1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. 3 The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” 4 He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”
Command these stones… The opening word in v.3 is also validly translated as “since.” Thus, the devil is not attempting to raise doubts in Jesus’ mind, but arguing about what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. There were expectations that the Messiah would reproduce the miracle of the manna in the desert, thus an overflowing of food and prosperity.
Note that Jesus is “tempted” to changes “stones” into “loaves.” One load would be enough to satisfy the hunger Jesus feels (v.2), but the devil is asking that Jesus use the divine power to satisfy his need and provide food for all human need. In alleviating his own hunger Jesus would be denying his humanity and the trust in God that Jesus himself will teach (6:24-34). Meeting the need of all humanity is the gateway to fulfilling popular messianic expectations and political power. Will Jesus use his divine power for his own advantage to accomplish God’s will rather than to trust in his Father’s plan?
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 where 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.
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…”
- 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/