Jesus was not a super hero. Many people today, including some devout Christians, see him as a kind of Christian version of a Marvel super hero, able to do whatever he wanted, able to ‘zap’ reality into any shape he liked. In the movies, Superman looks like a normal human being, but really he isn’t. Underneath the disguise he is almost indestructible. That is not the picture of Jesus we get in the New Testament.
Luke has just reminded us of Jesus’ membership in the family of Adam. If there had been any doubt about his being really human, Luke closes chapter 3 of his gospel with the ‘family tree’ of Jesus; his genealogy. Then he underlines his sharing in our flesh & blood in this vivid scene of temptation. If Jesus is the descendent of Adam, he must now face not only what Adam faced but the powers that had been unleashed through human rebellion & sin. Long years of habitual rebellion against the creating God had brought about a situation in which the world, the flesh, & the devil had become used to twisting human beings into whatever shape they wanted.
In particular, after his baptism, Jesus faced the double question: What does it mean to be God’s Son in this special, unique way? And what sort of messiahship was he to pursue? There had, after all, been many royal movements in his time, not only the well-known house of Herod but also other lesser-known figures whom the historian Josephus writes of. Characters like Simon – not one of the Simons we know in the Bible - & Athronges, who gathered followers & were hailed as kings, only to be cut down by Roman or Herodian troops. And there were would-be prophets who promised their followers signs from heaven, great miracles to show God’s saving power. They too didn’t last long. So what was Jesus to do?
The 3 temptations can be read as possible answers to this question. The story does not picture Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure with whom he could talk as one to another; the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in Jesus’ own head. They are plausible, attractive, & make, as we would say, a lot of sense. God can’t want his beloved Son to be famished with hunger, can he? If God wants Jesus to become sovereign over the world – that, after all, is what the angel Gabriel told Mary – then why not go for it in one easy step? If Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, why not prove it by a spectacular display of power?
If there are echoes in this story of Adam & Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering believable lies about God, his purposes & his commands, there are also echoes of Israel in the wilderness. Israel came out of Egypt through the Red Sea, with God declaring that Israel was his child, his firstborn. Then there followed the 40 year wandering in the wilderness, where Israel grumbled for bread, flirted disastrously with idolatry, & continually put God to the test. Now Jesus, coming through the waters of baptism as God’s unique Son, the one through whom Israel’s destiny was to be fulfilled, faces the question: How is he to be Israel’s representative, her rightful king? How can he deliver Israel, & thereby the world, from the grip of the enemy? How can he bring about the real liberation, not just from Rome & other political foes, but from the arch-enemy, the devil himself?
The answer is that he must begin by defeating him at the most personal & intimate level. Christian leaders today sometimes make the mistake of thinking that as long as they are pursuing the right aims in their public life, what they do in private doesn’t matter so much. That is a typical lie whispered by the same voice that Jesus heard in the desert. If God is working by his Spirit through a person, that person’s own life will be increasingly formed by that Spirit, through testing at every level. If Jesus could not win the victory here, there was little point in carrying on.
Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote a book, In the Name of Jesus, & he summed up the temptations Jesus faced this way:
“Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread. Oh, how I wished I could do that! Are we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do makes a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, & alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with the same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of turning stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the word and said, People won’t live only by bread.”
“You all know what the next temptation of Jesus was. It was the temptation of power. I will give you this whole domain & the glory of all these kingdoms, the demon said to Jesus. When I ask myself the main reason for so many people having left the Church during the past decades in France, Germany, Holland, & also in Canada & America, the word ‘power’ easily comes to mind. One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that leaders constantly gave into the temptation of power—political power, military power, economic power, or moral & spiritual power—even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself & became as we are. What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
“The third temptation to which Jesus was exposed was precisely the temptation to do something spectacular, something that could win him great applause. The devil… stood Jesus at the highest point of the temple. ‘Throw yourself down from here.’ But Jesus refused to be a stunt man. He did not come to prove himself. He did not come to walk on hot coals, swallow fire, or put his hand in the lion’s mouth to demonstrate that he had something worthwhile to say. ‘Don’t test the Lord your God,’ he said.”
The point of this story is how amazing Jesus is. He did what you & I could never do, & that we don’t have to do. (What a relief!) Jesus is not our moral example, showing us how to combat Satan. Jesus is our Savior, for all the times, for all of life, for when we succumb, when we fall for the devil’s wiles. This story should make us fall on our knees in awe & thanksgiving.
In chapter 3, Luke sets Jesus’ ministry in the context of the political powers of his day: Tiberius, Pilate, & Herod. Does Luke imply in chapter 4 that Satan is the source of their power? Luke’s genealogy of Jesus traces his lineage back to Adam. Luke 4 shows Jesus succeeding where Adam failed; we see Jesus correcting & healing the Fall.
Luke’s version is unusual. Jesus, Luke alone mentions, is full of the Holy Spirit. He’s not beaming or having a titillating emotional experience. The Spirit, for him, stiffens his resolve to be at one with God the Father in the most arduous circumstances imaginable. And he’s not alone out there! There is a difference between solitude & loneliness. Jesus seems never to be lonely, although he’s often alone. Luke makes his solitude-ness explicit; the Spirit is with him, & in him. When we are alone, we get lonely because we hear negative messages. Most often because we don’t turn to God. Rather, we feel we have been abandoned by God.
I hope we can find comfort knowing that this story is about Jesus, not us.
It also may be helpful to know the locale. It's not a “desert” like a stretch of sand with cacti. The Judean wilderness is a rocky zone full of cliffs & caves, with dangerous predators lurking behind every rock. A gravity-defying monastery clings to a cliff there, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ testing. It’s a wilderness, again reminding us where Israel was tested (& failed). Adam failed, Israel failed, we all fail. Jesus alone is our Savior.
And allow me to say a quick word about the tempter. People misconceive the devil. A red guy, pitch fork, whispering in your ear to eat that extra brownie. But real evil is far more sinister, elusive, & hidden from view. The devil’s great wiles? To persuade us he doesn’t exist, or to dupe us into seeing the devil behind every rock. Thomas Merton spoke of “the theology of the devil,” suggesting that what the devil wants most of all is attention. If evil is alluring, we should look to things that are beautiful, attractive, even appearing to be holy — and that’s where evil sets its trap for us, as it did for Jesus. David Lyle Jeffrey points to Tintoretto’s “Temptation” as one of countless examples of artists portraying Satan as a beautiful, innocent youth. How often does evil sneak into Church conversations, dressed up as being holy or fighting for justice or whatever feels so good & pure to us fallen creatures?
The angels adored & worshipped Jesus, but clearly, in the end, they not only let his foot be dashed against those stones near the Temple, they let Jesus' blood be shed, & his body be pierced. This story points toward that day, as Luke adds the tantalizing, haunting footnote that once Jesus won round one, Satan departed from him until the next opportunity.
Be assured, friends, that Satan is looking for an opportunity to tempt us. That is why we need Jesus. That is why we need this overcoming Savior who passed the test.