First Look: Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness has been portrayed in a variety of formats, among them a few videos which aren’t hard to find online.

First, the well-known scene of Jesus’ temptation from Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ:

Scorcese’s version is interesting, to say the least.  Perhaps a bit closer to the text from Matthew’s gospel is the simply-named Jesus, a television miniseries from 1999:

And finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t see at least one lego version:

As you can see, portrayals of Jesus’ temptation vary considerably.  The staggering differences from one version to the next beg the question:  What is the meaning of this story?  Evidently for movie directors a fair amount of artistic license is conjoined to the text, but for Christians seeking to glean some element applicable to everyday life the embellishments do more harm than good.  So, in looking at this text we must set aside the Scorceses, the miniseries, and the legos, and forget we knew them in the first place.  This text speaks for itself.

What the text says is something about who Jesus is.  It must be understood that at this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ public ministry has not yet begun.  He has been introduced, yes, in his baptism, where he is identified as the Son of God.  As of the fourth chapter of Matthew, however, we still don’t really know what this means.  We are very much waiting to see who and what Jesus actually is.  Jews living in the first century largely expected the Messiah to be some sort of great military figure, capable of breaking the bonds of Roman rule and delivering the people to a new life.  Readers living in those days would have wondered whether Jesus would be that sort of figure.

Matthew at first makes a statement that Jesus is “led by the Spirit”.  The purpose of this statement is clear: what Jesus does in the wilderness is not simply aimless wandering.  Rather, his path is directed by the Spirit.  His wilderness time has a divine purpose, and even an encounter with the personification of evil itself should not cause us to wonder whether Jesus has somehow strayed beyond his chosen path.  Everything that happens during those 40 days (and afterwards) is to be seen as a divine ordinance of sorts, a series of events through which God’s purpose is unfolding.

Jesus is essentially tempted by the devil three times, the first of which occurring at the height of Jesus’ hunger.  He is tempted to reprise the role of prophet here, providing bread by some manifestation of God’s power.  The devil’s request to turn stones into bread recalls incidents during the Israelites’ wilderness wandering in which God through Moses provided sustenance for a hungry people.  Though much of Jesus’ ministry is prophetic in nature, it is clear that he is not simply re-treading the paths of the prophets of old.  He has come to do a new thing.  He denies the devil’s request simply by saying, “One does not live by bread alone,” a suggestion that Jesus’ ultimate purpose is not mere physical sustenance, but a spiritual one.  John picks up on this theme as well in his gospel, especially in John 6:35-58, in which Jesus describes himself as “the bread of life.”

Secondly, Jesus is tempted to fulfill something found in scripture itself.   He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ What could possibly be so detrimental about fulfilling the words of scripture?  It is worth considering here that none of the things that Jesus is tempted to do is inherently evil.  In fact, they seem at face value to be good things!  Perhaps this raises questions about the things by which we ourselves are tempted, the notion of course being that the temptations against which we fail are ultimately the ones that seem at face value to be good or beneficial.  It’s easier, for instance, to resist the temptation to steal than it is to resist the temptation to horde money and possessions for the supposed good of providing for the desires of one’s family.  From Jesus’ point of view, it may very well be a good thing to perform some miracle by which people will come to believe.  However, the point here is that rather than perform some miraculous public relations stunt by which God’s power would be on display for all to see and believe, Jesus will come to exhibit God’s power in an entirely different way: through weakness, suffering, and death.  Psalm 91:11-12 suggests that the truly righteous will be protected by God’s power, it’s true, but Jesus did not come to simply put on displays of public righteousness as would a showman priest.  No, Jesus came in order to exhibit a different kind of power.

The final temptation comes in the form of an offer to receive power over all the nations of the earth.  It might be said that Jesus is being tempted to fulfill the traditional role of a king here, assuming authority over all the people of the world.  This offer of rulership carries with it connotations of possession, however, as the devil tells Jesus that “it will all be yours”.  Jesus, however, will make it clear in the events of his ministry that his authority is not one of possession or rulership, per se.  For this Son of God, authority rests in his self-giving service and sacrifice rather than in the assumption of political power.

If we connect the three temptations (requests), it’s clear that the Devil is attempting to coax Jesus into taking on the three seemingly well-known roles of prophet, priest, and king.  While we know it to be true that Jesus is all of those things, the encounter with the devil in the wilderness clearly shows that Jesus isn’t simply a reintroduction of old expectations.  He is the beginning of a new thing in which all of the old assumptions about how God relates to humanity are shattered.  This, of course, brings us to a striking parallel.

The entire notion of a face-to-face encounter should remind us of something we read much, much earlier in the Bible.  Genesis 3:1-7 reads:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’  The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Here we have at the outset of the story of God’s relationship with humanity a story of temptation in which tempted humanity fails.  It is a moment in which the relationship between the Creator and the creature is damaged and altered by the sinfulness of the human being.  ‘The Fall’ is a tragic story of fractured relationship, and the potential for the sinful human condition to stand between God and humanity.  After the Fall, God and humankind are no longer in right relationship with each other.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is to be seen as a ‘reset’ button of sorts.  In Jesus Christ, the human condition will be rescued from its fallen condition, and right relationship with the Creator will be restored.  Jesus, the ‘second Adam’, repeats a face-to-face encounter with the devil, but this time humanity resists.  That which has been fractured now has the promise of restoration.  Matthew means us to understand that this Jesus represents not only the fullness of reconciled humanity, but the fullness God’s relationship with a fallen world as well.  Who is Jesus?  He is the spirit-filled and spirit-led new prophet, new king, new priest, and the one through whom the world will be reconciled to God.  It is in the context of this identification that the events of Jesus’ public ministry are to be understood.

Another common element of both the Genesis creation narrative and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is, of course, the figure of “the Devil”, which cannot be ignored.  Together, these passages are the two best-known stories of the Devil in all of scripture.  When we approach texts featuring “the Devil” or “Satan”, we must be aware that Christians attach various meanings and theologies to those simple terms.  I have often found Shirley Guthrie’s discussion on the matter in his extremely useful book, Christian Doctrine, to be immensely helpful.  To paraphrase, Guthrie prefers an interpretation of scripture which mythologizes any mention of a “devil”.  In this interpretation the Devil is a mere personification of evil, a metaphor which works to impress upon us the reality and gravity of the evil at work in the world.  I must admit that this is an interpretation that I myself favor, but like Guthrie, I accept the fact that there are Christians for whom the literal existence of a personal devil is a reality.  For Christians who choose to believe the literal existence of the Devil, Guthrie lays out some important guidelines:

1) Christians do not “believe in” the Devil.  We confess our faith in Christ, and our faith is not in but against the evil of the world.

2) Our awareness of the existence of the Devil must not become a more central reality to us than our awareness of God’s existence and Christ’s presence with us.  In other words, if we are paying more attention to what the Devil is doing than what God is doing, our priorities are skewed.

3) We must admit that evil is not something that we find only “out there”, but also within our own actions and behaviors, and indeed within the church itself.  Localizing the existence of evil within a personified other does not allow us to view ourselves or the church as if they are devoid of evil.

To read more of Guthrie’s treatment of the subject of evil, see chapter 9 of Christian Doctrine.

Finally, part of the dialogue between Jesus and the Devil in Matthew’s gospel raises significant questions for Christians today.  In the second exchange, the Devil tempts Jesus by quoting scripture.  What does this say about the relationship between the Word of God and the believer?  Undoubtedly, it should shock us into the realization that simply being able to quote scripture does not guarantee a correct position, nor does it guarantee that we are quoting it faithfully.  The question here for us is not whether we are able to quote scripture to support a particular position or doctrine, but rather whether or not we approach scripture as Jesus entered the wilderness: led by the Spirit. During the season of Lent, when many of us promise to spend more time reading scripture, it’s something worth considering.  As we are called to deepen our commitment to discipleship and study, do we study the Word of God that we might use it, or that it might use us?

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First Look is a commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary texts, and is usually published on Mondays.  Be sure to come back next week!

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