This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent and the gospel is the temptation/testing of Jesus in the desert. The climactic scene occurs in Jerusalem, where the devil takes Jesus to the “parapet” of the Temple.
9 Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “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.’” 12 Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.
There are no contemporary references to this feature of the Temple, but it is often supposed that the site intended is the southeast corner of the Temple wall, its highest point above the valley below. In a quite conniving manner, the devil frames the third temptation in a quotation from Scripture. Twice Jesus has fended off temptations with words from Scripture, so this time the devil addresses Jesus by citing a text from the Psalms, in effect saying: “Did the psalmist not promise angels to protect you and to bear you up so that you would not even strike your foot against a stone?” (Ps 91:11–12; the Sunday psalm) “If you are the Son of God,” he challenges Jesus once more, “throw yourself down from here.” What is at stake is God’s promise.
“Specifically, Jesus was tempted to call upon God to deliver him from death in Jerusalem. Ironically, as every Christian reader knows, Jesus would eventually face death in Jerusalem, and when he did he would choose not his own deliverance but faithfulness to his Father’s will (22:42). Jesus would fulfill his divine sonship not by escaping death but by accepting death and defeating it.” (Culpepper, 100) We are called to recognize an even deeper mystery, known already to the believing community of which Luke is a part, that divine rescue may come through suffering and death and not only before (and from) them.
Part of this test deals with the proper use of the Word of God. Stoffregen writes, “The devil was suggesting that on the basis of Scripture Jesus must believe and insist on divine protection. Suffering and death would be a sign of weak faith. Vulnerability to life-threatening situations would be a sign of divine displeasure. He after all is the Son of God! As Son, the least he should expect is safety and protection from his heavenly Father. He should jump off from this great height with the confidence that God will protect him.”
The devil asks Jesus to prove his faith atop the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus will not do that now nor will he do it later. The next time Jesus goes to the temple in Jerusalem, he isn’t taken to the top of the temple, but to the top of a cross. It isn’t the devil who tempts him to jump down, but the people who cry out, ‘If you are the Son of God, jump down from the cross. Save yourself and then we will believe in you.’ Jesus will not come down. The angels will not save him from stubbing his feet; they will not save him from death on a cross.
The temptations being completed – and a foreshadowing of the temptations Jesus will face in ministry – the devil “departed from him for a time.” Satan will return later in the Gospel story, in the events leading up to Jesus’ death (see 22:3, 31, 53).
A final thought. Although the temptation story does not offer ethical instructions that cover every eventuality, it does describe the perennial ethical challenges that Christians face: the temptations to forget one’s baptismal identity, to attempt to use one’s religion for personal gain, to try to be successful rather than faithful, to be dazzled by the riches of the world, to make compromises where one is called to stand firm, and to avoid the path of sacrifice and suffering. Christian ethics does not come prepackaged. The call is not to adherence to a list of rules and regulations but to faithfulness to the call and purposes of God.
- 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