The Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Lord Jesus, your word has power to heal and restore, as we meditate on your word, enlighten our hearts and minds and transform us by your Spirit. Amen.
Matthew 3 to Matthew 4 gives us one of the biggest contrasts that exists in the gospels.
Jesus goes from the cool waters of the Jordan; now into the wilderness.
From the huge crowds into isolation.
From the Spirit resting upon him like a dove to being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness.
From the voice of the Father calling him “Beloved Son” to the voice of the tester.
It is as if over the course of these two chapters we get a reimaging of the incarnation. When Jesus was born to walk this earth, he stepped out of all the heavenly Glory, placed in the womb of a young nobody girl from the backwaters of Nazareth. When we celebrate Christmas we celebrate that there is the deliberate choice by Jesus to honour his Father and leave his heavenly kingdom to dwell on earth and every step would have been a reminder of what he had given up.
And just as the incarnation was the conscious decision of Jesus to leave Heaven, so now in the transition between Matthew 3 and 4 we see on the one hand the beauty of the relationship of the Godhead, three in one, only to see the Spirit again sending Jesus away from that into something strange and unfamiliar.
In the incarnation and in the wilderness, Jesus is not there by mistake. With the test to come from the devil, Jesus is not caught unaware. When Jesus enters the wilderness, he is on a mission to find the devil and pass the test. But it is the God of the universe who sets this test to reveal who Jesus truly is. When we read Matthew 4, we need to think in terms of the testing of Jesus, not the temptation. Temptation speaks of trying to trap someone to sin. A test exists to make plain what is really true. Therefore when the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to be tested, it’s not to work out whether Jesus can resist evil, but for Jesus to be revealed as to who he is as the Son of God.
Our text says that Jesus went out to face the test, but it took 40 days for the devil to show up. The devil wasn’t going to face Jesus when he was energised and primed—that would just be crazy. The devil waits until Jesus has begun to experience what a world broken by sin can truly feel like. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, disorientation. And in steps the devil to test Jesus. Each of the three tests are the product of a disordered creation. Each of the three tests are luring Jesus with the very things that the wilderness has taken from him.
So it begins. The first temptation is harmless enough: if you are the Son of God, command these stones become bread. A victimless suggestion, an easy way to assert his identity- no one is hurt, no command is broken is it? Well almost. Remember, why was Jesus in the wilderness? Because the Spirit sent him there. It is where Jesus is supposed to be and if the Father has withheld food from Jesus then that is well enough, to make food for himself is to assert himself against his Father’s will in a place where he has chosen to instead submit to it.
Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 8:2-5, where Moses spoke to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:2-5):
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.
The wilderness and the hunger isn’t an end in itself. God’s people spent 40 years out there so that God would test them and know their hearts. They were humbled, they looked to the hand of God to provide for them. But the goal, the purpose, was so that they would learn reliance on the Lord alone to provide for them.
Now the people of Israel did not do so well. In the desert they complained against God. When he provided they doubted and took extra just in case, and how long after they left the desert did it take before they again relied on themselves and not every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord?
So this test by the devil seems harmless on the surface. But Jesus sees right through him. This was so much more. It would not be enough for Jesus to remedy his suffering for himself. He did not come to simply soothe the pain of a broken world and make it a little more bearable. He had come to restore it, by triumphing over sin, death and Satan himself. He has come to be what the people of Israel were meant to be and failed. And so even if the father sent him to a place where he felt impact of our broken world through the wilderness, he knows that his circumstances do not define him, but his relationship with the Father does.
So the Devil tries something new. He takes Jesus to the heights of the Temple and says ‘“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, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus isn’t the only one who can quote the Bible! But like all good lies that contain about 90% truth, this test is designed to subtly redirect the intent and purpose of the word of God. The devil quotes Psalm 91, and it seems to make sense, God will protect you Jesus, you won’t get hurt.
Yet there are in fact two fundamental flaws.
The first is that a Psalm of trust and confidence in God is transformed into a method to get God to do what you think you want or need. Psalm 91 is a beautiful Psalm of trust that helps us understand our circumstances especially when we are afraid or unsure. The devil tried to turn it into a means of forcing the Father’s hand. So instead of proclaiming unfailing trust in God, this test seeks to create doubt in the mind of Jesus and push him to force God to demonstrate his love on Jesus’ terms. It becomes the exact opposite of the original meaning of the Psalm.
The second flaw stands out really clearly once you see it. By saying that the Father won’t let Jesus be hurt, the devil trying to redefine the nature of the relationship between Jesus and the Father. ‘If you are the Father’s only Son, surely he doesn’t want you to be hurt…’ the problem is: that’s precisely why Jesus had come- not to be hurt in some fickle experiment, but to bear the brunt of all hurt and all pain and all suffering.
To suggest that the Father would not allow Jesus to feel pain if he truly loved him seeks to test whether Jesus would truly obey the Father in all things regardless of the cost.
And Jesus sees right through him, quoting Deuteronomy 6: “you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”
It is no one’s prerogative to assume that God is there to act when we tell him, to intervene when we demand it. Even Jesus, the perfect Son, would not assume to flip this story on its head. It is the Father testing him to reveal the truth of who Jesus is, it is not for Jesus to test the Father to try and determine his motives or his character.
Israel failed that test, they questioned God’s goodness, they doubted his provision, they dismissed his love and grace over and over again. Jesus on the other hand demonstrates total trust in the Father, without having to get the Father to perform for him. He trusts the Father’s goodness even when the path included pain and suffering. Jesus had come to go to the cross, pain was his path and he knew it was the goodness and grace of God that demanded it. He would not escape it, he would faithfully submit to his Father’s will and endure it—for us.
The devil has one more attempt. If the path Jesus was on meant willingly going without food, meant not forcing the Father to intervene to avoid suffering, and indeed meant suffering, then the last test is simple- choose a different god. Leave this one and instead of the wilderness you can have the world. Exchange the God of the Cross and inherit the world.
Did the devil even have the right to offer this gift? Of course not, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it! And Jesus saw right through him.
In the wilderness, the Israelites failed this test, they worshipped other God’s, they looked for an easier path, but Jesus’ character is revealed in this test. Even knowing what it would mean to follow the Father, he would not turn away.
The Father was placing all things under Jesus and through the cross he becomes the Saviour of the world. Where Israel failed, Jesus triumphs.
Jesus tells Satan ‘Go!’ and Satan leaves. The Father’s test is over and Jesus’ character has been revealed.
Where Israel could not be faithful, Jesus takes their place and fulfils it on their and our behalf.
From this point on evil wears the face of defeat. All evil is now powerless in the presence of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry begins by overcoming evil in these tests. It reaches its climax when Jesus overcomes evil by the cross; it will end when Jesus comes again and finally and fully restores all creation—which includes us, too.