What exactly does Jesus resist when he stands against the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness? The history of the reception of this passage and its parallels offers a number of possible answers to this question. Chrysostom is representative of the fathers in seeing here a rejection of specific sins – gluttony, vain ambition and the desire for riches.1 Calvin charts a different course as an explicit correction of this exegetical tradition, taking the Devil’s offers as an attempt to provoke Jesus to doubt God, to rise up in rivalry against him, and to seize his gifts apart from him.2 Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov famously perceives in Christ a refusal to adopt a tactic of coercion whereby allegiance would be forced through an irrefutable display of miracle, spectacle, and power, and instead a commitment to the preservation of human freedom. These readings ought not to be dismissed out of hand; yet what none of them seems explicitly to reflect (with the one possible exception being Calvin’s reading) is the extent to which it is Jesus’ sonship that is at stake in the wilderness (‘If you are the Son of God…). Here we might offer another answer to the question of what Jesus rejects that seeks to take this into account, specifically by reading the temptation narrative in the light of what immediately precedes it – the account of Jesus’ baptism.
In Jesus’ baptism, a paradox is revealed to be lying at the heart of his identity and task, and it is a paradox of sonship.
On the one hand, at the Jordan, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is publically manifested – he is the one who stands in unique relationship to the Father, and who comes as his king and judge.3 On the other hand, it is also revealed that this sonship doesn’t secure for Jesus a path of ease and comfort; on the contrary, it calls him to the work of suffering in the place of his people. This is made clear both by the second half of the heavenly announcement of Lk. 3:22, with its allusion to the servant song of Isaiah 42, and by the action of the baptism itself, in which Jesus the judge adopts the posture of a sinful and repentant Israelite, and so stands in solidarity with the judged. Jesus’ sonship, then, far from promising him the earthly career that one might expect for so exalted a figure, delivers him into its opposite; his will not be an impervious life marked by an immediacy of glory, but rather one of weakness and affliction in the self-giving service of his own.
With this in mind, the Devil’s temptations that follow may be seen as each offering Jesus an alternative way of being the Son to that revealed in his baptism. We may take each temptation in turn, to see how this is so. The first temptation, to turn a stone into bread, invites Jesus to prove his sonship, not simply by performing a mighty deed, but one that will do away with his own hunger and lack – for surely, if he is God’s Son, God wouldn’t let him starve?4 The second temptation, proposing universal sovereignty in exchange for a shift in Jesus’ allegiance, offers him something that the Father has, in fact, already promised his Son,5 but offers it now, with no expectation that the path by which the Father has determined the Kingdom will come – the path of rejection and crucifixion – need be trod. The third temptation, to put God to the test, goads Jesus in a way similar to the first to evidence his sonship through a demonstration of an automatic divine protection that will spare him harm in all circumstances. Each temptation, then, coaxes Jesus to act on the basis of a very different vision of what it means to be the Son of God to that which has been revealed and embodied in his baptism – one which doesn’t direct him into the passion for the sake of his people and commit him to trusting God through it, but instead spares him such things, proffering entitlement, safety and suffering-free glory.
Jesus, of course, resists these temptations through God’s word. In doing so, he reaffirms that vocation which, though manifested in his baptism, is grounded in the depths of eternity; his “No” to the Devil is in fact a “Yes” to the Father, and in this he triumphs over the one who would turn him from the Father’s course. This triumph, however, is not so much for himself, as for us; and it is such in at least two ways.
Firstly, as is often noted, Jesus triumphs for us in that the battle he wins is one that had previously been lost – by Adam, by Israel, and with them, by all of us. Luke tells the story of the temptations expressly to show that where those ‘sons of God’ failed,6 here the true Son of God – the true Adam, the true Israel – resists temptation, refuses to yield to sin and to Satan, and so undoes the knot that we had tied.
Secondly, Jesus triumphs for us in that his refusal to turn from suffering is a refusal to turn from the path by which he will redeem us. Jesus suffering isn’t, of course, something arbitrary that the Father has set upon him; it is the means of our salvation. This is how Jesus will bring not only himself, but us with him into his kingdom – by refusing to insist that his sonship ought to afford and preserve him certain rights and privileges, and instead committing to relinquish such things for us. Therefore, when Jesus says “No” to the devil in the wilderness, he says “Yes” to God, but as such he also says “Yes” to us. Jesus will not abandon the way of the cross, because he will not abandon us. He will not be Son simply for himself; no matter the cost, he refuses to be king without his people.
1 Homilies on Matthew
2 See the comments on Luke 4:1-13 in the Harmony of the Evangelists
4 Notice that in Luke’s account, it is specifically one loaf that Jesus is tempted to produce – in contrast to the later miracle of the loaves and fishes, this would be a purely self-serving act.
5 Pss. 2:7-8; Lk. 1:32-33
6 Exod. 4:22-23; Lk. 3:38