First Sunday in Lent (Year A)

At Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Christ in the Desert
"Christ in the Desert," detail of a chapel stained glass window, St. Joseph's Institution, Singapore. Image by Lawrence OP licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

March 9, 2014

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Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11

At Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Immediately afterwards, Jesus is tempted by the devil, who treats Jesus as if the reality of his identity is the question: “If you are the Son of God…” Are you really? Can you prove it? Jesus’ responses show him pondering an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world?

“Son of God” had more than one meaning in biblical writings and in secular culture. The Davidic kings were called “son of God” (see 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 28:6; Psalm 2:7), and “sons of God” or “children of the Most High” could also designate angelic beings, members of the divine council (Genesis 6:2; Psalm 82:7).

In the Greco-Roman world “Son of God” became an honorary title for the Caesars. The devil’s temptations flow naturally from such common usages of the term. The prophet Hosea offers another possible definition. There God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). Already in the birth narrative Matthew has applied this verse to Jesus, interpreting Joseph and Mary’s move from Egypt to Nazareth as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy (Matthew 2:15).

When the voice from heaven calls Jesus “my Son,” then, how should Jesus interpret his role? Has the divine voice bestowed royal privilege on him? Has he, like God’s people Israel, been set apart as holy and called to reveal God’s character to the world?

Jesus’ forty days in the desert echo Israel’s forty years there. Like the people of Israel in their exodus from Egypt, Jesus is out in the wilderness, hungry and tempted. “If you are the son of God,” the devil says, “command these stones to become bread.” In other words, if you really are either royal or divine, prove it by using your power to your own benefit. What kind of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of showing off his power and feeding himself? What kind of king ever goes hungry?

In response, Jesus places himself not among the privileged few but among the ordinary people of God. A human being (Greek anthropos, a human), “does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). For Jesus, being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for daily bread (cf. Matthew 6:11). His reaction to this temptation in no way suggests that food is unimportant, or that earthly needs do not matter.

On the contrary, Deuteronomy 8:3 is part of a larger passage that describes how God provided for all of Israel’s physical needs during their forty years in the wilderness. During the exodus, God’s children doubted God’s provision, but Jesus as son of God models human reliance on God for food, for strength, and for life itself. After the final temptation, God vindicates Jesus’ trust by sending angels to wait on him (in Greek “wait on” is diakoneo, which often means serving someone a meal).

After his first failure to lure Jesus into misusing his status, the devil tries again, taking him to Jerusalem (“the holy city”), to the very highest point of the temple. This time the tempter challenges Jesus to prove his identity by throwing himself down and letting the angels rescue him. If you’re so dependent on God, he seems to say, why don’t you take it a step further? You trust God to feed you. Do you trust God to protect you from harm?

Then he takes a page out of Jesus’ book, quoting Psalm 91:11–12 to suggest that if Jesus jumps, he will merely be demonstrating his utter confidence in God’s promises. But Jesus rebuts him with another quotation: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Once again the context of the quotation enriches its meaning. Moses is reminding the people how they tested God at Massah, when after God had already fed them with manna, they grumbled that God was planning to kill them with thirst (Exodus 17:1–7).

What kind of faith doubts God at every turn and insists that God must do one miracle after another? By contrast, genuine faith means trusting that the One who called the people out of Egypt will see them through to the end of the journey.

In the final temptation, the devil promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus will worship him. The implications are stunning. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. But Jesus orders Satan to leave, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

Jesus has come not to rule Satan’s kingdom, but to proclaim and to bring the reign of God. After the resurrection Jesus will receive all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), but it will be God’s gift, not Satan’s.

By defining “Son of God” not by privilege or power but by obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross. Though the devil has left, the temptations are not over. In Matthew 16, Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and then completely rejects the idea that God’s son should suffer and die. Jesus’ response is pointed: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

When Jesus is arrested, he refuses to be rescued either by violence or by angelic intervention (26:52–54). At the crucifixion, the passersby and the religious leaders taunt him: Son of God? Prove it. Come down from the cross. Doesn’t God even care enough to rescue you? (27:38–44). But the obedient son trusts God to see him through to the end of the journey, and when he dies, the centurion proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).