This story of Jesus and the devil is a distinct narrative with a beginning and end. It takes place in the wilderness with the devil and ends with the devil departing until an “opportune time.” Luke-Acts refers to the figures of devil (seven times) and the satan (seven times). Although most scholars do not think that the author of Luke-Acts displays a developed sense of these demonic figures. Luke certainly understands the reality of the battle between good and evil. As well, Luke 4:1-13 certainly links with a series of other stories and concepts throughout Luke’s gospel.
Jesus has retained a somewhat passive role in the preceding chapters of Luke except for Luke 2:41-51. In our text attention is drawn very specifically to his active role. It is clear that he has been prepared for this role by all that he has received prior to this story. Jesus is really the agent of God as is emphasized in the last of the three temptations where Jesus explicitly responds to the devil in saying “”Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:11).
Several points are significant to note in this passage.
First, other significant figures within the Old Testament have gone through these temptations. Look at the stories of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Job, just to mention several names. Temptation and testing is a part of the narrative that surrounds many significant figures.
Second, the three “temptations” are all placed in a context of two rabbis citing oppositional scriptures. In each case Jesus responds with quotes from Deuteronomy. The first temptation surrounding food has Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. He has just come from fasting in the wilderness so one can imagine how hungry he must have been. The second temptation has to do with political authority and Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13. The third temptation regarding Jerusalem, Jesus uses Deuteronomy 6:16 to counter the terribly misunderstood quote by the devil of Psalm 91:11-12. Compare Matthew 4:5-10 for a different order of the temptations. Luke wants to point the reader toward Jerusalem because of the enormous “test” that Jesus will face in Jerusalem at the end of his life.
Third, none of the temptations represent a break or failure of keeping the law (Torah) on a moral level. So no reader of Luke’s story could say that Jesus somehow needed to repent of anything as he goes through his life that leads toward Jerusalem. In every case Jesus is the conqueror. Jesus is “armed with ‘the sword of the Spirit, the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Jesus powerful sword stands over against the three spears of the devil—gluttony, vanity, and ambition.
Each of these temptations expresses a distancing from God whether withdrawal from God or affirming an authority to someone other than God or using God’s power for our own benefit. In the history of the interpretation of Jesus temptations we can see both an affirmation of Christ’s role as well as an ethical imperative for each of us.
Finally, the diabolical leaves at the end of the scene but is never far away. The diabolical returns at an “opportune time.” In Luke’s gospel this is clearly recognized when Judas later in Luke’s gospel is infused with the diabolical (Luke 22:3-6, 53). As we begin these Sundays of Lent we need to remember that we are poised continually on the brink of these battles between good and evil. However, we live with the assurance that an opportunity has been given to us to seize God’s gift through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.