Tempted in the wilderness
- Main Text: Matthew 4:1-17
- Accompanying text: Psalm 91:9-12
What this passage means to us
In “Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). If Satan had understood the depth and height and width and wonder of what this actually means, he might have realised that his attempts to tempt Christ into sin would have been dead in the water. Nevertheless, after the famous Temptation of Christ, Satan continued to try to find any opportunity to trip Jesus up, spiritually speaking: “After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity” (Luke 4:13 CEB).
Did Jesus, however, need to be tested? Did it make him stronger than he was before? Was this really a test for him? Did he have to prove himself in this way? After all, this was Jesus, fully God and fully man, the Word made flesh, who has just been baptised for us and in whom the fullness of the Spirit dwelt. He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted not to prove himself through trials but to continue to fulfil his messiahship. It was part of his incarnational ministry on our behalf. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18). Just as we participate in all that Jesus is, so too we participate in his resistance to and victory over temptation. Jesus resisted Satan for us, and, therefore, we have confidence that in and through Jesus we can resist the negative pulls of our human nature and the devil’s devices. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus went through the suffering and discomfort of temptation just as we also go through them, and he overcame on our behalf. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). As we read Matthew’s account let’s remember that, with the help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we participate in how Jesus overcomes for us, in his victory over evil, and in his resistance to temptation. “The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3).
Context and Story-line
The narrative, which could only have come from Jesus himself, describes how Satan tempted Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke position this event between the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. Mark does not go into much detail save to note that Jesus “was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (Mark 1:13). Jesus was led into the wilderness, in stark contrast to the garden of Eden where the first recorded temptation took place. It’s interesting to compare the temptations of the first and second Adam. “‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). The first temptation took place in a world unspoilt by sin whereas for Jesus it was in a world made desolate by sin. Jesus, the second Adam, is the life-giving spirit through whom temptation is resisted, and through whose sacrifice sin and its effects are overcome.
Matthew records that, first of all, Satan tempted Jesus to abuse his divine powers. In the life of Jesus there is not one example of Jesus performing a miracle for his personal advantage. It seems an understatement to say that after 40 days and nights of fasting that Jesus was hungry. He had the power to feed not only himself but the whole world. Would it have been wrong to turn stones into bread? Later Jesus would feed five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes, so why not just turn a stone into some bread to feed himself? Satan’s suggestion was that Jesus should use his powers just for himself, but this was not why the Messiah had come. Jesus resisted going along with what, on the surface of it, seemed like a harmless and sensible suggestion. The problem is that, once we begin to go along with Satan’s ideas, we get lulled into a false sense of security. It’s reminiscent of a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Macbeth is warned that “oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence” .
The second temptation is similar in some ways to the first. It’s about power, and how Jesus could fulfil the passage in Psalm 91 where it’s explained that angels would catch the man who trusts fully in God whenever he would fall. Let’s prove the Bible, Satan is saying. The devil, who is the father of lies (John 8:44), can quote Scripture for his own purpose. Are you really who you say you are, Jesus? If God is with you, jump from the parapet, the highest point of the Second Temple. According to Eusebius, this was the very spot from which James, the half-brother of Jesus, would be “thrown down” and “clubbed to death” because he confessed Jesus as Lord . If Jesus could walk on water, why couldn’t he fly through the air anyway? Would he really need angels? Jesus refused to deliberately incur unnecessary danger, and maybe there is a lesson in this for us. Later, instead of calling on his Father to help him by sending twelve legions of angels to prevent his cruel death at the cross, Jesus chose not to do so and to fulfil his mission to save us (See Matthew 26:53). Again, he doesn’t use his miraculous powers for himself.
With the third temptation Satan finally shows his hand. Yes, it is about power, the power Satan wanted to have. If only you would bow down to me and thus submit to my power and authority, you can have the whole world, was his thought. Jesus, however, who ascended and sat at the right hand of the Father, was and is the Lamb, of whom the apostle John wrote, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation by quoting Scripture to him. Jesus is the living word, and it is by participating in him that we can resist temptation.
Jesus, who is undeterred by the temptations and by the news of the imprisonment of John the Baptist, begins his Galilean ministry. Matthew, as always, is keen to note for his readers’ sake that this was the fulfilment of messianic prophecy — “to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah” (Matthew 4:14).
- Hebrews 2:9-18
- Mark 1:12-15
- Luke 4:1-15
Footnotes and references
- See https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/macbeth/page_20/
- Paul L. Maier, Eusebius – the Church History: A New Translation with Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999). 81.