On the first Sunday of Lent we take a step backward in the flow of Luke’s narrative to look at a very lenten issue: temptation. The Gospel text is Luke 4:1-13, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
Jesus’ three big temptations get all the attention, but a tiny little moment in the ramp-up is worth stopping on. Three observations:
1. Notice what the 40 days were about.
What was Jesus doing for those 40 days?
…for forty days … He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” (Luke 4:2 NRSV)
Jesus spent 40 days fasting. Lent is, historically, a 40 day fasting period for Christians. Coincidence? Absolutely not.
Well, sure, if you are a Protestant Lenten fasting just isn’t emphasized. For Protestants fasting is individual and optional. Many do not fast ever, or when Lent rolls around, we pick something to fast from: TV, chocolate, Facebook — it could be anything.
But if you were, say, Orthodox, it is still emphatically a fasting period. Twenty or so percent of the world’s Christians spend the entire 40 days fasting from meat, dairy, olive oil, and wine.
Basically they become vegan tea-totallers.
It does make the feast of Easter a joyous celebration.
I think we Protestants who strive to be so biblical should at least take note that our Lord himself fasted.
2. Notice when the bulk of the temptations happened.
I don’t think I’m the only one who remembers this story as Jesus going on a 40 day fast which was followed by three big temptations. But look at what Luke tells us:
For forty days he was tempted by the devil. … And when they were over… The devil said to him…” (Luke 4:2-3 NRSV)
This was 40 long days of temptation (while fasting) which were followed by three noteworthy temptations. The temptations during the 40 days ended up on the cutting room floor. These three made it onto the big screen.
Which probably says something about fasting. It isn’t a preventative for temptation. It is a focused time to deal with temptation. And maybe it is a strengthening time to deal with the Big Temptations.
Hmm… maybe we individualistic Protestants could learn something from the shared practice of our Christian relatives in the East.
3. Notice who led him into temptation.
Lastly we should pay close attention to how Jesus got into all these troubling temptations.
Jesus … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2 NRSV)
So God the Holy Spirit led God the Son, Jesus, into temptation.
The point is made even more strongly in Mathew:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1 NRSV)
It is an example of what the letter to the Hebrews says:
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;” (Hebrews 5:8 NRSV)
This helps answer one common question. Whenever I talk to a group about the Lord’s Prayer, someone gets stuck on the line “And lead us not into temptation.” Why, they will ask me, do we need to pray this line when James tells us clearly
No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:3 NRSV)
Well, the words of James need to be interpreted by Jesus’ own life.
In Luke 4:1-13 God led Jesus into temptation. Therefore we really do need to pray that God would not lead us into temptation. Lord knows we won’t get out of it as deftly as he did.
Jesus’ Big Three Temptations
But what about those three big temptations that came after the 40 days of fasting and temptation? I’ve always figured there was some significance to the three — a pattern to them, something to make them a paradigm of temptation for all of us.
I no longer quite think so. I could be wrong, of course.
But we experience temptation as a pretty individual thing.
- Something that you are drawn to with unrelenting longing might just be a big yawn to me.
- And the things that I repeatedly fall into, leaving me full of guilt and shame might not every trouble you at all.
- It isn’t that our issues aren’t really sin. But we might just not find each other’s issues tempting.
It may be truer that every age has its own set of besetting temptations — not that they capture every sin in a systematic way, but things that the culture generally thinks of as deep and tempting issues.
I’d say in our day it the Big Three might be “sex, money, and power.” And they are especially potent because of the way the each of them is on shifting sand in the thinking of our culture
- Things in each category that were thought sinful once are now quite acceptable in the culture.
- Things in each category once thought acceptable are now found quite sinful in the culture.
Note, though, how these really don’t overlap much with Jesus’ Big Three temptations. Maybe the power one is there, but sex just doesn’t enter the conversation.
So what is going on beneath the surface of Jesus’ Big Three? A few observations:
Big Temptation 1: Identity
The first temptation goes like this:
If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” (Luke 4:3 NRSV)
At first glance it’s a temptation about food. But really, food is not a problem. It’s totally okay to eat bread, especially after a 40 day fast.
Even creating bread by miracle is no problem. Read the rest of the Gospel and you see him turn 5 loaves into enough food for 5000 people. Miracle bread is easy peasy.
The temptation is all about identity. “If you are the Son of God” the devil taunts, then prove it.
Well, Jesus really is the Son of God. He could say so to the devil, and he could say so to the world. He had every reason in the world to be perfectly secure in that identity.
But the devil sows a seed of doubt about it.
Prove it. Do something that will convince me of it.
And you know, whatever your identity is, you can never prove it. You can only be it.
If you set about trying to prove who you are — the best pastor, the smartest scholar, the most skilled carpenter — you’re in a world of hurt.
You can never convince a critic. And when you try, you absorb the criticism as self-doubt.
The more you try to prove your identity, the more you doubt it yourself.
Big Temptation 2: Allegiance
The second temptation goes like this. The devil, doing something of a miracle of his own, shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, their glory, their authority. Then he says,
If you, then, will worship me,
it will all be yours.” (Luke 4:7 NRSV)
At first glance, it’s a temptation about power, or maybe wealth, or authority. That’s what the devil promises to give him.
But the real temptation is all about allegiance. Jesus, and everyone else on earth, is called to worship and serve God alone. The Law of Moses puts that call at the highest level:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5 NRSV)
“All” brooks no competition. We are to be all for God — every fiber of our being, every ounce of our devotion.
Scripture sometimes puts it in terms of citizenship. Paul tells us our citizenship is in heaven. That’s why Jesus spent so much time talking about the Kingdom of God. That’s our true identity. (See Ephesians 2:19, Philippians 3:20)
- We think we are Americans, or Canadians, or whatever, who happen to be Christians.
- We are supposed to be Christians, who happen to have been born in America, or Canada, or wherever.
Just like eating bread was not a temptation for Jesus, having all the world under his authority was not a temptation. He himself proclaimed, as he commissions his apostles and ascends to heaven
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18 NRSV)
He didn’t get that authority by bowing down to the devil. Jesus is the rightful ruler of heaven and earth.
Giving his heart’s devotion, his service, his allegiance to anyone or anything other than God? That would be a big problem.
Like Jesus, we need to hold fast to our allegiance to God even if it goes contrary to country, or culture, or fashionable trend.
Big Temptation 3: Authority
The third temptation goes like this. The devil does another miracle, swooping Jesus out of the wilderness and over to Jerusalem, up to the top of the temple of God.
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,
for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Luke 4:9-11 NRSV)
At first glance it looks like we are back to issues of identity. The devil’s line starts that way.
At second glance, though, it looks like it is a temptation about authority. Not authority over nations, like in the second temptation. The issue here is spiritual authority.
In both of the previous temptations, Jesus won out by quoting an authoritative text: the Bible.
Here in the third temptation, the devil quotes the Bible right back at him.
The Bible says you can throw yourself down from here. So do it.
But Jesus avoids arguing about Scriptural authority. He doesn’t haggle about context or interpretation.
Instead Jesus answers with common wisdom.
It is said,
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Luke 4:12 NRSV)
Of course in Matthew’s version Jesus says the same thing is “written” — which it is, in Deuteronomy 6:16.
It isn’t an absolute rule though: Elsewhere God tells the people explicitly,
…put me to the test” (Malachi 3:10).
It takes wisdom to sort out which opposing commandment applies. In Luke, Jesus leans on wisdom (deeply biblical wisdom) instead of arguing about the Bible.
C’mon. Everybody knows that you shouldn’t test God.
That’s probably wise advice for Christians in our contentious age. Don’t debate the Bible when your opponent acts like the devil.
So what is this third temptation really about?
But I think the real temptation here was to misuse his authority — to exploit the power he held as the Son of God for himself rather than for his mission to serve.
Whether Paul had this scene in mind or not as he wrote to the church in Philippi, his comments certainly apply. Paul noted the mindset of Christ. Jesus, he said,
…though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited…” (Philippians 1:6 NRSV)
Jesus didn’t grasp his own authority and use it for public display, to prove himself against the devil, or to please himself. Instead he always used the power of God to serve the people. He
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:7-8 NRSV)
And that’s even better advice today. If you hold authority, or have power over others, don’t exploit it. You are there to serve — to live out the will of Christ.
Whether Jesus’ temptations of identity, allegiance, and authority are the besetting issues of our age and our culture or not, there is wisdom to be mined from his response to them.
My annual lenten prayer class is open for registration — but only through Ash Wednesday. We’ll work on the Jesus Prayer and other classic Christian ways of praying that help to bring focus to the life of prayer. If you want full information, or to sign up, click on this button:
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