Matthew 4:1-10.
Putting Faith to the Test

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Any study of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ includes a very significant event that immediately follows His baptism by John the Baptist, and precedes His active ministry: His temptation by satan in the wilderness.  In order to gain a better understanding of the event, it may be useful to investigate what “wilderness” meant to the ancient Jews to whom Matthew is writing. 

When we consider the idea of a “wilderness,” we think in terms of geography, most likely considering a place that is removed from human civilization.  However, to the ancients, the term meant much more than simple geography as the term also referred to the purpose behind the experience rather than the location in which the experience takes place.  When we observe the Old Testament references to the wilderness[1] we will find a pattern taking place that is often a combination of danger and divine help.  There is a correlation between “wilderness” and experiences of testing, trial, and temptation in the biblical narratives and ancient acetic texts.[2]  The idea is not so much as one’s wandering away from home and into a bleak and barren land as it is moving out of a situation of safety and security into one where our integrity, character and faith are being tested. 

Some Old Testament examples of wilderness testing and divine intervention include Hagar and Ishmael’s eviction from Abraham’s family,[3] the eviction of Joseph from the family of Jacob by his brothers,[4] the wandering of Israel in the wilderness following the Exodus,[5] the testing of Job,[6] numerous Psalms of testing,[7] and many more allusions throughout the writings of the prophets.  John the Baptist is described as abiding in the wilderness as a fulfillment of prophecy.[8]  Each of these examples represented seminal moments in the lives of those who experienced them:  the context of their lives changed dramatically after the experience.  Spending time in the wilderness can serve as a metaphor for one’s spending time outside of the typical safe and secure environment that we so frequently enjoy, and finding themselves in a setting where we must depend upon the LORD for our provision. 

We can find ourselves cast into the wilderness by any number of situations or events in our lives when, despite all of our plans and efforts, we find ourselves in situations that serve to test our resolve, or integrity and/or our faith.  When we come through such experiences having recognized and benefitted from the hand of God, our lives are changed, and our faith is strengthened. 

This wilderness motif serves to bring context to the experience of Jesus, who, immediately following His baptism by John the Baptist when His identity as the Son of God was revealed both by John, by the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, and by the voice of the Father, left John, John’s followers, and His family behind as He spent time in the “wilderness.”  This would be a time when Jesus could be alone with God, the Father and ministered to by the Holy Spirit. 

Matthew 4:1-2.  Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. 2And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered.

Knowing that the “wilderness” is a time of trial, testing, and temptation, most of us probably do not actively seek out opportunities to explore it.  Though Jesus is the incarnation of YAHWEH, He is also fully human and shares with all of us the same physiological needs.  Knowing what is about to take place in His life, Jesus left the din of the crowds behind and sought out the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, so that He might be better prepared for the three years to follow.

Jesus is described as having remained in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  We find this literary device used frequently in the Biblical narrative,[9] always referring to a moderate period of time that was required for the LORD to accomplish His purpose in those who are enduring the period.  The exact number of days and nights is not the important issue behind this device.  What is important in the idiomatic expression is that it is a time that is endured for a very specific purpose.  In every occasion of its use, the individual or individuals who endure this period are forever changed by the experience.  The “forty days and forty nights” comes to represent a pivotal experience in the lives of those who experience them.  Consequently, when we approach any such narrative we should be seeking to understand the basic purposes behind the trial, and the changes in the lives of those who experience them that those trials engender.

Jesus’ exile in the wilderness was completed by a pattern of fasting.  The whole idea of biblical fasting is that the time that would be devoted to the preparation, consumption, and cleaning up of meals (which could involve a very significant portion of one’s day) can be devoted to prayer.  Consequently, it was not necessary for the writer to state that this was a time of both fasting and prayer.  This would be a time for the man Jesus to come to terms with His own deity and His purpose.  It would be a time He can spend in prayer with the Father without the distractions of normal daily activities.

Because so much time was devoted to prayer, by the time “forty days and forty nights” had passed, Jesus was certainly quite hungry.  Just as satan will always attack the faithful at their weakest points, it would be here that satan would first demonstrate his agenda of destruction.[10]  Satan’s efforts at tempting Jesus to deny the nature of God is not dissimilar to the same attack that he made upon Adam and Eve in the garden.[11]  Unlike the first Adam who was not submitted to the LORD and could not resist satan’s temptation, the second Adam, Jesus, is the embodiment of the LORD, Himself, and His response to the same test is quite different.  This difference serves to establish the true nature and character of the Messiah who has full authority over satan, rather than the other way around.  Consequently, Jesus’ temptation by satan in the wilderness is not so much a testing of Jesus’ character as it is an exposition of it.  It is that self-same character that is possible in the life of the believer that can serve to nullify satan’s power, something that is good to know when we stumble into the wilderness experiences of our lives.

When we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, walking through the “slough of despond,”[12] we often find ourselves focusing on the muck and mire of the swamp rather than on the larger picture of our lives.  We can become overwhelmed by our circumstances and open ourselves up to attack from all of the wrong influences, whether they be emotional, logical, or spiritual.  It may be useful to also note at this point that every biblical use of the “forty-days and forty-nights” metaphor always includes deliverance when those going through the experience turn to the LORD.  We can be encouraged during these times to know that deliverance is coming when we seek it from the right source: the LORD Himself. 

There are many conclusions that can be drawn from the experience of Jesus in the wilderness, and the exploration of these is far beyond the scope of one short study.  Still, we will be able to learn of Jesus’ character, purpose, and His nature in how He handles this time of testing and deliverance.  We may also consider how this experience can serve to inform our response to satan’s attacks that we may experience when we find ourselves in the wilderness.

Matthew 4:3.  And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.

DOUBTING GOD

Though medieval artwork often illustrates this event with Jesus and the image of a humanized “satan” face-to-face in debate, the truth is probably far removed from such simplicity.  The spirit of evil is pervasive in this world, and speaks to us from many of its sources.  Any spirit that is not of God is from satan.[13]  Jesus demonstrated His authority over nature when He performed miracles during His three years of ministry.  He had the same power to command the stones to become bread.[14]  However, “the allure which the miraculous holds for men was not the purpose of His coming nor the central feature of His work.”[15]  His miracles were always performed for the furtherance of the kingdom, usually as a teaching moment for His disciples.  The humanity of Jesus, faced with desperate hunger, would welcome the expression of this power, exercised to meet His own needs.

When we find ourselves going through the wilderness we often look for ways of quickly and completely extricating ourselves from the circumstance rather than working through the circumstance to its completion.  The writer of the book of James initiates his text with a discussion on our wilderness experiences and expresses the imperative to allow that experience to have its “perfect work” that through it we can grow.  The idea is that we are to endure the work to the end so that it can complete the purpose that the LORD intends.

For Jesus to succumb to the temptation at this point would have several significant consequences, and a few might be worth exploring.  First, Jesus would be submitting Himself to the authority of the evil one who is driving this temptation.  Though there is no possibility of Jesus doing so in this situation, it is certainly a possibility, or even a probability, for us.  When immersed in crisis, we can become blind to God’s purpose and seek out only our own solutions, solutions that lack God’s wisdom, and bring along with them no few negative or damaging circumstances.  Rather than seek the LORD and His wisdom, we might seek another source, and all other sources than the Holy Spirit are unholy sources.  By submitting to these, we are submitting ourselves to the unholy one.

A secondary consequence of Jesus’ satiating His hunger via satan’s advice alludes to the passage in James:  there is a purpose for this time and fasting, and that time is not yet completed. 

A third dynamic to this question is shared by all of the temptations that Jesus is to experience in this event:  is Jesus going to follow the voice of God the Father as led by the Holy Spirit, or is He going to follow the voice of satan?  If Jesus were to follow satan at any point in His experience He would be acting in a manner contrary to the Son of God, and we would all have no hope.  Jesus’ defeat of satan in the wilderness is a necessary part of Jesus’ transition from the baptism to the ministry.

Matthew 4:4.  But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

We can probably breath a great sigh of relief when we observe Jesus’ response to the temptation of satan:  the evil one never had a chance to deflect Jesus from His true nature, His character, or His purpose. Jesus quoted from a statement recorded in Deuteronomy 8:3, a passage that is specifically referring to the manna that the LORD provided to Israel during their wilderness wandering.  While the people were worried about what they would eat, Moses taught Israel of the primacy of God’s word, reminding them how the LORD will provide for them as long as they depend upon His word.

Of course, such a statement stops the evil spirit in its tracks.  The Word of God reminds us that we do not need to take things into our own hands when He has promised to provide for us.  When wandering in the wilderness, seeking provision, we can know that when we stand on the Word of God and His promises, He will always provide for us. 

TESTING GOD

Matthew 4:5.  Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,

Having failed at turning Jesus from His task by appealing to His hunger and His power over nature, and having been rebuffed by the Word of God, Satan accelerates his attack by now using the Word of God himself.  He also moved the setting from Jesus’ hunger to Jesus’ identity.  The pinnacle of the temple is a reference to its highest point: the roof over the Holy of Holies, the most holy place in all of Jerusalem.  This restricted area of the Temple served to represent the dwelling place of God, a place where only the High Priest could enter, and then only on the Day of Atonement when the sacrifice for the nation of Israel is made. 

If satan’s effort was to simply choose a high and dangerous place, there are certainly many that are higher, and many that are more dangerous.  However, this entire temptation narrative serves to establish Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.  Without any additional explanation, satan, by placing Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple, is placing Him over and above the Holy of Holies, a veiled reference to his authority over it.  This is not a place where satan can make his stand, but it is a place where the Messiah is at home. His first question alludes to the Messiah’s authority over nature, and this second question alludes to the Messiah’s authority over all that is holy.

Matthew 4:6.  And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

Where the first temptation was intended to challenge Jesus based upon His physical identity, the second temptation was intended to challenge Jesus based upon His spiritual identity.  Jewish tradition held that the Messiah would appear dramatically “in the Temple and reveal himself with some spectacular deed so that he would be readily recognized by all the pilgrims in the Temple.”[16]  Satan was saying, “Jesus, show the world who you are!”

In this attack, satan brings to mind a section of Psalm 91, a passage that describes God’s promised care for the promised Messiah.  By using this passage, satan is clearly the second (after John the Baptist) to testify that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah.  Having made this assertion, there is no need for satan to say, “prove to me that you are the Messiah by demonstrating God’s promise of angelic protection.”  Satan is simply calling upon Jesus to, again, assert His power for personal gain.  Jesus’ refusal to do so speaks to both his wisdom, and His identity as a servant Messiah.  As the Humble Shepherd, Jesus has no need to prove His character to satan, to Himself, or to anyone else.  Also, this is not the time for Jesus to reveal Himself and His purpose to the world.

Matthew 4:7.  Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

As a career university professor, I had the opportunity and authority to test the thousands of students who participated in my classes.  Likewise, this temptation by satan is challenging, or establishing Jesus’ Holy authority.  Who is the one with spiritual authority in this contest?  During His ministry, Jesus will demonstrate His irrepressible power over satan and his demons.  Again, without the necessity of demonstrating His power, Jesus turns to the Word of God, quoting from the Ten Commandments, making a clear reference to authority:  no one has the authority to make demands of God. 

DENYING GOD

Matthew 4:8.  Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

Where the top of the Temple represented the tabernacle, or house of God as a Holy place, the top of the mountains and the kingdoms of the world represent all of the “holiness” of this secular and pagan world.  Where the Temple represents the domain of the LORD, the mountains represent the domain of satan. 

Because of their height, which to the ancients seemed to approach the heavens, mountains became to be thought of as holy places, places where the gods would be found.  We find this same holiness applied by Israel to Mt. Sinai and Mt. Carmel.  Pagan religious practice typically included the building of altars on the tops of mountains, or “high places.”[17]

The “glory” of these places is only that which is exercised by their prince, satan.  In this motif, satan is making reference to this secular and pagan world that is under his powerless dominion.

Matthew 4:9.  And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

Satan’s offer is curious.  Because this pagan and secular world has rejected God, this is a reference to the ungodly population that satan, indeed, has to offer.  However, how does a prince offer the kingdom to The King?  Jesus came to us for two primary purposes: to restore the gospel of faith, and to provide for the atonement of those who place their trust in it.  God’s offer of grace, even after 2,000 years has been embraced by a very small percentage of the world’s population.  In this offer, satan is offering to deliver this great majority to Jesus.  Satan is offering to Jesus the salvation of all of the people, making His remaining work unnecessary.

Satan has continued to accelerate his offer, first to satiate Jesus’ physical hunger, then to reveal His identity, and finally to complete His very purpose for coming to earth as Messiah, YAHWEH in the flesh.  By their rejection of God, those whom he is offering to Jesus already do bow down and worship satan, simply because they have submitted their lives to him rather than to God.  Consequently, satan’s offer is realistic: if Jesus were to bow down and worship satan also, he would stand with satan as the dark prince of this world.  Satan could certainly deliver on his promise.

Matthew 4:10.  Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

As with the other two temptations, satan’s offer serves to validate Jesus’ identity.  At this point, Jesus took command of the situation, demanding that satan would leave Him alone, quoting another Old Testament commandment.[18]  There is only one who is worthy to be worshipped, and He is the LORD.

Matthew 4:11.  Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Satan left, obeying the command by Jesus to do so.  We may be reminded that satan is powerless when confronted by the power of the Holy Spirit, cannot stand under the authority of Jesus, and consequently, each believer is reminded, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”[19]  We are reminded of satan’s true powerlessness.  Any success that satan has in turning us away from God is a matter of our own choosing, and not any form of power on his part.  Satan never had any power over Jesus in the wilderness other than what Jesus could, but would not, give to him.  Herein is a primary difference between satan’s appearance in the wilderness and satan’s appearance in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve willingly submitted themselves to satan’s lies.

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness serves several purposes.  The first is to establish the Messianic identity of Jesus.  Given authority over creation, Jesus is capable of exercising His miraculous powers, but does so only for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, establishing Himself also as a servant Messiah.  Each of the demands that were made on Jesus did take place during His ministry, doing so in the proper context when He “will indeed miraculously provide bread with nothing more than a little boy’s lunchbox;[20] he will indeed abandon his personal safety, trusting in God as he gives up his life;[21] and he will indeed be given every kingdom and authority in heaven and on earth.”[22],[23]

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness also provides an example for people of faith who seek to live in a manner consistent with the nature and character of Christ.  When tempted, rather than take satan on in debate, and rather than demonstrate His true, creative power as YAHWEH, Jesus defeated satan by simply standing upon the truth of the Word of God.  When we are faced with temptations in the wilderness of our lives we might be tempted to doubt God, test God, or deny God and satan will, as he did with Jesus, attempt to do the same to His followers.

  • Instead of doubting God, people of faith are to have faith in God and His promises of provision. People of faith are also to endure the wilderness experience rather than find a short-cut out of it when that experience is being used by God to bring us closer to Him.

  • Instead of testing God, people of faith are to trust in God, knowing that He will always be true to His promises. 

  • Instead of denying God, people of faith submit themselves to the One True God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Him alone.

When we stand firm in our faith in God, informed by the Word of God, we will find ourselves in a position to be blessed by God in all that we do, even when we find ourselves in the wilderness of our lives.

 

[1] A word-study of “wilderness” will find almost three hundred instances of the word in the biblical narrative, occurring so frequently as to produce a “wilderness theology” in and of itself, a branch of doctrine that is beyond the scope of this study. 

[2][2] William Richard Stegner. p. 18.

[3] Genesis, Chapter 21.

[4] Genesis, Chapter 37.

[5] Exodus, Chapter 13-19; Numbers, Chapter 14; Psalm 78:52.

[6] Job 39:6, et. al.

[7] Psalm 55:7, 95:8, et. al.

[8] Matthew 3:1-3.

[9] Genesis 7:4, 8:6, 50:3; Exodus 24:18, 34:28; Numbers 13:25, 14:34; Moses’ testimony in Deuteronomy 9:9-25; Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:16; Elijah in 1 Kings 19:8; Ezekiel 4:6; The preparation of Nineveh in Jonah 3:4; the appearances of the Resurrected Christ in Acts 1:4.

[10] Matthew was writing for Jews, and many Jews were expecting a Messiah. They had many ideas about the Messiah which were not necessarily from the Word of God. They had developed out of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha many pictures of a spectacular, nationalistic messiah who would come from the heavens on the clouds. Some of these different traditions we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls and related literature. Many of the Jews were asking Jesus and the other messiahs at that time, "Give us signs and wonders." "Prove to us who you are." "What kind of messiah are you?" "Are you really the Son of God?" In the fourth chapter of Matthew the Devil tempted Jesus on this very question.  Carl Umhau Wolf, p. 294.

[11] Genesis, Chapter 3.

[12] The swamp of despair in John Bunyan, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

[13] 1 John 4:1-3

[14] The word for “bread” here is also an allusion to the manna that was provided by the LORD to Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.   This would cause the reader to remember this historical event.  Exodus 16:15-35.

[15] J.J. Pelikan, p. 251.

[16] Wolf, p. 295.

[17] Leviticus 26:30, et. al.

[18] Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:6-7, 6:5, 8:6; Hosea 13:4;

[19] James 4:7.

[20] Matthew 14:13-21.

[21] Matthew 26:53-54.

[22] Matthew 28:18.

[23] Jaco J. Hamman.  p. 682.