‘The Temptations of Religion’ is the title of a brilliant book by Charles Davis, but I am now using this title to introduce Luke chapter 4, and the temptations of Jesus.
This chapter again shows how the Spirit is Luke’s focus.
It should not escape our notice that Jesus is said to be ‘filled with the holy Spirit’ and ‘was led by the Spirit into the desert, for forty days, to be tempted by the devil’.
After his baptism and the ‘launching’ of his mission, and as a deeply spirit-filled person, Jesus is tempted.
When preaching on this passage, I made the statement, ‘when you come close to God, you also come close to temptation’.
I am convinced that this is not simply an episode in the life of Jesus – as if it happened once and then he got over it. On the contrary, I think these temptations reflect dimensions of his life and ministry. They were always there. On any given day, they might be stronger or weaker, but they were always there. To choose another pathway is always an option. This implication is suggested also by verse 13, where the devil ‘departed from him for a time’ —suggesting ’till the next opportunity’.
I think the most powerful thing to say about these temptations is that they are real.
When you come close to God, that is precisely when the temptations become very real.
Jesus was really tempted. It is theologically very important to say that.
This is not a charade. This is not play-acting. The person Christians follow was not a puppet, not a
plaster saint. He was not a stooge. He was actually a red-blooded
person, with needs, and urges, and ambitions, and emotions which kept
him awake at night, and relationships which had him worried, and
temptations as real as any you or I can ever face. He had to make his
own decisions and choices:
And if that is not true, then he isn’t really much use to us.
If he was simply a holy stooge, with God up in heaven just pulling
all the strings, then his victory over sin was already guaranteed, and
he’s not much of an example, and not much of a saviour.
How can he help us?
But he really was tempted!
Another crucial thing to say about these temptations is that they are not necessarily between something good and something bad. The choices may be between good and better.
To be fed, and thus to engage in self-care, is not a bad option. Jesus chooses the highest priority.
‘Not by bread alone’ merits much reflection.
We live in a society, a community, but all the time it is called an economy, which defines everything in terms of bread. Even the environment, the life of the trees and rivers and the possibility that our grandchildren might not be able to breathe, all this is measured and debated in terms of bread—the economy. No, we have to work out what really matters, what is really important. There are a zillion temptations to define ourselves through lesser things.
The temptations are directly related to Jesus’ sense of mission. What is his life about? Whom will he serve? What will be his priorities?
A further thing to notice is that in the third temptation, Scripture is used by the tempter. Here let us simply note that the Bible can be so easily misused. Quoting scripture is no guarantee of wisdom or virtue.
Finally, I note that after this episode, Jesus returns to Galilee, and taught the people: and was praised by everyone. Surely another source of temptation!
But Luke quickly notes how this turns. The incident in Nazareth is the immediate demonstration of the issue in his temptations: you can’t define yourself by the people’s praise!
His manifesto for mission is derived from the reading from Isaiah 61, which sets out what the Spirit of the Lord wills to do. Here are the priorities of God’s way, and they are to be Jesus’ priorities, as Luke will show in many details, chapter by chapter. Liberation, sight, food, release, new life: the year of the Lord’s favour is here announced and declared.
More than that, Jesus puts his butt on the line: here and now, this is it. This scripture is fulfilled among you. This is my calling, he says: and by implication he is also calling them to be part of it, and to receive this mission and blessing also.
The good things of the Lord’s favour, announced in chapter 1, are now spelt out for these people in their situation.
But they will not see it. They refuse. They know this fellow, have seen him grow up, they know his mum and dad.
Why are they blind to this? Had they no insight at all, as he grew up, of his special calling?
Was he so ordinary?
Verse 23 is a provocative statement. He is basically saying: ‘You expected me to do wonders here (like I did in Capernaum), but I couldn’t, because I am not accepted here.’
Is he rejecting them or are they rejecting him?
What is the reason for his rejection by the locals? or is it a rejection of the locals?
They are ready to kill him!
It is hard to assess this story and its significance.
But it is impressive that he walks away.
He has the courage not to accept their assessment of him. He walks. He does not run. He knows who he is, so he can walk.
The Spirit of the Lord is this spirit of walking.