The baptism of Jesus and his temptations in the desert are closely connected in the New Testament tradition. We recall that gospel of Mark merely refers to the temptations of Jesus. Both gospels of Luke (Lk 4: 1-13) and Matthew (Mt 4: 1-11), however, describe their nature. Luke’s gospel sequence of three temptations is different from Matthew’s gospel. He probably changed the order and placed the last temptation in Jerusalem (Lk 4: 9-12). Theme of Jerusalem is theologically very significant for Luke. Therefore, the last of the temptations should end there, in that city of Jesus’ destiny.
With regard to the historicity of these stories, we may note that the three synoptic gospels attest the fact that Jesus experienced temptations during his ministry. Gospel of John 6: 15, 26-34 may also point to the same fact. It is this tradition that is highlighted by the Letter to the Hebrews: “… one who in every respect has been tempted as we are yet without sin” (Heb 4: 15; cf. 2: 18; 5: 2). There was diabolic opposition to Jesus and his mission; there was gross misunderstanding of the identity and mission of Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah (cf. Lk 22: 31-32). There were attempts to seduce him into the following a path that would frustrate the purpose of his messianic mission and thus thwart God’s plan. Certainly, Jesus’ temptations were experiences which he lived through in his life. Scholars, however, alert us to the ‘figurative language’ or dramatization that is used by the evangelists to interpret the temptations of Jesus. The instantaneous vision of all the kingdoms and the transfer of Jesus from one place to another, etc., effected by the devil also point to their symbolic meaning. Therefore, we should be more concerned about seeking their meaning in terms of Jesus’ identity and mission and avoid a too literalistic understanding.
We may also observe that the temptations are presented as arising from outside not merely as an inner struggle of Jesus. The hostile and diabolic opposition to Jesus and his ministry had the purpose of leading him away from the mission marked out for him as the Son of God. It is this real and factual seduction that is symbolically and dramatically presented in the story of the temptations. In these situations, Jesus was ‘tempted,’ namely; he experienced the temptation of using his divine power as the Son of God.
Luke begins by nothing that the Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism (Lk 3: 22) leads him into the desert (Lk 4: 1). Empowered by the Spirit Jesus faces the diabolic forces from which the temptations arise. Jesus will also vanquish the devil by the power of the Spirit. The desert is the place where Israel of old had to prove her faithfulness to the God of the covenant. Therefore, it is God himself who had led Israel into the desert (Deut 8: 2) where she was tempted. The duration of time indicated here as ‘forty days’ is probably symbolic of the forty years of Israel’s wanderings in the desert (Deut 8: 2). It is to be understood, in any case, as a symbolic round number meant to convey the idea of a prolonged period of time.