Editor’s note: The following comprises the third chapter, fourth part, of The Gospel of Luke: An Exposition, by Charles R. Erdman (published 1936). All spelling in the original.
D. The Temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13)
1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led in the Spirit in the wilderness 2 during forty days, being tempted of the devil. And he did eat nothing in those days: and when they were completed, he hungered. 3 And the devil said unto him, If thou art the Son of God, command this stone that it become bread. 4 And Jesus answered unto him, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone. 5 And he led him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said unto him, To thee will I give all this authority, and the glory of them: for it hath been delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. 7 If thou therefore wilt worship before me, it shall all be thine. 8 And Jesus answered and said unto him, It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 9 And he led him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: 10 for it is written,
He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to guard thee:
On their hands they shall bear thee up,
Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone.
12 And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God. 13 And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him for a season.
The temptation of Jesus was the last step in the preparation for his public ministry, and for many of his followers the final discipline for service consists in such a trial as results in a new determination to live not for self but for God.
The time of the temptation was significant. It was just after Jesus had been filled with the Holy Spirit and had been assured anew of his divine sonship. Under the influence of the Spirit he was brought to the place of trial, and the temptation consisted, in large part, of the suggestion to use for selfish ends the divine powers of which he was conscious, and to forget his filial relation to his Father. While God never tempts us, in the sense of enticing us to sin, it does seem to be a part of his gracious purpose to allow us to be tested; these experiences come while we are guided by his Spirit, and the essence of these temptations usually consists in some inclination to please self in forgetfulness of our true relation to God. The place of temptation was the wilderness, and there is a sense in which the experience of moral struggle is always one of intense loneliness. On the other hand, to live in a literal desert does not free one from solicitation to sin. Wherever one may be, he can be certain of the presence and sympathy of Christ; and victory is possible through faith in him. This seems to be the supreme message of the story.
In both Matthew and Luke, three temptations are mentioned. They are probably intended to be symbolic and inclusive; and under one or the other of these enticements to evil can be grouped all the moral trials of mankind. It is to be noted, however, that the order of the temptations given by Luke differs from that of Matthew. In both accounts the first temptation is to make bread of stone; but Luke mentions as the second temptation that which is last in the account of Matthew, the temptation which offered to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. This was a fitting climax to the testing of the King. Luke, however, mentions last the temptation of Jesus to cast himself from the pinnacle of the Temple and thus to test God. It is the temptation in the sphere of intellectual desire and comes in the subtle form of presumptuous trust. It forms a true climax in the testing of the ideal Man. The order given by Matthew is suggested by the apostle John who mentions “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of life.” The order of Luke takes us back to the story of Eden and to the first human sin, which was due to a love for that which was “good for food” and “a delight to the eyes” and “to be desired to make one wise.” As in Eden also, the first temptation is to doubt the goodness of God, the second to doubt his power, and the third to distrust his wisdom. The victory of Jesus, however, was secured by the triumph of his faith, and faith is still “the victory which overcomes the world.”
The first temptation, then, was in the sphere of bodily appetite; Jesus was urged by Satan to transform a stone into bread. Why not? His appetite was innocent; he possessed the ability to gratify it. The sin, however, would lie in his using divine power to satisfy his human needs. If this should have been his way of life, there would have been for him no hunger, no pain, no sorrow, no cross. He would have defeated the very purpose for which he came into the world; and anyone who makes the gratification of appetite his supreme purpose is wasting his life. The essence of the temptation, however, was to doubt the goodness of God, as Jesus showed by his reply, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” He was quoting from the Old Testament; he was declaring that as by a miracle God preserved his people of old, so now he would sustain the life of his Son. Jesus would not be driven into a panic of fear. He believed that God would supply his need and that, however strong the demand of appetite might be, the way and the will of God are certain to secure satisfaction and the truest enjoyment in life.
The second temptation was in the sphere of earthly ambition. It consisted in an offer of unlimited human power. Satan would give to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world on the condition that Jesus should bow down and worship him. The force of the temptation consisted in the fact that Jesus expected some day to rule the world. The Tempter suggested that he himself possessed such power, and that if Jesus would submit to him he would attain the desired goal of universal rule. It was a temptation to doubt the power of God and to be disloyal to him, as is shown by the reply of Jesus, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
This is a familiar form of temptation to-day. The Devil does not ask us to give up our purposes of ultimate helpfulness to others and service to the world; he only asks us to compromise with the evil to attain our goal; he insists that the end will justify the means; he intimates that in the world of commerce, or society, or politics, evil methods are so much in vogue that success can be attained only by complicity with evil. He tells us that this is his world and that we can rule only in so far as we make terms with him. For Christ the issue was clearly drawn. It was submission to Satan or loyalty to God. The latter would involve opposition to the ruler of this world and therefore would mean conflict and toil and tears and a cross; but the ultimate issue would be universal rule. The same choice opens for the followers of Christ. Unswerving loyalty is the way of the cross, but this is the way of the crown.
The last temptation was in the sphere of intellectual curiosity. It suggested to Jesus that he should see for himself what would be the experience of one who should cast himself from a great height and then, by angel hands, be kept from harm. This is the temptation to place oneself needlessly in a situation of moral peril and then to expect to be delivered by God’s miraculous power. This is not faith, but presumption. Satan still seeks by this device to destroy human souls. He urges men to see for themselves, to increase their knowledge by experiences which needlessly endanger their credit, their health, and their honor, to place themselves in moral peril, to live beyond their means, to undertake tasks beyond their strength. Jesus replied, “Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God.” In the path of actual duty one need not fear the most threatening danger; but one who puts himself in unnecessary peril need not expect divine help. In his own time and way, and in the path of our appointed service, God will open our eyes and give us such knowledge as we need. To seek in presumption for such knowledge while endangering our souls is to doubt the wisdom of God. Real trust preserves us from sinful presumption.
The story closes with the statement that when Jesus had secured his victory the Devil “departed from him for a season.” The life of faith is a life of repeated moral conflicts, but victory is assured to those who trust in the goodness and power and wisdom of God.