In Gen.12:1-3 God gives Abram what I take to be the ground-plan or plotline of the biblical story in the form of a threefold promise. God promises that through Abram and his wife Sarai he will raise up a great new people, bless that people with his presence and land, and through them, this great new God-blessed people, the rest of the nations will similarly receive divine blessing.
I wonder if the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by the devil is not shaped by, or at least correlates to, this basic biblical promise. Matthew’s account (4:1-13) follows immediately upon Jesus’ baptism where Jesus makes a point of entering into solidarity with his people through John’s baptism. Jesus claims this is necessary for God’s “righteous” purposes to be fulfilled (3:15). I take it he is highlighting his connection with this people as heirs of the great promise to Abraham.
Such as claim stirs up the powers resisting God’s plan and purpose and Jesus, led the Spirit, undergoes his wilderness crucible. It strikes me as more than little interesting to note that the order of the temptations in Matthew’s account follow the order of the threefold promise of Gen.12.
-if Jesus can turn desert stones into bread, he will assuredly have a great following in no time at all! (4:3)
-if Jesus can make a spectacular “splash” at the temple in Jerusalem, the people will surely believe he is “blessed” and that through him they will be too! (4:5-6)
-If Jesus will throw in with the devil, he be able to “bless” all the nations of the world! (4:8-9)
A great people, a blessed people, a people blessing everyone else – that’s just what God promised to do through Abraham and Sarah. Here the devil offers Jesus a parody of this threefold promise just as he had all the generations of Israelites before him with such great success.
Doubtless the devil assumed he would derail Jesus with this gambit as well. But instead, this “strong man” himself was ambushed (Mt.12:29), bound, and plundered by this, the one faithful Israelite, the one totally loyal (sinless) son of Abraham in whom the great promise is at long last realized!
Luke varies the order of temptations, switching the second and third, probably due to his interest in highlighting the temple. But the substance remains this same.
This strikes me as a possible, even plausible, reading of the temptation story. It is anchored in God’s story with his people Israel, indeed, in the most important and central elements of that story. And it helps us to read Jesus’ life and work as God’s final and best answer to the rebellion of the world, the dilemma of his people, and the working out of his primal purposes for both and the creation too!