First Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2020
Commentary on the Texts
The Revised Common Lectionary always designates the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as the gospel reading on the first Sunday in Lent.
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
This account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew is very similar to the account in Luke 4:1-13. The major difference is that the order of the second and third temptations in Matthew is switched in Luke. Luke had a theological reason for changing this order to make the final temptation conclude in Jerusalem, which would be the place where Jesus would face the supreme test of his life at the cross. Matthew's theological purpose on the other hand did not include such an agenda and therefore he left the order of the three temptations the way he found them in the tradition.
However, it could also be the case that Matthew saw the sequence of the three temptations as significant in that they move to greater heights, from stones on ground level, to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and finally to a mountain top from where all the kingdoms of the earth can be surveyed. The progression is not only in terms of greater physical height but also greater intensity and scope. The first temptation has to do with Jesus' own need for food. The second temptation involves a wider circle in Jerusalem and the temple. And finally the third temptation takes in the whole world.
Mountains are significant in Matthew, as evidenced not only here in this story but also in later chapters. Jesus preaches his programmatic sermon in Matthew 5-7 from a mountain top and reinterprets the law of Moses, which was of course given from the top of another mountain, Mount Sinai, with a clear implication that Jesus as Son of God has the final and ultimate authority to reinterpret the law of Moses: "You have heard . . . but I say to you . . . ." The transfiguration of Jesus takes place on a high mountain also (chapter 17). At the very end of the Gospel we find the resurrected Jesus with his disciples again on a mountain in Galilee commissioning them to take his message to all the nations of the world.
The temptation story begins in Matthew 4:1 by connecting it to the baptism of Jesus in 3:13-17. Following the temptation account Matthew states that Jesus withdrew to Galilee and there began his ministry, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1-2 that the people of Galilee would see a great light. By placing the temptation account between these two narrative units, Matthew wants the reader to understand that the temptation of Jesus had to do with the kind of ministry upon which he was about to embark and the manner in which he was to accomplish the purposes of God in the world.
Jesus departed from the Jordan River led up by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. By using the divine passive ("was led up") and the preposition "by" before the Spirit, Matthew emphasizes the fact that it is God who is leading Jesus by means of the Spirit. Matthew is drawing a parallel between Jesus and Israel in the Old Testament, whom God also led in the wilderness, "testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments" (Deut 8:2).
Matthew clearly connects the temptations of Jesus with his earlier baptism in the Jordan. The theological significance is that this episode in the wilderness is no less a part of the divine presence in the life of Jesus than the exalted experience at his baptism in the Jordan when the heavens split open, the Holy Spirit descended on him, and the voice came from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am delighted." But now in the desolate wilderness, with no heavenly vision and no divine voice, God is no less present with Jesus than at the banks of the Jordan.
However, the wilderness is a place of struggle, temptation, testing. When Jesus came to John for baptism, John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. Jesus told him to go ahead with it in order to fulfill all righteousness (3:15). Now in the wilderness righteousness will be put on trial. Jesus must decide what it means for him to be Son of God, as the voice from heaven had declared earlier at his baptism.
So the tempter begins with that proposition: "Since you are the Son of God . . ." The translation of the conditional clause with "since" probably best suits the context. The point of this particular temptation is not to cast doubt on the divine sonship of Jesus. That fact is recognized and established. Matthew had already indicated that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:18). He is Emmanuel, God with us (1:23). After the flight to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous schemes, God appeared to Joseph and told him to return to the land of Israel with the child and his mother. In this whole Egypt episode Matthew finds fulfillment of the prophecy of Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I have called my son," which in Hosea was a reference to Israel's exodus out of Egypt. Matthew now uses that pivotal episode in Israel's history to indicate that Jesus is fulfilling Israel's destiny as son of God. Just as Israel came out of Egypt and for forty years was tested in the wilderness, so now Jesus experiences his own exodus, passing through the waters of baptism, and into the desert to be tested for forty days as Israel was for forty years.
The story of the temptation of Jesus is told in the form of a dialogue between the devil and Jesus which makes use of quotations from the Book of Deuteronomy. Exactly how the temptations were suggested to Jesus we will probably never know. We must bear in mind that biblical stories are often pictorial. Just as it would be a mistake to think that a painting is itself the thing that it portrays, so also with this story of the temptations. It is a painting. It would be useless to ask what the real thing looked like. We cannot answer that question. Did the devil physically whisk Jesus from the wilderness, to the pinnacle of the temple, and then to the top of a mountain? Must the story be taken so literally in order for it to be true? What mountain in Palestine, or anywhere else for that matter, is high enough that one can stand on it and see all the kingdoms of the world?
Be that as it may, our focus in this story should be on the meaning of the temptations in the context of the Gospel of Matthew. That context is the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. In this account we are given a glimpse of the inner struggle of Jesus as he faces the issue of how to accomplish his ministry.
The first temptation could not have been better timed. Jesus had been fasting for forty days. He was entitled to eat. Even Israel in the Old Testament was miraculously fed by manna. Why not the Son of God? "Turn these stones into loaves of bread. Use your power to satisfy your physical need. You are entitled to food after a forty-day fast."
Again, the contrast with Israel's testing in the wilderness is evident. Deuteronomy 8:2-10 is very much the background against which Matthew 4 must be understood. Israel murmured and complained about not having food to eat. Jesus counters the devil's temptation with the words of Deut 8:3, " . . . one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." Rather than using his miraculous powers to satisfy his own needs he will trust God to provide for him.
This first temptation of Jesus was not merely the urge to satisfy his hunger by some miraculous deed. It also had implications as to how Jesus would respond to the physical needs of others, especially their need for food. Matthew tells us, for example, that Jesus miraculously fed a multitude of people (14:13-21 and 15:32-39). In a subsistence economy where people lived from hand to mouth, the symbolism of miraculously providing abundant food would not be lost on prospective followers. Jesus would be seen as the messiah who provides for their pressing needs.
But the problem is that for Jesus the kingdom of God is not a matter of feeding oneself or others, as essential as that might be. To a prospective disciple who wanted to follow him Jesus says (8:20):
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
Jesus tells his disciples as he sends them on their mission (10:8-10):
You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics; or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says (6:25, 33):
. . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" . Not only did Jesus teach others to live this way, but he lived it himself. The first temptation in the wilderness was only the beginning of a whole way of life for him.
It would not be a big deal to tell North Americans not to worry about their next meal. But to say such words to people who live from hand to mouth would be political suicide. The temptation for Jesus would have been to promise prospective followers that the kingdom of God for them would mean full stomachs. But if that is the motivation for responding to the kingdom of God, have they truly experienced its reality?
It is easy enough for a North American Christian who has three square meals everyday to say that the kingdom of God is not food or drink. But Jesus here in the wilderness is himself on the verge of starvation and lives among people who are in extreme need. The struggle for him in this temptation is beyond our imagination. How can he be compassionate with needy people and provide for their needs and yet present to them a life of discipleship that calls for wholehearted seeking after the kingdom of God rather than for food and drink?
It is no wonder that the Gospel of John has taken the Feeding of the Five Thousand to the next level of interpretation and instruction. Jesus says to the people who had been miraculously fed and had come running after him, "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life . . . ." (John 6:27).
In the second temptation the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. Irony of ironies, Jerusalem, the holy city, indeed the sacred precincts of the temple itself, the very seat of religious life, become the scene of this temptation. The devil places him on the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down, quoting a promise from Psalm 91:11-12 that God would command his angels to protect him. Why was this a temptation for Jesus?
The devil was suggesting that on the basis of Scripture Jesus must believe and insist on divine protection. Suffering and death would be a sign of weak faith. Vulnerability to life-threatening situations would be a sign of divine displeasure. He after all is the Son of God! As Son, the least he should expect is safety and protection from his heavenly Father. He should jump off from this great height with the confidence that God will protect him. Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."
However, there may be even something more in this temptation. In the first temptation there were no spectators; Jesus is alone. Now the devil takes him to the temple where there would be many spectators. If Jesus jumped off the pinnacle of the temple and was miraculously kept from harm, what an impact that would have on people! Here the temptation for Jesus was to use his miraculous powers to amaze people and thereby attract followers.
Jesus would, of course, perform many miracles of healing and other powerful signs. In fact, Matthew sees in the healing miracles of Jesus the fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1-4, which he quotes at 12:18-21. The intent of the miracles of Jesus is to bring justice and hope to "a bruised reed" and "a smoldering wick." Jesus healed people because he saw healing as part of the advent of the kingdom of God to people who were broken, helpless and hopeless.
Yet it is also extremely significant that before Matthew quotes the Isaiah passage, he makes a summary statement about all the people that Jesus heals and concludes by saying that Jesus "ordered them not to make him known" (12:15). It is no wonder then that a bit later in this chapter when scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, he says, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (12:39). The sign of Jonah is that the Son of Man will be buried in the heart of the earth, a poignant reference to his death.
Thus even before Jesus began his ministry of healing, he faced an agonizing struggle in the wilderness as he came to terms with the meaning and intent of such ministry. It will not be to amaze people. Throughout his public ministry he carefully avoided publicity by urging those whom he healed not to make him known. He did not want that kind of acclaim.
In the third temptation the devil takes him to a very high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and promises to give him all these if he would only fall down and worship him. Interestingly, Jesus does not dispute the claim of the devil that the kingdoms of the world belong to him. The corrupting influence of power and glory is pervasive in the world. The devil wants Jesus to enter the world of political power. After all, doesn't Jesus want to see the kingdom of God take hold in the world? Why not do it the way it's done by nations, kings and governors.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew when the disciples argue as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest, Jesus puts a child in their midst and says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (18:3). On another occasion, when James and John seek places of honor in the kingdom and the other ten disciples are angry with them, Jesus says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (20:25-28).
The temptation for Jesus was whether he would opt for political power and success or would he choose the path that may lead to suffering, humiliation and death. Will he play the game of power politics, jockeying for position, climbing to the top by hook or crook, or will he take the hard road of the suffering servant? Political ambition and the desire for success could, of course, be easily rationalized as being for a good cause, God's cause. Look at all the good that could come if Jesus were to succeed in grabbing the helm of world government. Not Caesar, but God would be king. Not the Roman empire but the kingdom of God would become a reality in the world. Why not compromise a bit? Why not strike a deal with the evil powers? Why not beat them at their own game? Without some give and take the mission of Jesus may fall flat. If Jesus does not learn how to get along with Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas and the powers that be, he is not going to get anywhere except on a cross. What will it be?
Jesus immediately responds with a decisive command, "Away with you, Satan!" Later, when Peter protests the announcement of Jesus concerning his own suffering and death, Jesus responds with nearly the same command, "Get behind me, Satan!" (Matt 16:23). Jesus decides right then and there that he will let God be God. "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." Going God's way will be costly, but there would be no compromise here no matter the cost. Ultimately all authority in heaven and on earth will be given to Jesus (Matt 28:18), but it will be given to him by God in God's own time and after the bitter agony of the cross.
After Jesus had rebuffed the devil's suggestions, angels came and were waiting on him. The Greek word for "wait on" implies the serving of food--heavenly manna? Unlike Adam and Eve in the garden, and unlike Israel in the wilderness, Jesus trusts God completely for his sustenance without yielding to the temptation to doubt God or to take matters into his own hands.
The first readers of the Gospel of Matthew needed to be apprised of these deliberations in the wilderness to be prepared for the utterly ignominious and incomprehensible end that Jesus would eventually face--death on a cross. He would be condemned to death by the highest religious authority in the land, a crowd of compatriots demanding his crucifixion, and a governor who represented all the power and dignity of the Roman Empire itself. Can this man really be the Son of God when the whole world seems to be against him?
Ultimately he will be hanging on a cross and hear the scoffing of the leaders saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son'" (27:42-43). Jesus had already decided that he would not insist on a divine guarantee against suffering and death as he carried out the divine mission in the world. Can a man who was seemingly condemned by the whole world be the Son of God? In the temptation account the reader is ushered into the mind and heart of Jesus as he begins to make some agonizing decisions that will set the course of his life and work. In the end the reader must decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, a charlatan, or a fool.
The temptation story ends with the ominous statement that the devil departed from him. But not for long. The temptation would come again when people demanded signs to prove that he was who he said he was. And ultimately it would come again in Jerusalem when he was on the cross.
One way that this text could be used in preaching is to explore the meaning of temptation. Jesus was really tempted. By definition temptation is something that appeals to us. But how can the Spirit-filled Son of God be tempted by something that is potentially sinful? Spirit-filled, sanctified, spiritually vibrant Christians are still subject to temptation. Jesus was hungry. There was nothing wrong with craving bread after a forty-day fast. All of us have certain desires, wants, needs, both physical and emotional. We crave food when we are hungry. We need companionship, acceptance, approval of others, love and appreciation. These are legitimate needs. And even our wants are not necessarily sinful. How then do they become sinful?
The devil is often viewed as the source of our temptations. But we need to understand something about ourselves. It is doubtful whether the devil would have suggested that Jesus turn the stones to bread had Jesus not been hungry. The source of our temptations is almost always our own legitimate, normal, natural desires. The desire for food, sexual intimacy, approval of others is not from the devil. These are wholesome, normal, legitimate desires. How do they become sinful?
Jesus was hungry and of course needed something to eat. So why not say a word and turn the stones to bread? The temptation was that Jesus use his miraculous powers to provide for himself. Jesus chose a pattern of life wherein he would always use his God-given powers for others, never for himself. He healed the sick. He opened blind eyes. He raised the dead. His power was always used for others, not for himself.
That tells us something profound about the Spirit-filled life. Do I seek my own advantage? Do I want things for myself that others cannot have? Do I use the powers that God has given me--physical, financial, mental, spiritual, or whatever-- for myself or for the well-being of others in the community? That is exactly the point that Paul makes about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 14. They are not for one's own use to gain advantage over others. They are to be used in service to others. Jesus refused to use his powers for himself. He used them for others.
But Jesus also struggled with the issue of what it was that others needed. They certainly needed bread, health, healing, life, comfort. There is something profoundly Christian about compassionate ministries in the church today because Jesus himself set an example for us in this area. Yet we also know that Jesus did not produce miracles on demand. In fact, the temptation to give people what they want can be very attractive. But perhaps the church's call is not simply to give people what they want. The ministry of Jesus also included preaching and teaching that sometimes offended, angered, and shocked his hearers. He did not sugar-coat his call to discipleship. It is costly. Will the church be faithful in doing the Christlike thing even if it is costly, or will it do what is expedient in order to appease people who are politically and financially advantageous to the church?
In the second temptation Jesus is pressured to doubt God. The tempter suggests that Jesus put God to the test. Why not devise a test, such as Gideon did by putting out a fleece to test God? But putting out a fleece is not a sign of faith. It is really a sign of lack of faith. Why would it be necessary for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple to see if God would protect him? Why such an artificial test?
Sometimes people are angry at God because in their minds God did not come through a test that they had set up. The test they devise might run something like this: If my husband is healed of cancer, then I'll know God loves me. If my boy comes back safely from an overseas mission, then I'll know God is on my side. If I get the job that I've been praying for, then I'll know that God cares about me.
But what if the husband dies of cancer? What if the boy is killed overseas? What if the job that I pray for goes to someone else? Will I still love and serve God regardless of the outcome? Will I walk with God whether or not I get that job, whether or not that cancer is healed, whether or not my loved one pulls through a life-threatening situation? Or, am I going to put God to a test and say, If you do this for me, then you're my God, but if not, I will have nothing to do with you. The Spirit-filled life which Jesus lived was a life that was unconditionally surrendered to God regardless of the outcome.
The final temptation of Jesus points to the subtle attraction of doing the right thing using the wrong means. Jesus was tempted to win the world by worshipping the devil. We don't have to be enemies, the devil was saying to Jesus. Achieve your objectives by facing reality. The reality is, the devil says, this world operates by my rules. So why not accept my rules, and things will go well. But if not, you will have to pay an exorbitant fee. You give in a little, and I'll give you the whole thing. Let's cooperate. Why make it hard on yourself? But Jesus says no deal.
What's going on in this conversation? The devil says to Jesus, You can accomplish your goals, you can win the world, you can fulfill God's purposes, but do it my way. Do you have to be so honest and candid all the time? People in power are going to be turned off if you always talk about their sinful ambitions. This world cannot stand people like you. If you are going to get along in this world, you need to compromise now and then. If you are in business, you have to cut corners sometimes to make a go of it. After all, that is the way most of the world does business. If you decide to be a person of integrity one hundred percent, you may lose the shirt off your back.
Will the church do its work in the spirit of Christ and in response to the demands of the kingdom of God, or will it operate by the policies and practices of a worldly system? Is any style or method of being the church acceptable as long as it attracts a greater following? Does the end justify the means?
The price that Jesus would pay for his unwavering obedience to God was incredibly high. It would cost him his life. Was he prepared to take such a risk? Jesus did not hesitate to answer with a resolute yes. The devil may have thought it was suicide. But there was no question in the mind of Jesus. He would remain steadfast in his absolute obedience and surrender to the will of God all the way. That is what sanctification is all about.
Jesus lived out the Spirit-filled life of complete obedience even though he was faced with temptations not only once in the wilderness but every moment of his life clear to the end. The ominous note at the end of the temptation account and the rest of the gospel will show the truth of Hebrews 5:7-8 : "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." He was saved from death? Indeed he was, but not without tasting it first.
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