Jesus tested in the desert (preaching resource for 2/26/23)

This post exegetes Matthew 4:1-11, the RCL Gospel reading for 2/26/23. It draws on multiple resources including "The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament" by Craig Keener, "The New Bible Commentary" by RT France, and "The Bible Knowledge Commentary" by Louis Barbieri. 

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Kramskoy (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

In Matthew chapter 3, Jesus is baptized on behalf of all humanity, anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry to all humanity, and approved (accredited) by the Father as his Son who is given authority over all humanity (and all the cosmos). Now in chapter 4, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to be tested in the wilderness (desert), further preparing him for his ministry and further accrediting him as Messiah. We begin in Matthew 4:1:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  

A common recitation in the Old Testament is that God led or guided the children of Israel in the wilderness (e.g. Isa 63:14), where they were tested (the meaning of tempted in Mat 4:1). Now Jesus, representing all humanity (including Israel), is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert. There he encounters the devil. The Old Testament rarely mentions the devil, but concern about his activity as “the tempter” (v3 and also Job 1–2) had become prominent among Jews in Jesus’ day. Thus the surprising feature in this account for Matthew’s original Jewish readers would not have been that the devil tempts, but that he does so in person.

Jesus’ time in the desert begins with 40 days and nights of fasting (v2). Matthew intends that we see here a parallel to Moses, for Jesus is the prophesied “new Moses” promised to Israel (Deut 18:15). Many Jewish people at the time are hoping that this new Moses would lead them out of bondage via a new exodus—complete with new manna (bread from heaven). Matthew is showing us that Jesus is all these: the new (and final) Moses (who is the new lawgiver, Mat 5), the new exodus for Israel (and all people), and the new bread from heaven. 

But now comes the devil to call into question through three tests (temptations) the recently declared status of Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 3:17). Each test examines an aspect of that status and ways in which to misuse it could ruin Jesus’ ministry. Jesus must be ready to accept privation in fulfilling his God-given task without ‘pulling rank’ (vv2–4); to trust his Father’s care without the need to test it by forcing God’s hand (vv5–7); and to reject the ‘short cut’ to the fulfillment of his mission which would be achieved at the cost of compromising his loyalty to his Father (vv8–10). 

In each case, Jesus rebuts the devil’s temptations with a quote from Deuteronomy chapters 6–8. That section of Scripture relates Israel’s experience of testing in the desert (‘as a man disciplines his son’, Deut 8:5; 8:2). The verses quoted focus on the lessons Israel should have learned by that experience. Now a new ‘son of God’ is being prepared for his role, and the same principles of obedience, imperfectly learned by Israel, become the basis of the ministry of Jesus, who is the ‘new Israel of God.” Let’s examine each test:

First test (2-4)

2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Here the devil tempts Jesus who is famished due to his long fast, to turn stones into bread (v3). Such feats in the ancient world were attributed to magic, so the devil tempts Jesus to be a magician rather than the Son of God that he is. In this temptation, the devil panders to human pride and calls into question Jesus’ divine sonship (thus challenging God’s earlier affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son, see Matt. 3:17). But Jesus knows who he is, for he knows his Father and he knows the scriptures. So he counters Satan’s temptation by quoting Deut 8:3b that declares that God alone is our true provider, with the implication that Jesus truly is God’s Son (see Deut 8:5).

Second test (5-7)

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" 7 Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Here the devil tempts Jesus by taking him to a part of the temple in Jerusalem that overlooks a deep valley. A fall from there would have meant certain death. Here the devil cites Ps. 91:11–12, but out of context—this passage makes clear that God’s angelic protection is for events that befall his servants, not an excuse to seek out such dangers. In response, Jesus cites Deut 6:16, which refers to how the Israelites had tested God at Massah by refusing to accept that God was among them until he wrought a sign for them (Ex 17:7).

Third test (8-10)

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

Here the devil tempts Jesus by taking him atop a “very high mountain” to give Jesus a vision of “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” This realm (being shown to Jesus apparently in a vision) does not technically belong to the devil (see Daniel 4:32), who owns human hearts only as a usurper. The best the devil can do is to make Jesus the political, military sort of Messiah most Jewish people who expected a Messiah were anticipating. Jesus counters this temptation by citing Deut 6:13, which prohibits idolatry (see Deut 6:14), a commandment anyone who worships the devil would obviously violate.

Conclusion

From what we've seen in this passage, we glean three key points:

1. Though the devil seeks to tempt Jesus to misuse his position as God’s Son, God uses Satan’s devices to advance his own purpose: preparing his Son for what lies ahead. 

2. Jesus’ fasting and hunger show that the Son of God is not free from real human suffering. He is (and today, still is) fully human, while also being fully divine. 

3. Through this path of obedience to his Father, Jesus receives all authority not only on earth but also in heaven.

The section closes with verse 11:

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Jesus defeats Satan in each of these three tests, and is cared for by righteous angels, who lovingly prepare him for the next step in his journey on mission with God.