How did the devil tempt Jesus?

January 9, 2012

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

As I was preparing yesterday’s sermon on Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, I turned, as I often do when preparing sermons, to N.T. Wright’s For Everyone commentary. Have you ever looked at these? They’re excellent. Wright, a bishop in the Church of England, is an academic with a pastor’s heart. He even begins each section of commentary with an anecdote from his own experience or an illustration—just like any good preacher.

I was especially curious about how he might deal with this classic devil text. He knows that modern audiences have trouble believing that such a being exists outside of the realm of fantasy or fairy tale. And this passage is so… literal about it. We can almost see this guy with horns, cloven hooves, and a pitchfork. But not so fast… Is that what we’re reading into it?

The story does not envisage Jesus engaged in conversation with a visible figure to whom he could talk as one to another; the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head. They are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense.

Luke tells us in this passage that the devil “departed from him until the next opportunity.” The next time the devil is mentioned is in Luke 22, on the night that Jesus was arrested. We don’t imagine there that Satan was visible to Judas when Judas decided to betray him. We don’t imagine that Satan was visible to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, before Pontius Pilate, or as he approached the cross. But Satan was surely there.

If Satan were so obviously present to us, then doing his bidding would be far easier to resist. The devil works in far more subtle ways. As Wright implies, Satan often comes to us, as he did to Jesus, through plausible and attractive ideas in our own heads.

If that’s true, however, what do we make of this second temptation—that Jesus could rule over all the world’s kingdoms if only he’d “worship” the devil? This temptation is troubling to me in a couple of ways.

First, I can’t get out of my head images of devil worship that were formed in my Baptist youth group days: devil-worship was what people like Ozzy Osbourne and members of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Rush, et al., engaged in. We can’t imagine Jesus being tempted to do that, can we?

No. Jesus himself understands that by giving into this temptation to set up his kingdom in a political sense—as appealing as the idea might be—he would be opposing his Father’s will for his life, placing a greater value or worth (to worship literally means to demonstrate the worth of the object of worship) on his own desires. He would literally be doing the devil’s bidding. How would that not be a kind of devil worship?

It’s unsettling, therefore, to imagine how often we worship the devil in this same way. If only devil worship were as straightforward as Mike Warnke made such a handsome living warning us about! Again, the devil is far more subtle.

My second concern about this temptation is what the devil says about his power. Has God really given the devil the authority to set up and tear down governments as he says in verse 6?

Of course not! Only God has that authority. As John Wesley writes in his commentary on the verse:

I give it to whomsoever I will – Not so, Satan. It is God, not thou, that putteth down one, and setteth up another: although sometimes Satan, by God’s permission, may occasion great revolutions in the world.

Imagine that: the devil lied. Or maybe he was confused. After all, the devil is so used to getting his way in the world it must seem like he has that kind of power!

I’ll leave you with this wonderful song about the devil by the late Keith Green, “No One Believes in Me Anymore.”

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 43.

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