by Brad H. Young, Ph.D.

The episode of the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels is perhaps the most misunderstood of all stories in the documents which relate his life and teachings (Mt. 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13; Lk. 4:1-13).  Nonetheless, this very episode is no doubt a key passage which reveals the original mission and the messianic task of Jesus more clearly than other texts.  In the passage, we encounter the personal struggle of Jesus as he confronts the enemy.  In this article, it is impossible to consider all the fascinating aspects of this encounter between Satan and the Son of God, but here we will focus upon the final temptation according to Luke which is staged in the Temple complex (Lk. 4:9-11).

After the baptism of Jesus, which is his call into service, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested (Lk. 4:1).-1-  Like Moses and Elijah who fasted for forty days, Jesus went without food and water on a total fast, relying upon divine sustenance during this period (Ex. 34:28; I Kg. 19:8).-1a-  It was at this point, when Jesus was physically weak, that Satan came to tempt him with food.  One must recall also that the people of Israel were tempted by God for forty years in the wilderness to see what was in their hearts (Deut. 8:3-6).  In many ways, Jesus is depicted as the representative of the people Israel.  As the Son of God from the baptismal scene (Lk. 3:22, 38), he goes into the wilderness in much the same way as the nation entered trial in their desert wanderings.-2-  There Jesus enters into conflict with evil.  But what was the nature of this evil?

Perhaps the greatest mistake interpreters make is that they often do not regard the test as a real temptation.  They claim wrongly that, of course, Jesus could have turned the stone into bread, that he would have been saved by the angels if he had taken the proverbial step of faith.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Satan is a master deceiver and all of these temptations were genuine tests that would have foiled the ultimate divine plan.  Inherent in all the temptations is the denial of the oneness of God, the great Shema Yisrael from Deut. 5:4, which is related, not only to Israel's temptation because of its context in Deuteronomy, but also to the temptation of the Son of God who represents his people.-3- The Lord is one and he alone is worthy of worship and total trust.  The basis of the test was to acknowledge who God is.  The LORD-4- is God and he alone should be worshiped.  This is the deeper significance of these three temptations.

The temptation was real.  Each time, Jesus was asked to deny the Lordship of his Father.  The first temptation denied God's provision.  God had sustained Jesus during his fast.  To accept the challenge of Satan would have been a confession that God's provision was insufficient.  Jesus answers from what is written in Scripture, "Man shall not live by bread alone."  Similar circumstances prevailed when the people of Israel wandered through the desert, relying upon God to provide them with manna.  The second temptation, according to Luke 4:5f, involved the sovereignty of God; "And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, 'To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.  If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.'"  In the same way as God showed Moses the land of Israel (Deut. 34:1f), the devil showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world.  He promised to deliver their jurisdiction under the authority of Christ if Jesus would only worship the devil.  According to Daniel 7:13f, only God has the authority over his creation, and he is the King of the universe who has permitted mankind the ability to choose his own way (cf. Job 1:9-12).  Hence the test was to deny the Lordship of God and to enter into false worship.  Again Jesus responds with Scripture (Lk. 4:8).  The Lord is God.

The final temptation in the Temple is the culmination of this decisive episode in the career of Jesus.  Jeremias has suggested that this story was told to the disciples by Jesus to warn them against the temptation of accepting political success in the short term, instead of achieving the higher purposes of God for his kingdom and for his long range plan.-5-  On location, upon the wing (ptergion in Greek or kanaf in Hebrew) of the Temple, the deceiver now quotes Scripture to entice Jesus to accept the easy way to sudden success.  The people will flock to his movement if he will cast himself down from the height.  Certainly God will protect him.  Psalm 91 speaks of his divine protection, and the rich imagery of the "wing of the Temple" also produces the illusion of God's constant protection.  The Temple is the symbol of sanctuary, shelter, and security.  No one could die under the wing of the Temple, which described God's protection of his people.  But the devil deleted the reference in Psalm 91:11, which states, "in all thy ways," which could be understood to mean in the normal or natural ways in which a man walks, and not if he suicidally casts himself down from a tremendous height.  Jesus responds, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God."

But the true nature of the final temptation can only be understood in the messianic beliefs of the period.  A Jewish midrash--though of later date--states clearly, "Our teachers taught, at the time when the King Messiah will appear, he will come and stand upon the roof of the Temple.  He will proclaim to Israel and will say to the humble, 'The time of your redemption has arrived!  If you do not believe--behold my light which shines upon you...'" (Pesikta Rabbati 36).-6-  If this tradition or a similar one existed in the time of Jesus, it would clarify the place and the nature of Satan's test.  I have recently discovered another reference in an early historical source related to this question.  Josephus describes the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, as the tenth Roman legion crushed the nationalistic hopes of the Zealots to overthrow foreign rule and to establish an autonomous religious kingdom.  The notorious Zealot ringleader, Simon bar Giora, fought bravely against the Roman foe, but when he realized that there was no hope of winning the battle for Jerusalem and the Temple, he sought a way of escape through the secret underground tunnels of the Temple.  When he realized that any attempt was hopeless, "Simon, imagining that he could cheat the Romans by creating a scare, dressed himself in white tunics and, buckling over them a purple mantle, arose out of the ground at the spot whereon the temple formerly stood" (Josephus, War 27-30).  The people who saw him were struck motionless in fear, for all must have imagined him to be the messianic deliverer who was expected to bring redemption.

The reference from Josephus indicates that indeed messianic hopes surrounded the Temple complex.  Josephus' words, "... at the spot...," seem to refer to the Temple compound and quite possibly to a position like the wing.  The final temptation of Jesus was the climax.  Would Jesus be deceived by Satan and choose the quick way to redemption?  No, the kingdom Jesus taught about is founded upon the oneness of God and the need to establish his reign of peace.  Jesus was called the prince of peace, and he brought the highest redemption through the humility and the seeming defeat of the cross.  Only Jesus could turn death's defeat upon a cruel Roman cross into a victory for God and for his people.  Jesus did not succumb to the temptation to deny the Lordship of his Father in an attempt to found a new political regime; nonetheless, he determined to establish this kingdom by accomplishing the higher purposes of God by calling men to submit themselves to the divine requirements of obedience.  The ultimate deliverance, however, is accomplished when the Son of Man comes to execute judgment and redemption (Mt. 25:31ff).

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--1-- Only Luke records that the Spirit directed Jesus, which betrays his own emphasis (see also Lk. 1:41,67; Acts 2:4; 4:8,31; 9:17; 13:9). Return
--1a-- A normal Jewish fast was abstinence from both food and water; see A. Even Shoshan, Dictionary, pg 1127 (Hebrew) and cf. m. Yoma chapter 8.  Thus it was considered miraculous for someone to go without food and water for forty days.  Only God could sustain Jesus for such a fast, and to turn a stone into bread would deny God's provision and his Lordship. Return
--2-- See B. Gehardsson, The Testing of God's Son (Sweden, 1966). Return
--3-- One must carefully read Deuteronomy chapters 6, 7, and 8 for a full appreciation of the connection. Return
--4-- "The LORD" - i.e. YAHWEH. Return
--5-- See. J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (London, 1972), pg 123. Return
--6-- Patient. Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (Munich, 1978), vol. 1, pg. 151. Return

Yavo Digest, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1987

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