Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
I have a general rule of thumb when studying a text. If I can read the early Christian commentators, the Reformers, and modern scholars without finding a consensus in any era, then no one really knows the definitive meaning of the text. The temptation of Jesus is one of those texts that can have a wide variety of interpretive lenses applied to it.
But first we should ask what it means for Jesus to be tempted. This word in Greek has some range. In fact, the same root word is used in Matthew 4:1 (“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”) and 4:7 (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”). So this word can mean everything from the temptation to eat more chocolate cake than you should all the way up to being tested in a hostile way [TDNT].
My assumption from here on will be that this scene has nothing to do with the devil dangling some chocolate cake in front of a hungry Jesus. This scene has the intensity of a cosmic courtroom, and Jesus is being cross-examined by the sneakiest, least honest, and most clever lawyer in history.
With that in mind, I believe we can begin to understand why the same Spirit of God who descended upon Jesus like a dove just two verses prior (Matthew 3:16-17) would now lead him into the wilderness to be cross-examined by the devil.
At one of my prior churches, a respected family planned to move across the state for the father’s new job. He started work about a month before the family was planning to move out there. But a month after we said goodbye to him, we saw him again. And again. And again. As it turned out, he and his family had an eye-opening realization that they didn’t want to move. They liked their life in the original town. So he quit his new job and returned.
Similarly, I believe the Spirit leads Jesus to be cross-examined by the devil to ensure that he has the chance to reverse course. Jesus could skip the plan. Jesus could step away from the path that leads to the cross. Jesus could choose his own will and ignore the Father’s will. He could call it quits. This scene in Matthew 4 is his chance to alter course, and it’s important to Matthew that his readers know Jesus had that chance.
Almost every ancient Christian commentator I could find also mentions the obvious parallels between this passage and the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. In both cases, the tempter attempts to twist the meaning of God’s words. In both cases, the tempter appeals to hunger. In both cases, the tempter uses personal glory as a foil to God’s glory. It is interesting to note that Jesus actually takes it to another level. Adam and Eve were full and happy, whereas Jesus was weak from fasting for a long time. Adam and Eve were on their “home turf,” whereas Jesus came down from heaven to be a human and then went out into the wilderness where the tempter had the advantage. And, of course, Jesus triumphed where Adam and Eve failed. Theodore of Mopsuestia summarized it well: “For since Adam met with luxury in paradise and, through deception, deteriorated to what is worse, it was necessary that [the Spirit] lead Christ into the wilderness in order to enfeeble the devil’s force by someone greater in strength. So he fasted for forty nights and days” [ACC].
Furthermore, we can see clear parallels between this passage and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In fact, the Bible passages being quoted are commands God gave to Israel during their time of wandering. In this context, I imagine the devil saying, “God has done the whole “manna” trick before, why not wave your hand and do it again, Jesus?” The nation of Israel wanted a miracle-worker who would serve up their every demand, and yet Jesus said no.
The devil’s third temptation to Jesus would also have elicited thoughts about how the Messiah was supposed to be a king like David. The nation of Israel wanted a Messiah who would restore their splendor. They wanted a Messiah who overthrew the other kingdoms of the world and ruled them. They wanted a Messiah who restored their earthly fortunes and power. And yet Jesus said no.
The context of this passage runs through these three failed narrative arcs. Adam started in the perfect Garden and then fell into sin and death. The Israelites started in the glory of their rescue from the Egyptians and then fell into doubt and idolatry. The line of David started as a shining beacon before tearing the nation in two. The Spirit led Jesus to confront all of these failures head-on. And he succeeded.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
This text is one of the most profound demonstrations of Jesus’ nature and character.
We already saw how Jesus is being cross-examined in this text. But Jesus didn’t take the path of least resistance. Jesus wanted to take the devil’s best shot, on the devil’s turf, when Jesus was as weak as possible. And so we see that Jesus is not about the easy way out. He didn’t use a trick play or a technicality. He outlasted and out-willed the devil. As Theodore of Heraclea wrote, “Christ prevailed by self-control” [ACC].
It is also fascinating to consider why did these three things “tempt” Jesus? If we assume that the tempter is clever, why pick these three things to turn Jesus from God’s will? The huge variety of opinions on this is also an invitation to use your own spiritual imagination with deep prayer.
I see an intersection between these temptations and the reasons people say they don’t believe in God. “Why does God allow people to go hungry or suffer?” I’m sure it’s tempting for Jesus to take away hunger and suffering. If even the stones could become bread, surely no one would go hungry again (v3).
“Why does God require faith? Why not just make it clear for everyone?” I’m sure it’s tempting for Jesus to do something so obviously and publicly miraculous that even those in the halls of power must acknowledge him as Savior (v5).
“Why does God let us make our own mistakes? Why doesn’t God just take control directly?” I’m sure it’s tempting for Jesus to take control without having to go through the pain of the cross or the agonizing wait for the final redemption (v9).
But that’s just one way to look at this. What does the Spirit highlight for you and your church? If you need some more grist for the mill, the Reformers found commonality with the motivations behind these temptations: physical drives, pride, and the desire for possessions [RSB].
Why did these specific things tempt him? What do his responses tell us about who Jesus is and who we are?
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts, and relationships today?
As we have seen, Jesus doesn’t take the easy way out. Applying that concept to today, we see that Jesus is willing and able to handle everything we’re experiencing – and even more. I have a son with seizures and developmental disabilities, and it can be easy to think that no one else understands how all-encompassing and difficult that is. But in my advocacy work for families with special needs, I have met many families who could look at my life and think my challenges are nothing compared to theirs. As humans, it’s really easy to think everyone else has it figured out. Everyone else has it easier than us. Everyone else can be accepted, but I cannot. Everyone else is worthy, but not me. Jesus can handle other people’s lives or mistakes or outright rebellion, but mine is too much and too far. This text shows us that Jesus can go as far as anyone – and even more.
Jesus took the devil’s best shot at his weakest moment. Whatever we’re experiencing is not too far or too hard for Jesus. Jesus is present through our challenges – and he can handle even more.
Whenever we think that our darkness is too dark for Jesus, that our sins are too much for Jesus, that our wandering is too far from Jesus, that our circumstances are too burdensome for Jesus, we can remember what Saint John of the Cross said: “Live in faith and hope, though it be in darkness, for in this darkness God protects the soul. Cast your care upon God for you are His and He will not forget you. Do not think that He is leaving you alone, for that would be to wrong Him.”
Jesus also shows us in this text how to handle our own temptations.
The previous owner of my home added plywood flooring to the attic to make it easy to walk around up there. But that nice-looking flooring is deceptively dangerous. Some spots are solid, but others are weak and untrustworthy. In fact, the previous owner moved out after falling through and injuring himself. I have to carefully choose where I put my weight. If I place my weight where the solid joists can support me, I am fine. If I step where only the plywood is supporing me, I risk a fall. Jesus demonstrates how to place our weight on the unfailing oak of the Word of God. Living this way takes even more care and attention than walking around in my attic, but the Word of God provides us with solid footing for life.
Clearly it’s easier to say “Trust in the Word of God” than it is to live that out. In fact, the devil’s quotations from Scripture show that it’s not enough to cherry pick a few verses out of context. The devil can quote the Bible, but in each case the meaning has been severely twisted [RSB]. A text about trusting God becomes a text about testing God when quoted with this ill intent.
In fact, even the devil’s final temptation is based on a lie. This is one point where the commentators across the ages agree: the kingdoms of the world are not in the devil’s sole hands, and the promise to give them to Jesus was a lie [ESVSB]. Just as the tempter lied to Adam and Eve in the garden, just as the tempter lied to Jesus in the wilderness, so the voice of temptation lies to us today.
Jesus’ model for handling temptation is to acknowledge the voice of temptation as a lie, and then replace that voice with the solid oak of the Word of God. Drown out the lying voice of temptation with the true voice of the Word of God. We might hear the same voice of temptation that Eve heard in Genesis 3:1, “Did God really say…?” Luckily for us, we can go check with God really said. The voice of temptation is as false and dangerous as weak plywood in my attic. The Word of God even more solid than the joists holding up my whole house.
- Jesus is willing and able to handle everything we’re experiencing – and even more
- Jesus shows us in this text how to handle our own temptations
- Why did these specific things tempt him? What do his responses tell us about who Jesus is and who we are?
[ACC] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
[TDNT] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
[RSB] Reformation Study Bible
[ESVSB] English Standard Version Study Bible
Cody Sandahl has been the Pastor/Head of Staff at the First Presbyterian Church of Littleton, Colorado since 2015. Prior to that he was the Executive Pastor and Associate Pastor for Discipleship at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is passionate about equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
Cody came to pastoral ministry after a lifetime of programming computers and building robots, and he is the founder of the nonprofit Code4Kids. You can still find him down in his basement tinkering with computers, making things on his 3D printers, and shooting laser beams into things.
Cody is married to Becca, and they have two playful boys and one spunky dog who collaborate to ensure life is never boring.
Live in faith and hope, though it be in darkness for in this darkness God protects the soul.
Cast your care upon God for you are His and He will not forget you.
Do not think that He is leaving you alone, for that would be to wrong Him.
St. John Of The Cross
The previous owner of my home added plywood flooring to the attic to make it easy to walk around up there. But that nice-looking flooring is deceptively dangerous. Some spots are solid, but others are weak and untrustworthy. In fact, the previous owner moved out after falling through and injuring himself. I have to carefully choose where I put my weight. If I place my weight where the solid joists can support me, I am fine. If I step where only the plywood is supporting me, I risk a fall. Jesus demonstrates how to place our weight on the unfailing oak of the Word of God. Living this way takes even more care and attention than walking around in my attic, but the Word of God provides us with solid footing for life.