Why do Matthew and Luke reverse the final two temptations in their accounts of the Lord’s temptation in the wilderness?
The different order of the temptations has been noted by most commentators, with different explanations for the difference. One certainty is that the Spirit of truth inspired both to write their gospels, so that the difference is not due to an error. It is commonly accepted that the ordering of events in Matthew is more chronological than Luke, so we would accept Matthew as the order of the temptations as they actually occurred. Luke’s material is usually presented in a moral order that relates to His purpose to present the Lord Jesus in His moral perfection as a perfect Man who is also suitable to be our Great High Priest. Matthew is concerned with presenting the Lord Jesus as the righteous King who can be trusted to receive the kingdoms in God’s time and through God’s means. Therefore, in Matthew, the order relates to that purpose, and the temptation to receive all the kingdoms of the world through worshiping Satan is reserved to the last, since it touches the ultimate purpose for the King of all the earth. The temptations display the perfect submission and dependence of Christ upon His God in every aspect of His life, not willing to provide for Himself outside of the will of God. In contrast to man and to the nation of Israel in the wilderness, He was perfectly satisfied to trust God for everything, from physical provision to ultimate recognition by men, and to receiving the kingdoms of the world.
Again, the order in Matthew’s gospel emphasizes His relationship to Israel, for He is presented as their rightful King. That order relates to Israel’s experience in the wilderness, after they were brought out of Egypt to depend on the Lord and to acknowledge God’s authority over them. Their first trial in Exodus 16 pertained to food, and God’s ability to spread a table before them in the wilderness (Psa 78:19). The second test related to their need for water (Exo 17:7), and we read that they “tempted the Lord” by what they said. We find the third one where their demand for gods resulted in their worship of a golden calf (Exo 32).
The order of temptations in Luke is moral, and that order relates to the temptations that we all experience: That which affects the body first (stones to bread), then the soul (desire for power and things of world), and lastly, the spirit (experienced in the temple). It corresponds to the order in which Eve responded to the tempter in the garden (Gen 3:6). The first man failed, but the second Man triumphed. Again, it corresponds to the order in 1 John 2:16 where we learn that “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, are not of the Father, but of the world.” Our blessed Lord “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 2:15). The forms in which we are exposed to temptation are the same as what He endured. Man naturally craves food for the body, power and authority over others, and recognition by men, so this is the order that we see in Luke’s presentation of the temptations.
Much more can be learned from a comparative study of these experiences, and we recommend to an interested reader that they consider every aspect of how the inspired writers present this and other experiences in the life of our blessed Lord with their similarities and contrasts.