Testing: human experience

temptation_of_christAs often noted, Luke writes with a narrative intent. This is true also for the account of the temptations. Our text is connected with the genealogy (3:23-38) that ends with “Adam, son of God.” How is Jesus, Son of God, the same and different from Adam? One similarity is that “[t]emptation is a universal human experience. Had Jesus not been tempted, he would not really have been human. … The wonder is not that Jesus was incapable of sinning but that he was able to avoid sinning although he was tempted. Along with the birth narrative, therefore, the temptations make an important anti-docetic statement: Jesus was fully human and knew what it meant to be tempted [Culpepper, 100-101]

Testing and Temptations. Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert 2 for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. We are so used to hearing this story described as “Jesus’ Temptations in the desert” that we pass over the word peirozo (4:2), a Greek word that can mean “temptation” or “testing.” This word is not without its scriptural precedence and usage.

The word is often used in the Greek translation of the OT (LXX) for God testing people, for example:

  • God put Abraham to the test” by asking him to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1).
  • Then the LORD said to Moses: I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not.” (Exodus 16:4)

Why does God test people? Scripture itself provides some answers:

  • Dt 13:4: “for the Lord, your God, is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul
  • Dt 8:16: “that he might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end
  • Dt 8:2-3 (v.3 is quoted by Jesus in answer to the first “test”): “Remember how for these forty years the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the wilderness, so as to test you by affliction, to know what was in your heart: to keep his commandments, or not. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”

Generally when teachers or driving instructors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the students, but to help discover what they know and what they can do. This is often when we Christians balk and ask, “Why would Jesus needed to be tested by God his Father?” – as we forget “And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” (Luke 2:52) Part of the mystery of the Incarnation is to understand how Jesus can be truly God and truly man – to have divine knowledge and yet “advance in wisdom.” As Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin”.

The Temptations. The tradition that Jesus was tested has wide testimony in early Christianity. John references to the testing of Jesus throughout his ministry (John 6:14-15; 7:1-9; 12:27-28). Hebrews is clear in its testimony that Jesus was tempted as we are tempted (Heb 2:14-18; 4:15).

The account in the Gospel of Mark says only that Jesus was tested, but Matthew and Luke describe three temptations. These are typical of the temptations Jesus faced throughout his life and typical as well of the testing his followers will undergo. What is different in Luke is that he changes the order of the temptations (bread, mountain, Temple) that we find in Matthew’s account (bread, Temple, mountain). The sequence may have been attractive to Matthew because it concludes on a high mountain, just as Matthew’s Gospel concludes on a mountain in Galilee. The Lucan sequence reverses the last two temptations so that the climactic scene occurs at the Temple, where his Gospel begins and ends.

Culpepper [97] has a very interesting insight about the temptation account as a whole:

“The temptation scene is peculiar for several reasons: The devil appears and speaks to Jesus directly; Jesus responds three times, and each time his response is a quotation from the Scriptures; no one is present to witness or report these events; and the settings as well as the temptations themselves project important symbolic overtones. It has been suggested that the temptation scenes are based on Jesus’ responses to actual requests for a sign during his ministry (see Luke 11:16, 29). At this point the Gospel of John, which contains no account of the temptations following the baptism of Jesus, may be helpful. More clearly than the other Gospels, John shows how the temptations may have had a basis in the ministry of Jesus as it was understood by the evangelists. Following the feeding of the 5,000, the crowd seeks Jesus out again, hoping that he will make bread for them (John 6:26, 30–31). The coming of the Greeks in John 12:20 brings Jesus as close to temptation as he ever comes in the Fourth Gospel, as he considers whether he should ask to be delivered from his hour (John 12:27). Later, at the death of Jesus, his kingship is declared in Hebrew, the language of religion; in Greek, the language of culture; and in Latin, the language of the state. The brothers of Jesus tempt him to go up to Jerusalem and show the people assembled there the works he could do (John 7:3). John further declares that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him, and Jesus said they belonged to the world (John 7:5–7). John, therefore, shows how Jesus faced the temptations in the course of his ministry, and it may actually be closer to the historical basis for the stylized and symbolic accounts of the temptations in Matthew and Luke.”

Thoughts about temptations and the human will. “The devil made me do it.” Don’t we wish. Stoffregen offers some pastoral thoughts that I will repeat here

“Wherever it comes from, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something evil. Temptation is not coercion. The serpent in the garden can’t make Eve and Adam eat the apple. The devil in our text can’t make Jesus turn stones into bread. “To tempt” means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempters can’t make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don’t take away the will. Rather, they try to change one’s will.”

“In my own experience, often when I sin, it is not usually a problem of knowledge. Many times I know what is good and bad. It is a problem of the will. I just want to do the bad; or there are times I just don’t want to do the good. More often than not, it is not a question of ignorance — of not knowing the difference between good and bad. It is a question of one’s will or conviction — what do I want to do and what will I do.”

“It is the responsibility of the parents and of the church not only to teach its baptized members the difference between right and wrong; but also to help motivate them to want to do the right thing. The devil (and much of society) is still around trying to make us want to do the wrong thing.”

“The way Diabolos seeks to change our wills is by lying, by stretching the truth. Generally, Diabolos entices us not with great evils, but with good things for the wrong reasons. It could be argued that none of Jesus’ temptations were to do anything grossly evil, but to do some good things, but for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time. What’s wrong with turning stones into bread (if one can do it) to feed the hungry? Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five loaves of bread into a feast for 5000. God provided Israel with manna in the wilderness. What’s wrong with the King of kings and Lord of lords assuming control over the kingdoms of the world? Isn’t that what we are expecting at the parousia? What’s wrong with believing scriptures so strongly that the Son of God trusts the angels to protect him? In the other three gospels, Jesus will walk on water, perhaps slightly less difficult than floating on air. At the end of Luke, Jesus will be carried up into heaven (24:51).”

“The Slanderer entices Jesus with good things — perhaps even proper things for one who is the Son of God. Temptations/testings put us in a battle of wills — perhaps like the battles between parents and children, or between any two people. Children want to do what they want to do when they want to do it — and sometimes their plans conflict with what parents want them to do. The same can happen between any two or more people.”

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