Temptation in the wilderness

by Scott Grant

Matthew 4:1-11


Challenge to identity

Think of things that you consider central to your identity. Now think of what it's like to have them challenged. Think of what it's like to be challenged as a man or a woman, for example. Our sexuality is closely tied to our identity (Genesis 1:27, 1 Corinthians 6:18). What's it like to hear or feel questions such as, "You're not much of a man, are you?" "You're not much of a woman, are you?" Now think how we respond to such voices. The response is to silence the voices by proving them wrong.

Jesus faced such a temptation. Probably the most definitive title for Jesus is that of "Son of God." It was central to his identity and his calling. Satan challenged Jesus' identity as the Son of God and tempted him to fulfill his call in a way contrary to God's will. Satan offered Jesus the easy way to the fulfillment of his vocation. Jesus resisted, and because he resisted, we are saved. Despite tremendous temptation, Jesus chooses to fulfill his vocation as the Son of God in God's way, which results in our salvation.

Matthew 4:1-11, if we follow the author's narrative, should be considered in light of who Jesus is, what he is called to do, and how he fulfills his call. The passage, in other words, is about Jesus. Matthew invites us to contemplate Jesus. Certainly, there is application for us in this passage regarding how to resist temptation. Jesus is our example (Philippians 2:5). But how many of us have used the accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness as a formula for resisting temptation and given in nevertheless - time after time? The passage is not a formula for resisting temptation; it is an invitation to consider Jesus, who resisted temptation for us and went on to win our redemption. And if we see that, if we see him and appreciate and adore and worship him because of what he went through for us, we'll be the kind of people who resist temptation not because we can follow a formula but because we love Jesus.

The real enemy (4:1)

Matthew 4:1:

(1) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

After coming through the water of the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17), Jesus is led into the wilderness by God, just as Israel was led into the wilderness by God after coming through the water of Red Sea (Exodus 13:21) and the water of the Jordan (Joshua 3:14-17). Jesus, the announced Son of God who assumes Israel's vocation, to some degree repeats Israel's wilderness experience.

The Spirit had just come upon Jesus and proclaimed him the Son of God (Matthew 3:17). With such an endorsement ringing in his ears, the Spirit leads Jesus to a difficult place to face a difficult foe. It is not what one might expect after such an endorsement, or what one might want.
Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Davidic king. As such, he to some extent repeats David's experience. After David was anointed by the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13), he faced a difficult foe, Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Likewise, after Jesus was anointed by the Spirit (Matthew 3:16), he faces a difficult foe, the devil, which means "slanderer." The devil uses deception to achieve his ends, slandering God and his word.

So in one verse, we see once again that Jesus, as the Son of God, fulfills God's design for both Israel and the Israelite king (Exodus 4:22, 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7). Jesus, the freshly anointed king, would now be expected to lead Israel to victory. The oppressing power at the time was Rome, so Rome would be the expected enemy. The Spirit of God leads the king into battle, yes, but not with Rome. The real enemy, it turns out, is not Rome but the devil, and the devil has taken up residence in Israel. Its leaders are of "their father the devil" (John 8:44). The enemy isn't without; it was within. The problem isn't "out there"; the problem is "in here." The internal battle is not one they want him to fight.

Is it the battle we want him to fight? Do we want our king to fix the problem "out there," or do we acknowledge that the problem is "in here," in our own hearts? Recognizing the problem as "out there," with others, is the safe way. If we acknowledge that our real enemy is the devil and that we have given him a foothold into our lives, we give up the security of victimhood. Jesus came not to fight with the enemies we'd perhaps like him to vanquish, but with our real foe. Let us be thankful he did not conform to our expectations but instead chose to fight the battle that would liberate us from our true oppressor.

Because Jesus faced the real oppressor, "we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:14). He walked through the fiery halls of temptation. He heard the hiss of the serpent, the same hiss that we hear every day.

The temptation to not trust God (4:2-4)

Matthew 4:2-4:

(2) And after He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He then became hungry. (3) And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." (4) But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'"

Jesus had been fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. Again, he fulfills the role of Israel, which spent 40 years in the wilderness. He succeeds in following the Lord where Israel failed. The site of the first temptation is the wilderness, where Jesus is on the brink of bringing in the kingdom, just as Israel in the wilderness was on the brink of bringing in the kingdom. The devil is called "the tempter." He tempts Jesus to disobey God, and he does so the same way he always tempts: by trying to get Jesus to believe things that aren't true.

The first two temptations begin with the words, "If you are the Son of God ... " The devil is not so much tempting Jesus to question whether he is the Son of God as he is tempting him to fulfill his vocation in a different, easier way - a way contrary to God's will, a way that would leave us in our sins.

The temptation is to use his power to turn the stones into bread. It would have come to Jesus something like this, "If you are the Son of God, God can't want you to go hungry, can he? Where is God, anyway? Doesn't he promise to meet your needs? Certainly he'd meet the needs of the vaunted 'Son of God.' If he cares at all, he's got a pretty warped idea of who the Son of God is. This vocation of yours - you know, the one that involves saving the world - I don't think God's going to be with you in this one. I mean, look how it's starting out - hunger in the wilderness and all. God gave Israel manna in the wilderness. Where's your manna? I think you'd better make your own manna. If you are the Son of God, you have the power. Go ahead. Then you can get on with your mission, and you can do it your way with your power, both of which, as you can see by the evidence, are more reliable than God's way and God's power."

Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, as he does in the next two temptations. Deuteronomy was given to Israel in the wilderness as it was preparing to enter the land of promise. In responding to the devil from Deuteronomy, Jesus obeys God in a place that Israel did not. Israel failed, not only in the wilderness but in the land of promise. It forgot Deuteronomy. Jesus does not.

Jesus quotes from part of Deuteronomy 8:3. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 reads thus, as the Lord speaks to Israel through Moses, "And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these 40 years, that he might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord." The Lord actually allowed the Israelites to go hungry, and fed them miraculously, that they might learn dependence on him. Jesus learned it; Israel did not.

Jesus responds to Satan's temptation by trusting God's word. The Spirit of God led him into the wilderness, and this fast was evidently God's idea. Jesus experienced need in the wilderness, just as Israel (Exodus 16:2-3). But whereas Israel grumbled against the Lord (Exodus 17:2), Jesus does not. He trusts God to meet his needs, though he had every ability to meet them himself. Jesus lives on the word that comes out of God's mouth, not the food that goes into his. Food is not unimportant, but what God has said about it is more important. In the face of tremendous temptation to break his fast, Jesus chooses to trust God.

Jesus refuses the temptation to use his own power and chooses to trust God for his vocation as Son of God. The devil presented a compelling case that God had the wrong idea, but Jesus rejected the notion. His choice was consistent with the eternal choice he made to not to exploit his divine power but to set it aside, depending completely on God's provision (Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus thus begins by choosing to fulfill his vocation in God's way. Thank God he did! When we get to the end of Matthew, we find Jesus taking some bread, breaking it, giving it to his disciples and saying, "Take, eat; this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). Because he didn't turn the stones into bread, he was able to offer himself up as bread - our bread, the bread of life. Listen to Jesus: "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). He who comes to Jesus!

The temptation to test God (4:5-7)

Matthew 4:5-7:

(5) Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, (6) and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written,

'He will give His angels charge concerning You';
and 'On their hands they will bear You up,
Lest You strike Your foot against a stone.'"
(7) Jesus said to him, "On the other hand, it is wri
tten, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

In the final two temptations, the devil "takes" Jesus somewhere, first to Jerusalem and then to a mountain where he can see the world. The devil wants to take Jesus out of the wilderness, the desperate and lonely place, and convince him to get on with his mission.

Jerusalem, the holy city, was the heart of the promised land. It was where Israel was established after it left the wilderness. God's call was for Israel to be established in the land and to be a blessing to all nations. God has it designed for Jesus to successfully fulfill Israel's vocation, and the devil is encouraging Jesus to get on with it, to leave the desperate, lonely place in the wilderness and assume his destiny.

Jerusalem was where God's kingdom on earth was established. It is where the Davidic kings reigned, and it is where the temple was built. Inside the temple was the ark of the covenant, which served as God's throne on earth (2 Samuel 6:2). To Jesus the king, it would have meant the kingdom. He had to go to Jerusalem, and Israel had to somehow be convinced to follow him. Jesus wanted desperately to gather the children of Jerusalem "the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings," but, he tells Jerusalem, "you were unwilling" (Matthew 23:37). No doubt he already knows that God's way of being king will not be popular in Israel.

Once again, the devil begins his temptation with the words, "If you are the Son of God ... "
Again, the devil presents an alternative scenario to the fulfillment of Jesus' vocation. In response to the first temptation, Jesus quoted scripture, beginning with the words, "It is written ... " Thus the devil follows a similar formula, though he quotes from the Psalms, trying to get Jesus out of Deuteronomy and ultimately out of the wilderness, where he is trusting God.

In the first temptation, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his own power, but Jesus trusted in God. Integral to the vocation of the Son of God is that he trusts God. The devil says, "Very well, you trust God. Here's an opportunity to trust him." The devil, using Psalm 91:11-12 as an incentive, invites Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple in the belief that God would send his angels to rescue him.

What is the nature of this temptation? Jesus knows that God's way to Jerusalem is not easy (Matthew 16:21). God wanted his king to fight all the "wrong" battles. If Jesus was intent on not trusting in himself but trusting in God, and his vocation involved winning Jerusalem, and Jerusalem would be difficult to win, he'd better have God on his side. Although Jesus trusted God in the wilderness, perhaps God still hadn't proved all that trustworthy. Jesus refused to turn the stones into bread, but he still had no bread. Thus, the devil brings Jesus to the temple, emblematic of the kingdom, and encourages him to indulge in a little test case - a test flight! - to see if God will truly be with him in this impossible task. Angels worshiped Jesus when he was a child (Luke 2:13-14), and they, along with humanity, were supposed to submit to his sovereignty. (We see angels doing precisely that in Revelation 5:11-12.) It would be a good test to see if God would send angels to him in Jerusalem; the humans in Jerusalem would be a tougher case. The devil is saying to Jesus, "See if God will be with you in this little thing. Make God prove himself before you enter this frightening arena." Ultimately, jumping off the temple would be a way of proving himself to himself - that as the Son of God, God is with him. Presumably, the successful test case would open the door for Jesus to saunter into Jerusalem and take control.

Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:16, which reads fully, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah." What happened at Massah? The people tested the Lord there by demanding that he give them water, demanding proof that the Lord was with them (Exodus 17:1-3, 7). The New Testament word translated here "tempt" can also be translated "test." Jesus refuses to force God to prove himself. Jesus thus refuses to prove himself to himself. He will go to Jerusalem in God's time and face its fury and trust that God will be with him without throwing up any trial balloons.

What if Jesus had given into this temptation? What if he had tested God in this way and marched into Jerusalem to take over, instead of stumbling to a hill outside Jerusalem to hang on a cross? If he had tested God in this way, none of us would survive God's test of us (1 Corinthians 3:13).

The temptation to worship another god (4:8-10)

Matthew 4:8-10:

(8) Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; (9) and he said to Him, "All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me." (10) Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.'"

The sphere of temptation expands to the world, which is surveyed from the mountain to which Jesus is taken. (It is likely that the two final temptations were presented to Jesus in some kind of vision, for there is no mountain from which one could have surveyed all the kingdoms of the world.) The sphere - the entire world - is Jesus' destiny as the Son of God.

Israel, beginning with its patriarch, Abraham, was to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). The nations were to come to the light of Israel (Isaiah 60:3). Jerusalem was to be the "the light of the world" and "a city set on a hill" (Matthew 5:14). Jesus, fulfilling the vocation of Israel and its king, is supposed to reign over the whole earth, bringing righteousness to it.

The devil offers Jesus the ultimate fulfillment of his vocation, the fulfillment of his deepest dreams. The call to bring righteousness and peace to the entire world is deep in his being, and that dream is now spread out before his eyes. This is the goal of his call, where it all leads. And he can have it all now! And he can have it without suffering! God's way to universal sovereignty is long and arduous and, from all appearances at the outset, darn near impossible. The temptation is to cut to the chase, to get on with it, to take the easy way. The temptation is to forget the cross. The temptation to avoid the cross would dog Jesus for the rest of his life.

In the first temptation, the devil tempts Jesus to use his own power. In the second temptation, the devil tempts Jesus to force God to use his power. In the third temptation, the devil says, "Here, take my power." The devil is the ruler of this world (John 12:31). The devil has one condition. He will give Jesus universal sovereignty if Jesus will worship him.

Each of the three temptations contains the word "if." All three uses of the word pertain to Jesus' identity as the Son of God and give him the opportunity to fulfill the vocation that comes with the identity. In each temptation, Jesus is challenged to do something in order to get something - the ultimate fulfillment of his call.

Jesus recognizes this as the devil's last and best play and commands the devil to leave his presence. He calls the devil "Satan," which means "enemy." He is the enemy behind all enemies. He is the true enemy.

Jesus again quotes from Deuteronomy, and his specific use of Deuteronomy 6:13 is no accident. Israel was called to worship the Lord, but its ultimate failure was that it worshiped other gods. Its idolatry was its failure. The devil is the god behind all the false gods (1 Corinthians 10:19-20). Jesus again is walking in the footsteps of Israel, and he is tempted to fail where Israel failed.
If Jesus had given into this temptation and assumed sovereignty on the devil's terms, what kind of world would he be leading? What kind of world would we be living in now? What would be the prospects for eternity? One thing's for sure: It would be an unredeemed world. It might be something along the lines of hell: no righteousness, no peace, no joy - no God. Because Jesus resisted the devil, creation is redeemed, including all those in the kingdoms of the world who want for redemption.

The devil leaves; the angels come (4:11)

Matthew 4:11:

(11) Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Jesus stands firm in his resolve to trust God, to not test God, and to worship God, Satan leaves. Earlier, Satan "came" (Matthew 4:3); now he leaves. As the devil leaves, the angels come. The angels, who in the devil's scheme would have come to recognize Jesus by catching him as he fell from the temple, now come and minister to him. God sends his angels after all. Evidently, in ministering to him, the angels feed him. God acted to meet Jesus' needs. The angels, which were to come to him in Jerusalem, come after all, in the wilderness, acknowledging that God's way to Jerusalem, and ultimately the world, is the right way. They are his servants, acknowledging his universal sovereignty.

Join the angels

The title "Son of God" means king; it means reigning over a kingdom; it means reigning over people in a kingdom. Therefore, it involves us. Because Jesus resisted fiery temptation that burned in the core of his being, we are included in his glorious kingdom.

Do you know what title God gives to those who are included in the Kingdom of Jesus? Amazingly, we are called "sons of God." Galatians 3:26: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." Jesus shares his reign with us. And as we look to the end of the story, we see ourselves reigning in this new and redeemed creation, this kingdom, "forever and ever" (Revelation 22:5).

So, aren't you glad Jesus didn't conform to popular expectations? Aren't you glad that he doesn't conform to your expectations? Aren't you glad that he didn't come to vanquish your perceived enemies and instead fought the real enemy? Satan is "the accuser of the brethren" (Revelation 12:10). Jesus triumphed over him and disarmed him on the cross, so that his accusations carry no weight for those who are in Christ Jesus (Colossians 2:13-15). We still hear the hiss of the serpent in our hearts, though, as he sends his flaming missiles into our minds, encouraging self-accusatory thoughts such as, "You idiot. You're worthless. You're incompetent. You're filthy. You're unlovable. You're not good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough ... " One day, the serpent will be silenced. Because Jesus went to the cross, Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone (Revelation 20:10), and we will hear his hiss no more. Aren't you glad that Jesus came first not to clean up the mess "out there" but to clean up the mess "in here," in our own hearts?

The angels came to Jesus. They worshiped him and they served him, and they are doing so even now. After seeing what Jesus went through for us, even just the beginning of what he went through for us, and the enemy he saved us from, can we do any less?

- SCG, 2-1-98