1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4, New Revised Standard Version).
Jesus has just been baptized by John. He is about to start his brief but singular public ministry.
To prepare him for this, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness (v. 1). The wilderness is a place where we are completely on our own. There is no one there to help when danger confronts us.
Worse, the Spirit leads Jesus into this place of complete vulnerability to be tempted by the devil (v. 1). The devil is Christ’s worst enemy and ours. If Jesus goes down here, the devil gets to control him, us, and all creation forever. At the same time, if Jesus resists these temptations—beginning now and through the moment of his death—then he decisively defeats the devil, frees us from his control, and brings about a whole new creation. The stakes are as high as they can be.
Jesus has gone without food for 40 days (v. 2). Jesus is radically tested by meeting his worst enemy in the most exposed of all places at his most vulnerable time. We will never face a greater temptation or more severe vulnerability than that faced by Jesus in our place and on our behalf.
Moreover, in these three temptations Jesus faced the three most basic forms of all temptations that he would encounter in his life. These are the same three we face each day.
The devil, that greatest of all deceivers, tempts Jesus to prove he is the one true god’s beloved son by turning a stone into bread (v. 3). The temptation? What matters more: Discerning and affirming a word from God or having enough to eat? More deeply, what matters more: truth or reality? The qualitative or the quantitative?
The devil believes that eating matters more. This has different implications. Personally, it means that if one is hungry, one may ignore the eighth commandment and steal. Societally, it means that the purpose of the economy is to raise the standard of living. It means that hearing and doing God’s word has no meaning before personal and societal needs are met. From the devil’s point of view, truth has no significance so long as reality remains unpleasant. The devil would always have us choose happiness over truth.
Unwittingly, Abraham Maslow’s influential hierarchy of needs agrees with the devil’s assessment. It identifies the satisfaction of physiological needs as primary. It places self-actualization fifth and last on the needs which we humans are motivated to satisfy. That’s as close as he gets to speaking of affirming God’s words as a need. Our intensely Olympian culture continues to agree with him.
Jesus reveals this to be a temptation by rejecting it. We otherwise wouldn’t discern it as one. He shows us that affirming our relationship with God through hearing and doing his words matters most. Truth trumps happiness. He affirms this again later by telling us that the greatest commandment is to love God wholly.
To avoid misunderstanding, we need to apply the paradoxical logic of the Chalcedonian Formula to this temptation. Accordingly, we want to both affirm God’s words and maintain physical vitality by eating rightly. We shouldn’t separate the two by thinking that we live solely by either God’s words or food. We shouldn’t confuse the two by thinking, for example, that raising the standard of living is the same as witnessing to God. Finally, we should keep both in the right order: God’s words come first in priority. God’s kingdom and his righteousness matter more than anything in and of this world which is passing away.
(Today we have been following the discussion by Jacques Ellul in his book The Ethics of Freedom [translated by Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans, 1976, pp. 52-55]).
Copyright © by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.