Luke 4:1-13 records that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. In the Bible this is a common time-period for change; thus it serves as the basis for the Christian season of Lent.
Lent is the forty-day season that Christians traditionally use to prepare for Easter. It’s a good time to think of the possibilities of transformation. It’s a good time to give up bad habits. It’s a good time to experiment with something new – especially when it’s something that’s spiritually good for you, and/or good for others. Sometimes these things can become new habits when they’re tried experimentally over a forty-day sequence – and I say that from experience.
Our basis for this is Jesus Himself. Jesus experienced a time like this. The Bible tells us that He was full of Holy Spirit. Full of this inspiration, He had just emerged from His baptism (recorded back in Luke 3:21-22). He was departing the area around the Jordan River. He entered this time of great vulnerability, perhaps because He was on a spiritual high from His baptism, or perhaps because He was hungry. This kind of deprivation can bring out the best in people, but it also can bring a person to new awareness of weaknesses. It’s like the candy bar commercial that says, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.” That’s one way of looking at it. Or maybe, more accurately, we’re too much of ourselves – our worst selves – when we’re in a deprived condition.
That may not have been true for Jesus, but it’s probably how the devil was thinking. The evil one tends to attack in situations of vulnerability – and attack he did, each time speaking directly to Jesus. It’s interesting that he started out with Jesus’ identity: “If you are the son of God…” (in 4:3a). Think of this in relation to what God declared to Jesus at His baptism: “You are my beloved son…” (in 3:22). The evil one is trying to disestablish what God has said beforehand. This is why it’s so important for us to understand who we are as God defines us. Who are you? Who has God said that you are? What has the world tried to tell you that you should be? The world and the devil will answer these questions very differently than the Bible does. So Christians do well to remember that our identity is based on what God has said about us, and not somebody else.
It’s interesting also that the first temptation includes a call to action: Jesus is challenged to change a stone to into bread (in 4:3b) – and this in an hour of intense hunger. Here we learn something else about vulnerability: Evil will try to appeal to our basic, neglected appetites: These can be physical temptations, sexual temptations, emotional temptations, etc. We are at risk because all of us are prone to justify our actions by appealing to our natural humanity; we were just letting nature take its course.
Let me speak to this from experience: for me it would be loneliness. Loneliness is something that’s biologically wired in us. God did not design us to be alone. Humans are social creatures by our very design. If someone is feeling lonely, that means you’re feeling uncomfortable for a good reason. You feel desperate in the need to reach out, and you can step over others in the process. I’ll tell you: Some of my worst mistakes were made when I was lonely. That’s not a good excuse. But it helps to understand what lurks behind the problem.
God has legitimate means of meeting our needs. Christian fellowship is one antidote. And another is exactly what Jesus is did: getting the scriptures enmeshed in your brain. Jesus refused each of the devil’s temptations by reciting scripture: The first time it was Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone” (quoted in Luke 4:4). There comes a time when we put aside our physical needs to focus on our spiritual needs. Jesus had answered the first temptation by pointing to this fact.
With this the devil decided to try a different angle: Instead of focusing on identity, he now made Jesus an offer: All the kingdoms of world could be His if He wanted them. This is interesting because it directly states that these powers are under the devil’s control: “…it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will” (4:6). Jesus does not question this assumption. There’s a legitimate place for governing authorities in the Bible, but the fact that someone’s holding an office is not evidence of a divine favor. So we must be careful of temptation to covet worldly power, or to worship it. The Satanic offer of authority and glory came with a call to worship for a reason: Idolatry is a danger that goes hand-in-hand with a craving for power.
Note also that both of these temptations have a call to action. In one sense they’re normal things. Make bread. Engage in worship. We do these things all the time – and they’re harmless when they’re not corrupted. But if they are corrupted, they’ll become a temptation for people who can’t sit still – people who always have to be doing something. Note here that Jesus’ response is to not do the prescribed action – nor take any action at all. At this stage of history Jesus is taking 40 days to focus on the scripture. Sometimes being a “man of action” isn’t a good thing; sometimes it’s better to pause and reflect on scripture just like Jesus did. This could be the underlying truth behind Psalm 46:10a: “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations! I will be exalted in the earth!” God will be glorified! All the world’s busy-ness might well be a form of succumbing to the devil!
Inaction with pause and a reflection on scriptures is what worked for Jesus. There would come a time for works in His ministry: feeding the hungry, exorcising demons, healing the sick, teaching the masses, etc. But here He simply refused the temptation by reciting scripture – this time Deuteronomy 6:13: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (in Luke 4:8). Jesus did not come into the world to worship either the devil or any earthly power.
So with that possibility dispatched, the evil one transported Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple and returned to his previous methods. He was done making offers. This time he would return to the question of Jesus’ identity. There must be some special kind of vulnerability in this area. The fact that Satan worked on this two-thirds of the time with Jesus would seem to confirm it. I’m reminded of a quote from the German Lutheran pastor/mystical writer Jacob Boehme: "All the heights of pride in which man strives about meanings is an image of self-interest... all self-interest on the Day of Judgement will be given to darkness, as well as all those useless arguments by which they seek not love but only the image of self-interest that exalts itself in their interpretations. By these interpretations the princes are led to cause wars, and by these ideas they attack and storm lands and people. These belong to the separation of the wrong from the right in the Judgement. Then all meanings and images will cease and all the children of God will walk in the love of Christ and He will [dwell] in us."
Then as now, so much self-interest is wrapped up in how we see ourselves – in questions of identity. And this time the consequence was dire; again there was a call to action. The action was to jump.
This is troubling. Jesus says He’s hearing a voice from the devil. The voice is telling Him to make a suicide jump. It’s not a sin to be tempted; all of us are tempted in some way or another. And this temptation has particularly evil origins. It’s not uncommon: even Jesus experienced it.
And the devil reinforced it with scripture. He cited Psalm 91:11-12, which says,“’He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ … ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And he’s taking this to mean that Jesus has to do something foolish in order to establish His identity.
My friends, just because something is said to be “biblical” doesn’t mean that it’s from God. There are godly ways of using scripture, and there are Satanic ways of using scripture. A key thing to remember here is that Jesus didn’t get drawn in to a debate about it. Instead He focused on the scripture God had put before Him for this forty-day period. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (in Luke 4:12).
What does this mean? It means we use our brains. We trust God, but we don’t put him to the test. We apply this to our physical lives, but it can also apply to other things. A person’s trust in God is not going to be gauged by a game of chicken. No one should do the fiscal equivalent of throwing yourself off a bridge. We approach things in faith, with a heart-and-head involved. God gave us our brains; He intends for us to use them. And this includes how we think about things like risk.
Jesus made that point, and the devil ceased tempting Him and departed. But the evil one wasn’t gone for good. He awaited “an opportune time”. And I would suggest that he does that same thing with each of us, which is why we hear this warning in I Peter 5:8 – “The devil prowls around like a roaming lion looking for someone to devour.”
So the caution of this verse sets our course for the Christian season of Lent. The devil waits like a prowling lion – in a predatory stance. We stand guard. Like Jesus, we mull the scriptures – we internalize them; we cite them when necessary. We recognize our areas of vulnerability. Things that happen to other people could happen to us as well. We won’t jump into action prematurely. We trust in God. We use both our heads and our hearts. And we derive our identity from what God has said – not from worldly demands, not from voices that tell us otherwise.
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.