Midrashic Reading and the Temptation of Christ in Luke (Power and Authority)

One of the most famous stories in the Gospels is Satan’s testing of Christ in the wilderness (Luke 4.1–13).
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from his baptism at the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, so when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.”
So the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, this will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”
So the devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time (Luke 4.1–13).

In my last post, I noted that this story sticks in our minds because it reminds us of other stories that we know almost as well. Even if we can’t verbalize the exact story or passage, we probably recognize the elements. We hear their echoes in other biblical stories, and we know the concepts because they occur throughout the gospel of Luke. And that, as we said yesterday, is exactly the point: this temptation is symbolic of all temptations because all temptations come from Satan.
“Yeah, I know I don’t really look like a dragon.
I’m quilted into a tapestry. Do you want the stupid staff or not?”
-Satan (probably)

Satan had failed to entice Jesus the first time and not many had refused his offers before. But he was not done. Satan takes Jesus high up, in a moment in time, and shows all of his realms. And while there, surveying the world that Jesus had come to save, Satan offers to give it up, by his own free will, without contest or battle. Jesus would take Satan’s position as ruler of the kingdoms of the world. And make no mistake, although God had given dominion over the world to the first Adam (Gen1.26–30) when sin entered the world it and its kingdoms fell under Satan’s sway. Jesus himself recognizes’ Satan’s position and authority, calling him twice the “ruler of this world” (John 12.3114.30). And as the ruler of this world, we feel the devil’s touch through its worldly rulers—the Pharaohs and Herods; the Senacheribs and Nebuchadnezzars; the Antiochuses and Neros—all of whom stand opposed to the people of God, bent on working the will of the Enemy. Let us not forget that Revelation 13’s “Beast of the Sea” represents earthly power opposed to God’s people (Rev 13.1), but it received its “power and authority” from the Dragon (13.2); the same Dragon that is the “ancient serpent, called the devil and Satan” (12.9).

Here, at last, Christ, the Second Adam, can recover the dominion lost to Satan by the First Adam when he took of the forbidden fruit. And these kingdoms are the Messiah’s right:


Why do the nations rage? 
Why do the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves,
the rulers take counsel together? 
All against the LORD
And against his Christ! (Psa 2.1–2)

It is as though Satan says, “And what, really does it cost? A quick nod of the head? A bend of the knee? What is a little obeisance in comparison to what can be gained. Your own Father had asked more of Abraham and had promised less! Worship me, and all of this will be yours for free.”
What was at stake, of course, was not just a nod of the head or a bend of the knee, but a deal with the devil. What Satan wanted was Jesus to give up his mission. Because although all of the kingdoms of the world belonged to the Devil, Jesus had not truly come to create a worldly kingdom. His mission was the preach the kingdom of God. For, as he says at the end of this chapter, “I was sent for this purpose” (4.43). The good news—the gospel—that he comes to preach is that of the kingdom, offering its riches and its citizenship to those whom the kingdoms of the world had abandoned: the poor, the weak, the humble (6.20). Had Jesus accepted Satan’s offer, he would have been the one who put his hand to the plow, but looked back, no longer fit for the kingdom he preached (9.62). Just as if he had turned the stone to bread he could not have taught his disciples to pray “give us this day enough bread for today,” if he had accepted the kingdoms of Satan he could not have taught them to say “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (11.2), because he would not have waited for the appropriate time for the kingdom to come, but grasped it here and now and without suffering.
Because this authority would not have been given by Father but grasped from him. The authority that, at the end of this chapter, had astounded those who heard his teaching (4.32) would have come from Satan. And later, when he had authority to cast out unclean spirits (4.36), his accusers would have been right to say that it had come from Beelzebub (11.17–20). And he may have had authority over the princes of this world, but he would no longer have had the authority to forgive sins, and to tell the paralyzed man to “pick up your bed and go” (5.24). Just as a Jesus who had turned the stones to bread could not have sent out his disciples without staff nor bag nor money nor bread (9.3).
And what Satan offered Jesus wasn’t just authority, but glory. Christ had been with God in glory before he came to the world (Phil 2), and it was to glory that longed to return, the glory that was his due as the Son of Man, coming on the clouds (Luke 21.27). What if it was not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things before entering into his glory? (24.26)? What if he could return to the Father, but without the dangers of the Cross? As Phil Roberts said, Satan “offered Jesus the spoils without the war” (Leaving a Mark, 110). And this temptation is not present only here. It is this temptation that plagues Jesus throughout his ministry. It is why he tells Peter to “get behind me Satan,” and it is this temptation that he asks in the Garden for God to remove from him. But, as in Gethsemane, here he responds: “Not my will, but God’s will be done.”
You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve (Dtr 6.13).
“The temptation is one that we ourselves should readily recognize: the belief that we somehow can receive the glory of the kingdom of Christ without sharing in his sufferings” (Roberts, 111).

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

One thought on “Midrashic Reading and the Temptation of Christ in Luke (Power and Authority)

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