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Temptation: Luke 4

 Temptation Narrative


I think it was Oscar Wilde who said “I can resist everything except temtptation”


When we talk about the temptations, it can be very easy to assume that we have an angel on one shoulder, a demon on the other – and that stood somewhere behind a one way mirror, in some judgemental moral waiting room, is a God who is waiting quietly to approve or disapprove – and given that we all give into temptation – it is not the best image to work with.   The God we worship is a God of grace – but being a God of grace, then above all else, God expects one thing of us.


If God expects one thing of us, what might it be?  Holiness … Justice … Time?  No, if God expects one thing of us it is none of those.  So what one thing might God expect?  Honesty?  Effort?  Might God simply expect us to love?  No – at the outset of a conference like this, it is deeply important to be reminded of the one thing that God expects of us: Failure.  


Before we jump into critique of others, before we touch upon interesting theologies or sound ideals.  Before we learn anything, we acknowledge that we … are … failures.  Morally, Christianly, Relationally.  If you’re not a failure, then you have 2 things:


Firstly you have my apologies.

Secondly, you have no need of the Good News of Jesus Christ – but the good news of Jesus Christ is focus of our life, and to that we now turn.


Context in Luke


As we know, Luke is addressed to Theophilus, someone who is very positively disposed to God, someone who loves God.  If you believe that there is a hermeneutical key to making sense of Luke’s writings, that is it.  If you’re not interesting in Theo-Philing, if you are not interested in loving God, then you cannot hear what Luke has to say.  But those who are Theo-Philes, have so far learned that the Kingdom of God is breaking in, but it is not what people expected.  It is thoroughly in harmony with ancient Holy Scriptures, and yet still – somehow – it is not what people expected.  Even amongst those who are righteous before God – a priest in the Holy of Holies – the Kingdom is breaking in, but it is not what people expected.


The kingdom of God means nothing other than the kingship of God.  It was only in the age of Shakespeare, in 16th century Elizabethan English – that Kingdom came to refer to a place.  For many, it therefore came to mean the place, the location where God is in charge – oh, and that must be heaven.  But the kingdom of God is not the same as heaven in the bible.  The fact that we nowadays tend to think of a kingdom as a place, is why many of us today use the language of building the kingdom, or extending the kingdom.  But, orginially, Kingdom referred not to the realm of the king – but to the reign of the King.  The Kingdom of God is about God’s reign taking real form in daily life amongst the people of God.  Before it is anything else, that is what the Kingdom of God amounts to.  Theophiles, like Joseph of Aramathea, are looking for the Kingdom of God!


Well, God’s kingship had not been witnessed in Israel for centuries.  Many of the people felt oppressed by the hostile force of Rome.  It was as though their hearts were still in Exile.  But … Theophilus has just learned that after centuries of alienation from God, after centuries of human rejection of God, after centuries of human failure to please God – a young builder emerges from the waters of baptism – and there is a voice from heaven, that seems to say At Last – this is my Son – with him, I am well pleased.  God’s kingship, personified in a human life.  The kingdom of God in the person of Jesus.


Now, there were all sorts of expectations hanging in the air about what would happen when the Kingdom of God actually comes.  When God’s Messiah arrives to right the wrongs, to establish justice and peace, and intensify commitment to God’s Torah – there were all sorts of expectations.  What was the particular form that the Kingdom of God would take?  What sort of Messiah would Jesus of Nazareth be?  And let us be clear, that Messiah, that Christ, did not mean the second person of the trinity – to a first century Jew, the Messiah was God’s anointed King, anointed to usher in the era when God would be recognised as King.  There was nothing particularly supernatural about this, which is why there were many people who claimed to be Messiahs, who claimed to be appointed by God to usher in his Kingdom.  What kind of Messiah would this Jesus be?  These are the important, primary questions that Luke has already impressed upon Theophilus in the opening chapters of the Gospel, so that he will understand what is happening in the temptation accounts.


The Devil


According to Luke, it was here in the wilderness, that the devil did his utmost to sell his messianic mission strategy to Jesus.  Firstly, the devil quite properly recognised the legitimate fruits of Christian mission: satisfaction of hunger (1:53), the achievement of kingly power and glory (1:33), and divine protection (1:71, 74).  All of these legitimate fruits have been mentioned in the very first chapter of Luke:  

(So think of the Magnificat – in 1:53, of Mary celebrating the fact that God will fill the hungry with good things, but send the rich away empty!)

(Think of Gabriel in verse 33, in announcing the glory of a kingdom that will never end)

(Think of the divine protection celebrated in Zecharaiah’s song – the Messiah in chapter one verses 71 and 74, delivering Israel from the hand of her enemies – divine protection)  


So yes, firstly, the devil calls to mind the legitimate fruits that the ministry of the Messiah is to bear.


Secondly, he constructs an easy-to-follow three-stage initiative to achieve these legitimate fruits: a quick miracle for one’s own benefit; a nifty piece of misplaced worship, and a pointless act of blind faith.  And hey presto – fruit.  He would have got away with it, had Christ not been so rooted in Scripture that he saw right through it.


Luke writes of ‘the devil’ (diabolos) on only two occasions: here in the temptation story and – let’s test your bible knowledge – I am distinguishing here between the word satan and the word devil.  Luke uses the devil on only one other place in the Gospel: …in the parable of the sower (8:12).  In the parable, the devil steals the logos from the heart of those who have heard.  Luke has already been careful to show that the heart is, after all, the place in which the logos should take root

(Luke 1:66;  - logos of John spreads around the region, and everyone laid them up in their hearts.)

(Luke 2:19, - these words of the angels – we read that Mary kept them in her heart)

(Luke 2:51  -and again, in 51, after an altercation with Jesus at the age of 12, Mary keeps these things in her heart).  

The human heart is where the word of God is supposed to take root.  In the parable of the sower, the devil’s role is to uproot the word – and that is precisely his strategy in the temptation narrative.


When the devil appears in the desert, his intent is to steal the logos from the heart of Jesus, but each of the son’s responses demonstrate how deeply rooted in the Word he is, or rather how deeply rooted in him is the word.


Had the devil succeeded in uprooting the logos, the entire shape of Jesus’ ministry would have been altogether different.  The temptation narrative is carefully placed by Luke immediately prior to the so-called “Nazareth Manifesto” (4:14-30), in which the programme of Jesus’ intended ministry is outlined.  In chapter 4, if verses 14-30 are designed to shed light upon what Jesus’ ministry will be like, then the temptation narrative is constructed to show what the ministry of Jesus will not be like.  In fact, as we shall see, each of the three temptations finds itself directly interpreted by Nazareth story.


Each temptation begins with the phrase ‘If you are the Son of God…’  But I had long taken this to mean that the devil was trying to sow doubt in Jesus mind – but the more I have looked at this, the less convinced I am.  Taken in context, it seems far more likely that he is attempting to set the agenda for the ministry of Jesus.  The words from Psalm 2 uttered at his baptism commissioned Jesus both as God’s Son and his Messiah.  As he prepares to enter into his ministry those words are fresh in Jesus’ mind, as are the questions of the particular form his sonship, and his messianic programme will take.  Already in Jesus’ day there was a variety of different models of messiahship available.  Military revolutionaries, wonder workers and prophets all had been hailed as Messiahs.  


The devil attempts to shape the ministry of Jesus by encouraging him to focus on the fruits that a biblically grounded Messiah really ought to bear.  In fact a more correct and precise translation of these verses would replace rather ambiguous If you are the son of God, with the precise – since you are the son of God, because that is not being called into question by the devil!  


With each temptation the diabolic affirmation is effectively, ‘if you are the son of God …then such and such will be the fruit of your ministry and [more importantly] here is how to achieve it.’  After all, satisfaction of hunger (1:53), the achievement of kingly power and glory (1:33), and divine protection (1:71, 74) are each foretold of the son, and each find their legitimate fulfilment later in the Gospel.  With each temptation then, the devil rightly shows what the legitimate fruit of the Messiah’s ministry should be, then he shows how to achieve that fruit.  


Now, let’s just stop for a moment and think about that.  There is no shortage of Christian paperbacks at the moment, that tell you how to achieve Christian fruit.  Well, if he were here today, the devil would be in Christian publishing!  He would be writing entertaining popular books about the good Christian life, and they would be full of bible quotations, sound doctrine, and management speak.  What they would also do more quietly, is require us to buy into the prevailing idolatries of our age in order to get the fruit we want.  


Let’s erase from our minds the notion that the devil is doing something we can casually recognise as being utterly evil.  The fact is, if the devil were here today, most Christians would probably not recognise him as such, and it is more likely that he would be an acceptable Christian celebrity.  And with that slightly naughty thought in mind, we finally turn to the temptations themselves.


Temptation Number One


The first temptation is to turn a stone into a loaf in order to satisfy hunger.  It is perfectly natural, the stones in the desert places looked like little rolls of bread.  Now, if the devil is the one who ‘takes away the logos from people’s hearts (8:12), then Jesus’ reply demonstrates at the outset a clear understanding of his opponent’s intent.  He does this sometimes – Jesus quotes the first half of a sentence, and in our translations there really ought to be an ellipsis, showing that a further statement should follow.  Citing Dt 8:3, he declares, ‘Man does not live on bread alone…’, and he deliberately leaves the devil to complete the sentence, ‘… but on every logos that proceeds from the mouth of YHWH’.  Now just consider the devil’s strategy is to steal the logos from the heart – Jesus at the outset, has made an ingenious move that exposes the diabolic intent of the rest of the confrontation.


Let’s just consider the basic parallel with the Exodus story – which after all is foundational for Jewish people of any age.  The people had come from slavery in Egypt, and they had now been baptised by passing through the Red Sea, just as Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan.  They spent 40 years in the desert, just as Jesus spent 40 days there.  This was a time of testing for the people of Israel, this was a time of testing for the Son of God.  They were given bread miraculously from heaven – and … oh, there the parallel ends.  Jesus has realised that there is something more important to human life than the most basic of requirements.


The Son is Israel, but unlike Israel he did not fail his testing in the desert.   What bearing does this have on the nature of the first temptation?  That the son is to tread the obedient Israel path, one of simple trust in YHWH.  The temptation however, is the devil’s incitement to claim prematurely the fruits of obedience granted solely at the Father’s discretion. Let me try to say that rather differently: the temptation is To claim the fruits of obedience, without walking the path of obedience. If there is any one thing from this lecture that is worth remembering – I suggest it is that, because it is the same pattern that surfaces with each temptation.  The devil attempts to entice Jesus,  To claim the fruits of obedience, without walking the path of obedience.


This interpretation is further confirmed when, in Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth, he uses the example of Elijah.  When Israel was suffering a severe famine, Elijah the wonder-worker was sent not to the neediest of his home country, but to a foreigner.  Just as Elijah provided miraculous food only under divine instruction – even though there was dire need right under his nose - so the son would not be conjuring up loaves unless instructed by the Father to do so.  


And this is not lazy sitting around not bothering to act until God intervenes supernaturally in your life.  This is about having a hunger, and thirst for obedience in all circumstances, actively seeking the will of God.  If the word of God is rooted in our hearts, that means that we have an active disposition that is attentive to His living Word.  That is more basic to our humanity than is food


[Maybe use the Where are you Adam? story]


We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that makes its way from the mouth of God.  And so we move to the second temptation:


Temptation Number Two


The second temptation is to worship the devil, in return for the glory and splendour of earthly kingships.  In seeking to dislodge the logos from the heart of the son, the devil’s strategy is to turn the splendour and glory that will inevitably be a consequence of Jesus’ ministry (ref), into a prior condition for that ministry.  


Let me say that again - In seeking to dislodge the logos from the heart of the son, the devil’s strategy is to turn the splendour and glory that will inevitably be a consequence of Jesus’ ministry (9:26,31,32; 24:26), into a prior condition for that ministry.  


Of course, a ministry so conditioned would be very different to the path Jesus intends to tread.  The kingship envisaged by Jesus is one in which the king has nowhere to lay his head (9:58), where the most honoured ones are mere servants (22:29), and where the royal throne is an execution steak (ref).  It reflects the pattern of suffering and vindication that reverberates throughout the whole of Scripture, and shapes the messiah’s role.


The devil however, is offering Jesus a short-cut that will take his messianic ministry on a route that bypasses suffering and passion.  But to seek glory and splendour prior to engaging in a servant ministry would be, as with the first temptation, to claim prematurely the fruits of obedience granted solely at the Father’s discretion. Again, let me say that rather differently – the devil entices Jesus to claim the fruits of obedience, without walking the path of obedience.  


Immediately after the temptations, Jesus returns to Galilee where everyone in the synagogues glorified him (4:15).  This is the only time in the New Testament when this word is used of Jesus, and it is the very thing that the devil had so recently offered to him.  The glory that is conferred upon Jesus would happen as an un-contrived result of his active ministry, rather than being a prior necessity for that ministry.  Now, Jesus does not dispute that all the powers of the world are on loan to the devil, but the logic does not follow that in order to transform those powers, you must acknowledge the authority of the devil.


So what does that mean in practice?  What was Jesus being asked to do?  Was he being asked to dress in a cloak and go to devil worshipping cults? What does it mean for the Messiah to offer public service to the devil?  All the Kingship, all the glory of earthly authority is up for grabs, if only Jesus will worship, will publicly serve the devil.  I suspect that for Jesus, it means going after one of the other Messianic programmes available – one that does not involve anything but rapid results, quick and easy.  


[Use the concept of Lestes?]


That means, publicly entrusting your hope to a political system, or a method, or an approach that focuses merely on achieving results that you might think will glorify God – while God himself has nothing to do with it! There were plenty in Jesus’ day for instance, who intended to use military action, to establish the Kingdom of God by force of arms.  In fact, when Jesus died, he died in the place of someone who had tried just that!  Barabbas was no thieving thug, he was a freedom fighter / terrorist figure – and when the people cried for him to be released, they were demanding that this is the kind of Messiah they had wanted Jesus himself to be.


How might we worship the devil.  What are the systems, or methods, or approaches to ministry that we might adopt because they offer a sure-fire guarantee of success, at minimum cost for us?  You need only read those who preach a Gospel according to wall mart, or cell phone companies, or anyone that has been successful in business.  You usually have a silver tongued Christian that pops up saying that there are important lessons here for Christian ministry.  Hey – here’s an idea – what about, the Gospel according to Luke?  What about reading the word of God – that is precisely what the devil is trying to entice us away from.  Stealing the logos from the heart of the Christian community!


I would love to write an article about how we need to learn lessons from the greatest leader of the 20th century.  He inspired his people like no other leader.  He got them to support him.  Under his leadership, his country went from being poverty stricken to being a superpower.  He had incredible charisma, he could give speeches like no one other figure I’ve seen.  He could motivate, inspire, and lead.  Think of the lessons we could learn from this man … until I tell you that  His name, of course ,was Adolf Hitler.  To entrust ourselves to the Gospel according to … anything but what Paul called the Gospel of God, is worship of the devil.


If there really were a devil, would he not be seeking to displace the word of God from the thoughts of Christian leaders, and leave them instead hankering after the latest Christian methodology?  And if he really were the devil, would he not be quite good at this?  And how would he do this?  By leaving commitment to God to go without saying, and what goes without saying, passes unquestioned!


Worship of the devil is not a means to justify the end, buying into his ministerial strategies, is not just a means to an end, because these means do not justify but displace that end.  Hence Jesus’ response, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only’.  In so doing, again he recognises that whatever glory or splendour may accompany him will be granted solely by the Father.


Temptation Number Three


The third temptation is for Jesus to leap from the temple with the confidence that he would be granted angelic protection.  The devil was quite right to affirm that Jesus would experience divine protection, but quite wrong to infer that it was a casual prerogative of the Son.  It would happen rather in the course of his ministry, not in the safe environment of a private training ground.  


I wonder if the devil is simply trying to get Jesus to do something stupid, so that God will protect him.  If you read about some of the little Messianic movements that rebelled against Rome with the belief that God would protect them because they were doing his will, you might be a little closer to understanding what is happening here.  


Perhaps I should simply offer a couple of little stories here:


A minister wants his church to grow, and is convinced that the only reason people weren’t flocking in, was that the seats weren’t comfortable enough.  So he got this vision that his tiny village church should borrow the equivalent of sixty thousand US dollars to buy the chairs – and when one or two said – hold on, we can’t afford that – the response was – where is your faith? If we step out with boldness, God will honour that!  Can you see how stepping out in faith can be very much the same devilish logic at work – step out in faith, and God will honour your commitment!  And of course, that church is now in a serious mess.  


Another British minister was praying and believed that God said to him, that he must go to a church member and say – God hates mummies and daddies!  And he said, I’m not saying that – it’s not biblical, it makes no sense, and I’ll end up looking stupid!  But in the end he felt utterly compelled by the voice of God to say this – so he approached this woman and said “God hates mummies and daddies”.  And this woman burst into tears, and when she had gathered herself, she said that when she was a little girl, her father used to abuse her, and he would come into her room at night, and say ‘let’s play mummies and daddies’.  And for this woman the road to recovery started there, and the minister’s apparent oddness, was vindicated.


What is the difference between these two stories?  One was based upon putting words into the mouth of God – and assuming that God would intervene if we step out in faith, just as the devil was inviting Jesus to step out into thin air.  The other was based upon active listening to the voice of God.  The first was claiming the fruit of obedience, the second was treading the path of obedience.


If our focus is listening, actively listening, for the voice of God, then I believe that God will provide us with whatever divine protection he deems necessary.  For Jesus, soon enough the angry mob at Nazareth would attempt to cast him down from a hilltop, and Luke implies that there and then (4:29-30) the divine protection was legitimately granted.  But once again, the thrust of the temptation is to incite Jesus to claim prematurely the fruits of obedience that are granted solely at the Father’s discretion.  The devil’s attempt to steal the logos from the son’s heart is to suggest a ‘dummy run’ of the divine protection.  Even the intent to do such a thing however, would send the ministry of Jesus down an avenue in which faith is superfluous, suffering intolerable and ultimately where glory is relativised.  It would finally be an avenue that diverts from the way of the cross.  


The response that Jesus gives is the response of true faith, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Dt 6:16).  


The Opportune Time


So the devil departs until an opportune time.  If the intention of the devil was to compromise the ministry of the son, then he is no less intent on compromising the ministry of the church.  The same diabolic strategy is visited upon the twenty first century church when it is tempted to claim prematurely the fruits of obedience granted solely at the discretion of the Father.  Whenever it is tempted to claim the fruits of obedience instead of walking the path of obedience.  


An age that views the future as a birthright instead of a gift, where visionary leaders march boldly into the future to conquer it, where creeds have been replaced by mission statements, such an age is an opportune time for the devil to remarket his mission strategy to the body of Christ.  And a church that is not rooted in Scripture will fail to perceive just who is behind such an initiative.  After all, today we want the legitimate fruit of Church Growth, and the devil has a strategy on offer.


It is precisely the same strategy he offered to Jesus at the outset of his ministry.  One that would appear biblical, because it aims at producing good fruit – but one that short-circuits the path of suffering and pain that Christ was destined to follow, in order to be Christ.  In short, the devil invites Christians – as he invited Christ – to focus on the fruits of obedience instead of the path of obedience.


‘If you are the church of God …’, the devil whispers, ‘here is the sort of fruit you should see: numerical growth, harmony, love, peace, radical discipleship, transforming worship, passionate mission etc.  Here [more importantly] is how to go about achieving those things…’  Regardless of what route might then be followed to fulfil these (quite legitimate) expectations, the path of the church has already been thrown off course.  The fruits, the expectations, the blessings at which the church is aiming, can no longer be received as the gracious gifts of a God who bestows them in his time.  Instead, our plans for God are likely to override God’s plans for us.  


Whilst one may encounter or imagine a great church, and expect it to be blessed in all sorts of prescribed ways, the blessings ought never to be the humanly inspired roots but only ever the divinely granted fruits of the church.  They are the outworking God’s grace made active in the church.  To regard those blessings, that fruit, this success, as something to aim for is precisely the temptation offered to Jesus by the devil.  


When the church focuses on achieving fruits, despite all its pious claims, its prophetic words, its worthy intentions, its heartfelt and sincere prayers, even its supposed biblical backing, those fruits will never find their roots in the logos, but will simply be the effects of good intentions, the pavement slabs of a road running in quite the wrong direction!  The ministry and mission of the church are displaced by means and methods of achieving the desired outcome.  The lust for gifts comes to override love for the Giver.  This can happen all too easily in all aspects of church life.


For instance if church unity becomes a goal, then conflict and difference of opinion are likely to be presented as unholy resistance to the church’s visionary leadership, or its goals or its prophecies.  The peace and unity that emerge from a church where the fruit of unity is claimed prematurely, are a violent peace that excludes outsiders, that reels from conflict, that diminishes real relationships.  If however, the church were to focus upon facing up to its own tensions, problems and rifts, it will make for a painful and unpleasant path.  But only by walking such a path may the fruits of peace and unity blossom in all their fullness.  By avoiding the painful conflict and pastoral burden of personal differences, the peace and unity thereby achieved will always be an uneasy, artificial armistice that renders impossible any true experience of peace.  


In sum, the devil’s task has been to detach the fruits of Jesus’ ministry from its grounding in the logos.  Similarly, the devil’s attack upon the church will be to steal the logos from the roots up, to distract the church from its true calling by enticing her to manufacture fruit artificially instead of bearing fruit naturally.  Picture the absurdity of attaching artificial fruit to a rootless tree and one will see a tragic portrait of a church that has yielded its ground to the devil.


That is the fundamental issue of temptation – and for God’s church today we are falling for it constantly – but perhaps now the time has come to wake up.  The line must be drawn here, this far, no further!


Only by walking the painful path of obedience, can we even dare to expect the fruits of obedience.  And please, God save us from the glib assumption that we are already being obedient in these ways – like the rich man who said ‘all these commandments I have kept since childhood’ (18:21).   [Mention here the assumptions – what goes without saying, passes unquestioned etc]


Ironically, it was by rejecting the devil’s strategy for producing fruit that Jesus himself saw those three fruits spring forth naturally.  Within a few verses of Luke’s temptation story we read of the proper setting for a miraculous feeding of the hungry (4:25-6), we see Jesus glorified (4:15), and we hear of miraculous divine protection (4:29-30).  And if there is to be a strategy for producing fruit, then it is in allowing God’s word to take root within us – not in lazy, inactive, interest, but to take root in such a way that we ‘yield fruit in season’ (see Psalm 1), at God’s timing, not our planning.


Which brings us back to a psalm that many of you will know, and which I would like to finish with.  It is a psalm that speaks of not being diverted from the will of God, but by remaining rooted in the word of God, in order that fruit might come – not in accordance with our plans and visions and hopes and dreams, but that instead it might come in season:


Close by citing Psalm 1 in full


Lecture given to Baptist Ministers' Conference,

Georgetown, Kentucky, March 2007