Discipleship’s anchor: the Word of God

Command these stones… Jesus is challenged to show that he qualifies as Messiah by change the stones into loaves of bread. In the Lukan version (Lk 4:3) the challenge is “stone” and “load.” Without entering the argument of whose version is more the original, what is clear is that the stones/loaves are a challenge to satisfy more than just Jesus’ hunger.  Jesus is tempted to use his divine power for his own advantage to accomplish God’s will rather than to trust in his Father’s plan.

After all, the Son of God has no need to be hungry and it is beneath the dignity of such an exalted figure to suffer so. Jesus has the power to satisfy physical need by miraculous means. Later miracles prove this was true (14:15–21; 15:32–38). Jesus recognized in his hunger an experience designed by God to teach him the lesson of Deuteronomy 8:3: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” The contrast is paradoxical – God’s word does not fill the stomach, but it is really a question of the ground upon which one is anchored.

His mission was to be one of continual privation, for the sake of his ministry of the word of God; a concern for his own material comfort could only jeopardize it. As Son of God, he must learn, as Israel had failed to learn, to put first things first. And that must mean an unquestioning obedience to his Father’s plan.

Jesus’ use of the OT verse indicates that Jesus understood his experience of hunger as God’s will for him at that moment – not something to be supplanted by a self-indulgent use of his powers for his own benefit.  Jesus, as he had done at the Jordan River, continues to trust and comply with the will of his Father.

Command the angels… In a wilderness filled with stones and rocks, no special mention is needed about place or details of the place. But the next two test “transport” Jesus to a new location.  While much has been made in attempts to make the “transport” physical, the pericope works just as well as a vision. What “high mountain” (v.8) exists where one can see all the kingdoms of the world? Does one need to leave the wilderness to see the Jerusalem Temple? Ezekiel remained in Babylon will being “transported” to Jersalem (Ezek 8:1-3, 11:24). We should remember that Jesus is led [up] by the Spirit to be tested. One need not worry about which mountain or which parapet of the Temple

The devil again draws on the assumed privileges of the “Son of God.”  If Jesus can quote Scripture, then the devil will use God’s word. Satan delves into Ps 91(vv. 11a, 12) to suggest that Jesus should throw himself off the temple (Mt 4:6a). After all, the psalmist promised that angels would take charge over God’s faithful people to keep them from harm. Psalm 91 is one of many psalms that appears to promise the faithful believer complete freedom from harm. Here the promises appear to apply to a monarch who has just escaped violent death and is still exposed to future danger.  Even within the context of the psalms’ worldview, there is no justification for inciting God by deliberately putting oneself in harm’s way, demanding that he come to rescue.

France (1985, 104) notes that “As Son of God, he could surely claim with absolute confidence the physical protection which God promises in Psalm 91:11–12 (and throughout that Psalm) to those who trust him. So why not try it by forcing God’s hand (and thus silence any lingering doubts about his relationship with God)? But this would be to tempt God … as Israel did in the wilderness at Massah (Deut. 6:16), when they ‘put the LORD to the proof by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” ’ (Exod. 17:2–7). The Son of God can live only in a relationship of trust which needs no test. Christians perplexed by the apparently thin line between ‘the prayer of faith’ and ‘putting God to the test’ should note that the devil’s suggestion was of an artificially created crisis, not of trusting God in the situations which result from obedient service.”

All this I will give to you…   The view from the mountain recalls Moses’ view of the promised land from Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1–4). The devil’s dominion over all the world, implied here and explicit in Luke 4:6, is stated also in John 12:31 (cf 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19). France (2007, 135) considers that Satan’s offer is mere bluff and bluster – or did in fact Satan have some dominion over the world?  Several times in the NT Satan will be described in such language, e.g., “ruler of the world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 6:11-12; 1 John 5:19; Rev 12:9-17).  The gospels seem to take for granted that Satan does have such power but that is always seen within the ultimate victory of God.

Ironically it was this very dominion which Jesus had come to claim (Dan. 7:14; cf. Matt. 28:18), and the resulting contest was and is fierce. The devil was not too subtle in seeking to avoid the conflict by asking for Jesus’ allegiance. Nonetheless, it provided a crucial test of Jesus’ loyalty to his Father, even where it meant renouncing the easy way of allowing the end to justify the means.

Israel had fallen to this temptation again and again, and had renounced their exclusive loyalty to God for the sake of political advantage. At the entry to the promised land the temptation met them in an acute form (Deut. 6:10–15; Jesus’ reply quotes v. 13). But the true Son of God cannot compromise his loyalty, and sharply dismisses the devil, using now for the first time the name which reveals his true purpose, Satan, ‘the enemy’ of God and of God’s  purpose of salvation.

There is only one answer: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve (Dt 6:13 – with an implication of v.14: You shall not follow other gods). Nothing more need be said and Satan is dismissed curtly leaving no doubt about who is in control.  Unlike Luke, Matthew does not say that Satan’s withdrawal is temporary, but as in clear in narratives that follow there are other encounters with the demonic ahead.

Angelic help arrives… The angelic help of Psalm 91:11, which Jesus refused to call for illegitimately (vv. 6–7), is now appropriately given. Ministered implies particularly the provision of food, and again the experience of Elijah seems to be recalled (1 Kgs 19:5–8). The lessons of the period of hunger have been well learnt, and God’s messengers break the fast that Jesus himself would not break (vv. 3–4).

Final thoughts… Boring (165) raises an important question and provides some good answers:

Is Satan language passé? The interpreter’s first question today may be whether there is still a place in our thinking for images of Satan, especially since such images can be abused by a literalism that uses “the devil made me do it” as an escape from personal responsibility and that brands its opponents as tools of the devil. Yet, language and imagery of the demonic played an important theological role for Matthew, and it can continue to do so for us. Such imagery provides a way of acknowledging the reality of an evil greater than our own individual inclinations to evil, a supra-personal power often called “systemic evil” today. Another valuable aspect of such language is that it can prevent us from regarding our human opponents as the ultimate enemy, allowing us to see both them and ourselves as being victimized by the power of evil.

Perhaps too quickly we readers consider this passage as a model of “resisting temptation” of greed, lust, and others sins of the earthly realm.  In reality it is a deeper model of discipleship that is on display. The temptation is to misuse Scripture and our gifts for ourselves and our own will and ambition.  We are tempted to do our own will rather than the Father’s. Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch. (Psalm 127:1)

Notes

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…”

Matthew 4:5 devil: here Matthew does use the Greek daibolos. holy city: given the Temple, it clearly refers to Jerusalem – a fact Luke 4:9 makes clear. parapet: pterygion – this is actually a quite obscure word whose lit. meaning is “small wing.”  It is not known elsewhere as a particular part of any building.  All that is clear is that it is at a high point from which there is a precipitous drop.  The suggested parts of the Temple are: (1) a protruding rampart corner of the temple square, e.g., the southeast corner, which protrudes high over the Kidron Valley, (2) the roof pinnacle of the “royal hall” at the south end of the temple square (mentioned in Josephus Ant. xv.412 emphasizes its dizzying height), (3) a gate structure with a three-cornered, wing-like design, (4) a balcony on the outer side of the temple wall, or possibly (5) the roof of the temple building. It is not possible to determine the exact location. (EDNT)

Matthew 4:8 mountain: The traditional identification of the “Mountain of Temptation” above Jericho has no real historical basis.  kingdoms of the world: the contrast to the kingdom of Heaven is clear and sets the context for the “Sermon on the Mount”.

Sources

  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007) 14-18
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 161-66
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 106-12
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 124-36
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 101-5
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 65-70
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 868
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 136-44
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 28-31
  • D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 65-69

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture: The New American Bible 

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