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Luke 4:1-13 | Part One: Preparing to Minister

What is the ultimate test?

I suppose it depends on who you ask and when ask them. If you asked the Spartans of ancient Greece, the answer would probably have to do with a great feat of strength and stamina performed in battle with an opponent of equal or greater skill, such as the deeds of Leonidas and the small band of Greeks facing an army of seventy thousand Persians.

If you asked people who place great value on intellect or memory it could be something like understanding the greater laws theoretical physics, or the ability to solve complex mathematical equations. Maybe they think of more clever things to prove your logical skills, puzzles like 100 Green Eyed Dragons or George Boolos’ true-false-random puzzle? Or even someone like Akira Haraguchi memorizing the value of Pi to 111,700 digits of the infinite number?

Perhaps you could ask someone about great feats of discipline. “Zdenek Zahradka of the Czech Republic survived 10 days buried in a coffin underground with no food or water and only a breathing pipe connecting him to the outside world.”[1] How about Suresh Joachim watching television for almost seventy hours? Or stories of people meditating without food or water for between fifteen days and ten months?[2]

All these feats of the body, mind, and will are incredible to be sure. So, what is the ultimate test? Is it a test of mental skill and cleverness? Is it a great feat of strength and stamina? Is it a matter of will and self-discipline? Is it not commenting on the politically charged picture of a cat sitting in front of a fireplace?

How about facing your greatest adversary offering you everything that you could ever want? How about the offer coming after forty days of fasting in a rocky, sun blasted expanse of emptiness? I think this one might encompass a little of everything that we’ve talked about and it was recorded in our Scripture reading today by the writer of the Gospel of Luke. A lot can and has been said of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. It has been the stuff of theological discourse, modern literature, and several films. But what can this say to us, here, today?

At the time of the test, Jesus has just been filled with the Holy Spirit following his baptism (4:1). He is lead after this by the Spirit of God into an area called the wilderness. The idea of wilderness is not an uncommon one to the Jewish people. The wilderness trials of Jesus bear some resemblance to the wilderness trials of the Israelites as well as trials in the early church.[3] “Historically, the wilderness was the place where God met the Jewish people at Sinai after rescuing them from Egypt. In the wilderness God shaped them into God’s covenant people cared for and led by God with cloud and fire.”[4] The wilderness will be place of shaping and defining for Jesus as we will soon see.

Jesus is then put to a test. The word tempted is used in the Scripture, but the Greek meaning of the word implies a test,[5] more implicitly a choice: to do what is good and right or not. The test is presented as a conversation, one that bears a resemblance to the one that takes place in the Garden of Eden[6] which has led people to see the snake in Genesis account as the devil or adversary. This came in the form of questioning God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way,

From the time of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, every man is born with this question, which Satan put in Adam’s heart. That is the first question of all flesh: “Has God really said?”[7]

The questions/temptations are about the kind of ministry Jesus may of may not have: social, political, or religious. The real temptation is about what Jesus could do for good with each thing he is tempted with: feed the hungry, shelter and defend the oppressed, and prove that God is working with power among us.[8] “The story contains three moments of testing, and all have to do with the identity of Jesus as Son of God. What kind of Son of God is he? Or what kind of Son will he be? The title “Son of God” can be interpreted in various ways. In the ancient world a son represents his father, and in the Old Testament the king is sometimes called God’s son (Psalms 2:7; 89:26-27; 2 Samuel 7:14), meaning that he represents God on earth, and at best he is obedient to God.”[9]

The first test is for Jesus to use his authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires. He is starving after forty days of fasting. The hour of temptation finds Jesus weak, lonely, hungry, and left in isolation to face the test.[10] I don’t know about you, but when I’m hungry bread is at the very least, a requirement for the table. The adversary tempts him to turn rocks into bread rather than wait until the trial is over to rest and recovery. He is tempting Jesus to look to short term gain over long term goals. The truth is “People find it difficult to regulate their behavior according to long-term goals rather than short-term temptations—in other words, exert self-control…For instance, health-minded people may find themselves reaching for chocolate instead of an apple.”[11] Jesus is showing us that the long way around is worth it.

The second test is a direct appeal to the human desire for power. Jesus is offered the authority and glory of all the kingdoms of the world. For Jesus this was a temptation to embrace what many would have expected of him as the Messiah: political and military might and rule. Even among his disciples, the expectation was that he would rise up and take control of the Jewish destiny in his lifetime, a, expectation that I believe, led Judas to his rash actions. But Jesus sets aside temporal authority and says simply, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”

The third test is one of appealing to comfort and ease over mission. This temptation is one of a different path for the power Jesus has at his disposal, one leading to fame and riches rather than to service and the cross.[12] The adversary is enticing Jesus to use the power given him in the Spirit to make himself a famous prophet, priest, or anything else that he wants to be. It is a denial of the mission that Jesus was sent to fulfill.

…the temptation story is followed by Jesus’ announcement of the nature of his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue. The temptation story, as we will see, has as a primary point to show what Jesus is not going to do in his ministry. The Nazareth synagogue sermon then gives us the positive: Jesus will bring “good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… the oppressed go free… the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). Mary was told by the angel that Jesus was coming to establish his kingdom (1:33); thus what Jesus describes in the synagogue is the nature of his kingdom, the kingdom of God…His kingdom, of course, is not about the political rule of Israel but rather the reclamation by God of the entire fallen world.[13]

What we see in the testing is an attack on Jesus identity and mission. The temptations that Jesus is presented with are aimed at the heart of Jesus’ identity. Twice Jesus is tempted by having his identity called into question with the words “if you are the Son of God” followed by a challenge to prove this identity with some miraculous display (stone into bread (v. 3); a dramatic angelic rescue from death (vv. 9-11).[14] The second test is intended to undermine his identity, Son of God, by having him worship someone other than God. In either case, the attempt is made to have Jesus redefine who he is.

So, how did Jesus prepare to overcome the adversary and pass his test? He is filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism and is well versed in the teachings (Torah) of God. He knew the task at hand, and he stayed on task with what he was there to do. And the same applies to us. Our capacity to repent (turn toward God) and being strong in our times of testing comes from having a strong relationship with God – resting in the grace of his deliverance rather our own strength and initiative – and out of that, knowing our task from the Scriptures. In the testing of Jesus we see the things not to seek (personal greed, gluttony, power over others, self-gratification) and from the sermon following, the selfless things we should seek to live into (bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, helping the blind recover their sight, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor).

Big point: Learn the task; stay on task


References

Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies. New York: McMillan Publishing, 1959.

—. The Communion of Saints: A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

Brunner, Emil. Our Faith. New York: Scribner and Sons, 1954.

Craddock, Fred B. Luke – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Hultgren, Arland J. Commentary on Luke 4:1-13. 02 21, 2010. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=508 (accessed 01 28, 2018).

Reese, Ruth Anne. Commentary on Luke 4:1-13. 02 14, 2016. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2769 (accessed 01 28, 2018).

Schauf, Scott. Commentary on Luke 4:1-13. 02 17, 2013. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1574 (accessed 01 28, 2018).

Schelkle, Karl Hermann. Theology of the New Testament: The Rule of God – Church/Eschatology. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1978.

Stillman, Paul E., Danila Medvedev, and Melissa J. Ferguson. “Resisting Temptation: Tracking How Self-Control Conflicts Are Successfully Resolved in Real Time.” Psychological Science, 2017: 1-19.

Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Perennial Classics/HarperCollins, 2001.


[1] https://list25.com/25-most-insane-world-records/3/

[2] https://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/08/07/buddha-boy-goes-10-months-without-food-or-water-scientific-community-is-baffled/

[3] (Craddock 2009, p.54)

[4] (Reese 2016)

[5] (Arndt, et al. 2000)

[6] (Craddock 2009, p.56)

[7] (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies 1959, p.102)

[8] (Craddock 2009, p.56)

[9] (Hultgren 2010)

[10] (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies 1959, p.103)

[11] (Stillman, Medvedev and Ferguson 2017, p.1)

[12] (Schauf 2013)

[13] (Schauf 2013)

[14] (Reese 2016)

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