The Temptation of Jesus

Lent 1A

Matthew 4: 1 11


This reading begins a six-week period of preparation for Easter. Excluding the Sundays it will extend for 40 days in remembrance of the "40 days and 40 nights" Jesus spent in the wilderness as preparation for his ministry. While some Christians do not celebrate any traditional Christian festivals, we invite everybody to make this time an offering to the Lord during which we, symbolically, deprive ourselves of some comfort and increase our time dedicated to prayer as a means of identifying with our Lord during his trial. This can also be, for us, a time of rich spiritual preparation for the life of Christian service Jesus calls us into.

The reading, Matthew 4: 1 11 is a very beautiful moment in our religious history. Every aspect we are given in this text to reflect on has, of course, been passed on to the Church by its founder who underwent the experience. There were no human witnesses. This is his account.

Click here for a summary of this awesome event.

Some Notes On Our Text

Verse 1

The passage opens with the word "then", meaning, immediately after his baptism. At this point, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be put to the test by the devil.

The writer of Matthew adopts a style, which helps us see links with the account of Adam's temptation (Genesis 3: 1).

Thus Jesus is seen as the second Adam, who will in the succeeding verses be victorious in the conflict in which the first Adam failed. He will win the victory as man, not as God.

The temptation of the first Adam took place in a garden of supreme beauty and order. The temptation of the second Adam took place in a wilderness, symbolising the desolation brought by Adam's fall. It is thus to be the beginning of a new order, a re-ordering of creation, a restoration of a lost image.

Verses 2 and 3

After fasting for forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry. We know he would also have been at the point of exhaustion and low resistance. This is the opportunity the devil has been waiting for, and he makes his move. Of course he has no hesitation to stoop to the lowest of the low.

"If you are (truly) the Son of God tell these stones to become bread".

The full impact of this would have been something like:

"For goodness sake. You have the power. Use it! Why go hungry? If it's right to use your powers to feed others, how can it be wrong to feed yourself! Who could possibly deny that you deserve food! Is it a sin to be human?"

This is the type of insidious logic that, the more we listen to it without critically evaluating its shallow veneer, the more we find it enticing. It gives us the perfect "out" we are looking for, and before long we are remarking, "Why not!"

To our Lord, the devil was inviting him to abuse his miraculous powers. Without delay, or any show of extraordinary ability, Jesus does what any person is always able to do. He quotes his favourite book of the Bible (from the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, we might note, and not the shorter Hebrew version).

"It is written," Jesus replies, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

(Deuteronomy 8:3)

These words refer to Israel in the wilderness. There they, like Jesus, had no bread, yet they were fed by the word of God's mouth, for God commanded manna to fall from heaven. In other words, "I am here by God's command and he has but to utter a word, and I shall receive all I need." We know of no example where Jesus worked a miracle for his own advantage. He operated within a very strict economy of miraculous power unlike some modern self-styled evangelists who draw crowds with pretentious guarantees of spectacular sights.

Verses 5 and 6

Then the devil took Jesus into the Holy City and had him stand on the highest point of the Temple. The tempter challenged him to throw himself down to the ground and so force God to send his angels to protect him. The devil knows the Sacred Scriptures at least superficially, and in this instance quotes Psalm 91: 11 and 12. Of course this is clearly the open abuse of Scripture, and sadly, it is a common method people use to get their own way.

Jesus sees through this set up. It is supposed to be a temptation to take a short and easy road to recognition as the Messiah, by giving a sign from heaven which even the most incredulous and unspiritual would be compelled to accept.

The Dummelow Commentary adds a helpful note:

This short and easy method Jesus decisively rejected. He determined to appeal to the spiritual apprehension of mankind, that they might believe on Him, not because they were astounded by His miracles, and could not resist their evidence, but because they were attracted by the holiness and graciousness of His character, by the loftiness of His teaching, and by the love of God to man which was manifested in all His words and actions. He intended His miracles to be secondary, an aid to the faith of those who on other grounds were inclined to believe, but not portents to extort the adhesion of those who had no sympathy with Himself or His aims.

Verse 7

And so Jesus gives the devil a short shrift by showing him he is out of his depth quoting Scripture he doesn't understand.

Scripture also says, replied Jesus, (quoting again his favourite book)

"You must not put the Lord your God to the test."

(Deuteronomy 6: 16)

Verse 8 and 9

The devil finally (in desperation) takes Jesus to a very high mountain and offers him all the kingdoms of the world and their power and glory, saying:

"All this I will give you if you will just bow down and worship me".

Of course, the last thing our Lord would do is to acknowledge the devil's usurped authority, and do evil, that good may come of it.

Verse 10

"Get out of my sight", says Jesus.

"For Scripture also commands:

You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone".

(Deuteronomy 6: 13)

Verse 11

The devil is sent from the presence of Jesus, "licking his wounds". He has been humiliated and put in his place.

With the devil summarily dismissed, the scene changes completely. As the N.A.S.B. version of the New Testament so correctly records:

"……and behold, angels came and began to minister to him".

This sets a new scene ready for a new beginning: the commencement of the public ministry of Jesus. We should note that the ministry of the angels is not a momentary phenomenon but an on-going service of support, of which we are permitted momentary glances. It is sad that some groups of Christians do not seem to acknowledge the place of the angels in the ministry of Jesus.

This final verse is a beautiful climax to a time of great loneliness and testing. The Greek word "IDOU", as we translate it, "behold", is a command to see, calling attention to what may be seen or heard, or mentally apprehended in any way (W.E.Vine).

True followers of Jesus are given the privilege to see their Master begin his work for them, surrounded by the company of heaven. The Christians of the first three centuries never lost sight of this vision gifted to them in this piece of Scripture.

No matter how horrific the torture administered to them, or the advance of wild animals to tear them apart as fickle entertainment for the unbelievers, the vision of the Lord Jesus with this heavenly court inspired them until their dying moments. Accounts from present day martyrs also attest the same.


Donald Carson (1984) brings his commentary on this passage to a fitting conclusion:

The angelic help is not some passing blessing but a sustained one (the imperfect tense is probably significant). Jesus had refused to relieve his hunger by miraculously turning stones to bread; now he is fed supernaturally (diekonoun, "attended," is often used in connection with food; e.g. 8: 15; 25: 44; 27: 55; Acts 6: 2; cf. Elijah in 1 Kings 19: 6 7). He had refused to throw himself off the temple heights in the hope of angelic help; now angels feed him. He had refused to take a shortcut to inherit the kingdom of the world; now he fulfils Scripture by beginning his ministry and announcing the kingdom in Galilee of the Gentiles (v v. 12 17).

Expositor's Bible Commentary Zonder van, 1984.

Matthew, D. Carson.

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