Notes on Matthew 4:1-11: Testing Jesus

I started blogging Matthew at the beginning of the year to coincide with my pledge to engage in in depth study of the Gospel over the next calendar year.  This means reading commentaries, articles, textual criticism, and anything I can get my hands on about the Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes, my reflections will be pastoral or a discussion of Bible difficulties or simply thinking out loud in an attempt to get to the heart of what our Good Good Father wants us to know about Him.

Let’s begin.

Chapter four starts as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  It’s interesting to note that the devil does not initiate this event. The “Spirit” led Jesus there.  This was a period of testing approved and incited by God. Scholar and commentator RT France calls it an examination of Jesus’ newly revealed relationship with God.

A Hungry God?  

When it comes to this testing, there is a likely comparison to be made between Jesus, Son of God, and John The Baptist, maker of a way.  To start, God secluded John into the wilderness. He sent Jesus into the desert (v.1). John found sustenance in bugs and honey. Jesus, He made fast for 40 days and 40 nights.  Scripture confirms that He was hungry (v.2). Jesus clearly upped the ante in terms of sacrificial obedience. God tested both men. But the human state of His Son, He weakened and then matched Him against the devil, Satan, the Adversary.

How well do you hold up to temptation?  If I am being honest, for myself, not very well.  A couple weeks ago, I participated in a 21-day period of fasting and prayer.  The fasting part is not what it sounds like. I gave up caffeine. I didn’t even give up coffee;  I drank decaf. I had the opportunity to buy caffeinated joe every morning. No one would know what is in my insulated mug and surely nobody at work knew about my pledge.  But the temptation was definitely there. Admittedly, this might be a starkly, unremarkable comparison, but Jesus, recently empowered by the Holy Spirit (3:16), had the power to end his own hunger and the devil, as true to form, uses this fact to his advantage as we see in his first attempt to corrupt the Son of God.  He says, “If you are the Son of God, tell those stones to become bread.” (v.3)  To this Jesus responds from Deut. 8:3, “It is written:  Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (v.4)

RT France says of the tempting of Jesus to provide food for himself miraculously:

“The act was thus not in itself wrong. But Jesus recognized in His hunger an experience designed by God to teach Him the lesson of Deuteronomy 8:3.  His mission was to be one of continual privation, for the sake of His ministry of the word of God; a concern for His own material comfort could only jeopardize it.  As Son of God, He must learn, as Israel failed to learn, to put first things first. And that must mean an unquestioning obedience to God’s plan.” (France, “Matthew”. Pp 98.)

Jesus, as 100% God and 100% man, lived a life of continual privation, denying himself comforts that were at His fingertips every second of His life.

Jesus’ response to the devil using Deuteronomy 8:3 should also show that He understood why this time of testing was necessary.  The previous verse in Deuteronomy tells us:  

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (v.2)”

I find it hard to fathom that the humility of Jesus was in question, but God, clearly, has Jesus set up to demonstrate perfect obedience in the way His chosen people did not.  These connections are inescapable. Our Saviour was battle-tested from the start.

A Leap Of Faith?

Next, the Evil One took Jesus to the highest point in the temple of the holy city.  He continued challenging Jesus to prove his relationship with God The Father. This time though, having been scalded by scripture in his previous attempt, he tried this tactic himself.  Surely, Jesus could not argue with the word of God, right? He said: 

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written: He will command angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.  (Psa. 91:11,12)

Jesus answered him.  “It is written: “Do not put the Lord to the test.” (Deut 6:16)

So now we are in the middle of a Bible quote-off between Jesus and the devil.  Both know their scripture but only one has the goal of obedience to God. We know this because, well, one of these persons is the devil and he misuses God’s word nine times before breakfast.  Here, by Satan’s reasoning, Jesus should throw himself down because the angels of the Lord will certainly protect the Son of God. And this will prove who you are. Easy Peazy. But the Adversary gets the context of the passage in Psalm 91 purposely backwards.  The first two verses in the Psalm read:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (v.1,2)

But if Jesus were to throw himself down, whom or what would He be trusting in?  Certainly not God’s plan, right? He would be forcing God’s hand. Testing His word when the Son should be trusting it.  By understanding the scriptural landscape and trusting the Father’s plan, Jesus is succeeding in the way the Israelites failed.  In fact, Matthew draws these parallels between the failures of the early followers of God and the sufficiency of Jesus as a fulfillment of perfect obedience.  For this reason, Jesus references in his answer Deuteronomy 6:16 which itself looks back to Exodus 17 where the Israelite community quarreled with Moses for him to get God to give them water.  God finally instructed Moses to strike a rock to miraculously produce water. The ancient people of God TESTED the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7)

The Evil One demonstrates how he wants the Son to not act in service to the Father, but act as if the Father serves the Son.  We, as children of God, repeat this type of theology when we obligate God to answer our questions about His plans for us or attempt to shame Him for His past undesirable (to our eye) deeds.  Satan seeks to confuse us by tampering with the order of things.  

If our God is the God of Abraham, then He resides as the ultimate authority and necessarily becomes the focus of our lives.  However, many people are tragically looking for a god that, first, agrees with them and, second, serves them.

The Kingdom Without The Cross

The devil, undeterred, now took him to the very high mountains and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.  These were kingdoms that over which Satan held dominion and contesting his dominion was the reason Jesus came to Earth.  So the devil wasn’t usurping any authority when he offered, “All this I will give to you, if you will bow down and worship me.” (v.9)

So here we have Jesus, with full knowledge of God’s plan, the trials, the humiliation, the extreme pain of crucifixion, with a way to avoid it all.  All He has to do is bow down before the Deceiver and worship him and He can have the kingdom without the pain and anguish of the Cross. This is how Jesus responded:

“Away from me Satan!  For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” (v.10)  

Similarly, Jesus responded to Peter’s denial of Jesus’ teaching His mission of the Cross in Matthew 16:22.  He said: 

“Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me;  you do not have in mind the things of God, but things of men.”

The obvious connection here is that The Cross is Jesus’ unavoidable mission.  And if we are followers of Christ, It is our unavoidable mission as well. We mustn’t fall for these shortcuts introduced by our culture that seemingly get us there without the struggle, pain, or trials that are part of God’s plan.  If there is a reason that God tests us, it is so that we can be prepared ahead of time for the devil’s gambit. But this preparation first requires our obedience.

Eve of Destruction

Another connection with the Old Testament can be found in Genesis 3 where the Serpent tempts Eve.  Clearly, the Devil has employed the same ‘ol tricks from the very beginning. Below, I list Satan’s Genesis temptation with the Matthew 4 test.

  1. The Serpent tempted Eve with food. Although Scripture does not allude to hunger as motivation for Eve’s fall, it does describe the fruit as good (Gen. 3:6).  The Devil tempted a hungry Jesus with food.
  2. The Serpent told Eve she would not die from eating the food.  The Devil told Jesus that angels would save Him if He threw Himself down.
  3. The Serpent told Eve that eating from the tree would make her like God.  Eve wanted knowledge. The Devil told Jesus that if He bowed down and worshiped him, he would give Jesus the kingdom.  The very thing He came to earth to gain.

Well, we shall stop there for now.  Quite enough to think about if you ask me.  We will finish the chapter next time. May God bless you and keep you.

Sources:

France, RT. “Matthew”. Page 98.

Bruce, FF. “Understanding the New Testament: Matthew”. Pages 13-14.

https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/ivp-nt/Gods-Son-Passes-Test.

All Scripture is the NIV Translation.