Bible Book List
Matthew 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

God's Son Passes the Test

Scholars' interpretations of the temptation narrative broadly fall into three primary categories (Theissen 1991:218-19): (1) Jesus' testing recalls that of Israel in the wilderness; whatever God commanded Israel his child in the wilderness, much more he would require of his Son the Messiah. (2) Jesus provides a model for tested believers. (3) The narrative affirms a correct understanding of Jesus' messiahship as against contemporary political or militaristic interpretations. Clues within the narrative (such as 4:2) and the rest of Matthew (such as 6:13; 26:41; 27:42-43) indicate that the narrative functions in all three ways.

Matthew emphasizes that Jesus, unlike Israel, passed his test in the wilderness. Matthew makes this biblical background clear even in simple ways like saying the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, reflecting a common biblical motif of God guiding his people in the wilderness (as in Ex 13:18, 21; 15:13, 22; Deut 8:2). We should also note that Jesus quotes three texts from Deuteronomy, all of them commandments that Israel failed to obey but that Jesus is determined to obey.

Like John, Jesus had to exit the confines of society for his supernatural encounter (see comment on 3:1-12). The wilderness (translated desert in the NIV because few people lived there) was not a pleasant place: some believed the wilderness to be a special haunt of demons (see comment on 12:43; compare 1 Enoch 10:4; 4 Macc 18:8). Apart from a few rugged people like John who made the "wilderness" between the Jordan Valley and Judean hills their home, it represented a dangerous and inhospitable setting (E. Sanders 1993:113).

But when we think of applying this passage today, we may meditate at greater length on the other two lessons scholars often draw from the narrative: what Jesus' victory models for us as his disciples and what the passage tells us about the true character of Jesus' mission. No less than Matthew's discourse sections (28:19), this narrative provides a model for us. (Jewish teachers instructed by example as well as by word, and biographers taught moral lessons through their accounts. So narratives about Jesus teach us no less than his direct commandments do.) For instance, if John had been a model of sacrificial obedience for living in the wilderness and subsisting on locusts, Jesus who fasts in the wilderness is even more so.

This narrative underlines the biblical principle that God's calling must be tested. The Spirit, having empowered Jesus for his mission as God's Son (3:16-17), now is the one who leads him into the wilderness where his call must be tested (4:1, 3, 6). Matthew expressly informs us that the purpose of the Spirit's first leading of God's Son was that he might be tested! Like most of his heroic predecessors in biblical history (Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Job), Jesus had to pass a period of testing before beginning his public ministry. Some of his predecessors almost snapped under pressure, restrained only by God's favor (for example, 1 Sam 25:13-34; 1 Kings 19:4; Jer 20:7-18), but our Lord Jesus provides the perfect model for triumphing in testing.

If God is calling and empowering you to do something for him (3:16-17), you can expect to be tested (compare comment on 6:13), and you can expect testing commensurate with the seriousness of your call. The devil may not show up in person or test you on the same supernatural level that he tested Jesus, but your hardships may seem unbearable apart from the grace of God. Nevertheless, testing is for our good: when biblical heroes had matured through the time of testing, they knew the depth of God's grace that had sustained them. The truly triumphant boast not in their success in the test but in God's empowerment, without which they could not have overcome. Jesus went into this testing only after the Father had empowered him in the Spirit (3:16).

This narrative presents Jesus as our vicarious advocate, relinquishing his own power for his mission to save us from our sins. In this narrative Matthew presents Jesus as Israel's-and our-champion, the One who succeeded in the wilderness where Israel had failed. (A champion was one who fought another on behalf of and as a representative of his people, the way David fought Goliath.) Christians are destined for testing (6:13; 26:41), but Jesus our forerunner has gone before us and shown us how to overcome.

The devil tempts Jesus to abuse his calling and power for selfish ends. The "christological" interpretation of this passage noted above has much to teach us. In 3:16-17 God identifies Jesus as his Son; now the devil tries to redefine the nature of Jesus' sonship (4:3, 5-6, 8-9). If you are the Son of God can also be translated "Since you are the Son of God," which may be more likely in this context: the devil invites Jesus not so much to deny his sonship as to act according to various worldly expectations for that role. This narrative warns all of us whom God has called not to let the world define the content of our call. For instance, some pulpit ministers ought to be ministering as public school teachers or social workers in addition to or instead of pulpit ministry, and some in other professions should be training to become expounders of God's Word.

In other words, we must acknowledge God's right not only to determine what to label our calling but also to determine what that label should mean. A call to evangelism may be a call to bring Christ to people on the streets or in hospitals rather than in a traditional pulpit-yet such a ministry may bring more people to Christ than most traditional pulpit ministries can. Disregarding the church hierarchy and the "ministerial ethics" of his day, John Wesley went into other ministers' parishes to reach the people those ministers were not reaching-the poor and alienated. Wesley's call did not fit traditional categories of ministry, but the revival that ensued turned Britain inside out. We, like Jesus, can begin our mission only once we have demonstrated that our commitment is to God who called us and that we will let him rather than human honor define the nature of our call.

Note how the devil seeks to redefine Jesus' call: he appeals to various culturally prevalent models of power to suggest how Jesus should use his God-given power. God's empowerment does not guarantee that we are doing his will in all details (compare 1 Cor 13:1-3). One example of exploiting God's power for selfish ends is the minority of clergy and other professional authority figures who abuse their calling for sexual or other advantages. When we confuse others' dependence on our office with dependence on us as persons, we endanger our own relationship with God as his humble servants (Mt 23:5-12; 24:45-51; Prov 16:18; 18:12).

The devil tests Jesus with three roles into which other Palestinian charismatic leaders had fallen-from the crassly demonic sorcerer's role to that of an apparently pious leader. Jesus' refusal in each case allows Matthew to define Jesus' call over against the charges of his opponents (12:24; 26:55; 27:11, 40-43).

First, Jesus was not a magician (4:3). Magicians typically sought to transform one substance into another to demonstrate their power over nature (as in p. Hagiga 2:2, 5; Sanhedrin 6:6, 2). Jesus' opponents could not deny his power but wished to attribute it to Satan, as if he were a magician (Mt 12:24); many Jews associated demons with the worst kind of sorcery (Ps-Philo 34.2-3; b. Sanhedrin 67b). Unlike most of Jesus' religious contemporaries, however, the reader knows the true story and just how false the charge of Jesus' association with magic was. Even after a forty-day fast, and though Jesus had power to multiply food for the crowds (Mt 14:13-21; 15:29-38; 16:9-10), he resisted the temptation to turn stones into bread. Where magicians manipulated spiritual power and formulas, Jesus acted from an intimate, obedient personal relationship with his Father (6:7-9). Like a father disciplining his children, God humbled Israel in the wilderness, teaching his people that he would provide their bread while they were unemployed if they would just look to him (Deut 8:1-5). Jesus accepts his Father's call in the wilderness and waits for his Father to act for him (Mt 4:11).

Second (pace Albert Schweitzer), Jesus was not a deluded visionary (4:5-6) like Josephus's "false prophets" who wrongly expected God to back up their miraculous claims (Jos. Ant. 20.168; War 2.259). By wanting Jesus to jump over an abyss (perhaps on the southeast corner of the temple area overlooking the Kidron Valley) known to invite certain death without God's intervention (see Jos. Ant. 15.412), the devil wants Jesus to presume on his relationship with God, to act as if God were there to serve his Son rather than the reverse. Religious teachers later echo Satan's theology: if Jesus is God's Son, let God rescue him from the cross (Mt 27:40-43). When people become so arrogant as to think we have God figured out, we can easily miss God's true purposes and become Satan's mouthpieces.

Among contemporary charismatics (of whom I am one) I observe two prominent models for being "charismatic." One is to "claim" blessings on the basis of spiritual formulas, a method whose success God never guaranteed. Like the first-century false prophets who promised the pious Jerusalemites the deliverance they wanted to hear (as in Jos. War 6.285-87), our brothers and sisters who follow this method without the Spirit may encounter some uncomfortable surprises. (Matthew would also have balked at some charismatics' claim to be able to "send" angels-4:6; 26:53.) The other method is to sensitively follow the Spirit's leading to do what God has called us to do. When God has genuinely spoken and his servants act in obedience, he will accomplish his purposes-even if those purposes must lead us through the cross. For "who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?" (Lam 3:37).

Jesus did not get himself into testing presumptuously; like Elijah of old, he did what he did at God's command (1 Kings 18:36). Jesus understood Scripture accurately and alluded not only to the passage he cited but to its context. When he warns against putting the Lord your God to the test (Mt 4:7; Deut 6:16), he alludes to Israel's dissatisfaction in the wilderness (as in Ex 17:2-3). Although God graciously supplied their needs, they harshly demanded more, forgetting how much God had delivered them from. We, like Israel, serve a living God and must be prepared to do his will whether or not it is to our immediate liking (Mt 26:42).

Finally, Jesus was not a political revolutionary, contrary to the assumptions and charges of the Jewish aristocracy (26:55, 61; 27:11-12; compare P. Ellis 1974:108). As another Gospel puts it, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest" (Jn 18:36). Many citizens of the Roman Empire felt that Rome ruled the earth's kingdoms (for example, Rev 17:18; Jos. War 2.361; 3.473); to rule the earth would include the subjection of the Roman emperor. If Matthew writes after A.D. 70, his audience knows how Roman forces had slaughtered the Jewish revolutionaries and how resounding defeat had dashed their people's hopes for a worldly kingdom; how would deliverance come?

The devil offered Jesus the kingdom without the cross, a temptation that has never lost its appeal. Corrupted once it achieved political power and popularity, its members' motives no longer purified by persecution, the medieval church too often was marked by corruption and repression that we today repudiate; but we can face the same temptations. Upon facing this temptation, not Jesus' opponents but his own star disciple Peter echoes Satan's theology exactly: the messianic kingdom without the cross (Mt 16:22). Jesus thus pushes away Peter in disgust as he had Satan-even to the point of calling Peter Satan (16:23; compare 4:10). Jesus' mission involved the cross (26:54), and whether we like it or not, so does our mission (16:23-26).

Political and social involvement are important; marketing strategies are not necessarily wrong; but when we substitute any other means of transforming society for dependence on God, we undercut the very purpose for our mission. Where the church flirts with political power to enforce public morality, it must become all the more conscious of its own need for spiritual renewal. Atheists and Christians often use the same methods of social change; but if we genuinely embrace a faith worth defending, can we also have the faith to go beyond those methods and depend on God to give us revival? The temptation narrative strikes at the heart of human religion and worldly conceptions of power-and reminds us of how close that danger can come to believers.

The narrative also emphasizes that we can use Scripture for righteous or unrighteous causes. Jesus and the devil argue Scripture, and both are adept in it (as some later rabbis expected the devil and some demons were; for example, b. Sanhedrin 89b), though the devil quotes Scripture out of context and so values its wording over its meaning (4:6). (Psalm 91:3-10 addresses protection from dangers that approach the righteous, not testing God to see whether he will really do what Scripture promises.) That the devil quotes Scripture out of context should not surprise us, since he does it even today in many pulpits every Sunday morning. (I say this only partly tongue in cheek; religious leaders in Mt 27:40 become mouthpieces for the devil's lie in 4:3, and Jesus' leading disciple in 16:22 echoes 4:8-9. Piety, whether feigned or genuine, does not necessarily preserve us from communicating false ideologies from our culture or spiritual tradition that we have never taken the time to examine from God's revealed Word.) Notice too that whereas Jesus uses Scripture to teach him God's will, the devil presents it merely as promises to be exploited for one's own purposes-as some of the more extreme radio preachers today have put it, "how to get God to work for you."

But the devil's abuse of Scripture should not lead us to neglect Scripture's real power when rightly interpreted and applied. Our Lord himself submitted his life to its claims (compare 3:15) and calls us to do the same (5:17-20). Jesus' three responses in this testing narrative share the phrase It is written (NIV) or "It has been written" (4:4, 7, 10). It comes as no surprise that Jesus' first citation declares the primacy of God's words, on which we his people should feed as on necessary food (4:4; compare Jer 15:16). Not worldly categories but God's will revealed in Scripture defined the character of Jesus' call.

Jesus' specific Spirit-led behavior in this model is significant: he already knew God's commands and their context, and for him to know was to obey. He adds no reasoning to God's simple commands. "I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Ps 119:11). We must learn Scripture well and, empowered by the Spirit, choose to obey it rather than flirting with temptation. We can overcome temptation in any given case; hence no matter how great we feel our temptations are, there is no temptation too great to endure (1 Cor 10:13). As many modern authors emphasize, we need to be honest about temptation and not say, "I can't help it"; if we are tempted, we must be honest and say, "I won't." Jesus' victory for us has taken away our excuse; he has provided us the power to overcome if we dare to believe him.

Finally, God brings triumph to those who remain faithful in testing (4:11). Without Jesus' submitting to the devil (compare Mt 4:6: his angels . . . will lift you up), God's agents provide Jesus' needs as soon as he has vanquished his foe. After three high-stake tests the devil leaves, so that Jesus can later say that he is freeing Satan's possessions because he has already bound the strong man (12:29). Jesus is the new Moses who will provide bread for his people (see commentary on 14:13-21; 16:29-38), whom God will deliver by the resurrection and who will eventually rule the nations (Ps 2:7, cited by God in Mt 3:17). According to Jesus' call, all these things belonged to him; but the ends of God's call in the long term do not justify inappropriate means in the short term (such as affirming unjust denominational policies or cheating on seminary exams). Our mission is most of all obedience to our Father's will, both in our destiny and in the details. God's vindication does not always come in this life, but in the end he always delivers his own.

Next commentary:
Moving to a Bigger Town

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.