Luke 4:1-15, The Savior Is Tested

[January 18, 2009] The Gospel according to Matthew emphasizes how the kingdom of the heavens took place in Jesus and how He calls people into His own ‘place,’ the sphere of His person, and creates the church to be the incubator for this to happen.

The Gospel according to Luke emphasizes salvation and mission. Jesus is the Savior of Jew and Gentile—all humanity; and the mission of the church takes the form of His own mission. The beginning of the gospel takes place in the midst of ordinary life with ordinary people. Remarkable things happen—visitations of angels, miraculous births, prophetic statements—but Luke does not mention how Jesus comes to the attention of kings and magi, only of the elderly and the young, and of shepherds working at night. Luke has in his sights the mission of the church as it took place in the Acts of the Apostles and the work of the apostles Peter and Paul. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles is the continuation of the Gospel according to Luke. It is the second volume of Luke’s work.

So after Jesus came into self-awareness at the normal age when this takes place in human beings, at the age when young people begin to sharply distinguish themselves from their parents, we next see Him at the age of thirty, full adulthood, going to the Jordan to be baptized. At His baptism the voice of God from heaven says to Him, “You are My Son, the Beloved; in You I have found My delight,” and a visible sign of the Holy Spirit, a dove, descends upon Him as He is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, equipping Him for the mission He is about to begin. Heaven bears witness that He is the One whom Gabriel said He would be at the beginning of the gospel. But now He enters His role, His mission. His baptism is His “anointing”: His being set aside from ordinary life to fulfill the specific task that God demands of Him, and His being equipped for it.

At His baptism He already creates the pattern for the church’s mission, which begins with the baptism of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost and the baptism of water as its outward seal. When we are baptized and receive the laying on of hands, we enter into the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the church as the body of Christ when Christ ascended into heaven. So baptism is our own inauguration into the church’s mission, just as our Lord’s baptism was His inauguration into mission.

The Wilderness (Luke 4:1-2, 13-14)

Following His baptism, Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus, not the legal genealogy that establishes Jesus as heir to the throne of David, or even His ethnic genealogy that traces Him back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but rather His human genealogy that traces Him back to Adam. Immediately following this is the temptation in the wilderness.

Adam was in the Garden of Eden tempted by the devil and failed. Jesus is in the wilderness. After Adam’s failure, the wilderness is no longer a “garden of pleasure” but a place of hunger, where Adam must toil for his food. Where Adam failed, Jesus overcomes. Here Jesus recapitulates Adam and becomes the Second Man, the beginning of a new creation in the place where Adam failed.

The wilderness is the place of testing. We also recall Israel in the wilderness, tested after they were baptized when they passed through the Red Sea. When Jesus speaks to the devil, He quotes from Deuteronomy three times (Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:13, 18). In Deu­teronomy, Moses looks back on Israel’s experience in the wilderness. The devil quotes Psalm 91, but Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy 6:18 reminds us of Psalm 95:8-11 where God says, “Do not harden your heart as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness; when your fathers tested Me … For forty years I loathed that generation, and I said, ‘They are a people who go astray in heart; and they do not know My ways’; therefore I swore in My anger: ‘They shall by no means enter into My rest!’” The wilderness was a place of testing for Israel, but Israel failed. As Jesus recapitulated Adam, so He recapitulates Israel; and where Israel failed, Jesus overcomes.

This is significant, because in the following episode, Jesus announces the “Year of Jubilee” as spoken of by Isaiah. For Isaiah this was the Messianic Age when God would at last fulfill His promises to Israel. The Promised Land was meant to be the fulfillment of God’s promises, but those promises did not come to pass because of Israel’s failure. Israel needed a Savior, the Messiah. Where Israel failed, the Messiah (“Anointed One”) was tried and proven. Now He can come forth to be Israel’s Savior.

But one more thing: Matthew says that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but Luke is much more emphatic. He says, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (notice the subtle shift in preposition, ‘into’ becomes ‘in’). And Luke finishes with these words: “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.” In view of the ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit (“the promise of My Father … power from on high”) so that the church can carry out its mission, it is hard to miss the connection. The Spirit that equips the church is working in Jesus equipping Him to carry out His work, and in this case, to pass the test and to overcome the temptations of the devil. The Spirit led Him while in the wilderness.

Not only does Jesus recapitulate the experience of Adam and Israel, and overcome where they failed, His trial here also foreshadows His own experience of the cross and the testing of the church. The order of the temptations in Luke is different than in Matthew. In Matthew the order of the temptations correspond to the order of Israel’s trial in Exodus (bread in the desert in chapter 16, the water at Massah in 17, and the incident at the mountain in 32). Because Luke is using this story to foreshadow Jesus’ ultimate test, he shifts the focus to Jerusalem. At the time he wrote the gospel he may not have known that Jerusalem was also going to be the place where Paul would also be arrested. But he would have remembered Jesus’ words in Luke 21 that the testing of the church would center around events in Jerusalem. In this case, the wilderness becomes a metaphor for our journey in the world and through history.

The point for us is that Jesus’ went through His temptation in the power of the Spirit and by the same Spirit He sustains us in our trials and temptations. He cuts the path before us and we follow, accompanied by Him, in His own strength, not in our strength.

The Temptations (4:3-12)

In each test Jesus is tempted to use the power of God and His entitlement as the Son of God in an inappropriate way. In each case He is tempted to use His role for Himself, or for His cause. The first temptation has to do with legitimate material needs. The second has to do with the lust for power and control, and the third with self-defense and fame. If we were in Jesus’ place, we might think rather selfishly: my own hunger, etc.

But these can also be rationalized socially. This, in fact, is what Israel did then and both Israel and the church do now. To use the gifts of the Spirit to satisfy people’s material needs certainly seems like a legitimate cause. The Zealots were concerned about how the people suffered under the oppression of the wealthy priests and the Roman occupation. The church today ignores the Gospel of salvation and is only concerned with social justice and sometimes explicitly promotes Marxism or conservative libertarianism or nationalism. The church today has become so identified with civil religion—that is, using religion to promote secular causes—that the pilgrim church of the Scriptures seems hard to find anywhere. It is hard to argue against the need to feed people before you preach to them, but it is so much easier to take care of people with bread than to demand that they repent. We justify ourselves and feel like heroes if we can help people in a visible material way. After all, this is the salvation that the world desires. But people look on us rather suspiciously if instead we try to get people to deal with the reality of God and what God requires of us.

The Zealots also wanted to have the Messiah sit on the throne of David. Nothing seems wrong with this, it seems; but it is not so sim­ple. Power in the world is in the hands of the devil. Whenever the church occupies a position of political power—so it can do good, so it can help people!—the Gospel goes underground. We cannot accept “this authority and its glory” without betraying the Lord. This does not mean we should oppose those in authority. To oppose them is to put ourselves on the same terms, to want the same thing. If you op­pose them and you succeed, then you now stand where they were. Your cause may seem more justified, but the change is only superfi­cial. The history of revolutions is a revolving door. The alternative is faithfulness and fidelity to God, and neither accepting nor rejecting those who have authority in the world. This does not mean that we do not act responsibly and work for what is right. God preserves the creation. It does mean that we do not accept the ide­ology of power. Think about Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate in the Gospel according to John.

To jump off the wing of the temple before the crowds and thus to have God prove your claims, is clearly to manipulate God—but it is for a good cause. Then the people’s doubts will be overcome. When Jesus was on the cross, people sneered, “Let Him save Himself if this is the Messiah of God, the Chosen One!” The soldiers mocked Him, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” And one of the criminals blasphemed, “Are You not the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!” This was the last temptation of Christ, but He overcame it here. The church is not called to self-defense but to martyrdom. While self-defense has its place, God does not want us defending His cause.

Each time Jesus quotes the Scriptures in response to tempta­tion. In each quote, Jesus shows that God’s will alone matters, not our own ideas of how to best serve God. All these issues, these justifica­tions, mean nothing. Only faithfulness to God matters. The tempter leaves—to wait for another opportunity—when we are steadfast. God does not serve our own agenda, or even our own ideas of how best to serve people. God calls us to His own will and purpose.

The Mission Begins (4:14-15)

Having been tested, Jesus has established Himself on the right footing. He has “bound the strong man.” He now goes forth from the wilderness in the power of the Spirit to use the gifts of the Spirit for God’s own purpose. The first task in which He engages is teaching. Teaching works on the foundations of change.

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