In her interpretation of Luke 4:1-13 Kathleen Rushton discusses the biblical character diabolos and the temptations Jesus faced to abuse power and derail his ministry.
In the temptations of Jesus in Luke’s gospel (Lk 4:1-13) the character called “devil” (Greek diabolos; Hebrew satan) is one who tests loyalty to God. Usually loyalty testing is called “tempting” or “temptation.”
In Job (1:6) we find that diabolos was thought of as a being who was part of the heavenly court and who tested the trustworthiness of God’s faithful ones. By the time the gospels were written, people no longer thought of the diabolos as part of the heavenly court. The diabolos was understood to be an adversary or tempter who exposed the people to evil. The diabolos became the explanation for the evil impulse in the world.
The core of Jesus’ temptations is the enticement to abuse relationships — whakawhanaungatanga (right relationship) with Earth, people and God. The biblical text of the temptations of Jesus assists us now to reflect on the use and abuse of power in relationship with Earth, people and God.
Luke frames the temptations on one side with Jesus’ baptism when he is immersed in the waters, the womb of Earth (Lk 3:21), and his genealogy (Lk 3:23-38) and on the other, with the beginning of his teaching (Lk 4:14–30). According to the biblical scholar, John Pilch, the Mediterranean cultural world of Jesus held “a deeply rooted belief in spirits who exist in numbers too huge to count and whose major pastime is interfering capriciously in daily human life.” People depended on an array of amulets, formulas and symbols to ward off attacks from spirits. Luke writes the gospel story against this cultural background.
The highest honour is given to Jesus at his baptism when “a voice came from heaven” declaring: “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Lk 3:22). The genealogy of Jesus echoes “son of” to stress this divine testimony and concludes by identifying Jesus as “son of Adam, son of God.” Culturally such a declaration would have been important for the social and public acknowledgement of paternity. It gave a child legitimacy, social standing and required the father to accept responsibility for the child.
The voice from heaven not only acknowledges Jesus as “my Son” but continues: “with you I am well pleased.” Further, those hearing this story would know that all the spirits heard it too. Therefore a test should follow to see if it was true. Spirits would try to make Jesus do something displeasing to God.
The biblical context
Jesus is not protected by customary amulets. Instead he returned from the Jordan river “full of the Holy Spirit,” which is how Luke describes prophetic figures. Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit where for 40 days he was tempted by the diabolos.
Echoes of the symbolic biblical reality can be heard. The Greek word for “tested/tempted” is the same word used for the testing of the people by God in the wilderness of Zin for 40 years and for their testing of God (Exodus 16:4; 17:2; Deuteronomy 8:2).
Jesus engages in one-to-one dialogue with the diabolos. Both quote Scripture. Jesus replies to each temptation by quoting Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:13; 6:16). The diabolos quotes from Psalm 91:11–12 (used as the responsorial psalm for the First Sunday of Lent). The diabolos is the chief opponent along with his helpers, demons and unclean spirits, of a counter-reign to God’s basiliea (Lk 11:14–20).
Whakawhanaungatanga (right relationship) with creation
Jesus was probably in the Judean wilderness of Perea. Life was sustainable there for nomads and for settlements because food and water were available, though limited. The wilderness was also a place which enabled deeper encounter with the self and discovery of new purpose, when a person was freed from life in the “real world.” God was felt to be close in the wilderness. The diabolos tests Jesus at the level of physical hunger as he had eaten nothing for 40 days (Lk 4:2). The story begins and ends with references to “stone” (Lk 4:3, 11) which the diabolos tempts Jesus to use to prove his filial relationship with God. The challenge is direct: “If you are the Son of God ... change this stone into bread”.
Jesus refuses to use his power to change the Earth element, stone, and mimic the power of God to give “bread in the wilderness” (Exodus 16:14-21). Earth is to be cared for and respected, not manipulated and exploited. Jesus does not have to prove he is “Son of God.” He honours his genealogical connection as “son of Adam” so preserving the link in Genesis 2:7 between ādām from hādāma (from the earth/ground). In other words, he is an earthling from the earth, a groundling from the ground.
Whakawhanaungatanga (right relationship) with people
The location of the second temptation is unclear. The diabolos led Jesus “up” and showed him “all the kingdoms of the world (oikoumenē).” The word for “world” suggests the inhabited world, the whole household of Earth. “Up” may mean the traditionally known Mount of Temptation or Jebel Quruntul. You can see for miles from the top — the oasis city of Jericho, the oldest city on earth, with the Dead Sea to the south, then on the western skyline is the towering Mount of Olives and views of surrounding lands divided into kingdoms.
The diabolos promises that all this political and military control of humans, kingdoms and natural resources will be given to Jesus if he worships the diabolos. The word used for “worship” suggests the homage made to rulers in the East. Jesus refuses again.
Whakawhanaungatanga (right relationship) with God
The third temptation, which focuses on Jesus’ ability to force God’s protection, is at the Temple in Jerusalem — the place where Luke’s gospel begins and ends. It is the symbolic meeting place of Heaven and Earth.
The diabolos placed Jesus on its pinnacle (pterugion). The word means “wing” and evokes the wings of the eagle, an image of God’s care and protection (Deuteronomy 32:11). Above the entrance of the Temple were two symbolic eagle’s wings. However, shadows surround the Temple for it was reconstructed by Herod, exercising his power and exploitation during his massive programme of rebuilding of the city. The third temptation begins also with: “If you are the Son of God . . .” The diabolos refers again to a stone when quoting Psalm 91 on the protection of God.
The diabolos then departs “for a time” (Lk 4:13). Later in the gospel we find the threefold betrayal by Peter (Lk 22:54–62) and the threefold taunting of Jesus on the cross (Lk 23:35; 37, 39). But John the Baptist spoke of the “more powerful one” than himself (Lk 3:16). Jesus will speak of himself and his actions using similar words: that only a “more powerful one” or “one stronger” may cast out the evils God’s people face (Lk 11:22).
Reflecting on Whakawhanaungatanga during Lent
The wilderness of the 40 days of Lent, a time of closeness to God, offers us space to reflect on Jesus’ refusal to abuse power personally, structurally and ecologically. We might think about how we are tempted to exert control over the material world. How we are tempted to exert control over people. And how we are tempted to force God to protect us.