Luke 4:1-15, The Tempting of Jesus

[February 17, 2013] We continue our Lenten meditations by focusing on the tempting or testing of Jesus in the wilderness. At His baptism the voice out of heaven declared, “You are My Son, the Beloved, in You I am well-pleased.” Jesus is singled out of humanity as the One in Whom the Father is well-pleased. Humanity has turned its back on God and is in need of repentance (turning back). Jesus also receives the baptism of repentance but out of all of humanity He has not turned His back on God; in Him alone the Father is well-pleased. He is the Beloved. He comes out of the waters of baptism as a new beginning of humanity. Luke then gives a genealogy of Jesus that traces His line back to Adam: “… the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” If Adam was the son of God, Jesus is also the Son of God; but where Adam failed, Jesus is the One in Whom the Father is well-pleased. Adam’s failure took place in the garden of pleasures. His failure turned the garden into a wilderness, a desert. Jesus like Adam is also tested; but where Adam failed, Jesus does not. He proves Himself the One in Whom the Father is well-pleased.

This is not His last test. It is the testing that precedes His apostolate and proves Him worthy. In Matthew’s gospel He is tested again when Peter tries to veer Him away from the cross. He is tested in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me”), and again on the cross (“He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One”; “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us”). Perhaps He was tested all along. After He turns from the wilderness, however, He is always tested in relation to the cross. Though it is not explicit, the temptation in the wilderness is also about the cross.

What after all is the temptation with respect to the cross? What is the real question at issue here? For in fact the issue with respect to the cross is the same issue with respect to His life. His bloody death is merely the end of a certain course, the “way of the cross.” His bloody death is the successful completion of His passion. We may think of His passion in terms of Holy Week. We may think of the way of the cross as beginning when He set His face to Jerusalem, after the Transfiguration. In fact, the way of the cross goes back to His baptism; it was the decision He made then when He accepted the baptism of repentance. His entire ministry was His passion. And the temptation in the wilderness was a testing in relation to it. “If You are the Son of God” refers back to the voice that spoke at His baptism.

Not only can the cross not be separated from His anointing, from His being the Christ of God; not only can the cross not be separated from the Holy Spirit that came upon Him and filled Him and led Him. If He left the way of the cross He would leave the anointing and the Spirit would depart from Him. But the cross also cannot be separated from His sonship. What the way of the cross is has something to do with what it means for Jesus to be the Son. The voice that declared Him to be God’s Son at His baptism was only confirming what Gabriel had said to Mary before His birth: “He will be called the Son of the Most High,” for “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” Not only Jesus’ death but His entire life was lived as a sacrifice to God. The idea of sacrifice permeates the entire Hebrew Scriptures. It is sacrifice that most describes the eternal relation of the Son to the Father, and therefore it characterizes Jesus’ life from His birth and only culminates in His death. The act of His death was only the consummating act of His continual sacrifice to the Father. This sacrifice was His obedience; the obedience that Adam failed to render, and that Israel too, God’s chosen, ultimately failed to render. This sacrifice precedes the Lord’s birth; for His kenosis too—His emptying Himself of the glory of His divinity—was sacrifice. Sacrifice represents the giving, the devotion, of oneself and what one has to the other in homage and love.

The Trinity is one divine nature in three Persons. This means we cannot define the Persons in terms of their nature; for they share the same nature. Nor can we define them in terms of their outward acts; for they were Three before anything else existed. The Persons can only be understood in terms of their relationship to each other. Each gives and receives—all that they are and have—in the co-inherence of the divine nature—in their particular way. The Father loves and gives everything to the Son, His very being. What the Son gives in worship and love is the offering up of Himself as a sacrifice—from eternity. This is what it is to be the Son.

So the life of Jesus as a continual sacrifice to the Father ending with His death on the cross is simply the unfolding and expression of His sonship. His sonship is revealed in this. It becomes incarnate in His humanity dynamically in this way. Yes, as a human being He is the Son; but it is how He is human that is His being the Son.

So consider the temptation in the wilderness in this light. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days.” I noted previously that Luke does not just say that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but that when He went into the wilderness the Spirit that accompanied Him throughout His ministry led Him around during His entire stay in the wilderness, for forty days. The Spirit never left Him but was leading Him as He made each choice. The anointing of the Spirit is not only present for the public ministry, the preaching and the works of power, but is always there, even as one wrestles with interior temptations. The decisions that Jesus made with respect to each temptation also show that harmony or consistency of the Spirit with who Jesus is as the Son. The Spirit is the Spirit of His sonship (and therefore ours in Him), that is, She is the Spirit of sacrifice, leading Him always in this direction, which means towards the cross.

As we consider the Acts of the Apostles and the apostolate of the church, our own apostolate, we do not want to forget that the Holy Spirit is always conforming us to this image, the image of His death, in order to give birth to resurrection, and that our temptation is no different than the temptations of our Lord. The apostolate is not only about public ministry; it has this interior side that is inseparable from it. Indeed, the public ministry side may not even manifest, because the essence is interior—giving shape to the life, always, but not always as a “public” ministry. So as much as this temptation story in Luke is about Jesus, it is also about the Holy Spirit. “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit in our lives is the Spirit of Jesus.

So why the wilderness and why fasting? The wilderness contrasts with the Garden of Eden in terms of the paucity of food, yes, but just as Adam was alone with Eve, so Jesus is alone with the Holy Spirit. The wilderness also harks back to the wilderness of Sinai. Jesus quotes repeatedly from Deuteronomy, Moses’ words in the wilderness. In Matthew’s gospel the temptations also follow the Torah’s order: the manna, the testing of Massah, the golden calf. The wilderness speaks of exile, and therefore of God’s judgment, but also of redemption, the return from exile. John’s baptism in the wilderness of the Jordan reflects those themes. The wilderness is where a person is separated from human culture and is alone with God, confronted by one’s own soul, the world in one’s soul. Fasting accentuates this, even as did Israel’s hunger in the desert.

When we fast, hunger comes and goes. It is pretty strong in the beginning and then calms down until one has been fasting for a while. This is when Jesus became hungry—when the forty days had ended. Forty is the number of days Moses would spend with God; forty is also the number of years that Israel wandered in the wilderness of Sinai before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. As the multiple of four and ten it symbolizes testing, for four speaks of the creation and ten of responsibility. In any case, fasting has a way of working on the mind, distilling and calming it as one things less and less of food. Jesus was spending that time, no doubt, looking at His soul. His was a sinless soul yet formed in the crucible of the world, inseparable from its causes and effects and responsibilities. He would have to renounce His soul in choosing God’s will over and over in the way of sacrifice, and to do so He would have to see it clearly so He could distinguish it from the movement of the Holy Spirit within Him.

It was not simply about following the Scriptures. The devil shows us that when in the end he tempted Jesus with a Scripture text. One has to know what is behind the text where one stands. It was not just that Jesus was an expert expositor of the Biblical text. It was that He could discern the way of the Spirit in the text. The Spirit moved Him through the text, and Jesus lived and acted within the context of the Biblical text; He lived in the milieu of the text more than in His cultural milieu as others understood it. But for Him the text was living, and it was the Holy Spirit that made it so and that spoke to Him through it. The text alone did not guide Him; the Holy Spirit guided Him by making the text alive to Him. This ought also to be true for us. Our own understanding is not enough. The Holy Spirit makes Herself and the Father and the Son the reality of the text of which the text is but the picture.

The temptations follow a different order than in Matthew probably because Luke is not looking back to the Torah as Matthew was but forward to Jesus’ denouement in Jerusalem. Bread and the social problems of the poor; the kingdoms of the world, their power and glory; and self-defense and fame: these are the ways of the world, but Jesus—and the church—are called to a different way. The different way is on the one hand spiritual: it is about the ontological transformation of reality. On the other hand it is about a different way of being in the world, the way of the cross. Not taking control of history, not attaining power and influence, not acting on one’s own or winning people’s good opinion: these are not the way of Jesus, nor the way the church should be taking.

Jesus exhausted the devil. This probably means that He had secured a certain amount of psychic territory. He had bound the strong man. By making up His mind with respect to the three temptations the devil lost the foothold he was seeking to gain. This did not mean that the devil was done. “He left Him until an opportune time.” He would try to turn Jesus away from the way of sacrifice, the way of the cross, again and again. Jesus was tempted, but He did not give in. The temptations presented themselves in His soul. But they never won Him over; they never grabbed hold of Him; they never persuaded Him. When Jesus saw them for what they were, they had no attraction for Him either.

For us too, when a temptation is exposed for what it is, when we see it, it loses its power over us. But this clarity often eludes us. We never see things as clearly as Jesus did, since He never allowed the delusions of the world to lure Him along their paths. We have, and so we have to always struggle for clarity. For us as for Him, it is the Holy Spirit that makes the difference. The same Holy Spirit can lead us, if we can discern the difference between the Holy Spirit in our spirit and the phantoms of our own psyches. For Christians, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ opening up the Scriptures that is the two-edged sword that is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.

Leave a Reply