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Matthew 4:1-11

December 30th, 2010


Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Luke 4:1-13 also gives an account of this event. See my post on that passage here. Mark barely mentions it (Mark 1:12-13), and it does not appear in John’s gospel. Luke tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, or desert, where he was tempted by the devil. But Matthew says that Jesus was led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. That was the whole purpose of living in the desert for 40 days and fasting for that entire time; to be tempted by Satan himself. Jesus intentionally put himself in a state of physical weakness so that the devil could attack him in that vulnerable state. Yet even then, the devil could not defeat him.

Moses fasted for 40 days while on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). Now Jesus endures that same physical trial. But Moses did it while speaking face to face with God. Jesus endured near starvation to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 40 days, and was tempted for 40 days. I know people who have gone on 40 day fasts, but I’ve never gotten close to that. The longest I’ve ever fasted was 4 days, and that was hard. I can’t imagine going without food for 40 days. I’ve been told that if you drink only water, after 3 or 4 days, you stop feeling hungry. Your metabolism slows way down to conserve your resources when you stop eating for a while. But after 40 days, your body has used up all its reserves, and you start to feel hungry again. That’s when you’re beginning to starve to death.

And all this time, Jesus was being tempted. The Bible doesn’t tell us all of what went on between Jesus and Satan during this time, but just knowing that Jesus withstood 40 days of temptation in a weakened physical state without ever giving in is amazing in itself. How long have you ever withstood temptation? Though the Gospels don’t tell us all of this exchange, it gives us this representative sample of Jesus’ temptations. These aren’t just three temptations Jesus experienced at the end of the 40 days. These are examples of temptations he withstood throughout that 40 days. Do you think Jesus was only tempted to eat after 40 days? I would’ve been tempted to eat after the first two hours!

In Luke’s version of this first temptation, he only gives us the first part of Jesus’ quotation from Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live on bread alone.” But Matthew gives us the whole quote: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We can exist on food, water, and shelter, but in order to really live, we need God.

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

Luke places this temptation last, but Matthew places it second. I don’t think that really matters, since I don’t believe that this necessarily was one episode told in sequence, but a sampling of the temptations Jesus endured during the whole 40 day period. This time Satan quotes scripture to Jesus, but he takes it out of context. If you read all of Psalm 91, which Satan is quoting, you can see that this psalm is not really Messianic prophecy. It’s talking about how God will protect those who trust in him from attack. But Jesus knew his Bible better than Satan did. How well do we know our Bible? Can we quote scripture to help us resist temptation?

What Matthew calls the “highest point” of the temple was probably Solomon’s Porch, the highest place in the temple accessible to people. The temple was built on Mount Moriah, and the drop from Solomon’s Porch to the valley below was more than 700 feet, a dizzying height. This time, Satan is tempting Jesus to test God, to prove that he could take any risk, no matter how foolish, and God would protect his life so he could complete his mission. The scripture that Jesus quotes back to Satan is from Deuteronomy 6:16. The full verse is “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” That was a reference to Exodus 17:1-7, where Israel continually nagged Moses to miraculously provide water for them. According to that passage, they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” This in spite of all God had done for them up until then, including the parting of the Red Sea. Jesus, even though he was starving to death in the desert, did not question that God was still with him. Putting God to that kind of test shows a lack of faith.

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

This temptation was for political power. Jesus lived during very politically charged times. His country was occupied by a pagan foreign power, and they were cruelly oppressed. They were expecting the Messiah to deliver them from that oppression. Jesus knew that he was the Messiah, but he could not be the kind of political leader that the people were hoping for if he was to accomplish his true purpose, to save us from our sins. Don’t you think Jesus felt the pressure of those expectations every day of his ministry? Have you lived with the pressure of the expectations of others? This had to be another major area of temptation for Jesus. Not to seek political power for himself, but to deliver his people from the cruel oppression they lived under. To make matters worse, Jesus knew that less than 40 years after his death and resurrection the temple would be destroyed and Israel would be scattered (Mark 13:1-2). He knew that he could stop that if he tried, but it would have meant rejecting the cross. The price for rescuing the Israel of his time would have been that none of us could be saved.

Jesus might have even been able to convince himself that he would be doing it out of godly motives, but in the midst of all of Satan’s lies was this truth; going down that road would have been tantamount to worshiping the devil, because it would have accomplished his purpose, to keep Jesus from the cross. Again Jesus quotes scripture to the devil. Jesus knew that only God is worthy of our worship. Satan was offering him a shortcut to glory, but Jesus had to suffer and die to enter into his glory, and he was willing to do that, at great cost not only to himself, but also to his nation and his people.

All three temptations came down to tempting Jesus to perform miracles for his own benefit. Jesus never performed miracles to benefit himself. I think that may be what this time of testing was all about. Sure, it was about Jesus enduring temptation like we do. It was part of his identifying with sinners. But the temptation to use his divine power to help himself must have been an ongoing temptation for Jesus for the rest of his life. The fact that he passed this test, under these conditions, proved that he would be able to withstand that temptation later.

And here’s the kicker. Jesus had authority over Satan, even while fasting in the desert. He could simply have commanded the devil to leave him alone at the beginning, and Satan would have to have done it. But Jesus didn’t use his divine power to help himself even for that. Instead, he used this trial to show us how to resist temptation. He resisted temptation the same way any of us can; by being filled with the Spirit, and by quoting scripture. We can’t point to this passage and say, “Well, of course Jesus could resist. He was the Son of God!” The whole point of the temptations was to get Jesus to misuse his power to help himself. He didn’t even use that advantage to resist the devil. Instead, he showed us how to resist using the same tools that are available to us.

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