Jesus and Temptation

Once again, this just comes from me reading the Gospels and thinking a bit about them, and reading a bit from things like the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Finally, some of you may know I’m very interested in preaching. The Bible is fertile ground for thinking about that, and that’s one thing I do know a bit about.

Mark doesn’t say much about the temptations, he just says, Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke and Matthew repeat a tradition about three temptations, and Jesus answers them by quoting from Deuteronomy(!). Luke, who seems driven by logic in his presentation, rather than some sort of strictly historic narrative, puts this story at the beginning, perhaps because he is more interested in the Church, writing as he does from a later perspective.

The message of Jesus in the later Gospel narrative is that the Kingdom is here. People around him know about kingdoms, they have been the subjected to kings for time out of mind. The first temptation is this: if Jesus is really the king, or the anointed representative of the king in some sense, then he should turn stones to bread. This I think suggests a political message for Jesus, and it resonates with the usual things we hear at election time: if you elect me, taxes will go down, everyone will have a chicken in their pot. Of course, Jesus does deal in bread at some point. The Gospels note miracle(s) of loaves. John who is very different from the others is the only one who gives us a little lived religion there. He tells us how people react to this. The congregation comes back the next day and says, hey that was great. Let’s do more. Jesus sees this as twisting the message. He’s blessing the hungry. It’s not like Galilee was suffering a famine at the time.

There’s an issue here about the place of God in society, particularly in the first world. This is the problem of the outcasts of the Zoramites. They are humbled and therefore in the story, receptive to the preaching of the gifts God has for them. In the first world, God is often a kind of sidebar to the blog of life. A convenient background which plays little role in our present lives. If there isn’t a God, then there’s still insurance, social security, a pension, bonus, etc. This works out fine until death happens or we get close to death ourselves. The first world invades the moment of death of course, but the inner self doesn’t care much about the convenience of death. The stark boundary it represents almost always propagates (expressed or not) doubt. In the midst of a possible fatal circumstance, we usually become very concerned if there is anything else. In this sense, the first temptation represents a kind of deep challenge to Jesus preaching the kingdom. Temptation: if you want to help the poor, give them bread, everyone will venerate you.

Luke then has Satan suggest that if you want your message to be broadcast, jump off the temple and show that you can’t die. This will attract the world to you personally. Jesus the Superhero. Then finally, Satan offers to make Jesus the king of the world. Jesus’ message is an awkward one. The most valued is the one who is servant to everyone. This was a terrifying message. It’s the opposite of the common conception of kingdom. Jesus’ brothers tell him to quit messing around in the backwoods of Galilee doing miracles. Go up to Jerusalem and show this stuff where everyone can see it. Embedded here is I think, the notion of prosperity gospel. Becoming part of the kingdom means you’ll live a more comfortable happier life, your business will be more successful, and be admired, if just within yourself, for your enabled generosity perhaps, or your beautiful residence, or something else (it’s never ourselves that suffer such things to be of course). I suspect that this is exactly what people wanted, and want, out of the proclamation of the kingdom of God. The danger for Jesus and those he ministered to, and us, is to make the kingdom what we want, not what God wants. I think this is why Luke and Matthew include the story, and put it first in a way. Maybe.

Now the devil leaves him after Jesus answers the temptations, but it’s clearly not a capitulation. He waits for a much more vulnerable time. The next time Luke mentions Satan himself is with Judas, and the awful darkness and temptation of Gethsemane. Failing to pervert the kingdom, at least in Jesus’ message, he will kill the king. The temptation is for Jesus to avoid the bitter cup of suffering to death. It’s interesting that the other Evangelists have angels coming to Jesus before Gethsemane. But only Luke has the angel come to the garden, in the middle of this temptation. This seems to show even Jesus, that the kingdom won’t come in power.


  1. sidebottom says:

    I’ve always wondered where Matthew and Luke got their temptation stories from. It’s obviously not an eyewitness account and it seems out of place with the other sorts of things that Jesus might have shared with his followers.

  2. The beginning and ending narratives demonstrate the way the gospels were constructed I think. They are collections of stories that, certainly with Mark, are built out of preaching episodes. The ultimate sources of the stories are I suppose debatable, but modern revelation certifies their devotional value in many cases.

  3. I’d be curious as to how this sort of temptation narrative figures in other rabbinical or Jewish spiritual leader histories. It’s a trope I’ve seen in other religions for sure, but I’m not sure about Judaism.

  4. Well, a lot of what Jesus speaks to is stuff in the present tradition, I think. Even after he’s dead, resurrected, gone, and Pentecost comes, the symbol of cloven tongues of fire harks back not to the Old Testament itself, but the then current explanation of how people besides Israel were going to know about the Law from Sinai (baptism for the dead/evangelizing the dead, anyone?). The Rabbis had this thing about tongues of fire that came from the mountain, going to all peoples to make everyone responsible. The Pentecost thing plays on that (rather recent) tradition I think, as a token of going out and preaching the word–get out of Jerusalem–speaking the tongue of strangers, etc. At least I think that this was in play at the time.

    Anyway, this is my long way of saying that I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise that this kind of narrative was around.

  5. I think something like this enters into the Book of Mormon as the Word, too. Richard Bushman recently said this, which I think is profound:

    “The Book of Mormon has a lot of nineteenth-century Protestant material in it, both in terms of theology and of wording. I am looking for an explanation of how and why it is there. I don’t think it is enough to say JS absorbed it from his environment. It is too complex and to far beyond his cultural range. But it is there, and we need to explain why and how. Right now it seems possible that the Joseph gave us exactly what he got by his inspiration, but that what was given him went beyond what the Nephite prophets wrote on the plates. The text was augmented in some way.”

  6. Right, exactly.

  7. For more into related to the Bushman quote, take a look at the “Complexities in the English Language of the Book of Mormon” conference held at BYU in March. This URL ( will take you to a page with links to the Youtube videos of the presentations. All four major presentations are well worth watching.You’ll find that it’s not just nineteenth-century stuff that’s in the book but primarily sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stuff. This is fascinating material, and we are nowhere close to explaining it. Obviously, as Royal Skousen points out, the translation was done long before Joseph received it, and it was managed carefully over, it appears, centuries.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    The author of Hebrews suggests that Jesus was tempted to be able to scout those who are tempted. Is he referring to these episodes?

  9. J. Stapley says:


  10. I like “scout.” Difficult to know. I was trying to suggest that the authors had more in mind than presentist readings sometimes suggest. Hebrews probably dates around roughly the same time as the original composition of the Gospels (say 65-95 CE). But if the writer of Hebrews, a second generation writer at least, meant the Temptations, it suggests that Jesus was not empowered to do those kinds of things himself in some sense. In other words, these temptations were “real.”

  11. J. Stapley says:

    I like that, WVS.

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