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  • Will Britt

The First Temptations of Christ

Among all the curious things about this story, which appears in some form in each of the synoptics, the one I want to think about here is the difference in the order of the temptations between Matthew’s version of the story and Luke’s, found in chapter 4 of their respective Gospels. After beginning with the temptation to procure food, Matthew turns directly to the holy city and the temptation to throw himself off the temple, while Luke places the temptation to immediate acquisition of the whole world in between these two. Why do they order these differently? What does it mean?

One kind of answer would be a matter of textual criticism, speculating about their source material, but that’s not the sort of answer I’m interested in here. Instead, I want to consider what difference the various ordering makes narratively and how that might fit into the immediate contexts of the two Gospels.

Both begin with the suggestion that Jesus turn stones to bread – a suggestion that is simultaneously quite humanizing and quite divinizing of Jesus, if we imagine ourselves in his place. He has been fasting for a long time (whatever the relevant complete amount of time was, signaled poetically by the “40 days” locution). And as he’s wandering through the wilderness, or (in light of his hunger) perhaps just sitting in the shade of a rock in the wilderness, he starts to ask himself strange questions. He knows he has power. (How much of his power he knows, I won’t speculate about, but he did just recently receive a baptism and confirmation by the prophet John, involving some kind of dramatic sign from the heavens.) What if he were simply to make the stones into bread? Some of them kind of look like loaves of bread already. It could be a worthy use of God’s power, like when the ravens fed Elijah in the wilderness, or when the manna arose on the earth for the Israelites. Why not?[1]

This mode of temptation—thoughts arising in us from who knows where, tied to basic human needs but wrapped in cultural signifiers and putting at stake how we are oriented to God—is of course quite experientially familiar. It is also the sort of thing a long tradition in the Church would ascribe to a kind of personal, malevolent force in the cosmos: the devil, the accuser, the satan, the one who lies and lies, especially about God’s care for us and our status in God’s eyes. Both versions of the story record that the first suggestion comes about in the context of the baptism story they both just told, in which God says, “This is my beloved son.” The satan calls that experience and that relationship into question, as did the snake in the garden of paradise: If you are the son of God…

So, why not make bread? Well, a central purpose of this fast/vision quest was to prepare for his mission, for being sent by God and needing to rely intensely on God through a difficult ministry. (Matthew notes that after this set of struggles, God sent messengers to minister to Jesus [v. 11]—presumably to feed him, among other things.) And Jesus realizes this at the time, shaped as he is by the Hebrew Scriptures: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.”[2] That word started with “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). It continued through the giving of the law, for the broad context of the passage Jesus quotes is Moses’ reinvocation of the Ten Commandments; that passage’s more immediate context (Dt. 8:2) is a retelling of the history of the Israelites exile in the wilderness for 40 years, “that he might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” Jesus thus places his own situation, his own testing, into the story of his people. And the word that proceeds from God is brought to maturity in Jesus himself, as John’s Gospel is at pains to demonstrate (Jn 1:14 and passim).

After this response, the two synoptic accounts in question diverge. Matthew seems to follow a kind of dialectical logic: well, then, if you are choosing to rely radically on God to take care of you, why not place yourself fully, dramatically in God’s hands, in a way that can be a sign for others, not just hidden away here in the wilderness? Whether we are to think of Jesus as literally standing atop the temple in a way that other visitors to the temple could have seen, arguing with something they could not see, I don’t know; it seems more likely that he is “taken away” (paralambanei) in imagination or in thought, as a logical extension of his reply to the first temptation. Either way, again the doubt about what God said is central here: If you are the son of God, throw yourself down; give God a place to show God’s glory.

Again, Jesus locates himself in the story of his people, quoting from the same speech of Moses in Deuteronomy, only a couple of chapters earlier: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Meribah.”[3] Here, the context is again the Israelites’ wilderness journey, when they “tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?’” (Ex. 17:7) In this case, they were looking for water, not food; we might imagine Jesus wandering the wilderness, seeking water, coming out on a high rock and seeing some far down below, with a long and arduous climb down to reach it. Why not, in this situation, just jump? You’re relying on God; God will protect you. Is the LORD with you, or not?

Sometime after Jesus again resolutely holds himself within the context of Moses’ call to remain loyal to God by obeying the commandments,[4] he finds himself on another high place, this one affording a view not of the holy city but of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Mt. 4:8). Here, it’s quite clear that the “showing” is in thought or imagination, since there is no such physical mountain vista. This time, too, there is no questioning whether he is God’s son; the accuser has given up that line of attack. But the dialectical move is to offer Jesus what Jesus has been promised precisely as God’s son—only without all the difficulty. Okay, you don’t want to put God to the test to come through on God’s promises. I understand. That would be disrespectful. Well, here’s the thing: God knows how to delegate. And God has given me authority over all this. So, there’s no need to bother putting God to the test, or even putting yourself to the test of walking the long and painful road of converting others; you could have it all right now! Just acknowledge my claim to it and give me my due worship, and I’ll give all of it to you.

This line of attack has an air of desperation about it. Maybe Matthew places it last in part because it’s a sort of all-in gamble. The stakes are now openly displayed: it’s clear what the satan wants (worship) and what’s on offer (what God has promised, but on a different timeline and painline). Jesus counters by moving a bit further back in the same speech from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only,”[5] only now he adds a preface that does not appear in Luke’s account: “Go away, Accuser!”

His quotation from Deuteronomy appeals to a context central to Israel’s identity: the shema reminds them that God is one, and the subsequent verses remind them that God’s name is Jealous, hence they should worship God alone.[6] This is ultimately what’s at stake in temptation: whom will we worship? To whom are we loyal? Jesus’ cards are now all on the table as well; he is on the side of God alone, and the accuser has nothing more to say to him. So, having opted for the long road of faithfulness, Jesus now identifies what Matthew had been calling the devil (diabolos) and the tempter (peirazōn) with the Hebrew satan and sends him away with what may be a pun: they are standing on a high place, and Matthew’s Greek for ‘go away’ (hupage) literally means ‘take yourself down.’

That choice of the long, painful road shows up directly afterward in Matthew’s account, and it may be another reason why he put the offering of the kingdoms of the world last. Jesus has apparently returned from the wilderness, but now he gets word that his cousin John has been arrested! He responds by withdrawing from the capital district into the politically less fraught area of Galilee, in the north. He’s not yet ready to be arrested himself; he first needs to train some followers and declare the power of God to heal, which are what the remainder of the chapter (4:17-25) is about. Chapters 5-7 will then detail the sermon on the mountain (another high place, though now on his own terms), which begins with the startling declaration that people like John, like the sick, and like himself in the wilderness are makarioi, blessed or happy—not because their situation is good, but because there is real hope that repentance can work.

We can see, then, some ways that Matthew’s ordering fits with his telling of the larger story. What about Luke’s version? Why does it switch around the last two temptations?

One reason may be that Luke’s closing to this part of the story says that the devil “left him until an opportune time,” a kairos. This ellipsis maintains a certain tension: we will see this character again. Presumably, we are to understand that kairos as the night Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the Romans, when he is in the garden of Gethsemane, on a different mountain (the one for growing olives), and instructs the disciples to pray that they not be tested, or “enter into temptation” (Lk. 22:40). This fits better with the question of putting God to the test.

Another reason might be that Luke, after beginning with the pressing problem of bread, just takes the remaining passages from Deuteronomy in chronological order.

But a third reason, and the one I find most compelling, is that Luke needs the suggestion to jump off a height to come last because his next story is about the people of Jesus’ hometown wanting to throw him off a cliff (4:29) when he declares the Year of Jubilee but combines it with the teaching that the kingdom is also for Gentiles (4:18-27).

Moreover, instead of Matthew’s strategy of closing the temptation story with Jesus telling the devil to go away and then moving rather quickly to Jesus’ major sermon (on a plain rather than a mountain, in Luke’s version [6:17ff]), Luke spends some time (4:15-6:11) showing Jesus’ authority to cast out demons, to teach, and to heal. These seem to be more general instances of his telling the devil to go away, and it would not be impossible even to see in them other opportune moments (kairoi), less central than the one in Gethsemane, of conflict between Jesus and the malevolent one who tries us by tormenting us or by prompting us to honor him rather than God.


[1] By the end of Luke’s Gospel, he will be doing something that looks mighty like turning himself into bread. See Luke 24:30-31.

[2] Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:16, partially quoted (minus the reminder of Meribah) in Matthew 4:7 (and Luke 4:12).

[4] Thereby choosing to become the temple that brings the heavens to earth, rather than to jump off of it.

[5] Matthew 4:10 and Deuteronomy 6:13.

[6] The “Hear, O Israel” (shema yisrael) is Deuteronomy 6:4. The passage about jealousy is 6:15, in between Jesus’ two quotations in the Gospel; it refers us back to Exodus 34.


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