07. Matthew’s Gospel

The Temptations of Jesus

7 – The Temptations of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (diabalou).  And he fasted forty days and forty nights and afterward he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you and on their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ (Psalm 91:11-12)  Jesus said to him, “again, it is written, ‘you shall not tempt the Lord your God,’ (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and he said to him, “all these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Led by the Spirit

Compared to Mark’s phrase “The Spirit drove him”, Matthew paints the actions of the Spirit more gently “The Spirit led him” and shows a more compliant Jesus.  Jesus does not appear reluctant to go and seems to be willing to enter into the wilderness and perhaps the conflict.  For thirty years he has listened to his Father and when the urging of God is to be baptized and then to enter into the wilderness, he is willing to go.

And it is obvious to the reader that he was led by the Spirit whose purpose was to have him tested.  It was no accident that Jesus found himself in the wilderness, but the intention of God for His Son.

Fasted … afterwards hungry

 In the Old Testament, praying is usually the reason a person chooses  to fast.  Sometimes it is an act of penitence, sometimes for seeking something from God.  So we can safely presume that Jesus spent much of his time there praying.  Matthew’s choice of words, “afterwards he was hungry” leave the impression that Jesus was not hungry until the 40 days were over.  Does this mean that he was too distracted to eat?  Too preoccupied? Too focused?  Or should it be read “after having fasted for so long he was hungry”? Or possibly it means that after 40 days his hunger reached crisis proportions.  He must have been starved and suffering from malnutrition.   I think  it not improper to reject a miraculous freedom from the feelings of hunger during those 40 days, for if that were so, we may be tempted to presume that the temptations were not really temping either!

What are the results of long fasting?  Hunger, exhaustion, weight loss, and a body under considerable stress.  This in turn which will make any person vulnerable to emotional stress. Those that know about long term fasting often report light-headedness, hallucinations, and visions.  There is a close connection between fasting & visions in Daniel 10:3, and in the apocryphal books of IV Ezra 5:20 and II Baruch 20:5-6. This will be  discussed in further detail in a later chapter.

40 days and 40 nights

 It is intriguing to notice that when Mark and Luke tell us of the duration of his temptations, they note that he was in the wilderness for forty days. But when Matthew tells us of this same experience he notes that it was forty days and forty nights.  It is obvious from the other two accounts that Jesus was there day  and night for 40 days, not nipping off to a nearby B&B at night time. But Matthew notes it because he has Moses in mind as he writes his entire gospel. Listen to the parallels:

  • Exodus 24:18Moses was on the Mountain for 40 days and 40 nights…”
  • Exodus 34:28 “And Moses was there 40 days and 40 nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water, and he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”
  • Deuteronomy 9:9Then I went up the mountain to receive the tables of stone, the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you.  I remained on the mountain 40 days and forty nights; I neither ate bread or drank water.

A Greater Moses

The forty days and nights are very reminiscent of Moses, and all the passages that Jesus refers to in his   responses to the tempter are all found in the book of Deuteronomy.  The inference to Matthew’s Jewish readers is that Jesus is about to do something just as significant after his 40 days & nights as Moses did. Moses fasted 40 days before unveiling the Law.  Jesus fasted 40 days before unveiling the good news found in the Sermon on the Mount.

Before Matthew is through with his version of the Jesus story, he will have inferred in many ways that a greater than Moses is here.

A Greater Israel

But Matthew also draws parallels between the two sons of God.  Israel was a son, who early and often went astray, particularly during the 40 years wilderness wanderings.  Jesus is a son who resisted the temptations in the wilderness and proved himself to be a true and greater son of the Father. 

Listen to the strange text that Matthew applies to Jesus.  It is in Matthew’s gospel that we are told that Jesus is taken by his parents down into Egypt, as they fled from Herod.  He writes in 2:13-21  “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Matthew is quoting part of a passage from the prophet Hosea. (11:1ff)

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

But the more I called Israel the more they went astray.” But now Jesus has been called out of Egypt, and is now the New Israel in the Wilderness.  And the test that the nation faced back then is now faced by Jesus.  In Deuteronomy 8:3  Moses reminds the nation of their wanderings: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness, in order to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. And he humbled you by letting you hunger then fed you with Manna… that he might make you understand that man shall not live by bread alone…”  Jesus is getting to live through that same experience, but this time he will succeed. What was said about Nathaniel can also be said about Jesus “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile!”

St. Paul notes that Israel was “baptized” in the Red Sea before entering the wilderness, (I Cor. 10:1-2) and now we see Jesus being baptized in the Jordan before entering his wilderness.  Jesus is the “New Israel” in the wilderness. Will he exhibit the traits of a good son to his Father or will he, like Israel, defect in the wilderness?

Have you  ever wondered what Jesus thought about during those days? Was he is thinking about Israel’s failure, and his newly announced commission? Was he thinking and praying about how to carry out the mission that his Father has set his feet upon. Was he thinking about ways and means, and were the temptations possible responses to that question? Let us dig a bit deeper.

Unique temptations.

The temptations that came to Jesus are not the usual ones. The usual temptations that we face are anger, avarice, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, and pride (The Seven Deadly Sins). None of these seem to have been at the root of his temptations.

The three temptations that Matthew lists seem to be unique to Jesus.  He is able to do what he was being tempted to do.  These are the temptations of a good man, made to measure for a man able to do the miraculous.  Wm. Sanday says that Jesus faced “the problem of what to do with supernatural powers!”   These are not the temptations of Jesus, the private citizen.  They are the temptations of The Christ, the commissioned agent of God, who has been given a task to do for God and humanity.

Those with great powers, are subject to testing and temptations more than other mere mortals.   “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  The moral deficit in world leaders in regards to money, sex, power, and fame is stunning.  But what would be tempting for one who can say “All power in heaven and on earth is given unto me”?  In Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” the power of the One Ring cannot be handled safely by Gandalf or Galadriel, nor by elves, dwarves or men. Even the goodly Hobbits cannot handle such power and come out unwounded. And Jesus is being granted such powers, and the test is, how will he use them?

The 3 temptations that occupy his mind are brilliant. He Is being tempted to do the very things that a man of such outstanding character would want to do.

  • He is compassionate, so why not feed the hungry?
  • He does trust his father, so why not jump?
  • He cares for the welfare of the world, why not rule it soon rather than late?


But that may not be the only focus of the attack upon him.  Twice the temptations are prefaced by the little word “if”.  “If you are the Son of God….”   If … Is this the central focus of the temptations?  Is Satan raising doubts about Jesus’ newly disclosed identity?   Is he asking Jesus to do a miraculous deed to prove to himself that God’s earlier word is really true?    During his entire life of 30 years there is no evidence that he has done anything miraculous (in spite of the many apocryphal gospels). There has been no evidence of unusual power.  Is this the time to actually test his wings? Try a miracle and see what happens?  Perhaps the test is, “If you are this marvelous Son of God you should be able to so anything your heart desires!”

But there may be another focal point in the enemy’s attack. Were these three temptations not temptations to choose illegitimate ends, but to use illegitimate means?  He was not being tempted to do bad things, but to do God’s will by “successful means”.  Are they alternatives to the cross?   Perhaps I could win the world by being the Miracle Worker, or by show biz exploits, or by grasping political power?  Or must it be by the way of suffering and death?  Is the reluctance he shows in Gethsemane, when three times he cries, “My Father, if it be possible, may this cup be taken from me”, already present? And is he saying to his Father even here “nevertheless not as I will but what you will.”

But before we look in more detail at each of  the three temptations, we should look into Luke’s version of this story.  He gives us a perspective that may help us with the questions we are left with.

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