Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11
It is no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism.1
He is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done wrong (assumptions that people today sometimes make about their own “wilderness experiences”). He has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested (the underlying Greek means both; Matt 4:1) by the devil. His scriptural debate with Diabolos functions as an assessment (or, perhaps, a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son (Matt 3:17) for the mission entrusted to him. He has the credentials and the authority for this mission, amply demonstrated in Matthew’s Gospel by the genealogy and birth narrative. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points ahead to a future as yet unfolding before him.
Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For forty days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.
- Forty: the days and nights that Noah and his family endured the deluge on board the ark, after which God made a covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 7:4, 12; 8:6; 9:8-17);
- Forty: the days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai as he inscribed the words of God’s covenant for the Israelites (Exod 24:18; 34:27-28; Deut 9:9);
- Forty: the days and nights Elijah fasted in the desert before receiving a new commission from God (1 Kgs 19:8);
- Forty: the years the Israelites wandered the wilderness in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land (e.g., Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7);
- Forty: the days of the season of Lent as Christians participate in Jesus’ ministry and follow his way toward the cross. How might we make ourselves ready for the way of the Lord in the places we are called to be? To what mission is God calling the church? What is needed for your congregation, corporately and individually, to be prepared?
Temptation, Testing and Real Life
Taking advantage of Jesus’ hunger, the devil tries to entice his opponent to grasp after domestic security for its own sake (amass more than his share of food–turn stones into multiple loaves of bread), demonstrate his close association with the powerful (prove that God’s angels will keep him from injury) and secure the glory of political leadership (rule the kingdoms of the world). The temptation is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.
What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness; rather, it plays again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son (Matt 3:17). The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:
- Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish (Matt 14:17-21; 15:33-38), and he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11).
- He refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others (Matt 27:38-44) while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross (Matt 27:46).
- He turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness.
The wilderness tests of the Temptation account are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Indeed, readers of Matthew’s Gospel have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power (including, perhaps, the lawyers, Pharisees and Sadducees who test him in various ways; e.g., Matt 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35) to ascertain his loyalty; with persons who too easily worry about the world’s assessment of greatness rather than God’s (including some of his own disciples; e.g., Matt 18:1-5).
God with us
The promise of the gospel is that the one who is “with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20) has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness; he meets them in the most difficult tests of their own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there; no test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it. Further, Jesus’ encounter with the devil represents in many ways his encounter with the cultural pressures of his day. How does one respond to very real physical and spiritual needs? What does it look like to trust God in this context? What are appropriate uses of authority and power that serve the world by serving God? For the followers of Jesus, then and now, these are important questions about how to live out their faithfulness in the realities of daily life, empowered by the One who is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matt 1:23).
1. Commentary first published on this site on February 10, 2008.