Chronologically, chapter 4 begins immediately after the baptism. From the incredible high point of God’s Spirit descending on Christ as a dove and the voice from heaven announcing Jesus as beloved Son, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness of Judea, away from all others for a period of soul strengthening. For forty days Christ is alone out there without food, meditating, I’m sure, on all he knows of Scripture in relation to the task he is about to undertake—establishing the Kingdom. At the end of the forty days he becomes hungry (indicating, possibly, that his meditation and God’s Spirit had kept hunger from being a concern during the forty days). Satan arrives (most probably after obtaining permission from God in much the same manner as he did in tempting Job).
The three temptations recorded in Matthew are also recorded in Luke, although in different order. If Matthew’s temptations are 1, 2, and 3, Luke’s are listed 1, 3, and 2. Most scholars believe Matthew’s temptations to be chronological while Luke’s are ordered in concert with the Lust of the Flesh, Lust of the Eyes, and Pride of Life grouping of 1 John 2:16. The reason is that Matthew’s account holds a couple of chronological clues toward the end. In verse 10, in Jesus’ answer to the third temptation he tells Satan to be gone. And then promptly in verse 11 we read that the devil left him.
Jesus withstands all three temptations, but one question that has had Bible students puzzling for years is whether the potential for sin actually existed. Could Jesus have sinned? At first thought it would seem that the possibility had to exist for this to be a valid temptation. Without the possibility of sin, how tempting could sin be? Hebrews seems to say that these temptations were very real. Hebrews 2:18 states, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And again in 4:15 we read, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
But reviewing again who Jesus is pulls the argument back the other way. Jesus is fully man, but not as a result of putting aside his deity. He is at the same time fully God. And it is a logical fallacy for God to sin. Both the definition of God (as all righteous) and the definition of sin (rebellion to God) argue against the possibility for Christ to sin. But again, if he cannot sin, how can the temptations be real.
I think the answer lies in the point of perspective. Remember that the intention in Hebrews is to show that Christ faced and felt the pull of temptation. In his humanity, Jesus had laid aside certain abilities, one of which was his omniscience. The Bible tells us or provides hints in various instances that Christ did not know all. For example in Matthew 24 Jesus said that he did not know the timing of his second coming. Therefore, in the wilderness, Jesus faces the temptation with the same limitations of foreknowledge with which we face temptation. To Jesus in his human condition, the temptations he faced felt very real. It is a false analysis to then argue, “Yes, but how could the temptations be real if God strengthened his resolve against the sin?” We must realize that any resolve against sin by anybody ever is through the strengthening given by God through faith. The temptations were real, and Christ really did withstand them. The question of whether the possibility for failure existed philosophically does nothing to change the nature of the felt temptation.
In one sense, however, the experience was different from what we might experience. Christ was born without a sin nature. As we face temptations, the evil lurking within us often supports the imagination in evil imaginings in our sometimes meager attempts to withstand temptation. Although we may finally resist the temptation, our imaginations may have entwined us with sin during the process. For Christ, it was not so. The temptations were that which were considered and rejected without sin. Let’s review them in more detail.
The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Surely this could not have been so bad, right? Forty days without food is a long time. This could have been more than just hunger; his body could be shutting down; he could be dying. Turning the stones to bread would preserve his life. And doesn’t he go from this event (according to John’s Gospel) to a wedding in Cana where he changes water to wine for those who needed it far less than he needed the bread? Sustaining his life is good—so he may have reasoned.
The second temptation was to throw himself down from high on top of the temple. Satan encourages him by arguing that God has promised to protect him. Was he not called “the Nazarene”—the guarded one? Satan seemed to be questioning whether the title God gave him in his heavenly pronouncement at the baptism was true. “If you are the Son of God” the devil says, perhaps implying that he really wasn’t. By being protected in such a fall, surely he would demonstrate the truth of the title. And besides, he is the Son of God! He does have the power and right to act as he will with the host of heaven at his hand.
The third temptation turns to God’s purpose. Christ has come into the world to bring the nations back to God. Satan offers him exactly this end. Just bow down and he could claim mission accomplished!
All three temptations seem to have some good aspect to them. Yet all are wrong. All are evil because they all require Jesus to act on his own independently from God. As we look at the three and a half years of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels, we find that Jesus always acts in obedience to the Father. That is a major abiding characteristic of his time on Earth. He has been limited in his knowledge, requiring him to be dependent on God. John 8:28 tells us: “So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.’” Jesus does not act on his own authority. That is precisely why embracing any of the three temptations would have been sin.
Look at the first temptation again. Changing the stones to bread does remind us of the wedding at Cana. John 2:3-5 says, “When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” What is this conversation about? Mary comes to Jesus in verse 2 not merely informing him that they need wine, but unstated though implied is that Jesus should do something about it. Jesus should miraculously solve the problem. She comes to Jesus because she knows Jesus is the only one capable of providing.
But how should we understand Jesus’ answer? He calls her “Woman,” not “Mother.” He argues what does this have to do with him (or, as in other translations, what does he have to do with Mary). Then he cryptically explains that his “hour” has not yet come. How do we resolve those three elements? The answer is that Jesus’ attitude here is the same as in the desert facing the stones-to-bread temptation. Jesus will not act for himself, but only in response to the Father’s command. He calls her Woman, not Mother, to show that he no longer can be responsible in obedience to her command. He has just been baptized signifying his intent to focus his life on the establishing of the Kingdom. That is through the Father’s direction. Mary’s authority as mother has ended.
He argues that (as far as he knows then) this event is not part of his ministry objective; therefore performing the miraculous can’t be done without the Father’s direction. He tells her that his hour—that time of acting on his own initiative—has not yet come. It would not come until after his ministry here on Earth. Therefore, he could not perform what Mary asked (or instructed).
Mary seems to understand and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. At this time, what we don’t read in the text, but what certainly must be true, is that the Spirit of God does inform Christ that this miracle must be done. Christ always acts on the Father’s initiative. And we learn in John’s Gospel how this incident, being placed immediately next to Christ’s final public miracle—the cleansing of the Temple—dramatically and allegorically pictures in bookend style the purpose of his mission. But in the Judean wilderness, there was no command from God to change the stones to bread. Jesus therefore resists the temptation and shows his continued dependence on God.
The second temptation cannot be right. Although God has promised to protect him, he does so as Jesus relies on him for direction. To claim the title of Son of God in arrogant display, demanding that the Father, as some lamp genie, protect him would be sin. And it is sin for us as well to “claim” a promise from God in his Word and demand that God act on it based on our initiative and authority. Jesus portrays the correct attitude of dependence on God and his authority.
Seeing that Jesus will not be filled with pride regarding his title of Son of God, Satan attempts a different tack. He seemingly agrees that God’s path is the right one. God sent Christ here to gather all nations to himself. Okay, says Satan, that’s the purpose, therefore, that’s what we’ll do. The devil says just bow down and he will allow him to have the nations. But although the end result seems right, it is not according to God’s plan, and Jesus rightly rejects it, choosing rather to remain dependent on God’s guidance.
The devil leaves but this is not a final victory. The devil will continue to tempt Christ all the way to the cross. Even on the cross Jesus faces the same three temptations. Matthew 27:39-40 has the passersby deriding Christ, saying, “Save yourself…if you are the Son of God.” This was the exact temptation of Satan: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In other words, if you are the Son of God, preserve your life. In 27:43, the chief priests and others say, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now.” This was a temptation that could have played out in Christ’s mind. Again, Christ is in a weakened condition as this temptation strikes. He has been beaten, been crowned with thorns, had limbs pulled out of joint, and had spikes driven through hands and feet. In all this torture, comes the temptation to wonder where is God? He is the Son of God? Why does God allow this? Why does God not protect him?
The chief priests call out in 27:42 that if he comes down, they’ll believe him. Surely this would be true! All Jerusalem, Judea, even Rome would hear of it if a man came down from a cross, triumphing over death—which was God’s purpose. But Jesus remains on the cross, without succumbing to temptation, and accomplishes all God’s plan because he followed God in total obedience and dependence.
And this dependence that Christ showed as Son of God is the exact dependence we are to show as children of God. In the OT, Job provides an example of one who is attacked by these same three temptations. All he has is taken away, but in this, we are told, Job doesn’t sin. His health and very life is threatened, but in this also he does not sin. Most of the rest of the book concentrates on the third temptation. He loses approval of the world. He loses his reputation. He is no longer looked upon as the favored by God. Yet Job does not lose faith in the righteousness of God or in his dependence on God. Job does show frustration in wanting God’s redeeming hand now—at his demand, at his timing. And God comes taking Job to task for his demands, making Job see that God’s infinite and transcendent wisdom, too, must be trusted.
Have you ever been at wit’s end, begging God to move in a certain way to make things right? In this too we must be in God’s story, not attempt to bring him into ours. We belong to him. We are dependent on him. As we focus our lives on the Kingdom, we must follow. Resisting temptation is not a stirring up of our soul to fight. It is turning to God, depending on him, the one with the power to defeat Satan at every turn.
Christ overcame Satan’s temptations with Scripture. But Scripture has no power as an incantation. Its power comes from God through aligning out thoughts and heart with God’s. The Scripture Christ quoted came from Deuteronomy at the occasion when the Children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land. They had spent forty years in the wilderness. While Christ’s forty days in the wilderness is often compared to those forty years, another comparison may be more apt. When the Children of Israel approached the Promised Land the first time—only two years after crossing the Red Sea—they sent spies into the land, one from each tribe. The spies scouted the land for forty days while the people waited. Just so was Christ in the wilderness for forty days before the temptation came. When most of the spies brought back a bad report, the Children of Israel fell to the temptation not to be dependent on God. Christ, however, was victorious.
We must realize our dependency on God. As a man and in the weakness of forty days without food, Jesus faced the ultimate force of evil in the universe. And he did so not with friends or family or disciples. He was alone. We are encouraged to help each other. We are told to meet together and to bear each other’s burdens. We have prayer chains, accountability partners, support groups, and other ways to help share burdens. But while all these things are good and while we ought to help others precisely because the Bible encourages us to that end, notice that Scriptures never tell the hurting to go to others for comfort. The hurting are told to go to God. Likewise, the comforters fail if all they do is sympathize and pet. They are there to turn the focus of the hurting to God. If we begin depending on each other for comfort, we tend to depend on God less. And the less dependent we are on God, the less we grow; the less we experience true victory.
This chapter ends the first section of Matthew—the introduction of Jesus. Chapter 5 begins section 2. From verse 12 to the end of chapter 4, we do not read of chronological events. Immediately after the temptation, verse 12 tells us that Jesus went to Galilee because he heard of John’s arrest. Actually, based on the other Gospels, we know that John wasn’t arrested until much later after Jesus had gone to Galilee and come back to Judea for a time. The point is that Matthew is not giving us chronology here. He ends chapter 4 and this first section of his book with three groupings of verses. Verses 12 through 17 introduce the principles of Christ’s ministry. Verses 18 through 22 introduce the activity of Christ’s ministry. And verses 23 through 25 introduce the impact of Christ’s ministry. These same three mini-introductions headline the next three sections of the book. The following is a sort of outline of the book so far—
Theme: Christ is Messiah; Messiah is Shepherd King, Immanuel
I. Section 1 – The Introduction of Jesus
A. Chapter 1 – Christ, ordained by God (Genealogy and Birth)
1. Of Abraham
2. Of David
3. Of God
B. Chapter 2 – Christ, prophesied by God (Infancy)
1. Promised by God
2. Protected by God
C. Chapter 3 – Christ, called by God (Baptism)
1. Baptism of John (water) – Intent to live for the Kingdom
2. Baptism of God (Holy Spirit) – Relationship and Righteousness
D. Chapter 4 – Christ, purposed by God (Temptation and Triumph)
1. Life for Self temptations
a. Relationship with creation
i. “Right” of dominion
ii. Stones to bread
b. Relationship with God
i. “Right” of love
ii. Fall to earth
c. Relationship with humanity
i. “Right” of rule
ii. Bow and control
2. Life for Ministry
II. Section 2 – Principles of the Kingdom
III. Section 3 – Activities of the Kingdom
IV. Section 4 – Impact of the Kingdom
V. Section 5 – Establishment of the Kingdom