Matthew 4:1-11 - The Temptation of Jesus
1) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2) He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3) The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4) But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5) Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6) saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7) Jesus said to him, Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8) Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, 9) and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10) Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11) Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (NRSV)
What is temptation? Temptation is the lure to get what we want (or think we want) by means that are inconsistent with God’s purposes and values for our lives and community. Temptation itself is not sin. Temptation often involves the desire for proper or noble things. The problem is the manner, or the context in which we try to achieve those desires. What is the purpose of temptation? In the Bible, temptation usually is for a positive purpose and often intensifies the more devout and holy a person becomes. It is a test to fit one for a new and deeper assignment for God. Such is the case in Jesus’ temptation in Matthew. Here the temptation is understood as necessary preparation for his Galilean ministry. Temptation is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It is important in Matthew to realize that the tests that Jesus undergoes in the wilderness are the exact same tests that Israel underwent in the wilderness. This means, of course, that these temptations are not his alone but are the temptations of all of God’s people. They represent all of the possibilities of doubt, misdirection and faithlessness to which we, too, are subject. Where Israel stumbled (and we stumble) Jesus triumphs. In his triumph we find both warning and encouragement in our own struggles.
v. 1 – Then – The experience of temptation follows Jesus’ baptism and is intimately connected to it. In his baptism he entered his public ministry. Once he accepts his role, he is led to testing. led up by the Spirit - this phrase can mean both that the Spirit directed Jesus into his time of testing and that the Spirit directed him during his time of testing. Remember that Jesus is equipped with the Spirit as he enters his time of testing. It is God who is in charge and who guides and equips Jesus.
wilderness - In the ancient world the wilderness was considered a spiritual place in which angels and demons lived. For the Israelites, the wilderness was also a reminder of their time of testing and wandering after the Exodus from Egypt. It is in the wilderness that both identity and obedience are forged.
v. 2 - Fasted - this refers to a fast for spiritual purposes. Fasting has a long tradition in the Jewish and Christian faiths. It is a spiritual discipline that entails the refraining from food (or certain foods) for the purpose of creating a more intentional relationship with God. It is an offering of self and life to God.
forty days - forty days reminds us of Moses 40 day fast on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34:28); Elijah’s 40 day flight to the Mountain of God (I Kings 19:4-8) and Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness.
famished - in Matthew the temptations come at the end of Jesus’ forty day fast when he is physically weakened, but spiritually strengthened. However, physical weakness leaves us remarkably vulnerable. The word here is a strong one, like “starved to death”.
v. 3 – tempter (devil) - In Scripture the words “tempter”, “devil” and “Satan’ are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not. In this case they appear to be. The devil here is a personal power of evil that is in deliberate opposition to God’s purposes. He represents all powers, forces or desires that confound and resist God’s will for human life and for all of creation. Still, it is important to remember that the devil is not God and is not a god. Even his authority comes because God permits it. Even his work can be used by God for good. If you are - this is an affirmation not a question. In common usage it means something like “Ok, since you are the Messiah.” This is a test of Jesus’ self identity and may be designed to undermine his self confidence.
Son of God - this refers to the Messiah who would save and restore Israel.
Stones to bread – this test builds on Jesus’ hunger. All temptation looks for a weakness to exploit. Had Jesus fallen to this temptation he would have been choosing to meet his immediate needs at the expense of his mission. It is the “me first”, “me now” temptation.
v. 4 - It is written - this was a common phrase that indicated reliance upon the authority of Scripture. The quotation here is from Deut. 8:3.
v. 5 – holy city – Jerusalem
Pinnacle of the Temple - the highest point of the holiest place
v. 6 - command his angels - This is a quote from Psalm 91. It is especially cunning and appalling that the Evil One can even use Scripture in a twisted way to lure people astray.
v. 7 - Put to the test - This temptation to put God to the test puts us in charge of God, like puppeteers pulling the strings.
v. 8 – high mountain – Matthew is a gospel of mountains, Mt. Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the Mt. of Transfiguration, and Mt. Calvary. Mountains were places where God’s important activity took place. In Matthew, when we go to the mountain we know something important is about to happen.
Kingdoms of the world…fall down and worship – This temptation, in addition to false worship, is the temptation to take short cuts. Jesus will be Lord of the kingdoms from the cross. There are no short cuts. This temptation is to avoid the hard places and take the easy road.
Questions for Reflection
1. In what areas do you find yourself most tempted to get what you want by means that might not be pleasing to God?
2. In what ways do you need heavenly care?
3. How might you offer the care of kindness this week?