The nature of temptation

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent and the gospel is the temptation/testing of Jesus in the desert. An earlier post today addressed the background of testing/temptation in a broad Scriptural way. This second post narrows that thread to consider the NT witness to the temptation from the four gospels. As well there is short section on temptation and the human will.

The tradition that Jesus was tested has wide testimony in early Christianity. John references 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 an 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.”

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.”


  • 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
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.