Commentary on Luke 4:1-13
As Christians begin Lent, Luke 4:1-13 reminds us of the premise and power of following the Spirit in the wilderness for a forty-day journey. An aspect of this passage that has always struck me is what (or better who) led Jesus into the wilderness. It is the Spirit.
That, at first, could seem strange. One could wonder why the Spirit would fill Jesus and lead him into the wilderness. That is where he, under duress, would be tempted by the Diabolic One (ho diabolos). Yet, in Luke and its companion volume, Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit fills people and leads them into trials, uncertainties, and wildernesses. For example, in Luke 1:41, John the Baptist in the womb of his mother Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. By Luke 3, John is in the wilderness critiquing Roman tax-collectors, military personnel, and Herod. His critique gets him prosecuted. In Luke 4, the Spirit that had filled John and overshadowed Mary (Luke 1:35) descended on Jesus (Luke 3:22), and now it leads him into the wilderness.
By the time Jesus leaves the wilderness, he returns to Galilee in the power (dunamis) of the Spirit (Luke 4:14). In Jesus’ exchange with the Diabolic One, we can glean how he navigates the wilderness successfully and with true power. Each of the three trials that the Diabolic One presents raises a question about power: Jesus’, the Diabolic One’s, and ultimately God’s.
Confidently meandering with the Spirit: Jesus’ power (Luke 4:1-4)
In the first of the Diabolic One’s three trials, he asserts to Jesus that if he is the Son of God, he should transform a stone into bread. The Diabolic One, the consummate trickster, takes advantage of Jesus’ hunger. He provokes Jesus to summon divine authority for his personal cravings. After all, that is what emperors like Augustus or his adopted son Tiberius, named in Luke 3:1, would do. They too claimed to be the son of god. Such a claim granted them authority and access to whatever resources they desired. They could demand grain from Egypt or extract taxes from their provinces through military might. Their words carried the power of life and death over their subjects. Hence, if they had the power to transform a stone into bread to satiate their hunger, they would. But Jesus is not that kind of self-serving son of God.
Jesus responds by quoting the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:3)—the law of the God of Israel—essentially stating that a human’s life is more than its cravings. Jesus quotes the Torah to assert that humans are not solely responsible for their own well-being. Humans should lean into the Spirit’s leading—even in uncertain circumstances. They should learn from the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for forty years. During those uncertain times, their lack did not hinder God’s provision. Not knowing what came next unlocked God’s “what is this?” (manna; Exodus 16) that nourished them for forty years. The Spirit, like the pillar of cloud and fire, leads to God’s uncommon provision. This aligns with what Jesus would say later in Luke 12:15 that “life is more than an abundance of possessions.” Jesus’ power was rooted in confidently following the Spirit into the unknown.
Correcting miscalculated solutions: The Diabolic One’s power (Luke 4:5-8)
In the second of the Diabolic One’s trials, he claims that he can give Jesus authority (exousia) and fame (doxa) over the kingdoms of the inhabited world (oikoumenē). Another way to translate oikoumenē is Roman Empire. The Diabolic One offers Jesus prestige within the empire that John the Baptist critiqued. His requirement is that Jesus worship him. The Diabolic One exaggerates his power and Jesus calls his bluff through quoting the Torah again. Jesus asserts that the Lord (kurios) is the only one to be worshipped (Deuteronomy 6:13).
Many debate what Luke means by the Diabolic One having received the kingdoms and whether such a statement is true. Even if it is true, these kingdoms that he has been given ultimately belong to the Lord, the Owner or kurios of everything. This is true even under the Roman Empire, where the emperor was celebrated as the lord.
Jesus declares that the power that the Diabolic One and the emperor think they have is limited. Their fame and authority are not priorities for Jesus, because he answers to a higher authority. Jesus recognizes that if attaining fame requires becoming a servant to the Diabolic One, the cost is too high. If pursuing prestige requires ignoring the eternal Owner of all, then that prominence will last as long as the instant (stigmē) in which the Diabolic One showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the Roman Empire (Luke 4:5). Jesus rejects the Diabolic One’s offer, because the Diabolic One has miscalculated his power and does not recognize that there is no price on Jesus’ loyalty.
Countering misuse of Scripture: God’s power (Luke 4:9-13)
The Diabolic One in his third trial quotes passages from the Psalms. Perhaps this is his response to Jesus quoting from the Hebrew Bible to counter his earlier propositions. The Diabolic One weaves together two psalms to convince Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the Jerusalem Temple. He suggests that God’s angels would protect Jesus from harm. Jesus counters him again with a passage from the Torah. The passage from Deuteronomy 6:16 that he quotes recalls when Yahweh provided water from a rock for the complaining Israelites. They had angered Yahweh (the Owner, the Lord, kurios) because according to Exodus 17:7 at Massah they queried “Is Yahweh among us or not?”
Hence, in this trial the Diabolic One attempts to get Jesus to put God on trial. Jesus’ response insinuates that the Scriptures should not be used to cast doubt on God’s presence with God’s people. They should not be used for a game of “gotcha” nor should they be recited to serve selfish interests. Instead, the Scriptures are reminders of God’s powerful presence with God’s people even in the wilderness. There the Spirit leads them to resist the allures of the Diabolic One and empire.
- Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “Luke,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary ed. Brian Blount et. al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).
- Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).
- Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991).