Matthew 4: 1-11 The Temptation in the Wilderness

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Desert (1872)

Matthew 4: 1-11

Parallel Mark 1: 12-13, Luke 4: 1-13

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 only him.'”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Even though a chapter division is introduced between the baptism scene at the end of chapter three and the temptation at the beginning of chapter four these scenes are connected. Within liturgical churches the perceived separation between these scenes is heightened by the traditional reading of the baptism scene after the end of the Christmas season and the temptation scene several weeks later during the first Sunday in Lent. Matthew and Luke share a common telling of this scene (although Luke modifies the order we find in Matthew probably due to Luke’s focus on the temple as being central to the narration of Jesus’ story) both keeping the placement in the narrative with Mark but adding the content of the temptation Jesus undergoes.

Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, a softening of the language we find in Mark where Jesus is literally ‘thrown’ into the wilderness (using the same term that Mark uses for casting out of demons). Throughout this temptation we are linked to the baptism by the location, the wilderness, the action of the Spirit of God and the continuity of the title used throughout the two scenes, Son of God. Previously the wilderness provided a place of revelation where the Spirit of God and the voice from heaven pronounce Jesus’ identity now it provides a place where Jesus’ identity is challenged. The wilderness will be a place of divine guidance, care and revelation but it is also a place of deprivation, isolation and challenge. Yet, this temptation seems to be if not divinely orchestrated at least an intentionality of movement by the Spirit of God and Jesus. It is a place where danger and revelation will hold hands, to use O. Wesley Allen’s phrase. (Allen, 2013, p. 39) Yet, there is also an element of, for a time, being isolated by God and entering into the suffering of that isolation as the wilderness of temptation becomes a place where the kingdom of heaven’s advent is both prepared for and resisted.

The forty days and forty nights in the wilderness that Jesus fasts prior to the temptation is frequently noted in paralleling the forty years that the people of Israel spend in the wilderness, a time where the people transition from being the slaves of Egypt to the people of the LORD the God of Israel. While the sojourn of the people of Israel is a time of divine guidance, care (providing food and water throughout their journey) and revelation (both the giving of the law and the creation of the tabernacle) and Jesus being identified with Israel is one of the accents within the identity that Jesus will bear there is also a close tying to the story of Moses in this scene. While Moses is not tested by the devil in the manner, we hear in Jesus story he has two forty-day periods on Mount Sinai where he receives the law (see Exodus 24: 18) and intercedes for the people after the incident of the Golden Calf. The intercession for the people after the Golden Calf is like the language of this scene:

He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:28)

Not only is he receiving the law to bring to the people, a parallel we will soon see in the sermon on the mount, but it is also during this forty days on Mount Sinai where Moses goes to make atonement for the people. Jesus, we learned in Matthew 1: 21 is one who will save the people from their sins. I believe this scene want us to hear an echo of Moses going up Mount Sinai to intercede for the people, Moses will say,

“Alas, the people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.”  Exodus 32: 31-32)

This scene in Exodus (Exodus 32-34) is a scene where God reveals God’s glory to Moses, where the covenant between God and Israel is renewed and God chooses to dwell among the people again. One of the links we may be encouraged to see here is a time where Jesus also initiates a time of fasting to restore the relationship between God and the people of God.

With all these connections and links to various images from the scriptures it can become a little overwhelming as we wonder: Who is Jesus? Is he God with us? David? Moses? Israel? Son of God? The Son of Man? The Christ? And ultimately Matthew feels we need all these titles and linkages to attempt to convey the fullness of who Jesus is and what his story means for those who hear it. Matthew is willing to use the rich language of the scriptures he inherits to attempt to paint his portrait of Jesus for the church to learn from and to follow. In the previous chapter I mentioned two great scriptural rivers that flow into the deep sea that is Matthews gospel (Isaiah specifically and the prophets in general along with the Psalms specifically and wisdom literature in general) but now I want to highlight a third river that flows through the landscape, one that has provided nourishment and hope and now as it reaches its goal in the gospel will be also be a part of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, the law (or Torah). As mentioned above, Jesus is one who becomes linked with Moses and the law in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also worth noting here because the three quotations that Jesus makes during the temptation all come from the law, specifically the book of Deuteronomy.

Perhaps before we can begin the actual scene of temptation, we need to discuss the antagonist in the scene who is called tempter, devil and Satan. We view the world differently than our ancestors in the time of Matthew and we often don’t see our world as inhabited by devils and demons the way we find in the gospels. Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the language of the porous self in the earlier enchanted world to talk about this reality, where the porous self is vulnerable to spirits, demons and cosmic forces and these forces (both good and evil) actively inhabit the world and possess people within it. With evil forces active in the enchanted world affiliation with a power that could triumph over these forces was an important part of life, and for those within the sphere of Christianity and Judaism that force was God. In Taylor’s language:

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to the movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson[1]. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you. (Taylor, 2007, p. 38)

That people believed in evil forces being personified in the devil and demons during the time of Matthew is not controversial, the controversy is how we as ones living in the disenchanted world we have inherited from modernity can talk about the devil and the demonic. One approach is taken creatively by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters where he ascribes the disenchanted world to the action of the devilish forces themselves. As the fictional devil Screwtape writes to a devil who is still learning how to manipulate humans:

Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe is us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. (Lewis, 2017, p. 203)

Others may attribute social, psychological, or cultural reasons to explain the belief of the devilish and demonic forces in the gospel. The rational bias of the enlightenment encourages us to live within a world separated from the spiritual world or devils and angels, but I refuse to excise from the gospels the critical forces on opposing sides of the kingdom of heaven. Personally, I am all to aware of the persistence of evil in the world in ways that go beyond rational explanations of systemic evil or other modern explanations. Even though I may have never encountered evil personified in either the devil or a demon I am inclined to walk between the two options that C.S. Lewis states at the beginning of the Screwtape Letters: I neither disbelieve their existence nor do I exercise an unhealthy interest in them. (Lewis, 2017, p. 183)

The Spirit has led Jesus to a place where he is to be tempted, and there is an intentionality to this scene as the kingdom of heaven is brought into conflict with one who claims to be able to give all the kingdoms of the world. This conflict sets the stage for everything afterwards, this is the moment when we realize that the tempter is unable to tempt the one who has come to confront him and that the devil is powerless in the presence of the Son of God. The devil’s power here may appear incredible, but ultimately it derives its strength from those he is able to tempt into allegiance to him. Jesus shows us how to read scripture in a way that resists temptation and delivers us from the evil one, Jesus perhaps is led into temptation to show us how the law (Torah) helps us resist the promises of the devil. Yet, perhaps this scene also binds the strongman (see Matthew 12: 29) for immediately after this scene Jesus will announce the kingdom of heaven is at hand, demons will recognize him for who he is (Matthew 8: 28-31) and the forces that have bound people whether demonic or illness will be overcome.

The first temptation, turning stones to bread, begins with the situation of the forty days of fasting and the hunger that Jesus experiences. Jesus’ answer pulls on Deuteronomy 8: 2-3:

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

The fundamental issues throughout the temptation: Who is the God who Jesus will serve? Who provides what is needed? And what will Jesus’ title Son of God mean for the way he conducts himself? Jesus again takes on the role of Israel being tested not only by the devil but also demonstrating his obedience to God, being humble and keeping the commandments. The harkening back to this scene in Deuteronomy reminds the hearer with scripture tuned ears that God is the one able to provide bread in the wilderness, and while Jesus will later multiply loaves and fishes, ultimately God is the one who provides what is needed. Jesus enters this space of divine silence and devilish temptation awaiting the word that comes from the mouth of the LORD, and perhaps, to use imagery from the gospel of John, he is that word spoken to the devilish temptation.

Consistent throughout all the temptation is also the challenge of the way Jesus inhabits the title Son of God. Like the serpent in the garden of Eden he attempts to lure the one into believing that God would not deny that which is desirable to one who could be like God. Yet, unlike Eve and Adam, Jesus is not swayed by these words and will not be the Son of God by anyone else’s terms.  Much like the mocking tone of “You are the Christ” sung by King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar there is a mocking of the way Jesus chooses to embody being the Son of God in Satan’s challenge.

The second temptation introduces a movement away from the wilderness to Jerusalem at the pinnacle of the temple. The proximity to holy space or the ability to quote scripture does not guarantee that one will read scripture correctly, as later conflicts within the temple will demonstrate. Here even the devil in this space uses scripture but uses it incorrectly. The quoted verses are from Psalm 91: 11-12, and as we heard previously the Psalms is one of the major texts that Matthew will use to talk about who Jesus is, but here even the devil can use the Psalms to talk about who he believes Jesus should be. The implied challenge for Jesus is to demonstrate his trust in God and demonstrate that trust through expecting God to rescue Jesus amid trouble. The angels will wait on Jesus after the temptation, but here they are absent, here in this place of temptation (even though they are at the pinnacle of the temple) the divine voice is silenced by the tempter’s words and even scripture is used as the devil’s tool. Yet, Jesus continues to demonstrate a way of reading scripture that models for Israel and the church how to resist temptation. Again, Jesus responds from the law (Torah) and again Deuteronomy speaks:

Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. Deuteronomy 6:17

The testing at Massah refers to Exodus 17 where the people quarreled with Moses and demanded water, Massah is means test so there is a play on words within this verse in Deuteronomy. Jesus continues to embody what Israel was meant to be by refusing to test God even amid temptation. This temptation also echoes at the cross when Jesus is taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27: 40)

The final temptation takes place on a high mountain, typically a location of revelation for Matthew, but now the revealer is the tempter claiming dominion over all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to Jesus if he will worship him. Jesus is invited to claim power but at the cost of his identity, no longer is the title, “If you are the Son of God” used because to worship the devil would be abandon that identity. Perhaps within this temptation is the close association of earthly power with those anointed to be kings, which also is the context of Psalm 2 which echoes in the baptismal scene in the previous chapter.

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Psalm 2: 7-9

Jesus is offered here the ends of the earth as a possession and the nations as a heritage, but the one offering is not the LORD, but instead the tempter. Many people will expect Jesus to model his life on those who claim worldly power, but the kingdom of heaven will be different, just like the nation of Israel was to be different than Egypt of Babylon or Rome. Even Peter will later rebuke Jesus when he talks about undergoing suffering and being killed and receive similar words, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” Matthew 16: 23.

Jesus answers the devils by referencing Deuteronomy 10: 20,

You shall fear the LORD you God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.

This also refers to the first commandment (Exodus 20: 1-6, Deuteronomy 6: 6-10) where the people are to have no other gods and to worship on the LORD their God. In combination with this quotation Jesus also dismisses the devil. Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan” and the devil leaves. Jesus casts him out like he will later do with the demons. When the devil departs the angels arrive and wait on him. Somehow the devil’s presence made the angelic presence unavailable. Jesus had to enter this space to cast Satan out of it. The tempter has been thwarted, the strong man who claims power over the nations has been bound and the angels minister to Jesus as we approach the announcement of the kingdom of heaven’s arrival.

[1] A frisson is a sudden feeling of excitement or thrill


10 thoughts on “Matthew 4: 1-11 The Temptation in the Wilderness

  1. Alex

    “The fundamental issues throughout the temptation: Who is the God who Jesus will serve? Who provides what is needed?”

    This is a great way to frame it. The Devil character might also represent the political power one can gain access to through paganism—idolatry both in Israel’s ancient past and the idolatry pressing down on Israel in the present through the hand of Rome.

    Would you say Matthew 28:18 finally brings us back to the Devil’s offer of all the kingdoms? Jesus refused to accept power from Satan but instead received it from God by obedience. What are the concrete implications of Christ’s newfound authority? Is his authority something entirely different from what the Devil offered? From what Psalm 2 prophesied?

    1. Neil Post author

      Interesting observation on the language of all nations in Matthew 28, on the one hand we have a different term here (basileus for kingdom verses ethnos for nations) but the underlying question of authority being handed to Jesus does fall within the final temptation. All authority has been handed to Jesus by the Father rather than Satan whose claim is, at best, derivative. I think in the temptation the ‘end justifies the means’ and Jesus’ rebuttal in simplistic terms rejects this type of ‘end’ that would betray one’s calling to avoid suffering.

  2. Pingback: Matthew 5: 33-47 A Community of Truthful Speech, Non-Violence and Love | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7 | Sign of the Rose

  4. Pingback: The Son of David, Son of God, and Son of Man Titles in Matthew’s Gospel | Sign of the Rose

  5. Pingback: Matthew 16: 1-12 Demanding a Sign or Needing Instruction | Sign of the Rose

  6. Pingback: Matthew 17: 1-13 The Transfiguration of Jesus | Sign of the Rose

  7. Pingback: Matthew 27: 32-55 The Crucifixion of Jesus | Sign of the Rose

  8. Pingback: Matthew 28: 16-20 A Sent Community and a Present Lord | Sign of the Rose

  9. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew | Sign of the Rose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.