Discipleship’s anchor: temptation

The Testing/Tempting in the Dessert. It is helpful to consider this pericope as being “both-and:”  Jesus is tested by his heavenly Father so that Jesus knows what is “in his heart” at the same time Jesus is tempted by Satan to be other than fully obedient to God.  We should note that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted/tested (v. 1). This is a softening of Mark’s account where the Spirit “throws Jesus out” into the wilderness (Mk 1:12). Lest there be any concern, as Boring (163) notes: “… [Jesus’] submission to temptation is not an accident or a matter of being victimized by demonic power, but is part of his obedience to God.”

The focus of the “testing” agenda (which will be focus of this commentary) is indicated by the devil’s first two suggestions (vv.3,6) – “If you are the Son of God.”   There could not be a more clear connection to the last verse of the preceding chapter: “And a voice came from the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased ” (Mt 3:17). That very relationship is not under scrutiny – and the basic filial relationship: father-son. Rather the demonic suggestions explore, given that relationship, what ways are appropriate to act and how can the devil take advantage in order to drive a wedge into the relationship.   For example, there was an expectation that the Messiah would produce a lavish miracle of manna in messianic times.  Is this an appropriate response by Jesus? If Jesus does such a lavish miracle, the people’s expectations can be derailed from salvific to political power. If Jesus refuses, then how can he be the messiah – he does not meet our expectations?

What is the divine expectation? It is because of the filial relationship of love and obedience that God the Father will ultimately ask Jesus to give up his own life for the life of the world.  The real test is not here in the Galilean wilderness.  This is but a prelude to what occurs in the holy city of Jerusalem during Jesus’ Passion and Death.  There are echoes between the two locales:

Galilean wilderness

Jerusalem – the Holy City

If you are the Son of God (vv.3,6)

if you are the Son of God (27:40)

tempting of angelic deliverance (4:6)

the right to call upon a host of angels for deliverance (26:53)

Get away, Satan (v.10)

Get behind me, Satan! (16:23) when Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from Jerusalem and death on a cross

A Foundation in Scripture.  R.T. France suggests that the key to understanding this story is found in Jesus’ three responses – all from Deuteronomy 6-8 a part of Moses’ address to Israelites before their entry into the promised land. It is significant that this section begins with the great Shema, the daily prayer of all true Israelites: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt 6:4-5).

In Moses’ address he reminds Israel of their 40 years of wilderness experience which was a time of preparation and of proving the faithfulness of their God. Among the things the Israelites, the children of God, should have learned is

  • not to depend on bread alone but rather on God’s word (Dt 8:3),
  • not to put God to the test (Dt 6:16), and
  • to make God the exclusive object of their worship and obedience (Dt 6:13).

Now another “Son of God” is in the wilderness facing those same test and learning so perfectly what Israel had so imperfectly grasped. At best Israel’s occupation of the promised land was a partial and flawed fulfillment of the hopes they carried to the banks of the River Jordan.  But this new “Son of God” will not fail and the new “Exodus” will succeed because this Son loves his Father will all his heart, his soul and his strength.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel and will become the one through whom God’s redemptive purpose for the world is fulfilled.


Matthew 4:1 lead by: The Matthean anagō (lead, direct) is softening of the Markan ekbállō  (throw, throw out, cast away; Mk 1:12). Anagō can also carry the sense of “up” thus many translations use “lead up” indicating away from the River Jordan (3:17). dessert: The Greek noun érēmon is used, derived from érēmos which means abandoned, or desolated.  Given the topography of Galilee, “wilderness” is a more suitable translation. Perhaps too much is made of the wilderness as a uniquely appropriate place to encounter the devil.  See Mt 12:43-45 – perhaps one can deduce that a waterless place is the last place the devil wants to be.  The devil is present in the wilderness because he has a role in the testing of Jesus. tempted: see notes within the text.

Matthew 4:2 forty days and forty nights: “forty days” in biblical use is an idiomatic expression for a significant but limited amount of time (e.g. Gen 7:4, Ng 13:25; 1 Sam 17:16, Jonah 3:4; Acts 1:3).  Matthew speaks more specifically of forty days and forty nights. Give that Matthew elsewhere connects Moses and Elijah to this narrative, it seems likely that Matthew intends the “forty” to be quite specific and to echo the period Moses (Ex 24:18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) spent without food.  That being said, the reference of “forty” strongly echoes the forty years of wilderness wandering during the Exodus.

Matthew 4:3 the tempter: Where Luke’s telling of this same pericope uses the Greek diabolos, a synonym for Satan, here the word is peirázōn. As explained in the “Commentary” section, this word is better translated as “tester”  – not only for the context of the passage, but “tester” is the primary meaning of the word in Greek and in its NT usage. If you are…: the word “if” (ei) can be translated as “if, because, since.” Thus the question from the devil begins with “Son of God” as a given and asks, “Since you are the Son of God…”

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