Temptations in the Desert
Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13
We begin with three approaches to Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ temptations: the logistics, which have theological implications; the temptations themselves and their relevance to us ordinary mortals; and Jesus’ scriptural responses, which, taken in context, emphasize a certain theme. Then we’ll briefly note some parallel events and passages in scripture.
Logistics: The Devil’s Role
The King James Version (KJV) and the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) differ on key points, where Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness and his temptations are concerned. The KJV accounts raise some concerns.
First, in the KJV, Matthew says Jesus went to the wilderness “to be tempted of the devil” (4:1) — as if Jesus were seeking temptation. Perhaps we’re making too much of a translated phrase, but it can read this way to us.
Second, while Matthew has Jesus fasting for forty days, then being tempted, Luke has him being tempted for forty days. (Again, this may be a translation issue.)
Third, when the temptations come, in the KJV it’s the devil who takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple, then into a high mountain.
Joseph Smith revised these passages. Instead of going to the wilderness “to be tempted of the devil,” Jesus goes “to be with God” (JST Matthew 4:1). This is the forty-day period. When it ends, Jesus is hungry, and the devil comes (JST Matthew 4:2). Jesus’ means of transportation is different too: “Then Jesus was taken up into the holy city, and the Spirit setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple…. And again, Jesus was in the Spirit, and it taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain” (JST Matthew 4:5, 8). In each case the devil comes to meet him there, rather than taking him there.
Why does this matter? Because it’s important to know whom we worship. Jesus and Satan are not simply playing out their roles. They’re not buddies who hang out after work. Jesus does not allow Satan to be his travel agent, bus driver, and tour guide. It would be out of character and a dangerous example to us mortals.
Our own directive on this theme is from Moroni, in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon.
Come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing. (Moroni 10:30).
Shall we run with that metaphor? Sometimes we think it’s okay to flirt with the evil gift — to pick it up, heft it, maybe even shake it, as we imagine what wonders it might contain. In our weaker hours, we think we are strong enough to unwrap it, hold it up to see how it fits, maybe even try it on — but we’ll return it immediately, of course.
But Moroni didn’t say, “Don’t forget to return the evil gift before the return period expires.” He didn’t say, “Unwrap not” or “fondle not.” He said “touch not,” and with a little help from the JST, we have Jesus as an unambiguously good example of this.
Meaning — for Jesus and for Us
The First Temptation: turn stones to bread. Lucifer is insidious: “If thou be the Son of God….”
I’m not sure Jesus has here the insecurities the rest of us have about ourselves — after his forty days communing with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the desert, or even before that. So what would be for me a temptation to use divine power to prove to myself that I’m divine may be a different temptation for him. If nothing else, he’s hungry, and he certainly has the power to turn stones into bread. Would that be so wrong? Would it be wrong at all? His fast is over, and he has to eat. So why not?
Three reasons come to mind.
- No one who proposes to do good should do anything at Satan’s behest, even if it’s the right thing thing to do otherwise.
- This would arguably be a selfish use of power which should be used for unselfish purposes.
- There is more to mortal life than food — more than physical needs and physical pleasure.
Each of these may apply to our own temptations. And if we doubt God’s power or our own access to it — as Jesus probably did not — surely faith and patience are a better response than yielding to temptation.
The Second Temptation (or third, in Luke): Coming to Jesus high above the temple courtyard, the devil then repeats, “If thou be the Son God….” This time, the Lord’s temptation is to cast himself down – to jump from the highest point of the temple — and have angels bear him safely to the ground. This is the temple at Jerusalem; presumably, there would be a crowd to witness this wonder, and many would believe.
Again I doubt that this “if” works on Jesus as it would on us. But again there is more. Jesus will do many miracles, and many people will follow him. It’s right that they should follow him — but not this way.
In the days and years to come, his miracles will be in the service of others, not himself. And he will discourage as much as possible — including in these chapters — the sort of discipleship that is based on miracle. In his followers he wants the faith that begets miracles, not the misdirected, inferior, less durable faith which flows from miracles.
Our own lesson might be this: don’t demand signs, and don’t try to take shortcuts in our moral journey, no matter how compelling the marketing.
The Third Temptation (in Luke, the second) is even more dramatic. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time” — and Jesus can have it all right now, if he will fall down and worship his enemy.
And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. (KJV Luke 4:6).
Jesus is already the Lord Jehovah, the Creator of the earth. In that sense everything he sees is already his. Thousands of years hence, he will return to claim all that is his. (See Revelation 11:15.) But not yet.
Meanwhile, Satan’s claim of ownership is temporary at best, if not fraudulent. But even that is not the point. Some have thought that Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut, an easier road by far than the one he would otherwise walk on his way to becoming King of Kings. Such a counterfeit is certainly in character for Satan.
In any case, the point is that Jesus doesn’t — we don’t — accept gifts from the devil, even if they’re things to which we feel (or really are) entitled. We reject his counterfeit shortcuts. We touch not the evil gift.
Quoting Scripture to Satan
We should notice that Satan is adept at quoting scripture to make his points. Jesus’ responses are mostly scriptural too — and I think they’re more for the eventual audience, including us, than for Satan.
To the first temptation Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses is teaching the Israelites strict obedience to the commandments of God. He explains the Lord’s great care for his people, how he delivered them and fed them with manna for forty years. He is their God; they are to be his people. They are not only to obey him, but also to trust in him and his care, and not seek elsewhere for protection and sustenance — just as Jesus trusts in his Father at this moment.
1 All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers.
2 And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.
3 And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. (Deuteronomy 8:1-3)
Note the parallel between Israel’s forty years in the desert and Jesus’ forty days, just completed, in a different desert.
To the second temptation Jesus says, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,” quoting Deuteronomy 6:16. Here, too, we can learn from context. Moses was telling the people — again — to rely on God, as they had sometimes failed to do in the wilderness, and to remember how he had cared for them and delivered them, rather than tempting God with their complaints and lack of faith.
Satan wishes Jesus to test God rather than to trust him, which would be the opposite of faith — and of obedience, for that matter.
To the third temptation Jesus says, “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” He is probably quoting Deuteronomy 6:13 or 10:20, where again the Lord reminds Israel to serve him, obey him, rely on him, and “beware lest thou forget the Lord.” Jesus’ example is clear: he, unlike the children of Israel, will obey the Father in all things.
A Later Temptation
A few years later, at the end of his mortal life and ministry, in even more difficult circumstances, Jesus will hear the words “if thou be the Son of God” again, in a terrible temptation. It will come not from Satan’s mouth directly, but from his minions, as Jesus hangs in agony on the cross.
39 And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads,
40 And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.
41 Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said,
42 He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.
43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.
44 The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth. (Matthew 27:39-44; see also Psalm 22:7-8)
Among the Nephites
Mere days after suffering on the cross, the resurrected Jesus will appear to the Nephites in the Americas. In telling them who he is, he will include this insight: “I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning” (3 Nephi 11:11).
Jesus’ temptations come after his forty days of communion with his Father and the Holy Spirit. The third temptation (per Matthew) in particular calls to mind Moses’ experience.
(The Book of Moses is canonized scripture in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the Joseph Smith Translation of the first several chapters of Genesis, one of two pieces of the JST which the Church has canonized.)
After Moses “saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses,” and Moses beheld in vision “the world upon which he was created; … and the end thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created,” God withdrew, leaving Moses lying weakly on the ground. Hours later, when he regained his strength, Satan came, “tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me.”
Then this mortal, who had just seen God, said to Satan, “Where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” (See Moses 1:1-22 for the whole story.)
There is no record of Jesus similarly pointing out that Satan is a relatively dim bulb, but he could hardly miss the contrast, given the previous forty days.
Preaching in Galilee: Miracles, Multitudes, Enemies
To Capernaum: Matthew 4:12-25 and Luke 4:14-15
For the sake of chronology, we should note what happens between Jesus’ departure for Galilee and the preaching Matthew and Luke describe in these passages. Only John’s account, which we’ll examine next week, tells us of these intervening events:
- the miracle at the wedding in Cana (in Galilee), where Jesus turns water to wine;
- a brief visit, apparently without preaching, to Capernaum;
- Jesus’ journey back to the south, to Jerusalem for Passover;
- his clearing of the temple at Jerusalem;
- his teachings at the temple;
- his private conversation with Nicodemus;
- his subsequent teaching and baptizing in Judea; and
- his return to Galilee through Samaria, where he speaks to the woman at the well and lingers to teach the Samaritans for two days.
John notes (4:1), “Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John.” When Jesus learns that the Pharisees have heard this — and knowing that John has been imprisoned (Matthew 4:12) — he leaves Judea to return to Galilee, roughly 60 to 80 miles north of Jerusalem, with Samaria lying in between.
Leaving the vicinity of Jerusalem seems prudent. Jesus is proving to be a bigger disturbance than John — a greater, bolder provocation — so it’s time to put a few days’ journey between himself and the Jewish leaders.
(See the whole map.)
Luke says, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee” (4:14). Whether this means simply that he goes about Galilee preaching with power or, more dramatically, that he travels to Galilee by miraculous means, I do not know. In any case, some of his new disciples also go to Galilee. (Some of them, no doubt, are from Galilee, having themselves traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, and thus having seen him teaching at the temple.)
He seems to have gone through Nazareth (without preaching in his hometown), then travel to Capernaum, a fishing village at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. There he preaches repentance, saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand — as in among you, as in has come (Matthew 4:17).
Bethsaida, the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip, is not far away, also on the Sea of Galilee (which is also called the Lake of Gennesaret and the Sea of Tiberius). Matthew records that Jesus is walking by the sea, when he sees Peter and Andrew and calls them to follow him. Then he calls two more brothers, James and John, as well.
His fame grows quickly, and not just among Galileans. He preaches and works miracles all through Galilee. Luke records that Jesus teaches in synagogues and is “glorified of all” (4:15).
23 ¶ And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.
24 And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.
25 And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judæa, and from beyond Jordan. (Matthew 4:23-25)
Nazareth: Luke 4:16-30
Eventually Jesus returns home to Nazareth — this time, to preach.
16 ¶ And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. (Luke 4:16-21)
The common practice in the synagogue was stand to read a passage of scripture from a scroll, then return to one’s seat to comment on the reading. What Jesus reads is widely known among the people to be a Messianic prophecy (Isaiah 61:1-2). Given this, and what they have already heard of his teachings and miracles elsewhere, it is no wonder that “the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue [are] fastened on him” when he sits.
What he tells them next is unambiguous: He is the fulfillment of this prophecy. He is the promised Messiah.
Then he says, “Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country” (Luke 4:23). In other words, do for your own people what we’ve heard you have done for others.
His next words so anger them that they drag him from the city and plan to kill him, by throwing him from the top of the hill on which the city is built. (Spoiler: he escapes.) Here is the inflammatory passage:
25 But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land;
26 But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.
27 And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27)
Here he says that during the famine in the days of Elijah, many widows suffered in Israel, but the Lord sent Elijah to bless a widow elsewhere, in Phoenicia. And there were many lepers in Israel, but none of them was cleansed. Instead, the Lord (through Elijah) healed Naaman, a Syrian — an enemy, more or less.
Why should this move them to murderous rage? James E. Talmage writes:
Then great was their wrath. Did He dare to class them with Gentiles and lepers? Were they to be likened unto despised unbelievers, and that too by the son of the village carpenter, who had grown from childhood in their community? (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 13)
If I may take this personally for a moment, I too am sometimes easily offended at church, when someone, rightly or wrongly, tells me what I don’t want to hear — in this case, that I’m not as special as I think I am. I’ve never been moved to murderous rage, and I wouldn’t excuse it — or lesser negative responses — but to a limited degree I understand their displeasure.
Luke 4:31-44 and Luke 5:12-39
Jesus escapes Nazareth and continues preaching and working miracles elsewhere in Galilee, notably in Capernaum. Here are some of my favorite moments.
- “Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them” (Luke 4:40). This is countless miracles in a single verse; compare 3 Nephi 17:6-10.
- One sabbath meeting was so crowded that the friends of a man with palsy, who wanted Jesus to heal him, made a hole in the roof and lowered the man into the house, where Jesus was preaching (Luke 5:18-26).
- Jesus calls Levi, who is a publican — a collector of Roman taxes, serving the occupying force — to follow him, and Levi does. He must have been a prominent man locally, because he holds a great feast at his home and invites “a great company” of his colleagues and others, and Jesus too (as the guest of honor, I’m guessing). The scribes and Pharisees disapprove of Jesus associating with such rabble. Note that after his conversion, Levi is known as Matthew — the apostle and the author of the first Gospel. (Luke 5:27-32)
- Soon the scribes and Pharisees come with another complaint. The disciples of the Pharisees and of John fasted often and prayed a lot. Why is Jesus less ascetic? (Luke 5:33-29). See Talmage’s explanation of new wine and old bottles, in Chapter 14 of Jesus the Christ.
Jesus tells Peter and his crew to fish on the other side of their ship, after a fruitless day of work. Peter obeys, and the nets are filled to breaking, so they have to get help to handle all the fish. Peter recognizes the miracle and draws the obvious conclusion about Jesus. He kneels at Jesus’ feet and says, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:1-11).
He’s not being dramatic. He’s sincere. He has no illusions of his own worthiness before the Lord. How can we not love and admire humble, transparent Peter?
Peter, who will see Jesus walking on the water, and walk on the water himself to meet him, with a little help at the end.
Peter, who will see others offended and leaving the Master, and ask simply, where would we go? “Thou has the words of eternal life.”
Peter, who will one day recognize the resurrected Lord on the shore and plunge from his fishing boat into the water to meet him, not waiting for the boat to reach the shore?
Peter, who will thrice deny his master on that unspeakably awful night, then rise, repentant and forgiven, to lead the Church after Jesus departs — until finally he too is crucified?
Peter was an unguarded, eager, majestic soul. We should all do half so well.
Next week’s reading is John 2-4. Chronologically, it fits between Jesus’ return to Galilee after his temptations, and before he preaches at Capernaum and Nazareth.
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