Matthew 4 1Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a]by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
- Matthew 4:1 The Greek for tempted can also mean tested.
- Matthew 4:4 Deut. 8:3
- Matthew 4:6 Psalm 91:11,12
- Matthew 4:7 Deut. 6:16
- Matthew 4:10 Deut. 6:13
Jesus had just been baptized – we talked about his baptism a little while ago. It ended with the heavens opening up and a dove coming down on Jesus and a voice saying that he was God’s beloved and that God was pleased with him.
Today’s story takes place immediately after the baptism. This story is a little different than some of the other stories in the Bible. It is not intended to be read literally. The devil is not a person type of figure with horns and a tail. I think the devil made himself into a caricature so that we wouldn’t take him seriously, even though we totally should. The devil can be thought of as the tempter sitting on our shoulder telling us to do the things we shouldn’t do. The devil is a spirit. So this is one of those stories that is true in its message, but not true in that it happened just like this in reality. A little like a story with a message. Temptation is a wrestling match with our conscience.
So immediately after his baptism, THE SPIRIT – the spirit of God, that other part of the Trinity – leads Jesus into the wilderness for testing – to see if he was ready for his ministry. Jesus prepares by fasting. God tests, and the devil tempts. Here, the devil is under the control of God. The 40 days are a common term in the Bible. 40 generally can be interpreted to mean “a long time.” So when the Israelites wandered in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt, they wandered there for 40 years – or a very long time. Same here.
We have wilderness experiences too. Sometimes, these are orchestrated by God to test us. And just as with Jesus, these tests in the wilderness are not to punish us. But I believe that sometimes God tests us. Sometimes to see if we’re ready for next steps, to see if we’ve learned something. God does not tempt us. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Another way to illustrate Jesus’ words “Lead us not into temptation” goes like this: you take your little children grocery shopping with you and you come to the candy aisle. You know that taking your children down that aisle will only stir up greediness in their hearts and lead to bouts of whining and wailing. In wisdom, you take another route—whatever you may have needed down the candy aisle will have to wait for another day. In this way you avert unpleasantness and you spare your children a trial. It’s recognizing that we naturally grasp for things that are not good for us and that God’s wisdom can stop our obnoxious bellyaching.
First temptation: Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread because he is hungry – how many of us would think that is reasonable? I would! But Jesus thought that maybe there was something more important than bread right then and there. He said that we don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God. We are alive not because we eat, but because God gives us life. He also said, “31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” [Matt 6] God is more important. For sure, Jesus fed thousands of people at other times, but here, he is not giving in to feeding his gut. Not now. In comparison, when the Israelites were in the desert, they grumbled loudly until God gave them manna – bread from heaven – as their daily food. They didn’t trust God to provide.
Second temptation: Then the devil took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem – he has no boundaries as to where he will tempt anyone. Note that we are not safe in church either. We can be tempted anywhere, any time and in any way. The devil quotes scripture out of the Bible to prove his point! But Jesus proves to be wiser. Jesus/God is the author of scripture and not only does Jesus know it inside out and backwards, but he also has the right interpretation of it. We don’t. We might want to test God, to see if we can manipulate him to do what we want. Honouring God excludes manipulation. Just like Jesus would be forcing God to protect him if he decided to jump. God doesn’t work like that. God is not a magician or a genie, someone who attracts followers with gimmicks and tricks. God asks us to trust him, that God is faithful and that he will give us what we need and always be with us and always, always love us.
The third test has to do with compromising. The devil offered Jesus worldly power if he would worship him. That’s just not happening with Jesus! But how often are we tempted that way? How often are we offered worldly power and we turn our back on God and God’s commands because we want that thing?
And when the test is over, God’s angels attend to him. He did well. He followed God’s commands. We do well too when we follow God’s commands. There are many places in the Bible where it says to “follow God’s commands so that it may go well with you” That is God’s desire. That is why we are called to love God, and our neighbour as ourselves. God wants our lives to go well. That is why Jesus came to live in the world – to show us what that looks like. He has his priorities lined up with God’s (he is one with him after all) Jesus is the embodiment/expression of the wisdom of God. Jesus is wise beyond all measure. Jesus is also known as “Logos”, or “the Word of God” – since we can’t physically see or hear God, and people a long time ago could in Jesus, we know this is true. The beautiful thing is that the Bible is also the word of God – the written word that tells us about the living Word. So even though the Bible isn’t complete like Jesus is, we can learn a lot of God’s wisdom from it. God’s wisdom given to us in the Bible is God’s gift to us – a roadmap/instruction manual for living life well. And when we take the Bible to heart, we will become more like Jesus, who is the heart of the Bible.
Jesus’ temptations have to do with the cultural reality of his day: food security, power, and compromise. Our temptations look very different than those of Jesus because we live in a very different world; the pressures from our culture to conform are very different. But the underlying temptation is the same. The temptation to treat God as less than God, to not fully trust Him, to make compromises with the ways of the world.
God loves you so much, God tells us how to live so that we will do well. It is our choice to obey or disobey. There are consequences either way – good and bad. If we all lived and loved perfectly, the way God loves us, our world would be like God’s kingdom. That is why Jesus said, when he first started his ministry, “to repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Remember the word repent? What song did we sing to remember? (Hokey Pokey) Because Jesus came to earth to show us what it looked like to follow the spirit of the Law instead of the letter of the law, we see a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. We get a taste of what that is like. When we make choices that align with Jesus, we experience real joy, even in hardship.
The apostle Paul was famous for saying things like that. He talks about joy all the time, even when he is in jail waiting to be killed. He is not defined by his circumstances, and neither are we! Our hard times, our suffering, does not define us. We are children of God, loved no matter what. Jesus died for our sake. Jesus had said to his disciples one day, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus laid down his life for all of us. Knowing that makes all of life easier, even joyful. Listening to Jesus, becoming wise like him, makes our lives go well, as God intended from the very beginning.