MATTHEW 4:1-11. THE TEMPTATION IN THE WILDERNESS
Is this true temptation or a rite of passage that Jesus cannot fail? If failure is possible, does God set the bar so low that there is no serious danger to Jesus?
The author of Hebrews says, “For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The Christ who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7) is subject to every human experience, from birth to death. He experiences hunger, pain, grief, and anger. Otherwise, the Incarnation is incomplete and his ministry is defective. If Jesus cannot fail, his temptation is less than our everyday experience. A savior who cannot endure our everyday temptation cannot save us.
This is only Jesus’ first temptation. Throughout his ministry, Jesus will experience conflict with religious authorities. Peter will tempt Jesus to avoid the cross (Matthew 16:23). Jesus will commend the disciples for standing by him in his trials (Luke 22:28). At Gethsemane, Jesus will struggle with temptation once again (Luke 22:42-44).
Jesus’ baptism and temptation parallel the experience of Israel, whose baptism in the Red Sea was followed by their temptation in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Israel was led to its testing by God, just as Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit. Here are some other parallels:
• The Israelites’ first temptation had to do with hunger—about which they complained bitterly—and which need was satisfied by God’s provision of manna (Exodus 16).
• Their second temptation had to do with testing God at Massah with complaints about water (Exodus 17:2).
• Their third temptation was to fall down and worship a golden calf at the base of a high mountain (Exodus 32)—a high mountain also being the site of Jesus’ third temptation.
There are also parallels between Jesus’ baptism and his temptation:
• In all three Synoptic Gospels, the temptation immediately follows Jesus’ baptism.
• Both baptism and temptation take place in the wilderness.
• The Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism now leads him into the wilderness.
• At baptism, God announced Jesus’ sonship, a relationship that the tempter uses in the temptation—”If you are the Son of God….”
• At his baptism, Jesus was faithful in spite of John’s protest. At his temptation, he is faithful in spite of the tempter’s best (or worst) efforts.
Temptation has not lost its power, but is still an active force today. Those who are working for Christ and the kingdom of God can expect to be special targets for Satan’s enticements. However, as we resist these temptations, we will grow stronger and stronger to resist future temptation.
MATTHEW 4:1-2. LED UP BY THE SPIRIT—TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL
1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (Greek: peirasthenai—from peirazo—tempted or tested) by the devil. 2When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry afterward.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (v. 1a). The Spirit, which descended upon Jesus like a dove, now leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. That seems like a strange agenda for the Spirit of God! It would seem that the Spirit of God would lead Jesus out of temptation instead of into it. Very shortly, Jesus will teach us to pray, “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Note, however, that the Spirit does not tempt Jesus, but only leads him into the wilderness—goes with him into the wilderness—reminiscent of the 23rd Psalm, where God goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death. The Spirit leads Jesus—accompanies Jesus. The tempting is the devil’s business.
“to be tempted (peirasthenai—from peirazo) by the devil” (v. 1b). The word peirazo can mean tempt or test. To tempt is to entice a person to do what is wrong; to test is to give a person the opportunity to choose what is right. To tempt is to hope for failure; to test is to hope for success. In Jesus’ temptation, the Spirit is testing Jesus. Satan intends to tempt him–to compromise him–to break him.
Testing has precedents in the Old Testament:
• God tested Abraham by demanding the life of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). After Abraham demonstrated his willingness to offer his Isaac to God, God said, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
• As noted above, God tested the Israelites in the wilderness. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2). Note that Israel was also known as God’s son (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1; Deuteronomy 8:2-5). Israel failed the test, going after other gods and reaping bitter fruit. God punished them but did not abandon them. Punishment was intended to redeem instead of to destroy.
• God allowed Satan to test Job, a righteous man. Terrible calamities befell Job, who remained steadfast in his faith. God blessed Job by restoring his health, wealth and family. The examples of Abraham and Job provide us a clue to God’s intent. God allows the beloved to choose good or evil, and hopes to bless the right choice—not all that different than being the parent of a college-age youth.
Jesus’ testing (peirazo) begins in the wilderness, but does not end there. He will be tested by the Pharisees (16:1; 19:3; 22:18) and by a lawyer (22:35), all who hope for Jesus to fail.
An issue for Christians today is the existence of the devil (diabolos). Does such a being exist, or is it simply a primitive myth. Today we are tempted to see evil as the product of flawed social systems—poverty, racism, ignorance, etc.—and to discount the existence of the devil.
However, evil is not restricted to people who come from poverty or have been subject to racism or poor educational opportunities. Consider the offspring of suburbia, few of whom are victims of poverty or racism, and most of whom enjoy great affluence and opportunity. If bad circumstances produce evil, good circumstances should produce good. But are the children of the suburbs paragons of virtue? Hardly! Affluent youth are often troubled youth.
Does that mean that flawed social systems do not produce evil? No! Does it mean that the church has no responsibility to correct such systems? No! It simply means that we must recognize that evil is a personal issue as well as a sociological one. It wells up, not only in our neighborhoods, but also in our hearts.
Also, the Biblical witness is clear. There is a source of evil called Satan (the Hebrew word) or devil (the Greek word) who personifies evil and works 24/7 to cause our downfall.
“He had fasted forty days and forty nights” (v. 2). “Forty days” does not have the same precision that we attach to it. It is like our phrase, “a couple of weeks,” which might mean fourteen days—or twelve—or sixteen. Its function is to connect Jesus with Moses, who fasted for forty days (Exodus 34:28), Elijah, who fasted for forty days (1 Kings 19:8), and the Israelites, who wandered for forty years in the wilderness (Exodus 16:35).
MATTHEW 4:3-4. THE FIRST TEMPTATION
3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
4But (Jesus) answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'”
“If you are the Son of God” (v. 3a). Following the baptism, a voice from heaven announced, “This is my Son.” Now the devil says, “If you are the Son of God”—introducing doubt—challenging Jesus to prove the authenticity of his identity.
“command that these stones become bread” (v. 3b). The devil attacks Jesus at his weakest point—his compelling physical hunger. Such hunger drains us, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. A starving person hardly has the strength to take nourishment—much less strength to turn it down. A starving person will do nearly anything to get food—the drive to survive is built into us. The temptation for Jesus is to relieve his own hunger—to use mighty power for a small purpose. But perhaps the purpose is not small. Jesus must eat—otherwise he will die and his mission will die with him. The tempter uses persuasive logic!
A popular notion is that the temptation is also to make bread for others. Jesus, a compassionate person, would want to feed the hungry. Bread for the hungry would also confirm Jesus’ messiahship and draw people to him. And once they have bread, they will need water—and shelter—and clothing—and so forth. If Jesus can turn stones into bread, just imagine the many ways that he can improve people’s lives—and compel their allegiance.
But Matthew gives no hint that there is anything involved in this first temptation other than an appeal to Jesus’ hunger. There is no mention of feeding the hungry, nor do subsequent verses speak of appealing to crowds. The notion that the devil is appealing to Jesus’ concern for the hungry of the world constitutes “eisegesis,” or imposing our ideas on the text—rather than “exegesis,” or drawing ideas from the text.
“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God'” (v. 4). Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, which speaks of the Israelites in the wilderness. “He humbled you, and allowed you to be hungry, and fed you with manna, which you didn’t know, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The Israelites had been hungry and had complained about God’s negligence, thus failing the test. Jesus’ responds differently. He neither complains nor tries to short-circuit the test.
Under different circumstances, Jesus will use his power to feed the hungry (Matthew 14:13-21; 15: 32-39). Jesus does not claim that we do not need bread, but that we do not live by bread alone. We must have bread, but our deeper need is satisfied only by the word of God. Jesus will provide bread, but he will not do so by turning his back on God. The real issue here is that he cannot begin his ministry by following the devil’s lead. The clarion call is: “Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
We, the church, must remember the centrality of the word of God. We rightly provide help to needy people—food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, hygiene—but our motivation to do so will soon wither unless we are fed and strengthened by the word of God. Our first duty is to be fed by and to feed others on the word of God.
MATTHEW 4:5-7. THE SECOND TEMPTATION
5Then the devil took him into the holy city. He set him on the pinnacle (Greek: pterygion) of the temple, 6and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you.’ and,
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone.'”
7Jesus said to him,
“Again, it is written,
‘You shall not test the Lord, your God.'”
“Then the devil took him into the holy city. He placed him on the pinnacle (pterygion) of the temple” (v. 5). We are not certain where this pterygion is located, but Josephus tells us that, at its highest point, Herod’s temple was 120 cubits (180 feet or 55 meters) high—the height of a modern eighteen-story building (Roberts, 505).
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (v. 6a). The temptation is to put God to the test, just as the Israelites did at Massah. God has announced Jesus as Son (3:17). Now the devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12, challenging Jesus to take God at God’s word. Again, the devil begins by saying, “If you are the Son of God….” The challenge is for Jesus to prove his identity to himself and to others—and to take advantage of his power.
A popular notion is that this is a temptation to rally people quickly with a spectacular demonstration of power. The devil has identified a strategy for saving people, not one by one, but by the wagonload. Not only can Jesus jump-start his ministry, but he can also save people who would otherwise be lost—who will die before they get a second chance. Again, note the persuasive logic! But also note France’s objection in the comments on verse 3b above.
“for it is written, ‘He will put his angels in charge of you.’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone'” (v. 6b). The devil quotes from Psalm 91:11-12, verses that reassure the person “who dwells in the secret place of the Most High” (Psalm 91:1) of God’s help in adversity.
A lesson for the church is that the devil and the devil’s disciples quote scripture for evil purposes. While they appeal to our lower nature, their strongest appeal is to our higher nature. They try to persuade us to do, not what we know is wrong, but what we think is right. They are often well dressed and well spoken—butter would not melt in their mouths. They are friendly. Their goals seem sound and their logic seems unassailable. It places a burden on us to listen with discriminating ears, not just to hear what is said but also to evaluate the person saying it:
• Are we listening to an adviser or a tempter—a builder or a destroyer?
• Does the person have a hidden agenda—an ax to grind?
• Is the person an encourager or a discourager—a lover or a hater?
• Does the person exhibit in his or her life the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control—Galatians 5:22-23)?
• Does the person who is trying to advise us manage his or her own life, business, and family well? Spiritually? Financially? Professionally? Morally?
We are easily tempted when we see the world going awry and feel the necessity to put it back on track. It is all too easy to decide that, for once, the end justifies the means.
“Again it is written, ‘Do not test the Lord your God'” (v. 7). Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, giving one scripture precedence over another. No one, not even Jesus, has the right to put God to the test. Such testing is evidence, not of faith, but of doubt. To test God is to put us in the driver’s seat and to require God to follow our lead.
To answer scripture with scripture, as Jesus does here, we must know the Bible and basic Christian doctrine. We must have our answer ready, because the tempter will not give us time to look it up or to seek advice. The tempter is a master of timing, and insists that we make our decision now. As the Scouts say, “Be Prepared!”
MATTHEW 4:8-10. THE THIRD TEMPTATION
8Again, the devil took him to an exceedingly high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory. 9He said to him, “I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me.”
10Then Jesus said to him,
“Get behind me, Satan! For it is written,
‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and you shall serve him only.'”
“Again, the devil took him to an exceedingly high mountain” (v. 8a). Again, we are reminded of Moses, who met God on a high mountain. On this high mountain, Jesus confronts the devil. Jesus has come to save the world, and the devil offers him the world.
“and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (v. 8b). Moses, too, could see the kingdoms of the world from atop his high mountain. On that mountain, God promised that Israel would prosper, and then warned of the danger of saying in one’s heart, “My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). God went on to say:
“But you shall remember Yahweh your God,
for it is he who gives you power to get wealth;
that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers,
as at this day.
It shall be, if you shall forget Yahweh your God,
and walk after other gods,
and serve them, and worship them,
I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish.
As the nations that Yahweh makes to perish before you,
so you shall perish;
because you wouldn’t listen to the voice of Yahweh your God” (Deuteronomy 8:18-20).
Given Israel’s plight under Roman domination, an offer of the whole world is a powerful enticement. The Jews remember with longing the days of David and Solomon. In those days, Israel was a nation to be reckoned with—small but great. Israeli armies defeated great nations. Now Israel is a shadow of its former self. Roman publicans collect taxes and Roman soldiers enforce the taxation. The emperor’s face is on their coins. Jewish greatness is a distant memory. Nothing would draw people to Jesus faster than a credible promise of political and military power–even if gaining power required a pact with the devil.
“I will give you all of these things, if you will fall down and worship me” (v. 9). The devil names an attractive price. Both verbs (“fall down” and “worship”) are aorist, suggesting that the devil is asking that Jesus fall down and worship him only once–no lifelong commitment required. However, Jesus surely understands the devil’s gambit–one step will lead to another–and another–and another. No bargain with the devil will ever turn out to be a one-time affair.
But the devil’s offer would seem to be an attractive proposition, because even the New Testament acknowledges the devil’s power, calling him “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) and “world’s rulers of the darkness of this age” (Ephesians 6:12).
But while the devil makes it sound as if he will deliver the kingdoms of this world on demand, the reality is quite different. The devil has stakes driven deeply into the kingdoms of this world, and many people serve him willingly—but can he deliver the whole world? More to the point, can we trust him to deliver anything? Not likely! The devil’s offer is no offer at all, but a steel trap! The offer is only bait—and artificial bait at that!
“Get behind me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and you shall serve him only'” (v. 10). Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, reminding us that God is the only proper object of worship. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will tell us that no one can serve two masters (6:24), but first he demonstrates that principle in his own life.
We might assume that this is not a problem for us. We are not tempted to make a golden calf to worship. We would never fall down and worship the devil. Careful examination, however, might raise a question about our priorities. Is the world more important than God to us—does the world occupy the first-place space in our lives that we should reserve for God? How can we evaluate that?
• One test is how we spend our time. Are we in worship on Sunday? If not, what are we putting in first place—God’s place—on Sunday mornings?
• Another test is our financial stewardship. What are we giving? The Biblical standard is a tithe—ten percent. How far short of that do we fall? How does our budget for God compare with our budget for recreation and entertainment?
• Another test is service to others. Are we doing anything to help people in need?
Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus will say these same words to Peter when Peter protests Jesus’ announcement of his coming death (16:23). There might be times to wrestle with temptation, but we should be quick to walk away. There is nothing to be gained by mud wrestling with the tempter. The tempter offers everything, but delivers only filth. When a friend becomes a tempter, confront him or her. If it doesn’t stop, find another friend.
MATTHEW 4:11. ANGELS CAME AND SERVED HIM
11Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and served him.
In verse 6, the devil said, “‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone.'” Now that Jesus has resisted the temptation and passed the test, the angels bring Jesus comfort and sustenance.
When Abraham passed the test, God blessed him. When Job passed the test, God blessed him. Now God blesses Jesus. There is hope for us here. When faced with difficulty, remember that God has a blessing waiting.
At the close of this Gospel (28:16-20), Jesus will have the power that the tempter promised—but the power will come, not from the tempter, but from God. The route to power will not be kneeling down before the devil, but being lifted up on a cross.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan