The testing of Jesus in Matthew 4

As we enter the season of Lent on Sunday, the lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, is of course Matt 4.1–11. It is worth noting that the lectionary and seasonal arrangement of the 40 days (46 calendar days minus the feast days of Sundays that exempt us from lenten discipline) corresponding to Jesus’ testing in the desert, then leading straight into Easter, does something quite odd. For Jesus, the days of testing and discipline then led into a time (three years according to the Fourth Gospel) of fruitful and powerful ministry, culminating in cross and resurrection, whereas in the calendar, this middle season is postponed till after Easter. Perhaps part of the reflection here is that Jesus’ ministry (in healing, teaching and deliverance) is anticipatory of the victory of Easter, and is only released to us by the power of the resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, so this re-ordering does have theological value. And, as we shall see, Matthew does make connections between the time of testing and elements of the Passion narrative later in his gospel.

As I mentioned last year, Felix Just, on his Catholic Resources page, includes a helpful table of comparison of the three Synoptic accounts of the temptations:

.Mark 1:12-13Matthew 4:1-11Luke 4:1-13
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts…1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
x3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.‘ ” (cf. Deut 8:3cd)3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.‘ “(cf. Deut 8:3c)
x5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘ ” (cf. Deut 6:16)5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.‘” (cf. Deut 6:13)
x8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.‘” (cf. Deut 6:13)9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘ ” (cf. Deut 6:16)
13d – and the angels waited on him.11 Then the devil left him,
and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
13 When the devil had finished every test,
he departed from him until an opportune time.

This is helpful in both highlighting common themes drawn out by the three gospel writers, but also in highlighting different emphases.

A common theme is the tension between the apparent power of Satan, and the sovereignty of God in the whole event. Mark expresses this rather brutally—the Spirit ‘throws’ or ‘drives’ (ballo) Jesus into the desert—where Matthew and Luke are a little more measured. But all three are also clear that Jesus was not alone, contrary to some readings of this narrative, and also contrary to the rather miserable hymn I remember from school days, Lead us Heavenly Father, lead us, which included the lines:

lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go

The temptations might not have been a bag of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’; in Mark he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and with the words of his Father’s blessing ringing in his ears, and returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14). In Matthew, the sequences of tests builds to a triumphant climax where Jesus dismisses Satan forcefully, captured I think rather nicely in the painting above by Félix-Joseph Barrias, a forgotten 19th C painter who taught Edgar Degas.

Matthew’s account, in its opening, holds together the two forces at work in this incident more clearly than either Luke or Mark. For these others, the Spirit throws or leads Jesus into the desert, and he meets testing there. But in Matt 4.1, the Spirit leads Jesus (literally, ‘led up’, that is, up from the river Jordan) with the clear purpose of his testing by Satan. Although Satan appears to have freedom and power, this whole episode is actually firmly placed under the sovereignty of Jesus’ loving Father.

This influences how we might translate the verb peirazo. Although the traditional translation characterises this as the ‘temptation’ of Jesus (perhaps under the theological influence of ‘he was tempted as we are yet without sin’ Heb 4.15), elsewhere in Matthew the verb is used in the quite different sense of Jesus being ‘tested’ by human opponents (Matt 16.1, 19.3, 22.18, 35)—so we should probably understand in this way here as well. For Matthew, this aligns Jesus’ 40 days with the (roughly) 40 years of Israel in the wilderness, where God ‘tested’ Israel (ekpeirazo) to ‘see what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments’ (Deut 8.2).

Mark does not even mention question of fasting in his summary account. Luke (perhaps writing for those less familiar with the biblical discipline of fasting?) emphasises the human reality that he ate nothing and so was famished; but for Matthew this is a period of ‘forty days and nights’ drawing his customary parallel with the experience of Moses (Ex 24.18, 34.28, Deut 9.9) of supernatural provision. Given Matthew’s interest in Elijah along with Moses, there is also likely an echo of Elijah’s time in the wilderness in 1 Kings 19.8. Surely the statement ‘He was hungry’ must rank as the greatest understatement in the New Testament!

Jesus’ opponent here is described using three different terms: ‘devil’ (v 1); ‘the tempter’ (v 3); and ‘Satan’ (on Jesus’ lips, v 10). He is later described as ‘Beelzebul’ (‘Lord of the flies’) in Matt 12.24, and ‘the Evil One’ in Matt 13.19. The Old Testament refers to this figure in different ways (notably in 1 Chron 21.1, Job 1–2 and Zech 3.1–2), but without this developed sense of Satan as the cosmic opponent of God and his people. This idea developed in the intertestamental period, and it was a Jewish understanding that the early followers of Jesus continued. The gathering together of the diverse OT titles, and basic characterisation of Satan as the ‘accuser’ (the meaning of satan in Hebrew and diabolos in Greek) is found in Rev 12.7–10).

Some interpreters have suggested that these three tests were related to Jesus’ Messianic agenda: was Jesus going to quickly gather the crowds by impressive displays of divine power? But that thesis fails on two counts. First, Jesus does indeed perform ‘signs and wonders’ in his ministry, and this does indeed gather ‘great crowds’, which is one of Matthew’s distinctive emphases. Second, the language of testing here has no audience in view other than Jesus himself. In fact (both in Luke and Matthew), the first and second (for Luke, first and third) tests rest on the challenge: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ This both looks back to the word of affirmation of Jesus by the Father at his baptism (Matt 3.17) but also anticipates the test all the way to the cross, and Jesus’ obedience to death, in the taunts of the crowd (Matt 27.40).

Jesus’ response to the first test (as for the others) is to cite Scripture, offering a well-rehearsed model for all his followers. It is notable that all three of his citations come from Deut 6–8, the passages following the central confession of Israel that ‘God is One’, the Shema (Deut 6.4). (It has been suggested that the three temptations followed the structure of the Shema in corresponding to the ‘heart, soul and strength’ with which we are to love God—but this is not entirely convincing.) These are the texts which orthodox Jewish boys still need to learn by heart and recite at their bar mitzvah. Jewish Matthew records a fuller section of the verse than gentile-focussed Luke.

The first part of Deut 8.3 (which Jesus does not cite) sets the context of the test as teaching Israel that there are more important things than material provision—even in relation to the apparently essential question of food and drink. Jesus’ unrealistic practice here surely shapes his apparently unrealistic teaching that closely follows in Matt 6.25–34; Jesus expects us to learn the lessons of trust that he has learnt. There is a strange ironic pun in this saying: rather than live by what goes into our mouths and thus our stomachs, we live by what comes out of God’s mouth, but goes in to our ears and thus our hearts. (There is a complementary bodily irony in Jesus’ teaching about what makes someone clean or unclean in Matt 15.11—not what goes into the mouth which then enters the stomach, but what comes out of the mouth which arises in the heart).

In both the second and third tests, the devil ‘takes’ or ‘transports’ Jesus to a high mountain, then to the temple in Jerusalem. Although this is the usual word that Matthew uses, for example, in Joseph taking Mary in Matt 2.13 and Jesus taking his disciples with him in Matt 17.1, we don’t need to interpret this as a literal journey. Apart from anything else, it is physically impossible to see ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ from any vantage point, so we should consider this as an exercise of the imagination, as indeed many film renditions of this episode suggest (compare Ezekiel’s visionary trip to Jerusalem in Ezek 8.1–3). For this reason, there is no need to try and identify exactly where the ‘pinnacle’ (pterygion) of the temple is. You can still sense, in Jerusalem today, the vertiginous drop from the corner of the Temple Mount into the Kidron Valley below, and in Jesus’ day it would have been even further; to fall from there would mean certain death.

If Jesus can cite Scripture, then so can the devil! James concurs with the narrative claim made implicitly here: it is possible to know Scripture and know doctrine (James 2.19) but not ‘know’ God in trusting relationship. Jesus is here not disputing the truth of Ps 91.11, but is disputing the devil’s use of it. When does looking to God’s provision and care cross over into making God our servant, so that he answers our prayers as a response to our demands on him, rather than as an answer to trust for his provision? The citation of Deut 6.16 looks back to the episode of Exodus 17.1–7, where Israel crossed just that line.

The sequential markers in Matthew (‘then’ v 5 and ‘again’ in v 8) suggest that this was the original order of the tests, which Luke has altered to emphasise the importance of Jerusalem as the climax of Jesus’ loyalty. But for Matthew and Jesus, and again reflecting the Shema, the test underlying all the other tests is this one: whom do we really worship? Here, Satan’s mask falls away, and all pretence at ‘biblical’ justification disappears from view. There is no sense of unwarranted hubris on Satan’s part in the claim he makes; he is repeatedly described in the NT as ‘the ruler of this world’ (e.g. John 12.31, 2 Cor 4.4, Eph 6.11, 1 John 5.19, Rev 12.9–17) which means that it his real power that Jesus overcomes in these tests, as a sign pointing to the real victory of the cross which releases the real power of the Spirit to effect real victory in the lives of Jesus’ followers.

There can be only one answer for Jesus: that we should ‘worship’ (the meaning of ‘fear’ in Deut 6.13) the Lord our God. Jesus summarily dismisses Satan with the same wording that he dismisses the suggestion of Peter that he should avoid suffering in Matt 16.23.

When eventually Jesus is able to claim on another mountain that ‘all authority has been given to me’, it will be as a result not of kowtowing to Satan but of suffering in obedience to God’s purpose, and then it will be all authority not only on earth but also in heaven, an authority which the devil was not able to offer (Matt 28.18). (R T France, NICNT, p135)

Though Luke comments explicitly that Satan will return ‘at the opportune time’, we can see implicit hints of this in Matthew’s later narrative. In the meantime, Matthew tells us, ‘behold’ angels come and minister to him, using his characteristic idou to communicate the suddenness of the change, as Satan departs, and the angelic aid promised in Ps 91.11 comes to him in God’s timing and with his provision.

Two final things are worth noting. First, the only way that we could have this narrative (assuming it is not simply imagined) is to note that (here and elsewhere) Jesus must have been ‘in the unfortunate habit of regaling his disciples with his personal experiences of God’. Perhaps this is not a bad habit for any leader to adopt.

Secondly, the temptations of Jesus are often preached as though they were moral examples for us to follow: we should go into the desert; we should face our demons; we should quote from Scripture; and so on. But to preach in this way is in danger of missing the most important thing in preaching: not to put ourselves in the narrative as if we were the most important subject, but to note what God is doing and what God has done. The focus for all three gospels writers is that Jesus has undone the failures of both Israel and Adam; when we are incorporate into Jesus, we are incorporated into this victory, and we share in it by grace rather than by our own efforts. That does not mean, as we face temptations and challenges this Lent, we can avoid the challenge of discipline and effort. But we face these things knowing that Jesus conquered them, in the power of the Spirit, and that the same Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it is his presence that brings victory and enables us to be ‘more than conquerors’ (Rom 8.37; compare Rev 2.7 and parallels).

Jesus is here not so much a model for us to follow, but a saviour for us to be rescued and secured by.

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13 thoughts on “The testing of Jesus in Matthew 4”

  1. A bit of a linked but side issue, I’ve been mulling over lately about angels and what’s struck me as I’ve tried to read up is how speculative a lot of the ideas about them are and how little clear explanations are given in the bible. This has made me wonder if there’s not something that we’re missing that would have been so obvious back in the day it didn’t need saying. I half wonder if these people where such a common part of any employer’s retinue, let alone dignitaries etc that it just didn’t need saying. Before there was intercom or telephones there would have been people whose main job was to hang round, either nearby or only a bell ring away. Maybe we don’t have a correctly translatable word these days as messenger doesn’t quite cut it. Perhaps the modern legacy of the role is something akin to a whole range of roles including elements of lady in waiting, steward, errand boy, even courtiers, as well as envoys, heralds etc who were more specialised messengers. I wonder if there are meanings of things that elude us or we complicate because we’ve lost the notion. I wonder if “Those who wait on the Lord will have their strength renewed” wouldn’t have needed spooky interpretations because everyone know that if you do waiting/ready messenger work for an inspiring master you get second wind for extra errands, so it’ not really talking about rest (though rest is important elsewhere) but about working for a decent employer like the rest of the chapter talks about. So mother saying to the child “Be an angel, go and tell Mrs Next Door this message” should not be using angel as an adjective but as a noun.

      • Yes. I’ve recently read your note about that in the Rev commentary. It answered my question about why you didn’t say more about the angels there. That’s partly what made me think that no one explained about them because no one would have questioned God having these people in his ‘court’, ‘retinue’ because just everyone had them. I’m leaving asking the obvious questions about Satan until I’ve read the appropriate bits too. lol

      • Regarding angels, if you are not already familiar with his work it is worth looking up the Bible scholar Michael Heiser on YouTube who has a lot of stuff on the ‘unseen realm’ – some of it very convincing.

        • Thanks, Colin. Just been and had a good old mosey round his blog. Interesting.

          My big issue is people sort of wanting them to be a bit like dial up Greek or Norse Gods, but ‘cuddly’. I just don’t see that anywhere in the Bible. I think the term has to be something much more ‘logical’ down to earth in the sense that if it was more complex it would be explained, but the most detail we get is the occasional mention of their livery, radiant white. A sort of knight in shining armour fantasy.

          But if I understand places like Colossians right, going over the top about them, how ever supernatural some are, is not where it’s at. The only real deal is the new clothing, love holding it all in place, bear one another’s burdens, bear with one another, treat your partner right package.

          I can’t remember if it was this blog or Sojo where I recently saw the example of a young woman in a car accident and someone came and stayed with her and prayed with her till the emergency services arrived then left. People were saying it was an angelic apparition and getting steamed up about it till a retired priest came forward. But I think that’s even better. A human being kind to a human seems to me to be what it’s all about. By ‘othering’ the helper it made the act sort of alien. Is it less of God if it’s a person messenger from God not a supernatural one? I think over egging the supernatural ones is a sort of cop out for the fact that mostly the gifts of the spirit and fruit of the spirit is about us doing the bizz in some way or other.

      • I’m carrying on my own private conversation here as my understanding is growing. I’m sure everyone else already knew this but I’ve just found that angels and heralds were regular characters in Greek dramas. Referred to as messengers of gods and of men by Euripides. And thinking about Revelation, that letters/scrolls were commonly used to move the plot on or communicate key thoughts of a character. And the role of the chorus. Fascinating. Like you say in the intro to the commentary, genres.

        • I think the torches before the throne look very similar to a chorus line. The Holy spirit presents himself like footlights so that the light is throne on Jesus. The torches only illuminate the stage.

          • Hiya Steve, That’s an interesting thought and along the lines I’ve been reading this week. I put messengers in ancient greece in the search engine and came up with loads of references to greek drama. Euripides had a herald and messenger come together and called them messengers of gods and of men. Of course he was 400 ish BC but they kept doing him and the others just like we redo Shakespeare even after hundreds of years too. Then of course in the gk drama stuff there was loads of other stuff like in Rev like a letter being a key prop communication of someone’s thoughts or a secret, the chorus coming in with songs, the whole thing occurring in one place and time like in Rev all is in sequence and all happening in this impressive throne room. Made me think of like in our genres of theatre some things are assumed like there’ll always be a chorus, dame and jokes in a panto and clues and witnesses in a murder mystery. Made me wonder if so much is left unexplained in Rev cos they would have just understood – greek drama tragedy format (though with happy ending, yay) but classic jewish apocalyptic and prophetic content. I’ve made my peace with the angels in Rev at least and most of the others aren’t far off. 🙂

  2. ‘But we face these things knowing that Jesus conquered them, in the power of the Spirit, and that the same Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it is his presence that brings victory and enables us to be ‘more than conquerors’ ‘

    And yet “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

    It is a constant fight.


  3. There are different ways of considering the three-fold temptations. For instance, are there parallels with when the woman saw that “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom”? Might there be a link to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”? How about “the world, the flesh and the devil” which we are to reject at baptism?

    One thing which should be considered, I think, given the point in Jesus’ ministry when it occurred, is that these testings/temptation concern the kind of ministry he was to have. After all, in Matthew 4 we see that Jesus did not begin to preach until after his time in the wilderness.

    Flowing from this, Henri Nouwen in his book “In the Name of Jesus”, reflects on Christian Leadership. Each of his main chapters is built around a temptation, a prayer/task/challenge and a discipline. The temptations are the three, which he considers, in the realm of leadership, to be:
    – the temptation to be relevant
    – the temptation to be spectacular
    – the temptation to be powerful
    This was a text we had on a course I did recently, and every one of us on the course found the book speaking deeply.

  4. We don’t need to interpret this as a literal journey. Apart from anything else, it is physically impossible to see ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ from any vantage point, so we should consider this as an exercise of the imagination.

    That’s a possibility, but the contextual details are physical – literal hunger, a literal wilderness, and ostensibly a literal mountain. ‘All the kingdoms of the world’ in Luke 4:5 may be compared with similar phrases in the OT and NT that were not intended to be taken in an absolute sense (e.g. Luke 2:1, Acts 11:28); what could be seen from the mountain top was representative of what could not be seen.

    What really strikes me is that the Devil might have had any power to take Jesus along to this place or that. Clearly Jesus was not stationary during the 40 days. Just now I find myself supposing that he was continually on the move, on a journey that encompassed Jerusalem and the ‘very high mountain’ as well as the wilderness. Notwithstanding the Devil’s ‘taking him along’, he was led by the Spirit during the 40 days. That is, Jesus consented to be led by the Devil’s spirit hither and thither, in order to be tested by him, at the same time as he was led by the Holy Spirit.

  5. We read that the Spirit descended bodily like a dove and remained on Jesus at his baptism. I imagine Jesus and the Spirit as a pair of doves offered for sacrifice in Leviticus 5v7. When Jesus died on the cross did the Spirit leave him at that point? Jesus is The Lamb but his ministry was with the spirit too. Perhaps we should see The two doves of Leviticus as speaking of their joint ministry?


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