The temptations of Christ are recorded in three out of the four Gospels, so clearly they are meant to highlight a significant component of Jesus’ mission to save. But, despite their prominence in the Gospels, they have been subjected to a range of interpretations – some of which tend towards misinterpretation.
The most common misinterpretation – or at least one that manages to shift the main focus of this episode away from its central significance – is to regard Jesus as model of how to deal with temptation. So, when Satan tempts us to sin, like Jesus we should have a suitable arsenal of Bible verses at our fingertips with which to resist his overtures.
Although there is undoubtedly some truth in that approach, it fails to do justice to the passages that record this incident and the weight they attach to it. The Gospels present it as an integral part of what Jesus had to accomplish to secure redemption. Each Evangelist deals with the event from a slightly different angle, but with a view to highlighting the far-reaching import not only of what Christ was exposed to in his encounter with Satan, but what he actually proved and achieved through it all. Far from being forced into a defensive mode through the devil’s advances, he showed himself from the very outset to be the One God had promised to send to fulfil his promise to Adam in the protoevangelium (Ge 3.15).
Luke’s account in particular provides some penetrating insights into the way this episode in Jesus’ personal history becomes a vital component of redemptive history. A number of little details in particular bring this into focus for us.
Luke (in line with Matthew and Mark) points to the fact that Jesus went into the wilderness because the Holy Spirit led him (Lk 4.1), but he adds two significant details. The first is that Jesus was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’.
Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, has a special interest in the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Christ. From the moment and manner of his miraculous conception (1.35) through the source of the prophetic pronouncement by Zechariah (1.67) and the encounter with Simeon in the Temple (2.25-27), the Messianic promise of John the Baptist (3.16) and the graphic revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’ baptism (3.22), the Holy Spirit is intimately involved with the mission of Christ through all its stages.
So here, as Jesus is about to be led into the wilderness, for Luke to note that he was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (4.1) signals that he is about to face something of a different order than anything he has faced so far during his earthly life. More than that, the fact Luke glosses the preposition used by Matthew and Mark to say that Jesus was not merely led ‘into’ the desert by the Spirit (as though to be abandoned there) but, rather, was led ‘in’ the desert points to his ongoing support throughout the wilderness ordeal.
Another significant detail in Luke’s account is his choice of ‘the devil’ diabolos to identify the tempter (4.2). The name ‘devil’ carries the connotation of ‘slanderer’ and suggests that the evil one’s intent through this encounter was to discredit Jesus on the very threshold his mission and so sabotage the mission as a whole. The reference to Jesus’ being in the desert ‘for forty days’ in this context would also not have slipped the attention of a 1st Century reader of the Gospel – certainly not one who was familiar with the Hebrew Bible, as Theophilus, the first recipient of this Gospel almost certainly have been. The recurring references in the Old Testament to ‘forty’ periods of time – either days, years, or even the ten 40’s of the Egyptian captivity – almost always pointed to a significant chapter in God’s programme of redemption. So at the start of the most significant chapter of all in his redemptive programme, it is hardly surprising to see that marker being laid down once more.