Why are Jesus’ temptations in a different order in Luke?

On this first Sunday of Lent, we are reflecting in the lectionary on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested by Satan, which offers us the pattern for the Lenten period—though it is worth noting at the outset both that the figure 40 in Scripture is often taken as an approximate or symbolic number meaning ‘a significant period’ (the Exodus wanderings actually lasted 42 years) and that the 40 days of Lent don’t include the Sundays, which remain as feast days on which we are exempt from Lenten disciplines. So don’t forget where you stashed all that chocolate…!

(It is also worth noting the slightly odd way that the calendar use of Lent leading into Easter pushes the biblical narrative out of shape, since for Jesus the 40 days was a preparation for his ministry, with the events of Easter some way off, whereas for us the 40 days leads straight into the events of Holy Week and Easter itself. This might be an argument for reshaping the calendar, but I am not sure that is going to happen any time soon!)

Felix Just, on his Catholic Resources page, includes a helpful table of comparison of the three Synoptic accounts of the temptations:

. Mark 1:12-13 Matthew 4:1-11 Luke 4:1-13
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12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts… 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
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x 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.‘ ” (cf. Deut 8:3cd) 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.‘ “(cf. Deut 8:3c)
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x 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘ ” (cf. Deut 6:16) 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.‘” (cf. Deut 6:13)
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x 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.‘” (cf. Deut 6:13) 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘ ” (cf. Deut 6:16)
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13d – and the angels waited on him. 11 Then the devil left him,
and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
13 When the devil had finished every test,
he departed from him until an opportune time.

This is helpful in both highlighting common themes drawn out by the three gospel writers, but also in highlighting different emphases.

A common theme is the tension between the apparent power of Satan, and the sovereignty of God in the whole event. Mark expresses this rather brutally—the Spirit ‘throws’ or ‘drives’ (ballo) Jesus into the desert—where Matthew and Luke are a little more measured. But all three are also clear that Jesus was not alone, contrary to some readings of this narrative, and also contrary to the rather miserable hymn I remember from school days, Lead us Heavenly Father, lead us, which included the lines:

lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go

The temptations might not have been a bag of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’; in Mark he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and with the words of his Father’s blessing ringing in his ears. Luke also spells out the effect of this time of discipline; as I keep noticing in reading Luke, he is unashamed of the language of power, and having gone into the desert ‘full of the Spirit’ he returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14).

On the question of fasting, Mark doesn’t even mention it; Matthew highlights the forty ‘days and nights’ drawing his customary parallel with the experience of Moses (Ex 34.28); whilst Luke (perhaps writing for those less familiar with the biblical discipline of fasting?) emphasises the human reality that he ate nothing and so was famished.


This brings us to the question of the content and ordering of the three temptations. Some commentators question whether our account is of ‘real’ events, or whether (as depicted in some films) these things happened within Jesus’ mind—since, for example, there is no mountain high enough from which you can see ‘all the kingdoms of the world’. But we use the language of ‘seeing’ and ‘showing’ in all sorts of figurative ways, and there is nothing in the account to suggest that these were not real experiences, albeit with a supernatural dynamic to them. How did the gospel writers know about these (and other) events to which Jesus alone was witness? We have to conclude, with one Anglican wag, that ‘Jesus was in the unfortunate habit of regaling his disciples with accounts of his personal spiritual experiences’. (I cannot remember who said this, but the idea of such personal disclosure was clearly distasteful to him!)

It is commonly observed that the devil begins his attack on Jesus at the level of his identity and security: ‘If you are the son of God…’. It is equally commonly observed that Jesus responds each time by citing scripture, and consistently from Deut 6–8, passages that any observant Jew will have had to learn for Bar Mitzvah. It is rather striking that, in response to the devil’s question, Jesus does not cite in return the heavenly voice from his baptism.

We can also see the way that Jesus resistance to these temptations contrasts with the failure of God’s people in their desert wanderings. Where the people complained about lack of bread (Ex 16.3) and then about the lack of variety in the provision of manna (Num 11.6), Jesus is content with the call to desert discipline. Where the people succumbed to idolatry in making the golden calf (Ex 32), Jesus remains resolute in his focus on the worship of God alone. Where the people complained and tested God (Ex 17.2–3), Jesus resists the need to put God to the test; the word of experience and the word of Scripture are enough for him. In this regard, Jesus ‘recapitulates’ the story of God’s people, and will faithfully complete his ‘exodus’ (Luke 9.31).


But it is also clear that Luke has changed the order of the three temptations from Matthew. I think we can see that Luke acknowledges this, though the evidence is hidden in most English translations. Matthew uses the connections ‘then’ (tote) and ‘again’ (palin) in the second and third temptations, but Luke avoids these temporal succession markers, and simply says ‘and’ (kai) to link them. This reminds us that the gospel writers are not always offering us a chronological account of events, but are happy to organise their material in thematic and narrative ways that communicate something not just of the events of Jesus’ life, but of their significance.

Matthew’s order is the most natural, reaching a climax in relation to the nature of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing, reflecting the centrality of the ‘kingdom of God/the heavens’ within Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. Jesus’ response is also climactic, in that he is moving back through Deuteronomy in his citations, ever closer towards the central Jewish confession of the Shema (Deut 6.4): ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one/the only’. The rejection of idolatry, and the worship of God alone, is the central theological call of the Old Testament narrative. And this final conflict happens on a ‘high mountain’, just as Jesus begins his ministry on a mountain in the next chapter, and hands on his ministry to the disciples on a mountain in Matt 28.

For Luke, the central place of ministry and conflict in his narrative is the temple. The first revelation of the gospel happens to Zechariah in the temple; the final conflict for Jesus takes place in the temple precincts in Luke 19; and the life and ministry of the apostles continues after the resurrection in the temple (Luke 24.53), with the temple remaining the focus of the early community of Jesus’ followers in Acts 2.46.

But this reordering also opens up the temptations to be seen as undoing not only the failure of Israel, but the failure of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—who could not resist the allure of the delightful fruit to eat, who served the interests of the tempter, rather than remaining devoted to God, and who tested whether God’s word to them was true.

(There is a curious exploration of the existential nature of Jesus’ temptations on the Wikipedia discussion, though the content is unsourced:

Jesus was tempted three times. The temptations were hedonism (hunger / satisfaction), egoism (spectacular throw / might) and materialism (kingdoms / wealth). John the Evangelist in his epistle calls these temptations “in world” as “lust of eyes” (materialism), “lust of body” (hedonism) and “pride of life” (egoism).[52] Temptations aim to mislead and pervert three main human characteristics; to think, wish and feel which are inside mind, soul and heart as Jesus alludes in Greatest Commandment. These are related with transcendentals or ultimate ideals in three areas of human interests; science (truth), arts (beauty) and religion (goodness). Christians are called to search for divine virtues; faith, hope and love that relate them directly to God who Himself is Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

  • fortitude (courage) when his life was in danger because he was very hungry after fasting for 40 days and rejected devil’s proposition to make “bread” (“hedonism”),

  • prudence (caution) when rejected proposition to make sign of conceit and might, a “spectacular throw” (“egoism”),

  • temperance (self-control) when rejected alluring offer to receive “kingdoms of world” (“materialism”).)


There are two important things to ponder when planning to preach on this passage. The first is how far to explore questions of the differences between the gospel accounts, and the place of the temptations in, for example, Luke’s narrative. There is a real danger that highlighting these things can turn a sermon, which seeks to speak God’s word to this congregation in this time and place through this passage, into a Bible study or a ‘merely’ academic exercise, offering the listeners interesting facts which might not evoke a response of faith. But in my experience it is important to ‘show one’s workings’ in an appropriate way, rather than pull a homiletic rabbit out of the hermeneutical hat, and somehow magically offering insight as a preacher which they as ‘ordinary’ readers could not have. In preaching, we are surely helping people to read the text of Scripture well, but also show them what good reading involves; we are wanting to help them to fish for themselves, and not simply offer them a couple of fish to eat for the coming week. Ordinary readers do find these observations interesting, and are motivated in their own reading and exploration—and it is no bad thing to treat congregations as involved and intelligent readers of Scripture themselves. These are the kinds of things to explore in helping people read the Bible well.

Secondly, the temptations of Jesus are often preached as though they were moral examples for us to follow: we should go into the desert; we should face our demons; we should quote from Scripture; and so on. But to preach in this way is in danger of missing the most important thing in preaching: not to put ourselves in the narrative as if we were the most important subject, but to note what God is doing and what God has done. The focus for all three gospels writers is that Jesus has undone the failures of both Israel and Adam; when we are incorporate into Jesus, we are incorporated into this victory, and we share in it by grace rather than by our own efforts. That does not mean, as we face temptations and challenges this Lent, we can avoid the challenge of discipline and effort. But we face these things knowing that Jesus conquered them, in the power of the Spirit, and that the same Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it is his presence that brings victory and enables us to be ‘more than conquerors’ (Rom 8.37; compare Rev 2.7 and parallels).


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9 thoughts on “Why are Jesus’ temptations in a different order in Luke?”

  1. Even the conservative New English Hymnal could not stomach ‘lone and dreary’. Let alone Michaels Baughen and Saward of Jubilate Hymns who did a lot of rewriting and updating. NEH vi ‘We felt it desirable to abandon the description of Our Lord as ”lone and dreary”.’ NEH went with ‘Self-denying, death defying, Thou to Calvary didst go.’.

    Matthew’s gospel has an overall Moses template. Where one sees an expansion, that is one of the first places one will look for the cause of the expansion. Sandwiched between the desert-entry and the new Sinai of the Sermon on the Mount (which for Matthew corresponds to Pentecost in his liturgical-year template) are 40 days of testings just like the Israelites had between the Red Sea and Sinai. Matthew’s 3 in order could correspond to Exodus 16 (bread), Exodus 17 (Massah), Exodus 32 (idols – this last, golden calf, during the Sinai narrative).

    Luke is not using that template, and his instincts make him put the summary ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test’ last.

    Mark has 40 days of testing between the Passover baptisms by John and the start of his Pentecost-season section 1.14-6.5 (which for Mark is a section of Sabbaths [same word as ‘weeks’: Feast of Weeks], of wheat harvest, and of Spirit/spirits). The same wilderness testings are the original cause of this, since passover commemorates the departure from Egypt and Pentecost commemorates/aligns with Sinai. But aren’t there ’50’ days between Passover and Pentecost? Yes, but the count of 50 begins on 2nd day of Passover, whereas Mark is enumerating the approx period between the end of Passover and the start of Pentecost, just as at 9.2 he likely has in mind the days between Yom Kippur and Tabernacles.

    • Hi Christopher, slightly off-topic but as you seem to have a good grasp of timing issues etc, I wondered if you could point me in the direction of a convincing explanation for the apparent difference in the timing of the crucifixion/resurrection between the synoptics and John? One I have read is that the difference was largely down to the different audiences for whom the Gospels were written and their knowledge or lack thereof of the Jewish Sabbath etc.

      Thanks, Peter

      • Yes, I second that. I wish I had looked into this – Humphrey has looked into it a lot more. There are few matters I am at all sure of in this connection. I do suspect John has averaged out Mark’s 3rd hour and 9th hour to arrive at ‘the hour’ (6th) when passover-lamb was sacrificed – not an original thought, of course.

        My friend Barbara Shellard had an amusing thought that Luke (whom we see as the final evangelist) was desperately trying to reconcile the other 3 in saying that the time when the women came to the tomb was ‘very early dawn’. The discrepancy between Mark and John (as on crucifixion hours, and on which part of Jesus was anointed by the lady) is predictably because John has pressing theological motives and construct, as is widely suspected. John 20.1 has to show light out of darkness at the start of a new creation cycle, so Mark’s ‘when the sun had risen’ would not fit.

        If John is the likeliest to change things because his theological motives are the most pressing, does the same apply to the Last Supper? No – as has often been pointed out. He was in addition quite a chronologist himself. And he was the gospelwriter most familiar with Jerusalem matters. How we reconcile Mark and John here… well, the 2 different calendars theory has often been posited. Also Dick France thought that Jesus defined and enacted his own ‘Passover’ one day early, despite knowing it was not the exact day. How else to cope with Mk 14.2 ‘not upon the feast’?

        My study of John has strengthened the view in my mind that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday, as is traditional. John in fact IMHO makes a very big thing of distinguishing between the different ideas of ‘on the third day’ and ‘in/on three days’. The latter constitutes the period initiated by the former.

        And I would love there to be a concerted effort to choose between 30 and 33 AD so that we know, in time for the 2000th anniversary, which year to mark, whether 2030 or 2033.

        Every good wish

        Chris.

  2. Ooh, a link in your article led me to your earlier post on the “most important thing in preaching” and the very important principle (I think) of making sermons theocentric. I think that’s so true and it was great to read that slant. I’d personally take it a step further, though it may be implicit in your own delivery, Ian: that the really important purpose of preaching is to *draw us collectively into the presence of Christ* in the there and then of the sermon.

    My first minister, Ken MacDougall of the Kilmartin Fellowship, had this marvellous gifting. Somehow, he drew us into the presence of Jesus ‘right here with us’ in the room (which of course is true). Not just talking ‘about’ Jesus, but talking in the presence of Jesus, and becoming presently aware of Jesus with us, and touched by wonder, worship, adoration, awe, and grace.

    To me, a sermon should not too often be just an academic delivery, but should – by the Holy Spirit – draw us into awareness of Jesus present, through the unfolding of the scripture, and the opening of our hearts.

    And yes, in the struggle of temptation, being drawn into the life, the death, and the experience of the risen Jesus in our midst. In whom, we can be ‘more than conquerors’. If Jesus is truly risen and with us, we should expect that (or at least trust that) right in the here and now presence in the sermon. Jesus is not a theory, for objective discussion, like listening to a talk on chemistry. Jesus is in our midst and so I appreciate a preacher guiding us into an awareness of that, and creating expectation, and acknowledging God right here with us, and encouraging us to open our hearts, our minds, and have a meeting place with Jesus as gathered believers.

  3. Note the allusions to Ezekiel in Luke’s account: 30th year, seeing the heavens opened and visions of God next to the river, receiving the scroll and the words of God proceeding out of his mouth (the man shall not live by bread alone quotation is incomplete, but completed in the account of the sermon in Nazareth), being ‘led in the Spirit’ into the wilderness, etc. How does this help? The order of Ezekiel’s visions moves from wilderness (Valley of Dry Bones), to high mountain, to various extremities of the Temple. The end of Revelation has a similar order, of course (cf. 17:3, 21:10, followed by description of the city but declaration that it has no temple). The devil is presenting a sort of false and parodic apocalypse.

    • Thanks Alastair, that is really interesting. Two questions:

      1. Is this a connection which is in the text i.e. is there evidence that Luke is aware of this—or is this about making observations by means of a theological reading of the text?

      2. I think there are numerous other points where Luke has (unexpected) connections with Revelation. But is there any evidence of wider Lukan connections with Ezekiel?

      • 1. I think the accumulation of possible allusions to Ezekiel in that context would strengthen that reading. a) The setting—by the river with the exiles; b) the event—heavens opened, a vision, and prophetic initiation; c) the time—the thirtieth year; d) the phraseology—4:1 is, in contrast to Matthew and Mark’s accounts, reminiscent of prophetic journey language (e.g. Ezekiel 37:1); e) underlying themes of eating words, coupled with the significance of the giving of the scroll in the passage that follows and the way it is connected with the first temptation (gracious words proceeding from Christ’s mouth, note parallels with Ezekiel’s prophetic initiation as he eats the scroll given to him and receives his vocation); f) the distinctive order of the temptations.

        2. More generally, I think Ezekiel underlies a lot of Luke’s vision of Jesus’ ministry, as the Son of Man who sets his face against Jerusalem and declares its imminent destruction. Obviously it isn’t the most prominent OT background, but it is important throughout. In Luke, Christ’s ministry neatly divides into two phases. The first Galilean phase begins with the testimony of John, baptism of Jesus, and conflict with the devil in the wilderness and ends with John killed and the question of whether Jesus is John raised again. The second begins with the testimony of Peter, the transfiguration of Jesus, the casting out of the demon from the possessed child and setting his face toward Jerusalem. It ends with Jesus crucified and risen again. While only intermittently present in between, Ezekiel allusions surface at pivotal moments at the beginning of both of these phases, where the larger contours of Jesus’ ministry are most clearly in view.

    • Luke does have webs of references to Samuel, Isaiah (ch61), Elijah, and Moses (Deut1-26). The umbrella description is ‘proto-prophet’. But ch 3 and the first half of ch4 is not covered by these. So it looks like a 5th web (Ezekiel, otherwise a notable absentee from Luke’s prophetic hall of fame) has been uncovered.

      I think this is another great insight, Alastair.

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