Read the passage here.
Last week, we took a look at Jesus’ baptism as reported by Matthew. It’s appropriate, or unsurprising, that immediately following that, we get the report of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
This is another story that most of us are familiar with. Jesus goes into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days. Satan then comes to him and confronts him with three temptations. In Matthew, these temptations are:
- Turn these stones into bread
- Throw yourself down from this temple
- Worship me (Satan)
There are several things to pay attention to here. Firstly, we note that Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting and praying, for forty days. It seems clear that these forty days in the wilderness is reminiscent of the forty years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness.
Secondly, we want to pay attention to how Jesus responded to the three temptations. Regarding the first temptation, we read:
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.’”Matthew 4:3-4
Now the scripture that Jesus uses here is from Deuteronomy 8:3, which says:
3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.Deuteronomy 8:3
The immediate context of verse 8 is as follows:
Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. 2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.Deuteronomy 8:1-3
If you’ve been following our O.T. survey, you’ll remember a couple of things. Firstly, Deuteronomy records the words that Moses spoke to the Israelites after they arrived at the entrance to Canaan, the promised land. Moses is reminding them of the covenant law, by which they have a special relationship with God, as they prepare to take hold of their inheritance.
Secondly, the specific reference that Moses is making here has to do with remembering Israel’s grumbling and complaining about food after they had been delivered from Egypt.
Regarding the second temptation, we read:
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.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Matthew 4:5-7
Here, Jesus response is taken from Deuteronomy 6:16, which says:
16 Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.Deuteronomy 6:16
The extended context here reads:
13 Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. 16 Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.Deuteronomy 6:13-16
The incident at Massah refers to Exodus 17, where the people were complaining about water and God commanded Moses to strike the rock. We don’t want to spend too much time here, so I’ll summarize what I’ve found in the commentaries. Essentially, the Israelites escaping Egypt, though God had demonstrated His faithfulness repeatedly, were demanding a miraculous sign (i.e. like they would demand and expect of other gods?) for their continued obedience to YHWH. In other words, the demand for water was not a request for sustenance; it was a demand of divine proof. Jesus is essentially saying, “I do not need miraculous intervention to know that God is God.
The third temptation says:
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.’”Matthew 4:8-10
Here, Jesus’ response is taken from the same passage as before, Deuteronomy 6.
13 Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.Matthew 6:13
This passage is important as it states a principle that is found throughout Deuteronomy. The Israelites are constantly under temptation to turn to other gods, false idols, and even themselves as gods rather than to trust in the one true God.
Furthermore, Satan’s offer here (in Matthew) is poignant because what he offers Jesus is precisely kingdoms. And what Jesus is after, his mission and his purpose, is not his own kingdom, but God’s (there’s obviously the trinitarian issue here, in that the Father’s kingdom is the Son’s kingdom. But what we know is that Jesus’ work is out of obedience to the Father)
So to recap, firstly we notice the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, which reminds us of the forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness. Second, we have the three temptations, and Jesus’ response to those temptations. And each of Jesus’ responses (quoting Deuteronomy) demonstrates Jesus victories, set against Israel’s failures (failures to be faithful to God). And the third thing that I want us to notice is this: In both the first and second temptations, Satan begins with the words, “if you are the son of God.”
4:3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4:6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.Matthew 4:3, 6
Now if we recall the episode at Jesus’ baptism, we’ll remember that the voice from heaven, God’s voice, said this:
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:17
Now I might argue that the third temptation is about substantially the same thing, but it’s not all that important. The point that I’m making is that, immediately after Jesus is baptized and everyone hears that this is the Son of God, Satan attacks Jesus. And his attack is significantly about identity.
More important is Jesus’ response. He doesn’t push back, he doesn’t argue for his position or status or his rightful place in history. Instead, he points to the faithfulness of God. Because, in spite of everything that Israel did, all the ways they rejected God, rebelled against God, and ignored God, God was still faithful to bring about His purposes through them.
So what I want to suggest (and of course, this is not my suggestion, but those of giants who have gone before) is that what we’re seeing here is that Jesus is everything that Israel was not. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything that Israel failed to be. And as Abraham was told that all nations would be blessed through him, that is, through his descendants, it is through Jesus that all nations will ultimately be blessed.
So What Now…?
Firstly, as we can see, this account continues the story of Jesus as the true Messiah of God. Matthew shows us that Jesus fulfills the redemptive vocation in a way that Israel never could. Israel, the nation, pointed to it, but Jesus fulfills it.
Secondly, much has been said about the nature of the temptations – that the temptations show (in a nutshell) the full range of temptations that Israel, and all human beings face. Much has also been said about how this is categorized (how the three temptations represent essentially all of human temptations or trials). I don’t want to get into that here. However, what I do want to consider is that this can’t have been the only time that Jesus encountered temptation or trials or tribulations. Jesus was fully God but also fully human. He lived in this fallen and broken world that we also live in. He faced the same challenges that we face.
But where I want to pause and reflect is the notion of identity. What did it mean for Jesus to know that He was the Son of God? What did it mean for Him to know that He was beloved? And what did it mean for Him to know that He was chosen?
I think that what the temptations tell us is that his identity wasn’t about he could do or what he could get. Rather, he located his identity in God. He was certain of who he was, not because he was called (for example), but because it was God who was calling Him.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges and struggles of living in this world. Living in this world that is broken and fallen, living in this world where security is so hard to come by – where we constantly worry about what we have or what we need; living in this world where relationships are so challenging – because people only care about what you can do for them, because we don’t know how to love or be loved, because nobody can live up to your standards and we can’t either; living in this world where we don’t know what is going to come next, all of this can seem impossible.
Shouldn’t everything just be better? Shouldn’t everything, especially as the people of God, just be easier? Wouldn’t the Israelites have been thinking the same thing? Wouldn’t the people who thought Jesus was the Messiah have thought the same thing? Don’t we think the same thing?
And isn’t that the actual temptation? That we should get – that we in fact deserve – something other than what God actually gives us. To believe that God should do something – and that something is according to our human wisdom – other than what God is actually doing.
I think – maybe I’m wrong – that what Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness tell us, is that the solution (or the example) is not to ask necessarily to be delivered out of our situations (though, there is nothing wrong with the asking), but to be with us through it. To ask for the faith and the strength not to lose ourselves, not to lose our identity as the people of God, in the midst of it. Because sometimes, the only way out is through.
Maybe the thing is not to think or ask, “because we are God’s people, deliver us from this situation. Because we are God’s people, change this situation.” Maybe the thing is to ask, “in this situation, help us to know that we are God’s people. In this situation, help us to be the people of God.”
Now that may not be much comfort to you. Or, I wish I was better at comforting you. But the comfort, I hope, comes in this. That our being God’s people, that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom that is coming, does not depend on your or my ability to do this well. It depends entirely and only on the work that Christ has done for us. Therefore, when we face trials of many kinds, we don’t trust on our own strength, but we trust solely in Him. We find our identity solely in Him. And our hope, therefore, is only in Him.