Testing and temptation

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent and the gospel is the temptation/testing of Jesus in the desert. As often noted, Luke writes with a narrative intent. This is true also for the account of the temptations. Luke 4:1–13 presents a number of key elements linking it to surrounding material, helping to ensure its interpretation as a bridge scene moving Jesus from his reception of the Spirit at his baptism to his public ministry. The most obvious such bridges include references to the other worldly (3:21–22; 4:5), the setting of the wilderness in the vicinity of the Jordan (3:2–3, 4, 21; 4:1, 14), the Holy Spirit (3:22; 4:1, 1, 14, 16), Jesus’ sonship (3:22, 38; 4:3, 9, 41 – If you are the Son of God), the attention to the meaning of Jesus’ mission, and Jesus’ encounter with hostile forces – human and spiritual (4:2–13, 22–30, 33–36).

Some of the bridges are less obvious. So often we skip over genealogies in Scripture, but 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; docetism heresy]

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 need 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”.

As Joel Green [192] notes that there is a basis for this “test.” Jesus is empowered “by the Spirit, Jesus is full of the Spirit, and inspired by the Spirit. His central, active role is therefore fundamentally as God’s agent, and it is this special relationship and its implications that lie at the root of Jesus’ identity in Luke-Acts. Not surprisingly, then, it is this that will be tested in the encounter between Jesus and the devil.” The testing conducted by the devil is specific; it seeks to negate Jesus’ role as Son of God by either having Jesus reject the relationship outright or to mold the obedience to the Father to Jesus’ own human needs.

Luke is not just pointing within his own narrative, but has provided a tableau of reflections upon Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Green [192] suggests that we particularly pay close attention to the following:

  • divine leading in the wilderness (Deut 8:2; cf. Luke 4:1);
  • “forty” (Exod 16:35; Num 14:34; Deut 8:2, 4; cf. Luke 4:2);
  • Israel as God’s son (e.g., Exod 4:22–23; cf. Luke 4:3, 9);
  • the testing of Jesus is analogous to that experienced by Israel and the scriptural texts he cites derive from those events in which Israel was tested by God (Deuteronomy 6–8); and
  • Though Jesus was full of the Spirit and followed the Spirit’s guidance, Israel “rebelled and grieved his holy spirit” (Isa 63:10).


  • R. 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

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