out, to drive out." This leading wasn't a gentle one, but perhaps almost a compulsion. Jesus had been baptized and filled with the Spirit; now he must go into the desert.

Bear with me for a bit of technical observation that helps me get the picture here. In Luke the Greek verb "led" is agō, figuratively, of the working of the Spirit on man, "lead, guide," passive, "be led, allow oneself to be led."53 The imperfect tense of the verb suggests that Jesus was continuously led by the Spirit during these 40 days. With a verb of action such as "lead," I expected to find the Greek preposition eis, "in, into," which carries the idea of "motion into a thing or into its immediate vicinity."54 But the preposition found in this verse is Greek en, which has the idea of "in, within." In other words, the text indicates that the Spirit didn't just send Jesus off into the desert and deposit him there to struggle with the devil. Rather the Spirit continuously led Jesus in the desert area for the 40 days. He wasn't left alone. The Spirit went with him throughout the entire time.

The Judean Wilderness. (Larger map)

Why the desert? Jesus wasn't yet ready to enter into his public ministry, so the desolate wilderness of the Jordan plain north of the Dead Sea, and the arid Judean hills west of the Dead Sea were places he could be alone. I'm sure he communed with his Father during this time. And, as we'll see from the nature of his temptations, the shape and meaning of his Messiahship were determined here. The desert, of course, was John the Baptist's home, and was also the place where Moses and Elijah had fasted and encountered the Lord (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 18, 25; 1 Kings 19:8).

Fasting has a way of temporarily lifting the tyranny of preparing and eating food to assuage physical hunger. It allows one to focus on the spiritual realm more intently. After the first few days, the hunger pangs subside some as the body's metabolism changes. Fasting can produce a clarity of mind and spirit. Was the forty days a literal time period? Perhaps not. The number forty is used so often in the Bible that it seems to be a rounded rather more than an exact figure, much as we might say "a month" in an imprecise manner.55 In any case, Jesus spent a long time in the desert. A long time to be tempted. A long time to fast.

Why Temptation?

It startles us to think of Jesus being tempted at all. Shouldn't he be above all that? After all, he is the Son of God, and James tells us, "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone" (James 1:13). But the Incarnation (coming in the flesh) required that the Son of God empty himself of his divine prerogatives (Philippians 2:7), and one of those must have been the ability to be tempted. We see his temptation here and also in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). In both instances, he chooses his Father's will over the temptation to pursue an easier path. But notice that he has no extraordinary weapons in his temptation; he has the same tools we have -- the Spirit and the Word.

Sometimes being tempted makes us feel dirty. The spontaneous thoughts of hatred or lust or envy or theft shock us. An important lesson for disciples is this: temptation is not sin. Satan may tempt us by putting evil thoughts into our mind, but we can push them right out again with God's help. I've always appreciated a saying attributed to Martin Luther: "You can't help it if a bird flies over your head, but you don't need to let him make a nest in your hair." Temptation is not sin.

Would you like to contemplate an unanswerable question for a moment? Could Jesus have sinned? We can't imagine it. And yet, part of being human is to have a will free to choose wrong as well as right. He must have been able to sin, or temptation is just a big play-act. What if he had sinned? What would have happened? Would the Trinity have exploded? Would the unity of the Godhead itself been threatened? We can't imagine or comprehend it. And yet, I get the feeling that the Incarnation was not risk-free for the Father. When he sent his Only Begotten Son, he took a huge risk -- because he loved us. Yes, I know that the Father knows the end from the beginning. I believe the Bible teaches predestination. But I also believe the Father took a huge risk -- for you and for me.

The Necessity of Temptation

Why should Jesus be tempted at all? Because innocent faith is not strong faith. The Garden of Eden is illustration enough. Innocent faith may be pure, but it needs testing to be strong.

Volcanic granite domes cap the sheer rock faces above Yosemite Valley. And near the top of some of these domes grow trees that are tortured by the reflected glare of the summer sun, frigid stormy gales, and massive winter snow packs. These trees are contorted, yet strong. The wood fibers in these twisted and stressed branches are much stronger than those of any of their straight-grained cousins.

Many disciples have discovered that while their lives were pretty controlled by Satan before their conversion, after their conversion a battle begins, an inner war.

"For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want." (Galatians 5:17)

The battle is both inevitable and necessary for you to begin to experience spiritual freedom in your life.

For Jesus the battle was somewhat different. His nature wasn't sinful like ours, where the devil often has an inside track to temptation. "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me," declared Jesus (John 14:30, KJV). Rather, as we will see, the temptation in the wilderness was an attempt by Satan to gain a foothold on Jesus, to trip Jesus into a petty concession that would force him into disgrace or impotence. If a politician, for example, takes just one under-the-table gift, the donor now controls him by threat of exposure. If a nuclear scientist offers just one bit of information to the enemy, he is not allowed to stop there. He is compromised. Let's examine Satan's attempts to compromise Jesus.

1. Temptation of Hunger (Luke 4:3-4)

The first temptation seems pretty simple. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and Satan offers him a quick way to feed his hunger, to turn the rounded bread-shaped stones scattered on the desert floor into actual loaves of bread. The other alternative is for Jesus to hike 20 miles to the nearest town for food to break his fast. The devil's suggestion is instant, within Jesus' power, and he IS very hungry. There comes a point in fasting where the hunger pangs return, and if you don't eat then, starvation and death take hold quickly. This is the temptation to meet legitimate physical needs by illegitimate or unnecessary means.

But there's another subtle temptation here, as well. The devil slyly begins, "If you are the Son of God...." He's basically saying to Jesus, "You may not be the Son of God at all. Prove it to me by doing this minor miracle." When we're new at any role -- not to mention Messiahship -- we feel insecure. And when someone taunts us and doubts our role, we're very tempted to show them, to prove it. This is the temptation to pride, to prove ourselves to others -- and, in our insecurity, to ourselves as well.

There's nothing wrong with meeting physical needs -- food, shelter, love, companionship, sex -- by legitimate means. But there is a higher law than our physical desires, and that is God's Word. The essence of Jesus' reply is a quotation of Deuteronomy 8:3, which reads in full:

"He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."

Jesus' point is that physical needs must be met God's way, not our own selfish, short-cut way. We're tempted, of course, to steal, to cheat, to fornicate, to lie, to provide a quick fix for our physical hungers. God is able to supply our needs, but we must wait on him and seek to do things his way. Just because we can work miracles, doesn't mean we should in any given circumstance. Bread -- physical fulfillment -- is not more important than God's Word and way.

2. Temptation of Power and Wealth (Luke 4:5-8)

The second temptation is to authority and worldly glory. The devil leads Jesus up to a high place and shows him the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. This sounds like a vision. Instantly, Jesus can see each of the kingdoms of his day: Herod's petty domain closest to him, then Rome's towering buildings and Caesar's court, and all the other empires on the Russian steppes, the Indian subcontinent, and ancient China. Jesus could see it all.

Satan claims both ownership of and the power to bestow political power and material wealth and splendor. It's interesting that Jesus doesn't question it. Satan isn't able to draw him into an argument that God alone is sovereign and that Satan's power is usurped from its rightful owner -- though Jesus' answer hints at this. Arguing with Satan makes the tempted person even more vulnerable.

If you've ever been near the pinnacle of political or corporate power, you know that temptations to comprise are abundant and the stakes are high. Just "play the game," you're told. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," is the mantra. "Just look the other way," they say. The rewards can be tremendous. In the last few years we've seen many overnight millionaires. But at what cost? The incentives to compromise are almost impossible to resist, especially if the love of money and power have found a ready place in your heart.

Can a person live in the business or political arena and retain his integrity? Yes, but not without facing and passing the kind of tests that Jesus met in the desert. Part of the lie is that Satan alone controls power and material rewards, and that the only way to reach them is the devil's way. But this IS a lie. The other way is to trust God and serve him in good times and bad, relying on him to exalt you if that is his will. Jesus teaches, "No one can serve two masters ... You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:24). Daniel retained his integrity as Prime Minister of Babylon and Persia; so did Abraham and Job. Joseph was second to Pharaoh himself, and Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin Council that ruled Jerusalem in Jesus' day. God is not opposed to bestowing on Christians power or wealth. But we cannot afford the shortcuts, no matter how appealing or seemingly innocent they appear.

The devil said to Jesus, "If you worship me, it will all be yours." What was Satan's bargain? The Greek word for "worship" is proskuneō. Here's the background of the word:

"Proskuneō used to designate the custom of prostrating oneself before a person and kissing his feet, the hem of his garment, the ground, etc. The Persians did this in the presence of their deified king, and the Greeks before a divinity or something holy; '(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully.'"56

Probably Jesus didn't have to fully prostrate himself. These days kissing one's ring, or a handshake, or eye contact and a subtle nod of the head can indicate the same kind of submission. Satan would grant power and wealth to Jesus instantly, if only Jesus would accept it from him. But the strings accompanying such a gift would be like steel cables enslaving Jesus to the devil forever.

We understand the temptation. We live in the present, we want instant gratification. We would rather get our rewards now and worry later about the future. Does this describe you? What is the balance on your credit cards?

Jesus answers with Scripture he had doubtless learned as a boy: "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only'" (4:8; Deuteronomy 6:13). Our God is a jealous God. We are not free agents in the world, picking or choosing between world powers to align our tiny selves with. We must choose the Lord our God, or be sucked irresistibly into the orbit of the devil's minions. If we don't worship the Lord, we are lost.

Jesus knew that power was important to his mission as Messiah. But it must be power bestowed by his Father in due time. His was the hard way to glory -- through the cross and grave and resurrection. But in due time the Father exalted him to the highest place, the place that he deserved as God's equal (Philippians 2:6), and to the position in which he is publicly proclaimed before heaven and earth (Philippians 2:9-11). It took longer than Satan's way, but there was no bitter aftertaste. Jesus resisted the quick fix, and took his Father's path.

3. Temptation of Instant Acclaim (Luke 4:9-13)

Have you ever had dreams of fame? Of being a movie star or sports hero? Who hasn't? But the desire to be respected in your profession or popular in your school are the more common ways we deal with this desire. I think that Jesus' third temptation is for popularity.

"The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple" (4:9). A vision or a physical event? A vision, I think. Jesus was physically in the desert. But the vision is no less tempting to those acquainted with virtual reality. Now the devil quotes Scripture to Jesus from Psalm 91:11-12. Satan's implication is that if Jesus were to jump off the temple to the pavement far below, he wouldn't be injured -- angels would catch him, a kind of celestial bungee jump. The effect on observers in the temple, however, would be startling, the ultimate public relations stunt. The visible miracle of one who walked away from mortal injury. Jesus would be instantly famous, and perhaps would be acclaimed Messiah on the spot.

I don't think that the excitement of risking danger was Jesus' temptation. Rather it was the lure of popularity and public recognition. This is similar to the lure of power and material wealth, but it appeals even more directly to personal pride and self-exaltation.

"Humble thyself in the eyes of the Lord...
And He shall lift you up."

are the words of Bob Hudson's chorus57 that reflects Scripture (James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6). Jesus could choose the path of humility or pride. He chose humility.

"Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death --
even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8)

Jesus answered the devil with the words of Deuteronomy 6:16: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." In other words, do not take some action that forces God's hand, that seeks to manipulate God to do what he otherwise would not wish to do. The passage Jesus was quoting referred to the Israelites' forcing God to act when they were thirsty at Massah in the wilderness. They had tested God by saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" If so, then prove it to us by giving us water. There's a kind of insistent unbelief in this sort of testing. "I'm from Missouri -- show me!" St. Thomas exemplified this attitude when he said, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it" (John 20:25b).

At the human level, we see manipulation constantly. We can't get our spouse to do something we want? Take an action that leaves him no other choice. Force her to bail you out, since the alternative is unimaginable. Force people to say nice things about you by your own carefully chosen words of self-deprecation. Force people to see you as a philanthropist by visible gifts to charitable causes. The forms of manipulation are innumerable and often so subtle, that unless we are self-aware, we may almost fool ourselves. Too often, we try to manipulate God, too, with bargains and deals. We need to take seriously Jesus' words, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

Jesus' Temptations as a Teaching Prototype

Have you ever wondered how Luke heard the story of Jesus' temptation? Jesus was alone in the desert; no one had observed him. Jesus doubtless told his disciples about his own temptation experience to teach them how to resist temptation themselves. I'm sure, that over the course of forty days, Jesus experienced more than three temptations. But he selected these three in order to instruct his disciples. When you view Jesus' three temptations as archetypical and compare them with the list compiled by Jesus' beloved disciple John, you come up with some interesting similarities. Here we're comparing Jesus' temptations in Luke 4:3-12 with John's classification in 1 John 2:15-17.

  1. The temptation of hunger = "the lust of the flesh" (KJV), "the cravings of sinful man" (NIV), "men's primitive desires" (Phillips 58)
  2. The temptation of power and wealth = "the lust of the eyes (KJV, NIV), "their greedy ambitions" (Phillips)
  3. The temptation of instant acclaim = "the pride of life" (KJV), "the boasting of what he has and does" (NIV), "the glamour of all that they think is splendid" (Phillips)

I think John the Apostle is teaching his readers about the same triad of temptations Jesus' had taught the Twelve decades before -- the same categories of temptations we face in our own lives.

The Power of the Word

Notice how Jesus responded to temptation. The devil brought truths mixed with half truths to deceive and entice Jesus. Jesus answered with the Word. Even when the devil misquoted the Bible to Jesus, Jesus answered back with the Scripture he knew.

What Jesus teaches his disciples is: answer temptation with God's Word, too. We need to know Scripture well enough to answer our doubts and fears and temptations with it. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), and as we learn to apply the Word to every circumstance of our lives, we too can emerge victorious from fierce temptations.

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. When he emerged, the shape of his Messiahship had been hammered out on the anvil of principle and God's guidance. He had faced the temptations of the Tempter. He had considered them carefully, but he ultimately rejected them in favor of his Father's plan, and triumphed over the devil. Later he told his disciples,

"I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you" (Luke 10:18-19).

Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.

Jesus had trampled on the desert snake and scorpion as God had predicted (Genesis 3:15b). And he offers this power to you and me. The keys? Prayer, surrender of our lives to the Father's will, and answering the Tempter with the Word of God.


Lord, I face battles with temptation every day. Help me to be Father-focused like Jesus was. Help me to learn your Word better so I can find victory over temptation. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Jesus answered, 'It is written: "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.""" (Luke 4:8)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Is temptation only merely inevitable, or is it necessary to our growth as disciples?
  2. What is the essence of the first temptation, to turn stones into bread? Which temptations we face are similar?
  3. What is the essence of the second temptation, to attain power and splendor? What similar temptations do we face today?
  4. What is the essence of the third temptation, to throw oneself down from the temple? How do we face this temptation today?
  5. Did Jesus have any special powers at his disposal to resist temptation that Christians today don't have?
  6. What lessons about how to resist temptation does Jesus teach us disciples in this passage?


Abbreviations and References

[53] Agō, BAGD 14

[54] Eis, BAGD 228.

[55] Bruce C. Birch, "Number," in ISBE, 3:558.

[56] Proskyneō, BAGD 716.

[57] "Humble Thyself in the Sight of the Lord," by Bob Hudson, © 1978 Maranatha! Music.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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