The background of Jesus’ temptations

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent and the gospel is the temptation/testing of Jesus in the desert.  Before immersing ourselves in the details of the three temptations, perhaps an overview of their OT background would help locate our gospel in context.

The First Temptation (4:3-4): If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.  The response is from Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  The context in Deuteronomy is that Moses reminds the people of Israel that God tested them in the wilderness by hunger, but he fed them with manna in order to make them understand that one does not live by bread alone.

The Second Temptation (4:5-8): I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. 7 All this will be yours, if you worship me.” The response is from Deuteronomy 6:13: “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.’” The context in Deuteronomy is that Moses addresses the people of Israel prior to entering the land of promise. He calls upon the people to fear and love the Lord always. He provides a creed for them, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel…. (6:4), tells them not to forget who gave the land, and admonishes them to worship and serve the Lord.

The Third Temptation (4:9-12): “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ 11 and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Here the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12.  The response is from Deuteronomy 6:16: ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” The context in Deuteronomy is the same as the previous episode (Deut 6:13). Moses exhorts the people not to test the Lord as they did at Massah, a place of quarreling, where the people of Israel demanded water from Moses, which he finally obtained by striking a rock (Exodus 17:1-7).

We have already suggested that the testing ground is Jesus’ relationship with the Father in heaven. The background is Israel’s wilderness experience, but what is the narrative ground that Luke seeks to plow within this Gospel? The following insights are largely taken from Culpepper [98] with minor textual edits.

  1. The temptations clarify the nature of Jesus’ work as the Son of God. Following the infancy narratives, the finding of Jesus in the Temple at age 12, his baptism and declaration that he was the Son of God, and genealogy (that concludes with “Son of God”), the temptations serve to interpret the implications of his identity for his coming ministry. Jesus will fulfill the heritage of Israel, combat the rule of Satan, and fulfill his work as Savior by his faithfulness.
  2. The temptations identify Jesus with the heritage of Israel. Like Israel, Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness. Israel was there for 40 year; Jesus for 40 days. The temptation to make bread evokes memories of the manna God supplied Israel. Even more clearly, the three quotations from Deuteronomy link the temptation scene with Israel’s experience. Consequently, the three temptations themselves may be seen as corresponding to the temptations of Israel, which involved bread (Exod 16:15), testing the Lord (Exod 17:1–7), and idolatry (Exodus 32).
  3. The temptations mirror the conflict of God’s reign with the reign of Satan. The interpretation of the parable of the sower explains that some do not receive the Word because, like the birds who peck the seeds, the devil comes and snatches the Word from them (8:12). The success of the mission of the seventy signaled the fall of Satan from heaven (10:18). Later, Jesus explains that he did not cast out demons by the power of Beelzebul, but that the coming of the kingdom is a sign of Satan’s defeat (11:14–23). Similarly, the crippled woman is identified as “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years” (13:16). Not surprising is Luke’s emphasis that the failures of Jesus’ disciples during the events of Jesus’ passion are due to Satan’s temptations (22:3, 31). Jesus’ conflict with Satan at the beginning of his ministry, therefore, serves as an interpretive frame that enables the reader to understand the whole of Jesus’ ministry as an attack on the enslaving and destructive effects of Satan’s work.
  4. The temptations emphasize that Jesus’ ministry should be understood as the fulfillment of the Scriptures. As we have noted, one of the striking features of these verses is that in Jesus’ three responses to the devil he quotes scriptures. There is no other dialogue or interpretation; these are the only words Jesus speaks. The effect is to focus attention on both the power and the fulfillment of Scripture. Throughout Luke, the Scriptures form the context for understanding the meaning of the Gospel narrative. The annunciations echo biblical hopes and expectations. John’s work is a fulfillment of the prophets (see 3:4–6). Jesus’ inaugural address in Nazareth announces the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 (see 4:18–19), and his response to John’s queries again points to the fulfillment of the prophets (see 7:18–23). The end of the Gospel makes the same point: Jesus fulfilled what was written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (24:44), and those who would understand Jesus must have their minds open to the Scriptures (24:45).
  5. The temptations offer Jesus’ followers a model for resisting temptation. In various respects, Luke paints a picture of Jesus as a model for his followers. In Luke Jesus is more frequently portrayed as exemplifying characteristically Christian virtues: Jesus is empowered by the Spirit; he prays regularly; he is compassionate toward the outcast and afflicted; he associates with women, sinners, and tax collectors; and he dies a martyr’s death, praying for his persecutors. In the temptation scene, therefore, Jesus faithfully resists temptations to do less than or other than he was called to do. He relies on Scripture and refuses to put God to the test. The temptation scene, therefore, can serve as an example story for all who are tempted.


  • 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

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