Embodied in flesh, Jesus was not completely exempt from the temptations of corporeal existence as highlighted in Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. In this text, I will examine the temptation story found in Luke (4:1-13). My exegesis is shaped by my social location. I am an African-American, middle-class, college-educated, Latter-day Saint woman. I use the Bible to examine the character of God, Jesus and the Spirit as well as the scriptures themselves, in an effort to combat social injustice and to promote wellness and understanding among oppressed populations. Using the themes found in Lucan theology, the temptation story suggests that not even the most powerful are free from temptation. This is revealed through highlighting the character of Jesus and the nature of disobedience and disbelief, as manifested through the devil, in relation to the human condition.

The beginning of Luke begins with an introduction containing the purpose of this particular gospel. However, in a closer examination of the text by paralleling the aforementioned passages to the latter passages, a discrepancy in theological themes is revealed. As noted by Joseph Fitzmeyer, the Lucan author focuses on the key points of Jerusalem as the center for salvation, the appearance of salvation in history through Jesus the Christ (aptly titled “salvation history”) and the depiction of Jesus’s mission as a course or way.[1] We see the latter in the predestination of John the Baptist to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17) and is further expounded upon in 7:27 when he is said to have been sent to prepare your way. Fitzmeyer designates this “way” as eisodos, “entrance” and exodos, “departure” of Jesus the Christ, highlighting its significance in the history contained in the biblical narrative.[2] Using the Lucan theme of Jesus the Christ’s mission as a journey, an initial analysis of the Gospel of Luke proposes the transition of a student growing into the role of a teacher. This is suggested by the unfolding of events in relation to Jesus the Christ’s progression towards the Passion and the importance of Jesus’s role as both son and Son of God. An involved transformation, it is a process that occurs over a period of time, such is the case with Jesus the Christ’s journey from Galilee to the temple in Jerusalem.  There are important and necessary steps that are essential to this development and must be worked out so that the growth that takes place with the progression is sustainable.  Such is the case and the process described by the author of Luke concerning the birth, mission and ministry of Jesus the Christ. This process, as shown in Luke 4:1-13, can be broken down into 3 periods. The first is the call to ministry through the prophesy concerning the birth of Jesus. The call begins with Jesus’ birth being foretold (1:26-38).  This pronouncement is fulfilled during the birth of Jesus.  His birth and appointment is divine in origin as indicated by Gabriel presenting himself to Mary and declaring the position her unborn son would ascertain in his lifetime (Luke 1:28-33). The second theme is preparation for what seems to be an aspect of Jesus’s mission, conquering death. The first section of this preparation leads the reader from his circumcision to his interactions with the devil while he was in the wilderness (4:1-13). The circumcision[3], Jesus’ baptism and listing of Jesus’s lineage (3:23-38) symbolizes his connection to the people of Israel reaffirms his spiritual authority and authority as an heir to King David’s crown, respectively. This leads to a series of tests (4:1-13) to prepare Jesus for ministering to the Jews and eventually, the Gentiles.  The second portion of his preparation takes Jesus from Galilee (4:14) to Perea (13:22), leading to his final ministry in Jerusalem right before his crucifixion (21:38). In 24:15, Jesus reveals himself among some of his disciples and thus, the reader is introduced to the third theme, mastery, in which Jesus conquers death through resurrection, exaltation and ascension.

Hans Conzelmann offers another demarcation of the Lucan narrative, based on a tri-divisional framework. The first category he notes is the period of Israel. This age, signaled by the creation in Genesis ends with the appearance of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5 – 3:1). It is distinguished as a time of the issuance of Mosaic law and time of the prophets. The second category is the period of Jesus, from his baptism to his ascension (Lk 3:2 – 24:21). The third, period of the Church, extends from the end of Luke (24:52) into Acts (1:3 – 28:21).[4]

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus the Christ is led into the wilderness by the Spirit sometime after his baptism in the Jordan River (4:1). It was then that he was approached by the devil and tempted for a period of 40 days (4:2). Unlike Matthew and Mark, the author of Luke often refers to Jesus as Christos, or Messiah, however, this descriptor is absent from the text, suggesting that while Jesus the Christ is named the Son of God by the devil, he is to face this temptation in his corporeal form as son.[5] In these exchanges with the devil, the faith and obedience of Jesus are tested and he responds with references to Old Testament scriptures (4:3-12) confirming his allegiance to God.

Before Jesus is led to the wilderness by the Spirit, Luke 3 introduces the reader to John and his call for people to be baptized. His efforts take him throughout the region of the Jordan River (Luke 3:3). The act of being baptized is presented as a way to show change in one’s actions and heart and to receive forgiveness from God for their sins (3:3). The reader is then presented with the usage of hodos, “way”, found in the Lucan narrative. Prompted by hearing God’s word, the purpose of John’s work is to “prepare the way for the Lord” (3:4) as written by Isaiah the prophet (Isa 40:3).  A crowd comes to John to be baptized and he questions their intentions (3:7). In his exchange with the crowds, John alludes to the actions necessary to be baptized (3:8-14). The people mistake John for the Christ and he explains to them the difference between the baptisms he performs and the baptism that is only to be performed by Jesus (3:15-17). Here we see a shift between the baptism for repentance (see Matthew 3:11) and the baptism for salvation, established by Jesus’s arrival. It is in this we see that repentance was a necessary step to make in order to accept the concept of salvation. After John is imprisoned by Herod, Jesus is then baptized (3:21-22). In other versions of the narrative, it is assumed that John baptized Jesus (see Mark 1:9) however Luke’s version diverts from this as he does not indicate who baptizes Jesus.  Luke 3 concludes with an approximation that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.  Luke then provides the genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38). The significance of this passage is highlighted in the connections it makes to humanity (his corporeal kingship in relation to David) and ultimately, God (through Adam).

Following the temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins to teach in the synagogues (5:14-15). During a particular visit to the synagogue, he is given a scroll to read from Isaiah (5:16). The passage details his mission as a prophet (5:18-19). The attendants are in awe of Jesus and proclaim him as “Joseph’s Son” which prompts Jesus to take the discussion in an alternate direction (5:22). Insight into why Jesus may have taken this sudden turn in attitude towards the attendants can be found in the use of the phrase “Joseph’s Son” denoting his human origins. The attention paid to this particular aspect of Jesus’s existence can lead one to speculate that Jesus became skeptical of their faith. This is highlighted in detail in his response as he begins speak to the attendants in the synagogue about healing those who are not in his hometown. Jesus refers to Elisha and Elijah and those who were healed because of their faith (5:23-27). This angers the attendants and they proceed in trying to murder Jesus by throwing him from a cliff, but he is able to slip away (5:28-30).

The temptation story in Luke is a pronouncement story as well as a story about Jesus. [6] More specifically, this argumentation, as described by Bailey and Vander Brock, is a “conflict” narrative as Jesus is pitted against disbelief and disobedience via the devil. [7] This passage exhibits Jesus’ character in 4 sets of interactions with the devil. In these exchanges between Jesus and the devil, a structure emerges, organized in an “A”, “B” and “C” pattern. In analyzing and dividing the passage, “A” verses describe the presence of the devil, whether the devil is entering or departing (4:1-2, 13). “B” verses can be described as a specific temptation by the devil tailored to a specific circumstance or setting facing Jesus (4:3, 5-7, 9-11).  “C” verses are presented as Jesus’ response. Throughout the “C” verses, Jesus readily references Old Testament scriptures (4:4, 8, 9) to connect previously prophesied events with what seems to indicate his mission. The structure in Luke 4:1-13 appears as follows:

A 4:1-2 The devil approaches Jesus.
B  4:3 The devil commands Jesus to turn a stone to bread.
C  4:4 Jesus replies that bread is not enough to live by. (Deut. 8:3)
B  4:5-7 The devil leads Jesus to a high point in the land and offers him dominion over it.
C  4:8 Jesus replies that one is only to serve God. (Deut. 6:14)
B  4:9-11 The devil asks Jesus to throw himself from where they were, as God would send angels to save him.
C  4:12 Jesus says not to test God. (Deut 6:16)
A  4:13 The devil departs.

In Luke 4:1-13, the dialogue between Jesus and the devil is presented in a series of opposing statements. The key polarities that appear in this passage is faith/disbelief and order/disorder from which minor polarities such as corporeal desires/spiritual necessities and submission to God/submission to the devil are based. From these, faith, order, spiritual necessities and submission to God are privileged. Throughout the passage, Jesus counters the devil’s attempts to test his faith in God with pronouncements referencing the gratification that cannot be sustained by bread alone[8], only serving God and a statement that he is not to test God. The devil in this passage is challenging order, particularly in verse 9. As Howard Thurman notes, we live in an “orderly world”.[9] The logic implied in the text is that if he were to jump, it’s possible that he could die. Not only do the requests by the devil challenge the authority of God but also his mortality of his physical body.

(In the temptation story found in Matthew 4:1-11, the sequence of events differs from the sequence found in Luke. In Matthew, the events are presented as the request for Jesus to turn the stone to bread, the request for Jesus to throw himself from where they were and lastly, the devil offering Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. This passage ends with angels coming to care for Jesus after the devil leaves. The offer by the devil to give Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world appears second in the temptation story as told by the author of Luke, followed by the request by the devil to throw himself from where they were. This passage ends with the devil leaving Jesus and the possibility that the devil may return at another time. As Fitzmeyer records the preoccupation of the author of Luke with Jerusalem, it is most likely possible that the temptation in Matthew unfolds in the correct sequence of events.)

An exposition of the passage would be broken into 3 parts: The introduction into the wilderness (4:1), the dialogue between Jesus and the devil (4:3 – 4:12) and lastly, the devil’s departure (4:13). Jesus is first led into the wilderness to begin his 40 day fast. As shared by Fearghus O Fearghail, the theme of the Spirit is highlighted in the Lucan narratives (3:22, 4:1, 10:21).[10] The presence of the Spirit often coincides with the transition from one state to the next. One example is the presence of the Spirit with Jesus in 3:22 after his baptism before he is into wilderness. We see the Spirit appear again in Acts 10:38, where Jesus is referred to not only by his geographical location in Nazareth but his relation to God. The author of Luke introduces the personages of the devil, demons and Satan, though it is clear that their shared role is an adversarial one. Examples of this role appear in Luke 4:33-35, 8:12, 9:42, 11:14, 22:31 and Acts 5:3.  This view of the devil and Satan contrasts with the idea of the devil as found in Job, whereas the latter appears to be a lesser celestial being, perhaps an angel. Here, Luke highlights a strong contrast between the figure found in the Old Testament scripture and contemporary interpretation of the Satan’s role in salvation. The presentation of this character is shown to be in a strictly adversarial role. The consumption of bread is often paired with a ritual act or nourishment from God (Lk 4:4). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia references its importance in relation to the seemingly divine series of events through which it came, from harvest to the mouths of both the Jewish people and Gentiles.[11] Particularly in regards to the manna served to the Israelites in the wilderness, it was a reminder of God’s divine providence and care. Lastly, the devil departs to return at the next opportunity. The devil does so by inhabiting the body of Judas before his betrayal of Jesus the Christ.

The author of Luke states that Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness (4:2). The number 40 has special significance as sometimes referring to a period of time in which an individual or group undergoes a trial of purification. In the story of Noah and the great flood, it rains for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen 7:12) and thereby purges the dry land of anything with “life’s breath” (7:22-23). The Israelites remain in the wilderness for 40 years for their unfaithfulness (Num 14:32-33). In preparation for the covenant God was to make with the Israelites, Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights convening with God on Mount Sinai, going without bread or water (Ex 34:28). In Luke, the author uses this number as a way to signify the process that Jesus was to go through, similar to Noah, the Israelites and Moses.

In Luke 4:4, the author refers to Deuteronomy 8:3[12], in which the author refers to the manna given to the Israelites (Ex 16:31). While in the wilderness, God tells Moses that “bread will rain down from the sky” to the starving Israelites (Ex 16:4). This “bread” served as a reminder of whom they were to serve. The bread in which Jesus in Luke mentions is used to denote that nourishment comes from manna, sustenance literally from God. In regards to Luke 4:8, there are two passages[13] that allude to serving God. The first appears in Deuteronomy 6:13 where Moses speaks to the Israelites, pronouncing the greatest commandment: to love God above all, allocating all authority to God. The second, found in Deuteronomy 10:20, surfaces after Moses re-carves the two stone tablets (Deut 10:1) he had previously destroyed. Again, Moses convenes with God on the mountain for forty days and nights. In Jesus’ dialogue with the devil, he uses this particular scripture to reiterate that God is the only one he is to serve. David, one of Jesus’ forefathers (Lk 3:31), proclaims that God will send messengers (Ps 91:11), or those who may act on God’s behalf[14], to tend to those who trust in God (Ps 91:2) and are in need. The devil refers to Ps 91:11-12 showing that the devil may use scripture for its own interpretation.

The author of Luke again refers to Old Testament events in 4:12, in an allusion to Deuteronomy 6:16[15]. The passage in Deuteronomy refers to the testing of God at Massah (Ex 17:7), in which the Israelites challenged Moses and in effect, challenged God over their lack of water (Ex 17:2). As in Deuteronomy, the usage of the word “test” in Luke 4:12 can be substituted for the word “questioned”. In Luke, the devil openly invites Jesus to question the authority of God to which Jesus responds by firmly stating that he will not.

Throughout history, the concept and name of Jesus has been deeply intertwined with the Christian theological meaning of his ministry. However, such a view leaves a gap in regards to what those of us engaged in spirituality and social justice can do, in our finite capacities, to emulate Jesus and his service to others. In a demonstration of his humanity in relation to his divinity, the lesson that I have learned from Luke 4:1-13 is that we can act as intermediaries between God and others through our pursuit of truth.  Despite the physical limitations found in mortal life. I know at several points of my life I will encounter not a personage of the devil, but rather in its essential nature, a force that exists in an adversarial role. Whether it is confronting my own fears to the physical oppression imposed on marginalized groups, this passage challenges the idea that the flesh is stronger than the spirit.

In preparing a sermon focused on this temptation narrative, I would approach the text by examining the themes of the wilderness, starvation and temptation, respective of their placement within the passage. I believe it is important to note how Jesus was initially led into the wilderness and how that applies to the lives of the audience. Why would Jesus, starving and alone, be led into this place if not for the suggestion of the foreknowledge that Jesus was prepared to confront the coming temptations? I would then proceed with an overview of the wilderness itself and what it could have looked for Jesus. As the wilderness often represents a desolate place, I would connect this imagery with the real life wilderness many of us encounter in our lives. Next, I would discuss the double meaning of starvation in this passage and draw connections to the manna provided to the Israelites in Exodus. Additionally, I believe it would be important to note that Jesus was never free from the devil, as he would later present himself at a later time. This is reflected in our own lives, as we are never free from temptation but have the capacity to confront it.  I would then conclude with a discussion of the three temptations and how Jesus responded to them (using Old Testament references).

For a bible study, this would have to be a part of a two-part bible study that involves a “fast”. During the first meeting, I would hand out a piece of paper to participants in the study group. I would have them draw something that tempts them physically (for example, eating sweets when they shouldn’t, activities that keep them from getting work done, etc). On another piece of paper, I would have the participants draw something that tempts them spiritually (for example, actions considered sinful). I would then ask the participants to avoid those things until the next meeting (about a week later) and place the papers in folders marked with the participants names. When the group meets again, we would discuss how they felt during the week. How did they feel about their fast in the beginning versus at the end of the week? Did they feel uplifted? What challenges did they encounter? What strategies did they use to confront their temptations? I would then pass the folders back to the participants and ask them to draw how they confronted (or can confront) the temptation drawn on the front.


[1] Fitzmeyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I – IX

[2] Fitzmeyer, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I – IX

[3] The circumcision was a sign of the covenant made with Abram (Gen. 17:11)

[4] Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke

[5] Franklin, Christ the Lord

[6] James L. Bailey, Literary Forms in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, Jan 1, 1992)

[7] Bailey, Literary Forms, 115.

[8] A reference to Deuteronomy 8, in which the author states: No they live based on whatever the LORD says. From this, it is implied that more than corporeal desires are required to live.

[9] Thurman, Temptations of Jesus

[10] Fearghail, Introduction to Luke and Acts

[11]Bread”, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

[12] CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha, pg 114 NT

[13] Ibid, pg 114 NT

[14] CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha, pg 942 OT

[15] Ibid, pg 114 NT


  1. Bailey, James L. and Lyle D. Vander Broek. Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook.  Louisville: Westminster/John Know Press, 1992. Print.
  1. Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke. Doubleday Company: Garden City, New York. 1981. Print.
  2. Franklin, Eric. Christ the Lord: A Study in the Purpose and Theology of Luke-Acts. The Westminster Press: Philadelphia. 1975. Print.
  3. O Fearghail, Fearghus, The Introduction to Luke-Acts, Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico: Rome. 1991. Print.
  4. “Bread in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.
  5. Thurman, Howard. Temptations of Jesus.: Friends United: Richmond, IN. 1978. Print.

Janan Graham-Russell is a writer based in Evanston, Illinois. In 2016, she graduated from the Howard University School of Divinity with a Master of Arts in Religious Studies. Her writing focuses on culture, history, religion and theology through Black feminist and womanist lenses. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic as well as Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (2015) and A Book of Mormons (2015). When she's not writing or doing research, she enjoys dancing to Beyonce, watching films, and spending time with her husband and infant son.

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