Testing: tempted

temptation_of_christAll three synoptic gospels record an incident of Jesus confronting the devil in the wilderness immediately after his baptismal experience at the Jordan River. Where Mark notes quite simply: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:12-13). Matthew and Luke record a three-part dialogue between Jesus and the devil that is recorded traditionally as a “tempting.”

A Test? A Temptation? A Trial? It is difficult to know how to translate peirazo (4:1) and the more intensive ekpeirazo (4:7) – “to test” or “to tempt”. The word is often used in the LXX of God testing people, e.g., God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gn 22:1).  When God rained bread from heaven, God asked that they gather only enough for that day. “thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not” (Ex 16:4).

Why does God test people? One reason is given in Dt 13:4: “for the LORD, your God, is testing you to learn whether you really love him with all your heart and with all your soul.” A slightly different reason is given in Dt 8:16: “that he might afflict [humble] you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end.”  God does not test his people so that He would know the answer, what is in our hearts – He already knows.  God tests his people so that we would know what is in our hearts (cf. Dt 8:2).

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (NRSV)

That is this positive side of peirazo and ekpeirazo. They can also have negative connotations: “to tempt” or “to try and cause someone to make a mistake” or “to try and cause someone to sin.” At the same time that God is “testing” so that one self-discovers the depths of one’s faithfulness, the “Tempter” may be “tempting” someone to sin. God’s purpose is to strengthen faith. Satan’s purpose is to weaken trust in God.

One should also be aware that this pericope of conflict with Satan is part of a recurring theme within Matthew of conflict between the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world.  In Matthew’s theology, the devil though defeated (12:28-29) continues to tempt Jesus during his ministry (16:23), at the crucifixion and into the time of the Church (13:19,39).  This pericope also sets the stage for the post-Easter period when the disciples must still confront the devil-inspired resistance to the gospel message (5:37; 6:13; 13:19, 39)

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.


  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 161-66
  • 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


  • 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 available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/

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