It is common knowledge that Jesus had many temptations in his life. We know this for two reasons. First, because the Bible says that he was like man in everything (Heb 2:17) and that he was tempted in every way just as we are (Heb 4:15). Second, because Jesus himself affirmed when he was about to leave the apostles: “You are the ones who have been with me and stood by me through my troubles” (Lk 22:28).
However, the Gospels mention only three of these temptations, which came to him shortly before the start of his public life. These three temptations, as a matter of fact, represent all the other temptations that Jesus encountered throughout his whole life.
Well, then, what was the last temptation that Jesus had? The question takes on the meaning in relation to a controversy pertaining to the differing accounts of Matthew and Luke. These two evangelists were the only ones who wrote in their Gospels about the temptations of Jesus. But they narrate the events in a different order. Yes, both agree about the first temptation. Both affirm that it took place in the desert, where the devil appeared to Jesus after he fasted for forty days, and urged him to turn the stones into bread to satisfy his hunger (Mt 4:1-4, Lk 4:1-4).
THE MESSAGE TO THE READERS
However, as far as the last temptation is concerned – which is the most important, since it marks the moment when Satan was finally defeating and when he decided to leave Jesus alone – the two evangelists do not coincide. According to Matthew, this took place on a mountain (Mt 4:8). According to Luke, the setting was on the uppermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk 4:9).
In other words, for Matthew, the setting of the temptations is as follows: a) desert, b) temple, c) mountain. In Luke, on the other hand, it is: a) desert, b) mountain, c) temple.
If both writers recount the same event and with the same details, why do they change at the end and give different version of the last temptation?
The answer is to be found in what is called “the theology of the author.” This means that, if the evangelists narrate the historical facts about the life of Jesus, then each one retouches the details in order to transmit to the readers a special “message” in behalf of God, which would constitute his own “theology.”
Based on this premise, let us now move on to answer our question. Matthew placed the last temptation of Christ on a mountain because, in his Gospel, the mountain has special meaning. Luke, on the other hand, situates it in Jerusalem, because it is this city that has a special meaning in the third Gospel
In order to explain this, using more technical terms, in Matthew, we come across the “theology of the mount.” In Luke, we find the “theology of Jerusalem.”
THE THEOLOGY OF THE MOUNT
What does the “theology of the mount” consist of? It seems rather strange that Matthew, a writer who does not normally show interest in geographically situating the episodes that he narrates, sets his scenes, whenever possible, on some mountain. In fact, he mentions it so many times and on different and varied occasions that the scholars have concluded that the issue is no longer that of a geographical detail; rather, the author must have a special reason for mentioning the mountain.
What could this special reason be? The secret is in the significance that the mountain had in the ancient times. The Jews always had a special regard and veneration for the high places. In the Bible, the mountain is a symbol of stability, of something that does not shake, of something that is most firm on earth. For example, speaking of the love of God, the Bible says: “the mountains may move and the hills roll, but my love will never depart from your side” (Is 54:10).
The mountains are considered God’s first creation, the oldest in the world. When Job, for instance, pretends to question the wisdom of God, a friend reproaches him: “By any chance do you think you were born before the mountains?” (Job 15:7). And when speaking of God’s eternity, the Psalms exclaim: “Before the mountains were created, you are God from all eternity” (Ps 90:2).
GOD AND THE MOUNTAINS
This mysterious attraction that the mountains provoked made the Jews think that the divinity dwelt in them and that men spoke from there. Thus, one of the oldest titles of Yahweh was “El Shaddai,” which means “God of the Mountains.” Hence, the belief that, in order to meet God, one had to go up to the mountains.
This also explains why many of the important episodes in the Old Testament took place in the mountains.
For example, it was on mountain (Sinai) where Yahweh spoke with Moses and gave him the Ten Commandment. It was on a mountain (Moriah) where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac, but God forbade him to. From another mountain (Tabor), God made the Jewish people win the battle against the Canaanites in the time of the Judges. It was also on a mountain (Carmel) where Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets, commanded fire to rain down from heaven and destroy the false prophets of the pagan gods (1 K 18:20-48). It was also on a mountain (Zion) where one and only grandiose Temple of Jerusalem, the permanent dwelling place of Yahweh with his people, was constructed.
MOUNTAIN AS SYMBOL
Yet, the people did not link the mountain only to past events, but also to future happenings. Thus, according to tradition, when the Messiah comes, he will judge all the nations from a mountain (Zec 14:4). According to another tradition, at the end of time, God will offer a great banquet with exquisite food and good win on a mountain, and from he will destroy death and bring salvation (Is 25:1-9). Likewise, the construction of the future Temple was expected to take place on a mountain (Ezk 40:2).
In the Old Testament, therefore, the mountain was the place from which God communicated with humans and granted us/them salvation.
Matthew, a Jewish writer who was writing for the Jews, shared this mentality. That is why, in his Gospel, the figure of the mountain is not a “geographical location,” but rather a “theological location,” that is, an image that brings a message. This explains why he was very much interested in constantly associating Jesus with a mountain.
For example, Jesus’ first sermon – his famous Beatitudes – were pronounced, according to Luke, “on a level place” (Lk 6:17). For Matthew, it was “on a mountain” (Mt 5:1). Logically, if in the Old Testament God had given his laws from a mountain (Sinai), so too now, Jesus, in giving the new laws in behalf of God to the people, and according to the mentality of Matthew, had to “go up to a mountain.”
JESUS AND THE MOUNTAINS
The Transfiguration of Jesus is likewise narrated as taking place on a mountain (Mt 17:1). It was Matthew’s way of emphasizing that, after Jesus underwent a transformation, one could see in him no one else but God himself. In other words, he was the same great and resplendent God who manifested himself from the mountains to the people of Israel in the ancient times.
Jesus’ last discourse, called the eschatological discourse, is also described as taking place on a mountain (Mt 24:3). In this pronouncement, Jesus gives his apostles the last revelations, like the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the world, and his Second Coming. These are colossal mysteries that only God knows and can fathom. Thus, he announces them on a mountain.
After the Resurrection it is only Matthew who recounts that Jesus appeared to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16). From there, he promulgated the solemn mandate to his apostles to go and preach the Gospel to the whole world. As the mandate was preached from a mountain, it acquired a special force and the authority of God himself.
THE INFLUENCE IN HIS TEACHINGS
Matthew did more than link Jesus’ life to the mountains. He also modified some of Jesus’ words in order to mention the mountains. For example, speaking about faith, Luke says: “If you have faith even the size of a mustard seed, you may say to this tree: ‘Be uprooted and plant yourself in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Lk 17:6). However, the phrase in Matthew is: “If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell the mountain t move from here to there, and the mountain would obey” (Mt 17:20).
Speaking about good works, Luke writes: “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a bowl or puts it under the bed” (Lk 8:16; Mk 4:21). Matthew, on the other hand, modifies it a bit: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a mountain cannot be hidden” (Mt 5:14).
There is another example in the parable of the lost sheep. While Luke says that, in order to look for it, the shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine sheep “in the desert” (Lk 15:4), Matthew points out that he leaves them “in the mountains” (Mt 18:12); this means that he would not leave them in just any place, as though he did not care, but in a safe place, marked by God’s presence.
UNCOMFORTABLE CLIMB TO CURE
Matthew’s interest in highlighting the figure of the mountains is such that he even recounts – and he alone narrates – that one day Jesus went up to the mountain to cure the people; and many followed him there, bringing the sick, the lame and the blind (Mt 15:29-31). Truly, Jesus would not have thought of a worse place to work out his cures. We can imagine how uncomfortable this must have been for the handicapped who were forced to climb up to the summit in search of a cure for their ailments!
Nonetheless, the scene of Jesus healing the sick on a mountain clearly expresses that the cure he performed was not just any cure, but rather a healing that came from God, and which also encompassed salvation. In this way, the message of the Gospel was notably enriched with this simple detail.
After understanding the importance given by Matthew to the mountain, we immediately and clearly understand his reason for assigning the mountain as a setting for the third temptation.
As Matthew had to accentuate the final triumph of the Lord over Satan and over the malignant forces, what better place to situate such an occurrence than on a mountain, the place which showcases the great events of God with men! The victory of Jesus over the devil, which took place on a mountain, was the definitive triumph of God over evil. For this reason, he made it the third and last temptation.
THE THEOLOGY OF JERUSALEM
On the other hand, in Luke, the place that always stands out is Jerusalem. In the same way that Matthew considers the mountain as a symbolic place, Luke regards this city not just as a simple “geographical location,” but also as a “theological place.”
For us to realize the importance that Luke gives to Jerusalem, it is enough to count the number of times it is mentioned in his work; and, by this, we mean his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Ninety times! In fact, we do not even include the indirect reference made to it. This indeed, is a very large number.
What significance does Jerusalem have for Luke? Here we do not speak only of Jerusalem as the capital of the country. It is also the place chosen by God to reveal himself to his people, and from which he was to send the salvation for all humanity. Thus, it is the city where the most important events pertaining to the history of salvation would take place.
Luke’s veneration for the city is so great that his gospel is the only one among the four gospels that starts and ends in Jerusalem. For that reason, the setting of the first scene in his gospel is the Temple of Jerusalem (Lk 1:9), when the high priest Zechariah learns that he would have a son. And the last scene is the return of the Apostles to the Temple of Jerusalem, where “they were continually praising God” (Lk 24:53).
Not only does the book center on Jerusalem. Likewise, the greatest events in the life of Jesus happen in relation to this city.
Only Luke narrates that, even as a newborn baby, Jesus was taken to Jerusalem to be presented in the Temple (Lk 2:22). This clearly shows the close affinity that already existed between the child and the city.
Once more, it is only Luke who narrates the episode when, at the age of twelve, Jesus was lost in Jerusalem, and that three days later they found him in the Temple, seated among the teachers of the Law (Lk 2:49). This indicates a particular attachment to the city, which Jesus showed since his childhood.
When Jesus started to preach, and later on when he taught in Galilee and Samaria, only Luke recounts how Jesus “made up his mind to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). Luke makes Jesus never leave the place. Thus started a long journey towards the city, which lasted until the end of his life. and we find Jesus being followed by a great crowd who accompanied him wherever he went. For the reader who understands this message of Luke, he is aware that these were not casual followers of Jesus, but people who followed him because they too, wanted to go “to the place of salvation.”
A NEVER-ENDING JOURNEY
It would be throughout this journey towards Jerusalem that Luke would put on Jesus’ lips his finest teachings, his beautiful parables, his most attractive dialogues (which, in the case of the other evangelists, are mentioned during other moments of Jesus’ life). At every moment, Like would remind us that “Jesus continues walking towards Jerusalem,” so that the readers do not lose sight of the fact that these teaching of the Master may also lead us to our own Jerusalem, that is, to the encounter of the God of salvation.
At the end of the journey, it is only Luke who describes his triumphal entry into the city, as though it were majestic and royal procession. Indeed, he is the only evangelist who recounts the plaudits of the people who acclaimed Jesus as their “king” (Lk 19:38). And they proclaim him no less than the King of Jerusalem.
In the end, it is Luke, more than any other evangelist, who rounds up the most important episodes related to our salvation and situates them in Jerusalem. There, Jesus is arrested and crucified. There, he resurrects. There, and only there, he appears to the Apostles. From there, he ascends into Heaven. There, the Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost. Everything of importance takes place in Jerusalem.
And to cap all this, only Luke relates the specific command of Jesus to preach to the whole world, but “starting with Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47).
BOTH EVANGELIST ARE RIGHT
After we have substantiated Luke’s insistent concern for presenting Jesus very much linked to Jerusalem and his carrying out his most important activities there, we no longer doubt that the setting of his narration of Jesus’ third temptation is due to the special regard that he has for this city.
As we glean in Luke, Jesus frees himself from Satan precisely in the city where he is going to free all people and deliver them from every evil, in the same place from which the strength of our salvation springs forth.
Who of the two, therefore, is right about the third temptation of Jesus? Both are right. They do not conflict with nor contradict each other. Each one, using his own theology, says the same thing. For both, the climax of the confrontation between Jesus and Satan happens precisely in the place where God unfolds and reveals his highest power to save: the mountain for Matthew and Jerusalem for Luke.
The message that both evangelists leave us in relation to Jesus’ temptations in the same, regardless of the order in which each one narrates them. When a person is anchored in God fully – not half-heartedly, not occasionally –, he or she will always conquer evil.
In order to explain this, Matthew makes Jesus climb up to a mountain, while Luke takes him instantly to Jerusalem. This is the theological manner by which both show what it is to be firmly rooted or grounded where one knows he will encounter God.
Many people seem unable to overcome temptations. Perhaps it is because they are not totally rooted in God. Because, sometimes, they believe in God, but at times they believe in other advisers. Because they accept some aspects of the Word of God, and lay aside others! Because, sometimes, they put their trust in God, and at times they fashion false idols who promise them nothing but vain and empty happiness. Because they do not decide, once and for all, to give themselves totally to God!
Jesus triumphed completely over evil when he went up to the mountain (according to Matthew) or when he went up to the Temple of Jerusalem (according to Luke); in other words, when he went to where he was certain to find God. Whoever does the same, no doubt, will end up victorious.