Testing: the first

temptation_of_christThe First Test. 1 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. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Jesus has been fasting for forty days. He is hungry and vulnerable – and in a weakened physical and mental state. In years when Lent allows us to celebrate the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, that gospel proclaims: “Blessed are you who are hungry.” Jesus is now one of them. In the midst of his hunger, Jesus is tempted to take care of his own needs. If the sons of Israel were miraculously fed by manna, why shouldn’t the Son of God enjoy the same care? Jesus is challenged to repeat the sign of God’s provision by providing for his own needs rather than depending on God’s provision for his needs.

But the question is also points past Jesus’ immediate need. How will Jesus respond to the physical needs of others? Will he meet their expectations and provide abundant food having people follow him because he satisfies their temporal needs. As essential as eating is, it is not essential to the kingdom of God (cf. Luke 9:58, 10:4, 12:29-31). To respond to the people’s pressing needs in ever-miraculous ways does not lead others to a true experience of the kingdom of God. The temptation that Jesus faces is the compassionate response to people and their needs and all the while also calling them to a life of discipleship that calls for wholehearted seeking after the kingdom of God rather than food and drink.

There is no question that Luke presents Jesus as one who is genuinely concerned for the poor, the outcasts, the needy, and the hungry. In the beatitudes in 6:20-23 Jesus pronounces a blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping. How will Jesus conduct his ministry of compassion to the poor and needy? One easy way would be to use his miraculous powers to turn stones to bread. But his answer to that suggestion was that one does not live by bread alone. The kingdom of God is more than bread.

A theme that Stoffregen presents with other passages is that Jesus is not primarily motivated by needs, neither his own or those of others, but by the Word of God (which frequently leads Jesus to care for human needs). Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is not to seek needs that we might fulfill, but to seek to live by the Word of God. Meeting human needs is certainly a very good thing to do; but can it not also be a temptation from the Slanderer to lead us away from God’s Word?

I think that we frequently see temptations as doing bad things, as enticements to break the latter commandments of the Law: to steal, to lie, to commit adultery, etc. These tests are attacks on the first commandments, especially the first commandment. Can “doing good things for the needy” become another god whom we worship? Whom we allow to run our lives? Does it lead to co-dependency, where the other person, the needy one controls our lives, rather than God?



4:1 Filled with the holy Spirit: as a result of the descent of the Spirit upon him at his baptism (Luke 3:21-22), Jesus is now equipped to overcome the devil. Just as the Spirit is prominent at this early stage of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:1, 14, 18), so too it will be at the beginning of the period of the church in Acts (Acts 1:4; 2:4, 17). This is also Luke’s characteristic way of designating the prophetic figures of his narrative (see 1:15, 41, 67; as well see Acts 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24; 13:9)

4:2 for forty days: the mention of forty days recalls the forty years of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites during the Exodus (Deut 8:2). The 40 days in the wilderness without food also calls to mind the prophet Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8) and Moses who fasted for 40 days before writing the words of the covenant (Ex 34:28).

tempted: It is difficult to know how to translate peirazo (4:2) and the more intensive ekpeirazo (4:13) — “to test” or “to tempt”. The word is used in the OT (LXX) when speaking of God testing people (e.g. Abraham in Gen 22:1). Of course that only raises the question why God tests people. Some answer from Scripture include: Dt 13:3b: “for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul” and Dt 8:16: “to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.” Clearly the purpose is positive – to help people discover what they know and can do. peirazo and ekpeirazo can also have negative connotations: “to tempt” or “to try and cause someone to make a mistake” or “to try and cause someone to sin.” At the same time that God is “testing” the strength of one’s faithfulness, the “Tempter” may be “tempting” someone to sin. Every other time peirazo/ekpeirazo are used in Luke, the tempters/testers are human beings: a lawyer (10:25) and part of a crowd (11:16).

devil: Luke uses diabolos in this account (versus Mark’s use of satanas; this same distinction is maintained in 8:12, Acts 10:38; 13:10 – although Luke also uses satanas elsewhere in an equivalent sense – and beelzeboul as well). Lest we make too much distinction it should be noted that literally diabolos means “the slanderer” or as an adjective: “slanderous”. (This meaning is used in 1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim 3:3; Tit 2:3.) It is the word used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew SaTaN, which literally means “adversary”.   One is reminded to the LXX diabolos of The Book of Job where the diabolos is God’s prosecuting attorney.

he ate nothing… he was hungry: Luke does not describe this as “fasting.” The emphasis on the condition of Jesus marks the testing at the end of a period when Jesus is weak from hunger.

4:3 stone to become bread: These words echo John the Baptist’s declaration that God could raise up “children for Abraham from these stones” (3:8).

4:4 One does not live by bread alone: The phrase makes referes to the full text of Dt 8:3 (which Matthew carries) that concludes: “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is a passage which stresses the Israelite dependence upon God during their wanderings in the wilderness.

4:5 all the kingdoms of the world: Luke uses oikoumené rather than kosmos (as in Matthew). The Lucan use of kosmos is limited to the created, natural order. His use of oikoumené points to the social and political order. This is consistent with “kingdoms” (basileia) pointing to empires and city states.

in a single instant. Only Luke makes a notation of the time – perhaps to clarify the visionary nature of the experience?


  • Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 9 of the New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 96–101
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke in The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) 191-96
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of the Sacra Pagina series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegville, MN: 1991) 73-77
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)

Scripture Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/

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