Matthew 4: 1-11: Temptations of Jesus


In Matthew and Mark the account of Jesus’ temptations follows immediately after the narrative of his baptism. In Luke, however, the order of sequence is different. After the heavenly declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship at his baptism (Lk 3: 21-22), Luke presents Jesus’ genealogy and traces his ancestry back to Adam, the Son of God (Lk 3: 23-38). Luke reports Jesus’ temptations (Lk 4: 1-13) immediately after his description of Jesus’ genealogy. With regard to Jesus’ temptations, it may be observed in general that while Mark merely reports the fact of the temptation, both Matthew and Luke describe the temptations in detail. Although Luke’s order of sequence is different, the details of the three temptations are the same in Matthew and Luke. Perhaps it should also be mentioned that according to Matthew, Jesus’ temptations begin only after 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. In Mark and Luke, however, Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days tempted by the devil. Matthew’s wording in Mt 4: 2 recalls Moses’ sojourn on Sinai: “He was there with the Lord 40 days and 40 nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water” (Ex 34: 28). Matthew’s intention seems to be to introduce a parallel between Moses and Jesus although his main parallel in the temptation story, as in infancy narrative, is between Israel and Jesus.
According to Matthew, and indeed in the synoptic tradition, the baptism of Jesus (Mt 3: 13-17) and his temptations (Mt 4: 1-11) are closely connected. The Spirit that came down upon Jesus at his baptism (Mt 3: 16) now leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt 4: 1). Jesus’ divine Sonship proclaimed at his baptism by the Father (Mt 3: 17) is now tested by the devil. The temptation story is the testing of God’s Son; and in the first two temptations the devil challenges Jesus to manifest his Sonship (“If you are the Son of God…” Cf. Mt 4: 3, 6). At his baptism Jesus surrendered himself to the will of the Father (Cf. Mt 3: 15) and now in the wilderness Jesus’ self-surrender and his eagerness to do the Father’s will are put to the test. Jesus the true Israel and the true Son of God will experience what the Israel of old experienced in the wilderness; but unlike them Jesus will conquer all temptations to be faithful to the God of the covenant. The devil presents three temptations and each time Jesus answers with a quotation from the book of Deuteronomy.
After 40 days and 40 nights of fasting Jesus was hungry (Mt 4: 2). Appropriately, therefore, the first temptation is to satisfy his hunger, his personal need. The tempter approaches Jesus and asks him to manifest his divine Sonship by changing stones into loaves of bread in order to feed himself (Mt 4: 3). The baptism of Jesus was his self-surrender to God, his submission to the will of the Father. The temptation to change stones into bread was a temptation to act independently of the Father’s will, to perform a miracle to his own advantage. It may also imply an invitation to reject his divinely-marked-out suffering destiny and play a political and social role by manifesting his power as the Son of God. But Jesus does not give into the temptation to depart from the Father’s will. He answers the devil by citing Deut 8: 3 “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ answer reveals his perfect trust in the providential care of God. Jesus who wants to do the Father’s will (Cf. Mt 3: 15) surrenders himself to God’s word which sustains and nourishes him.
The second temptation (Mt 4: 5-6) is yet another challenge to Jesus to prove his divine Sonship and his trust in God’s providence by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. From the desert Jesus is now brought to the holy city. Whereas Luke has to mention Jerusalem explicitly (Cf. Lk 4: 9) for the benefit of the Gentile readers, the Matthean expression “holy city” has a Jewish flavour and is readily understood by his Jewish Christian readers (Cf. Mt 27: 53). The “pinnacle” of the temple may refer to the highest point of the temple or of the wall surrounding the temple. Quoting Scripture (Ps 91: 11-12) the devil challenges Jesus to show his trust in God’s providential care by throwing himself down. Will Jesus put God to the test as Israel did in the past (Cf. Ex 17: 1-7)? No, Jesus, the new Israel will not tempt God; accordingly, he answers the devil by quoting another Scripture text: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deut 6: 16). Jesus does not want to prove his divine Sonship or his filial trust in God by working a miracle or by performing a stupendous action. He experienced temptations not only at the beginning of his public life but also right through his ministry, and even on the Cross. The last temptation of Jesus was also a challenge to manifest his divine Sonship by a miraculous act: “if you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross” (Mt 27: 40). Jesus does not yield to these temptations. He does not cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple or come down from the Cross. On the contrary, in perfect obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus accepts his suffering destiny already marked out for him in the plan of God.
The third temptation (Mt 4: 8-9) takes place on a “very high mountain”. The devil claims to own the whole world and promises Jesus all the kingdoms and their glory if he will worship him. Here the devil arrogates to himself what is exclusively God’s own, the Lordship of the whole world; he makes himself God and provokes Jesus to idolatry and political Messiahship. In other words, Jesus is tempted to deny God’s dominion over the whole world and to become a glorious, political Messiah. Once again Jesus quotes an Old Testament text in response to the challenge. This time the text quoted is Deut 6: 13 which contains the fundamental requirement enjoined on the covenanted people of God, namely, monotheism. Only God is to be worshipped and he alone is to be served (Cf. Ex 20: 2-6). If Israel failed to be faithful to the God of the covenant and worshipped idols (Cf. Ex 32), Jesus, the new Israel overcomes the temptation to idolatry and dismisses the temper, “begone, Satan” (Mt 4: 10). How can Jesus, whose ministry is going to bring about the universal reign of God within man’s reach and experience, accept the Lordship of Satan? Jesus overcomes the temptation to idolatry and worldly Messiahship because these are not in accord with the plan which God has decreed for him.
In describing these temptations of Jesus, the evangelist wants to emphasize: a) that Jesus was tempted at the beginning of his ministry (Cf. Heb 2: 18; 4: 15); b) that unlike the Israel of old, Jesus, the new Israel does not succumb to the temptations; c) that Jesus remains obedient to the will of the Father, especially to the will of God expressed in the Old Testament, and; d) that the attitude of Jesus who is perfectly submissive to the will of God is an example for the Christian community at all times.

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