The Story: Tempted – Matthew 4:1-11
“Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined.” – Origen
Immediately following his baptism, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. The wilderness calls to mind Israel’s desert / wilderness experience in the aftermath of the Exodus. We mentioned this earlier in our study: Matthew understands Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story. There are several parallels between Jesus and Israel here:
- In the previous chapter, Jesus passes through the waters of baptism just as Israel crossed the Red Sea.
- His 40 days of fasting parallels the 40 day fast Moses experienced on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34:28).
- The 40 days Jesus spends in the wild also matches the 40 years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness.
- The wilderness is the place of Israel’s great failures. But where Israel fails repeatedly, Jesus succeeds.
In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by Satan and a conflict of kingdoms ensues. Satan essentially asks Jesus, “What kind of Messiah will you be?” The temptations will reveal Jesus’ character and provide an answer to this question.
First Temptation: Stones to Bread (v3-4)
The Greek word translated “if” here is also translated “since” in many other places in Matthew’s Gospel. Satan isn’t trying to establish Jesus’ identity as Messiah or Son of God — that’s a given. Satan knows this. In the previous chapter, God just declared it to anyone within earshot. Instead, he’s tempting Jesus to express his identity in ways that run counter to God’s will. “In view of the fact that you’re the Messiah, why don’t you turn these stones into bread?”
In this temptation, we can hear Satan whispering, “If you’re really God’s Son, surely he doesn’t want you to go hungry! Imagine what people will say: ‘God doesn’t even provide for His own Son! How will He provide for us?’” Satan’s initial temptation is a temptation of appetite; Jesus, in the midst of this period of fasting, is susceptible to this particular temptation because of His weakened physical state.
Has this ever happened to you? Does Satan know how to tempt you when you’re at your weakest? Absolutely, he does. Temptations of appetite often break down into three primary categories: food, sex, and money / possessions. These are natural appetites we have — which makes them natural points of attack for Satan and his minions.
Israel has been here before, hasn’t she? In the wild, struck with hunger pangs. After being liberated from Egypt, the Israelites began to grumble against Moses in Exodus 16: “You’ve led us out here to starve. At least in Egypt we had food to eat!” Israel failed her temptation of appetite, by not trusting in God’s provision.
And now, a similar temptation comes to Jesus: What kind of Messiah will he be? Will he be self-serving? Will He use His divine status to break the rules of nature and physics? Or will he wait for God to provide bread from heaven?
There’s something else deeper here, too: the Messiah is a public figure for Israel. So the stakes here involve the people as well. There are implications hanging in the balance if Jesus chooses to define his Messiah-ship this way. “Think of all the people you could feed. Think of all the needs you could meet.” If this is the kind of Messiah he chooses to be, then in one move, by turning those stones into bread, Jesus could wipe out hunger forever.
But he doesn’t do that.
Because his primary concern isn’t meeting your needs.
His primary concern is being faithful to the Father.
I think this is hard for us sometimes, because we’ve made such a big deal out of Jesus coming to meet our needs.
To be fair, He’s interested in our needs; over in Matt. 9, Matthew is going to tell us about a time when Jesus looked out on the people and it says he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. So Jesus is concerned about our needs. But make no mistake: that’s not His primary concern. His primary concern is faithfulness to God. Your needs are important to Jesus, but not more important than faithfulness to God. This is one of the things that qualifies Jesus to be our model in all relationships: He shows us what it means to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.
Rather than simply meeting our needs; rather than becoming a welfare king; rather than settling for a physical feeding of the flock…Jesus replies with these words from Deuteronomy, Israel’s wilderness book: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus is more than a benevolent king; He is God’s faithful Messiah. He teaches us to trust in God’s provision; to be sustained by the power of God’s Word; to wait confidently for bread from heaven. Jesus faithfully shows us what total dependence upon God looks like.
Second Temptation: High Point of the Temple (v5-7)
This temptation is yet another opportunity for Jesus to define His mission. Satan takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple. This time, the temptation goes like this: “Do something spectacular. Don’t you want these people to see who you are? If God is really with you, won’t He have to save you?” Satan really brings his A-game on this one, quoting from Psalm 91: “Doesn’t it say that ‘He will command his angels concerning you?’ If you’re truly God’s Son, wouldn’t He rush to rescue you if you were in danger?”
The second temptation is the temptation to test God. It’s the temptation to demand proof. It’s saying, “God, I want to see some results. Let’s see if you are who you say you are.” And this is antithetical to faith. Faith doesn’t have to see in order to believe. As Paul will say in 2 Cor. 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
And again, there are implications for the people here, too. Jesus could show them His identity through some sort of miraculous display. He could give them the “Wow” factor to end all debate for all time. He could amaze them, leave them in awe, and in so doing, draw the curious crowd to himself.
But again, He doesn’t do that.
Because He’s not primarily interested in impressing you or amazing you or passing your test.
He’s primarily interested in passing God’s test.
Have you ever been tempted to do something simply to impress other people? This is one of those ever-present temptations. But in Jesus, we find someone who is less concerned with what others think and more concerned with what God thinks.
Satan quotes these verses as some sort of proof-texting for the idea that God must act to save His Son when He finds him in harms way. Little does Satan realize that God’s plan of redemption will require just the opposite — that Jesus will jump headlong into the abyss because he is convinced it is God’s will for him, willfully taking up the cross and offering himself as an atonement on our behalf.
And God will not save him.
Once more, Jesus responds with Deuteronomy: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘” Jesus will be more than a wonder-worker Messiah; He will be God’s Faithful One. He shows us what it means to believe God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Third Temptation: The Kingdoms of the World (v8-10)
It seems as if the other temptations have been leading to this one. In this final temptation, Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world. This temptation is a temptation of power. “In one move, Jesus, they could all be yours. You could coerce them to recognize you by setting up your own empire. You will be their Caesar, the King of Kings. All you must do is bow before me and give me your praise.”
Satan says, “The end justifies the means. Look, I’ll give you what you want. These people will acknowledge you as lord, as long as you acknowledge me as Lord.” Satan is offering Jesus a chance to surrender; all He has to do is pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of Satan.
Interestingly, there is no “If you are the Son of God,” with this temptation — because the issue here is idolatry. This was Israel’s primary failing in the desert. Remember Exodus 32; while Moses is on the mountain receiving the commands from God, Israel is at the foot of the mountain making a golden calf. What’s fascinating about this text is that Israel worships this golden calf and then turns right around and has a festival for the Lord. They don’t totally reject their God; they simply compromise who they are by also incorporating worship to Baal.
Jesus refuses to compromise. Because the end never justifies the means. He won’t water down his commitment to the Father. As with the other temptations, we see in Jesus an ultimate and primary commitment to God that supersedes everything else.
Jesus won’t bend his knee or bow his head.
Because this is his primary concern: that we would have no other gods but God.
One final time, Jesus responds with the words of Scripture: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
In the temptations, Jesus gives us insight into these values of the Kingdom:
- Life is sustained by nothing but the Word of God. We are more than physical beings; we are spiritual beings created in the image of God. Just as God spoke creation into existence in the beginning by the power of His Word, so now does He sustain our existence through the power of the same Word.
- Believers must not put God to the test. Faith does not demand proof. Faith trusts in God’s presence, even when the circumstances don’t warrant it.
- The priority of the Kingdom is to worship God and God alone. There is only one God; all other allegiances are subservient to this primary truth.
As we learned early on in our study of The Story, a single temptation can be disastrous. Just ask Adam & Eve. And in each successive generation, we find the same thing to be true.
- Think of Esau, selling his birthright to Jacob for a tempting bowl of stew.
- Think of Moses, acting in rage to strike the rock rather than faithfully following God’s commands.
- Think of David, lingering a little too long when he happens upon the bathing Bathsheba.
Through this study of The Story, we’ve found this truth to match the reality of our lives: temptation can be disastrous.
But here’s the good news: in Jesus, we find our champion. To be human is to experience temptation. But in Jesus, we find one who was victorious over temptation by being obedient to God.
Is there a temptation that is particularly troublesome to you? Is there a struggle that is persistent for you?
Maybe you’re struggling with a temptation of appetite in one of those three areas: food, sex, or possessions.
Maybe you’re tempted to test God, to demand proof because you feel overlooked.
Maybe you’re tempted to go your own way, to set yourself up as the god of your own little world.
If so, take heart, for in Jesus we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we have – yet is without sin (Heb. 4:15).
He is the Faithful One.
So often we give in to temptations. We should remember more often how much Jesus was tempted and know that through Christ, we can resist those temptations as well!
Solid thoughts, Jason. I’ve grown to love this episode in the Story of Jesus more and more with each year that I teach it. I believe it puts on display the fullness of Jesus’ humanity unrivaled by most other stories in the Gospels – save the crucifixion itself. I teach from Luke’s account, which has a slightly different backdrop to it, I think. It seems to me that Luke is constructing a proposal, much like Paul, in which the reader should understand Jesus as the second Adam. Where Matthew allows the wilderness to echo throughout, I hear in Luke’s account echoes of the wilderness awaiting Adam (and Eve) east of Eden. Just after the baptism, in which Jesus is declared the “Son” with whom “[God] is well pleased”, Luke abruptly inserts a genealogy tying Jesus all the way back to Adam, “The son of God.” The temptations, then, if situated with Adam’s narrative in mind, offer us a reflection on what it looks like to live fully into being a child of God as we witness Jesus’ refusal of the very same temptations offered to Adam (and Eve) by the serpent (e.g., Food, Power, and Putting God to the test). It seems as though Luke is arguing that Jesus is never more the Son of God than, when in the fullness of his humanity living in concert with the Spirit’s leading, he obeys the Father fully by rejecting Satan’s temptation to take the power of God into his own hands.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but it makes since to me! Thanks for sharing your insights, Jason, and for encouraging us all to follow the lead of Jesus in all things.