The baptism of Jesus and his temptations in the desert are closely connected in the New Testament tradition. We recall that gospel of Mark merely refers to the temptations of Jesus. Both gospels of Luke (Lk 4: 1-13) and Matthew (Mt 4: 1-11), however, describe their nature. Luke’s gospel sequence of three temptations is different from Matthew’s gospel. He probably changed the order and placed the last temptation in Jerusalem (Lk 4: 9-12). Theme of Jerusalem is theologically very significant for Luke. Therefore, the last of the temptations should end there, in that city of Jesus’ destiny.
With regard to the historicity of these stories, we may note that the three synoptic gospels attest the fact that Jesus experienced temptations during his ministry. Gospel of John 6: 15, 26-34 may also point to the same fact. It is this tradition that is highlighted by the Letter to the Hebrews: “… one who in every respect has been tempted as we are yet without sin” (Heb 4: 15; cf. 2: 18; 5: 2). There was diabolic opposition to Jesus and his mission; there was gross misunderstanding of the identity and mission of Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah (cf. Lk 22: 31-32). There were attempts to seduce him into the following a path that would frustrate the purpose of his messianic mission and thus thwart God’s plan. Certainly, Jesus’ temptations were experiences which he lived through in his life. Scholars, however, alert us to the ‘figurative language’ or dramatization that is used by the evangelists to interpret the temptations of Jesus. The instantaneous vision of all the kingdoms and the transfer of Jesus from one place to another, etc., effected by the devil also point to their symbolic meaning. Therefore we should be more concerned about seeking their meaning in terms of Jesus’ identity and mission and avoid a too literalistic understanding.
We may also observe that the temptations are presented as arising from outside not merely as an inner struggle of Jesus. The hostile and diabolic opposition to Jesus and his ministry had the purpose of leading him away from the mission marked out for him as the Son of God. It is this real and factual seduction that is symbolically and dramatically presented in the story of the temptations. In these situations Jesus was ‘tempted,’ namely; he experienced the temptation of using his divine power as the Son of God.
Luke begins by nothing that the Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism (Lk 3: 22) leads him into the desert (Lk 4: 1). Empowered by the Spirit Jesus faces the diabolic forces from which the temptations arise. Jesus will also vanquish the devil by the power of the Spirit. The desert is the place where Israel of old had to prove her faithfulness to the God of the covenant. Therefore, it is God himself who had led Israel into the desert (Deut 8: 2) where she was tempted. The duration of time indicated here as ‘forty days’ is probably symbolic of the forty years of Israel’s wanderings in the desert (Deut 8: 2). It is to be understood, in any case, as a symbolic round number meant to convey the idea of a prolonged period of time.
The First Temptation
The first temptation consists in a challenge thrown at Jesus by his opponent, the devil, to prove his divine power as God’s Son. “If you are the Son of God” (Lk 4: 3) has reference to the heavenly declaration, “Thou art my beloved Son” in the baptism scene (Lk 3: 22). The devil, therefore, questions or challenges Jesus’ divine son ship and, thereby the messianic mission given by his Father. In Luke 23: 35-39 we find a similar challenge in the form of a taunt. The nuance of the challenge in this first temptation scene is that Jesus should use his divine power to change a stone (‘stones’ in Matthew’s gospel) into bread in order to satisfy his hunger (cf. Lk 4: 2), namely, for his own personal need. The devil thus tempts Jesus to depart from God’s plan whenever his personal needs conflict with God’s will. Jesus refuses to succumb to the temptation. His short answer, “man does not live by bread alone,” is a phrase from Deuteronomy 8: 3. Deuteronomy 8: 1-16 recalls the desert journey of Israel and their temptations (cf. Ex 16; Num 11), how they were humbled and disciplined, and why, therefore, they should trust in God’s provident care. Unlike Israel, Jesus trusts in God with a detachment from his self and his personal needs and with an attachment to God’s will.
The Second Temptation
In the second temptation gospel Luke does not specify the place of the temptation as does gospel of Matthew (Mt 4: 8 “very High Mountain”). Nor is there a transfer of Jesus from one place to another as suggested in gospel of Matthew. Besides, by the phrase “in a moment of time” (Lk 4: 5) Luke suggests that it was a matter of a vision. The devil attributed to himself mastery and lordship over the whole world, falsely claims for himself what is exclusively God’s own universal dominion (cf. Jn 12: 31; 14: 30; 16: 11; Rev 13: 2). Jesus is allured to receive universal power, dominion and glory from the devil by worshipping him. This implies that Jesus should renounce the Father’s dominion and Lordship. In terms of real life, it means that Jesus should seek power and glory as the Messiah from the devil, that is, by yielding to the popular expectations of a worldly and political Messiah.
Jesus comes out victorious. He replies again with a question from Deuteronomy 6: 13 “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” The context of this text in Deuteronomy recalls the temptation of Israel in the desert to follow after other gods (Ex 23: 23-33). But unlike Israel, Jesus rejects the false promises of the devil. He affirms the sovereignty of God, his Father, and chooses to serve him (Lk 4: 8). Jesus’ mission itself consists in bringing about the universal reign or the kingdom of his Father over all people. He will be faithful to his identity as the Son and Servant of God as proclaimed at the baptism.
The Third Temptation
Here again the temptation is in the form of a challenge to prove Jesus’ divine Sonship by fêtes of superhuman power and unreasonable and presumptuous trust in God. Note that the words “If you are the Son of God” of the first temptation are repeated here. The devil tries to ensnare Jesus by quoting the Scripture, namely, Psalm 91: 11-12. The background of this challenge, probably, was the current practice of some of the false prophets who claimed superhuman and miraculous powers (cf. Acts 5: 35-37). Jesus’ response to this challenge is expressed in the words of Deuteronomy 6: 16, the context of which was Israel is putting God to the test (Ex 17: 1-7). Moses exhorted the Israelites not to put God to the test; he warned them saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut 6: 16). The meaning of this saying on the lips of Jesus is that Jesus does not want to protect his life by using miraculous powers or by testing God. Consequently, he does not succumb to the temptation to use divine power to escape from the consequences of his God-given mission, namely, his suffering and death. He knows that the Messiah must suffer and he is ready (Lk 24: 26). Later Jesus will refuse to save himself from the Cross by any miraculous act and give a crushing defeat to the devil.
The concluding verse (Lk 4: 13) looks forward to the ministry of Jesus; it tells the reader that the devil departs from Jesus only for a while, “until an opportune time.” This phrase refers to the passion of Jesus. Luke thus alerts the reader to what is going to happen again, especially at the time of Jesus’ passion, when the diabolic forces will do everything possible to thwart God’s plan of salvation in Jesus (cf. Lk 19: 47; 23: 3, 53).
Scholars point out the messianic significance of this narrative, even though the title ‘Messiah’ does not appear here. This narrative is not told primarily to exhort Christians how to act in time of temptations. But its purpose rather is to reveal what Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God is up to in undertaking to obey God’s plan.