Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 4.1-13
First Sunday in Lent- Year C

Other texts:

The First Sunday of Lent each year in the Revised Common Lectionary begins with Jesus' temptation/testing. Luke's account is very similar to Matthew's (probably a Q source), except that the last two temptations are reversed.

It seems plausible to me that both Matthew & Luke want to highlight the last test in their series of tests. Matthew has an emphasis about mountains, e.g., The Sermon on the Mount and only he tells us that the last temptation took place on a high mountain. Luke has an emphasis on the temple in Jerusalem: the infant Jesus is taken there, the twelve-year-old Jesus goes there, and last week in Luke's transfiguration story we heard that Jesus' "departure" will take place in Jerusalem. That is where the final temptation takes place.

Although Luke inserts the genealogy in-between Jesus' baptism and the testing, our text begins with two comments that skip over the family tree and refer back to the baptism: "Jesus full of the Holy Spirit" and "returned from the Jordan." Luke's emphasis on the Spirit is also indicated by the verse immediately following the temptation story, which is similar to the opening verse, "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee" (4:14).

Themes that these observations suggest are: "Life after Baptism" or "Life in the Spirit." Life immediately after Jesus' baptism (or being filled with the Spirit) was not so pleasant and wonderful. It was a difficult time of battling the temptations of Satan. Is that also the way it is for us?

Our text is connected with the genealogy which ends with "Adam, son of God." How is Jesus, Son of God, the same and different from Adam? One similarity is that

[t]emptation is a universal human experience. Had Jesus not been tempted, he would not really have been human. ... The wonder is not that Jesus was incapable of sinning but that he was able to avoid sinning although he was tempted. Along with the birth narrative, therefore, the temptations make an important anti-docetic statement: Jesus was fully human and knew what it meant to be tempted [Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter's Bible, pp. 100-101]


It is difficult to know how to translate peirazo (4:2) and the more intensive ekpeirazo (4:13) -- "to test" or "to tempt".

The word is often used in the LXX of God testing people:

God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gn 22:1).

When God rained bread from heaven, God asked that they gather only enough for that day. "In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not" (Ex 16:4).

Why does God test people? Some OT answers:

Dt 13:3b: "for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul"

Dt 8:16: "to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good."

Dt 8:2-3 (v. 3 is quoted by Jesus in answer to the first "test"): "Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes form the mouth of the LORD."

Generally when teachers or driving instructors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the testees, but to help discover what they know and what they can do.

peirazo and ekpeirazo can also have negative connotations: "to tempt" or "to try and cause someone to make a mistake" or "to try and cause someone to sin"

At the same time that God is "testing" the strength of one's faithfulness, the "Tempter" may be "tempting" someone to sin.

Every other time peirazo/ekpeirazo are used in Luke, the tempters/testers are human beings: a lawyer (10:25) and part of a crowd (11:16).

I don't think that most of our temptations come from the devil, but from other people. The Greek, diabolos almost always translates the Hebrew "SaTaN" in the LXX. "SaTaN" means "adversary," which in the Hebrew scriptures are primarily other people, not supernatural beings. (However, Luke always uses "Satan" to refer to a supernatural being: 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3, 31.)

A temptation story from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York

The Evil Spirit once came dejected before God and wailed, "Almighty God -- I want you to know that I am bored -- bored to tears! I go around doing nothing all day long. There isn't a stitch of work for me to do!"

"I can't understand you," replied God. There's plenty of work to be done only you've got to have more initiative. Why don't you try to lead people into sin? That's your job!"

"Lead people into sin!" muttered the Evil Spirit contemptuously. "Why Lord, even before I can get a chance to say a blessed word to anyone he has already gone and sinned!"


Wherever it comes from, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something evil. Temptation is not coercion. The serpent in the garden can't make Eve and Adam eat the apple. The devil in our text can't make Jesus turn stones into bread. "To tempt" means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempters can't make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don't take away the will. Rather, they try to change one's will.

In my own experience, often when I sin, it is not usually a problem of knowledge. Many times I know what is good and bad. It is a problem of the will. I just want to do the bad; or there are times I just don't want to do the good. More often than not, it is not a question of ignorance -- of not knowing the difference between good and bad. It is a question of one's will or conviction -- what do I want to do and what will I do.

It is the responsibility of the parents and of the church not only to teach its baptized members the difference between right and wrong; but also to help motivate them to want to do the right thing. The devil (and much of society) is still around trying to make us want to do the wrong thing.

diabolos usually translated "Devil" literally means "the slanderer" or as an adjective: "slanderous". (This meaning is used in 1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim 3:3; Tit 2:3.) It is the word used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew SaTaN, which literally means "adversary". (Besides its use in our text, the only other occurrence in Luke is 8:12 -- the seed that fell on the path is taken away by the devil.)

The way Diabolos seeks to change our wills is by lying, by stretching the truth. Generally, Diabolos entices us not with great evils, but with good things for the wrong reasons. It could be argued that none of Jesus' temptations were to do anything grossly evil, but to do some good things, but for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time.

The Slanderer entices Jesus with good things -- perhaps even proper things for one who is the Son of God. NOTE: The "if" (Gk ei) may be translated "Since". The assumption is made (especially after the voice at his baptism and Luke's genealogy) that Jesus is the Son of God. Parallels might be made with "Since you are a Christian . . . ." or "Since we are a Christian congregation . . . ."

Temptations/testings put us in a battle of wills -- perhaps like the battles between parents and children, or between any two people. Children want to do what they want to do when they want to do it -- and sometimes their plans conflict with what parents want them to do. The same can happen between any two or more people.


What's demonic about these good requests? A general answer is given by Jesus' first quotation of scriptures, Dt 8:3. Luke has Jesus only quote the first part of the verse: "One does not live by bread alone." The passage goes on, "but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD."

A problem with all three temptations is that they come from a word other than God's. If Jesus does what the Slanderer asks -- even if they are very good things, he is then living by a word that is not coming out of the mouth of God.

I wonder how any minister or congregational leader (or Christian) can faithfully perform their duties if they are not steeped in the word of God. This might be a fitting way of connecting this text with last week's command, "Listen to him." If councils or committees are not studying scripture together, if they are not praying, if they are not listening, how can they know whose word they are living by? or leading the church by?


Jesus has been fasting for forty days. He is hungry. (Remember our text from a few weeks ago, "Blessed are the hungry." Jesus is one of them.) In the midst of his hunger, Jesus is tempted to take care of his own needs. A theme that I have presented with other passages is that Jesus is not primarily motivated by needs, neither his own or those of others, but by the Word of God (which frequently leads Jesus to care for human needs). Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is not to seek needs that we might fulfill, but to seek to live by the Word of God. Meeting human needs is certainly a very good thing to do; but can it not also be a temptation from the Slanderer to lead us away from God's Word?

I think that we frequently see temptations as doing bad things, as enticements to break the second table of the Law: to steal, to lie, to commit adultery, etc. These tests are attacks on the first table -- especially the first commandment. Can "doing good things for the needy" become another god whom we worship? whom we allow to run our lives? to lead to co-dependency, where the other person -- the needy one controls our lives, rather than God?


In the second temptation the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world "in a moment of time". This phrase about time is found only in Luke. (As I noted above, this is the third temptation in Matthew and it takes place on a high mountain.)

There are a few additions in Luke's account. According to Luke, the authority and the glory of the kingdoms of the world have been given to the devil, so he can give it to whomever he wishes."

Do the kingdoms of the world belong to the devil? Jesus doesn't question this assertion. Or is this just one of the Slanderers lies? It isn't worth Jesus' effort to argue with this liar. The devil will say anything to try and sway Jesus over to his side. The devil will make promises that he is powerless to keep. He is called the "father of lies" (Jn 8:44). I don't think that this passage can be used to support the demonic control of the world. As I said earlier, the devil can't make people act evilly, but is very good at enticing them to such deeds -- often with false promises.

Although Green (The Gospel of Luke) states: "... we have been led to believe that 'all the world' was under the charge of the roman emperor (2:1; 3:1). Now, however, in a way clearly parallel to the scenario painted in Revelation 13, we discover that the world of humanity is actually ruled by the devil" [p. 194].

Do we ever "sell our souls to the devil" in order to achieve good goals?

I wonder if sometimes our congregations' desires to be bigger and better might mean selling out to powers other than God. I recently read an essay called: "Shall we schedule a menu of worship services?" by Paul Bosch. He raises this question: "... is numerical growth an inherent good? Could it be that some growth is achieved at too high a cost: at the expense of faithfulness to the gospel and its welcome of diversity? Jesus, after all, did not urge 'success' on his followers; he urged faithfulness."

Whether or not he is right in his opposition to "a menu of worship services," I think that he does challenge us about the distinction between worldly success and kingdom faithfulness.

At the same time, Rick Warren states in The Purpose Driven Church that God not only wants faithfulness, but also fruitfulness. Perhaps an overemphasis on "faithfulness" without corresponding "fruit" is one of the devil's subtle lies.

This passage is a warning that what may seem to be good and right and proper for us as Christians and Christian congregations to pursue may be only a lie from the devil to entice us to sell out the gospel to some other words not from the mouth of God.

Jesus' response is almost a quote from Dt 6:13: "The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear."

The word for "worship" (proskyneo) also has the sense of "to bow down or fall down before". It refers both to body position and/or an attitude and activity of reverence or honor. Only the Lord our God deserves this honor. This word occurs only three times in Luke (14 times in Matthew). Twice in our text and following the ascension, the people worship Jesus and return to Jerusalem with great joy (24:52). How can the people worship Jesus if they are to worship only God? Perhaps for Luke this is a subtle way -- after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension -- of declaring that Jesus is God.

The word for "serve" (latreuo) means "to perform religious rites as part of worship" and it is translated "service" or "worship." It carries a different meaning than diakoneo and related terms, which refer to service one does for another person. While it is probably a stretch from our text, can one talk about "serving" our neighbors, without "performing religious rites as part of our worship" of God? Can we have proper "horizontal" service without "vertical" service?


Since Jesus is motivated by the Word of God, the Slanderer now seeks to entice Jesus with scripture. He quotes from Ps 91:11 & 12, which are part of the Psalm for this day.

Part of this test deals with the proper use of the Word of God. One may use it like the devil to seek to manipulate God. Rather than seeing it as promise, a gracious gift of God. When it is used to test God, it becomes an instrument of judgment, judging God and our own faithfulness. Note also that this temptation doesn't take place in the wilderness, but at the temple. Could there be temptations even in church?!?

The devil asks Jesus to prove his faith on the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus will not do that now -- neither will he do it later. The next time Jesus goes to the temple in Jerusalem, he throws out the sellers. 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 hurting his feet. They will not save him from an agonizing death.

Nearly every speaker I've heard with a handicapping condition has been told, "If you had enough faith, you would pray and God would heal you." As a child, I can remember praying, "God, if you really exist, then do this or that for me." We can turn the promises of God around to try and manipulate God. Rather than living by the Word of God, we seek to have God act according to our words.

Jesus' response from Dt 6:16 provides further understanding about this test. The entire verse reads: "Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah." In order to discover how they tested God at Massah (the Hebrew word for "test"), we need to look at Ex 17:7: "He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?'"

How do we know the Lord is among us? By believing God's word that God promises to be with us. Like in a marriage, as soon as one starts wondering or asking, "If you really love me, then . . . ." then one is no longer living by the marriage promise, but using it to manipulate the other. When we start looking for miracles to prove God's presence, we are not living by God's word. (This isn't to deny divine miracles or loving deeds by spouses, but when they are required to prove the promise of love, they becomes signs of unbelief in that word.)


synteleo ("to finish, to accomplish, to come to an end") is a word that occurs in vv. 2 & 13 as a type of "bookends" to this text. (These are the only two occurrences in Luke and it doesn't occur in the other temptation accounts.)

Especially if we use the definition of accomplish -- what did the forty days of fasting accomplish? Jesus was hungry. What did the period of testing accomplish? Jesus had "passed the test." He had proven his reliance solely on God and God's Word.

Later, Luke tells us that "Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot" before he went to the chief priests and officers how he might betray Jesus (22:3). This has been understood as the return of the devil to test Jesus. Satan is able to entice Judas to act according to Satan's wishes. Neither of the other synoptics indicate that Satan had a role in Judas' deed. He acts on his own volition.


Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) offers an anti-gnosticism approach to the temptation [emphasis in the original]:

Gnosticism, that is, believes that humans have fallen from a spiritual world that existed before the creation. We are now captives of a material world. But there is hope. God is within us! The uncreated is within us. The unfallen world is within us. Therefore, by a "solitary act of knowledge" (gnosis means knowledge) we can leave this material world and return to our rightful place among the gods.

The aim of [Harold] Bloom's book [The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation] is to show how the new American religions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are at heart gnostic. The major nineteenth century new religions in America were Mormon, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventism, Jehovah's Witness, and Pentecostalism. All are gnostic, proclaims Bloom. The cults that have sprung up among us in recent years are gnostic as well. Most of what passes for "spirituality" in the media today is also gnostic. Bloom's analysis of the gnostic tendencies of so much of what passes for "spirituality" today is essentially on target!

The single passage of Scripture that could be sued as a theme for a book on these religions and cults is Genesis 3:5: "... for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Gnostics of every time and every place count equality with God a thing to be grasped. God is within them, and all they need to do is to know this, and act upon this knowledge, and they will be reunited with the gods.

... Today's text is a very important bulwark against manifold forms of false spirituality! Jesus Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Counting equality with God a thing to be grasped is perhaps the fundamental human sin. We were not created to be gods. We were created to be human beings. We were created to live in obedience to God. Jesus demonstrates that obedience for us in the temptation story. As Risen Lord he takes our fallen humanity and restores it to full humanity. As Risen Lord he grants to our humanity eternal life. [pp. 58-59]


Frederick Buechner in The Hungering Dark, has a chapter called "The Calling of Voices." The thoughts in this chapter are based on Isaiah 6:1-6 -- the Call of Isaiah; and Matthew 4:4 -- "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." I offer some quotes. [Note: the book was originally written in 1969 before there was much concern about inclusive language.]

We can speak of a man choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation's choosing the man, of a call's being given and a man's hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing. A man's life is full of all sorts of voices calling him in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for? [p. 27]

The danger is that ... you listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status, and that if it is gladness you are after, you can save that for weekends. In fact one of the grimmer notions that we seem tin inherit from our Puritan forebears is that work is not even supposed to be glad but, rather, a kind of penance, a way of working off the guilt that you accumulate during the hours when you are not working.

The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else. [p. 29]

In John Marquand's novel "Point of No Return," for instance, after years of apple-polishing and bucking for promotion and dedicating all his energies to a single goal, Charlie Gray finally gets to be vice-president of the fancy little New York bank where he works; and then the terrible moment comes when he realizes that it is really not what he wanted after all, when the prize that he has spent his life trying to win suddenly turns to ashes in his hands. His promotion assures him and his family of all the security and standing that he has always sought, but Marquand leaves you with the feeling that maybe the best way Charlie Gray could have supported his family would have been by giving his life to the kind of work where he could have expressed himself and fulfilled himself in such a way as to become in himself, as a person, the kind of support they really needed.

There is also the moment in the Gospels where Jesus is portrayed as going into the wilderness for forty days and nights and being tempted there by the devil. And one of the ways that the devil tempts him is to wait until Jesus is very hungry from fasting and then to suggest that he simply turn the stones into bread and eat. Jesus answers, "Man shall not live by bread alone," and this just happens to be, among other things, true, and very close to the same truth that Charlie Gray comes to when he realizes too late that he was not made to live on status and salary alone but that something crucially important was missing from his life even though he was not sure what it was any more than, perhaps, Marquand himself was sure what it was.

There is nothing moralistic or sentimental about this truth. It means for us simply that we must be careful with our lives, for Christ's sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously. Everybody knows that. We need no one to tell it to us. Yet in another way perhaps we do always need to be told, because there is always the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is that we do not. We have only a life, and the choice of how we are going to live it must be our own choice, not one that we let the world make for us. ... [pp. 30-31]

Jesus is confronted with listening to the voice of the attractive promises of the devil or the voice of God. Don't we all face that dilemma daily?


Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) offers this reflection at the end of his comments on the text:

For modern readers, the problem with the temptation story is that it seems unreal, far removed from our experience. The devil does not appear to us and transport us from place to place. The temptations we experience are often not so clearly recognizable. The choice is not between good and bad but between bad and worse or good and better. We deal in "gray areas." and do not have the choice of rejecting "Mr. In-between." ... When does what is good for the corporate body outweigh the need of an individual? Which has the higher claim, the needs of the unemployed for a job or anti-pollution standards that protect the ecology but close down certain industries? Should the medical community allow fetal research or the use of fetal tissue to save one life at the expense of another? Where are the guiding words of Scripture for questions like these?

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. [p. 101]

Keith Nickle (Preaching the Gospel of Luke) concludes his comments on this text with these words:

Without trivializing the intensity of Jesus' wilderness encounter, it is nonetheless appropriate to point out that all Christians find themselves struggling with similar temptations to dilute the quality and even exchange the object of their commitment during the course of their pilgrimage. There are times when they too, in response to the call of God, are tempted to be satisfied with offering the adequate rather than the best that their disciplined service can offer ... or, having caught the vision, to succumb to impatience and seek to accomplish God's purposes by means alien to God's character ... or, to seek to coerce God by taking shortcuts to success. [p. 40]

I have seen it happen often in congregations: They strive for mediocrity and usually reach it. Is that succumbing to the temptation to give God less than our best?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901