We started by first noting the context of the passage in Luke’s gospel, particularly paying attention to the action which occurs just prior—the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, followed by this revelation: “… heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased’” (3:22). We noted that this scene sets up the temptation narrative; that before the baptism and the voice from heaven—with the exception of the infancy narrative in Luke—Jesus is seemingly a normal, ordinary Jewish man from Nazareth. But upon being baptized, Jesus experiences something extraordinary, something which propels him not back home but further into the desert/wilderness, and this time, on his own. The “voice from heaven” initiates an abrupt and serious change in Jesus’ life, and begs the question: What does this mean to be the “beloved son”?
So we pick up the story in 4:1 and the overtones of the Exodus story are apparent almost immediately: Jesus is led, like the Israelites following their liberation from Egypt, into the desert, for forty days (with the forty days for Jesus equaling the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert/wilderness). In the Exodus story, the Israelites, just recently freed from slavery in Egypt, will begin to complain, longing for a return to Egypt and the oppression of the Pharaoh where at least they had food to fill their bellies. Such complaints and grumbling will eventually lead to idolatry, marking the Israelites 40 years as a time of struggle and repeated detours into faithlessness. The question arises for us: Will Jesus, the chosen person (beloved son) fare any better during the time of trial than God’s chosen people did during the Exodus? What does it mean to be the beloved son of God?
It is upon the seemingly subtle word “If” in verse 3 that the purpose of the passage first turns. Following the voice from heaven proclaiming him “the beloved son”, Jesus must have found himself in the position of trying to make sense of what that meant for him and for his life from this point forward. We might even see the solitary sojourn into the desert as a type of “vision quest,” a searching for answers and an attempt to integrate some extraordinary new knowledge or experience that means never being the same again. So just as Jesus is wrestling with what it means that he has been named the beloved son of God, along comes the Tempter teasing that very question with a quick and easy way to confirm the experience: Do a magic trick. Turn the stone into bread. Jesus, having not eaten for 40 days and certainly famished, might have seen such a suggestion as no big deal—it doesn’t hurt anyone, there is no maliciousness in it, and he is in need of food. Why not take care of two of his most pressing needs at one time: feed his hunger and see if there is any power behind this revelation that he has received about himself. Jesus’ refusal to do just this should give us a clue as to what being a “child of God” is not about: it is not about using one’s power to fulfill one’s own needs, putting God at the service of one’s self.
But it is the second temptation that is really striking. In verse 5-6 the devil shows Jesus all of the world’s kingdoms and offers them to Jesus, with the boast that power and glory of all of these kingdoms has been “handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.” The only requirement is that Jesus worship the devil, which of course, he refuses in verse 8.
But it is that boast of the devil—that it is not God but rather the devil who doles out power to those in charge of running the great kingdoms and empires of the world, and which goes seemingly unchallenged by Jesus as if it is of course a matter of simple fact—which should stop us in our tracks. The author of Luke’s gospel states here very clearly that the kind of power exercised by the kingdoms of the world is not God-given power but rather demonic power, power in opposition to God. Luke doesn’t single out specific kinds of kingdoms, but seems to be including all kingdoms—all large-scale organized political, military, religious and economic power no matter their differences or even if they are in opposition to one another—as deriving their power from that which is opposed to God. Such a statement flies in the face of any claim by any empire—be it Babylonian or Roman or American—to being blessed and sanctioned by God. To all of these, Jesus—and purportedly any who would follow him—says no, equating the exercise of such power with the worship and service of that which is not God.
Following the third and final temptation, which Jesus also declines, the devil departs, apparently awaiting another opportunity. Jesus, after being chosen by God, has demonstrated his faithfulness in contrast to the repeated stumblings and failings of God’s chosen people the Israelites following the Exodus. Jesus has revealed too what it means to be “God’s beloved”—to resist the lure of using power to satisfy one’s self; to not mistake the organized power exercised by “kingdoms” of this time (or any time) as being blessed and sanctioned by God, to be properly suspicious of invitations to participate in that power (even if one believes that one could do good), since the source of that power is not God; and to be wary of religions, as in the final temptation, for it has no special exemption from being manipulated to serve the will of those opposed to God (indeed, even the devil can quote Scripture to suit his purposes, see verses 10-11).
This coming Wednesday, February 20th, at 7:30pm, we’ll be looking at Luke 9:28-36. Feel free to come and join us.