During the summer, we’re doing what any good TV network does and playing mostly reruns, working through previous episodes in Matthew’s Gospel. But for these three days, we have some new material on Matthew chapter 4.
If you’re just joining us, you need to read last Friday’s post for this to make sense, along with the text we’re looking at, Matthew 4:1-11. And we finished by asking the question: since I’ve never experienced any of these three temptations (to turn stones into bread, to jump off the top of a temple, or to bow down to the devil in order to become the supreme ruler of the world), what does this story of Jesus’ temptations mean to me?
Maybe this story is first and foremost about something else?
Jesus: God’s faithful son
Particularly when you look at where it’s placed. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, and immediately after his Baptism. Why does it happen here?
It’s led to a Baptist truism that’s often passed on to young people who’ve just been baptised – or at least, it was in my church. A warning to expect spiritual opposition in the week that follows. Just like it did with Jesus. But is that really what’s going on here?
Let’s take a look at the plot in Matthew’s Gospel so far [with icons for each point]:
- Firstly Jesus, God’s Son, gets born.
- Then pretty soon he finds himself in danger from King Herod. So God brings his son “out of Egypt,” as it were, by hiding him in Egypt.
- The next thing you know, he’s in the middle of a river being baptised.
- He spends forty days in the wilderness.
- And in the next chapter, he goes up a mountain and gives a new word from God about how to live – the Sermon on the Mount.
Have you seen that plot-line before somewhere?
- God forms the fledgling nation of Israel, whom he calls his “son.”
- Israel find themselves in danger, and God leads them out of Egypt to a place of safety. Out of Egypt I have called my son.
- God brings them safely across the Red Sea, which the Apostle Paul refers to as a metaphorical “baptism” in 1 Cor 10.
- They spend forty years in the wilderness, being tested and putting God to the test.
- During that time, Moses goes up a mountain and brings down some words from God about how to live. The ten commandments.
Do you see the connection? It’s almost like Jesus is re-enacting Israel’s history. Spending 40 days in the wilderness, symbolising the 40 years Israel spent there.
But just in case you think it’s co-incidence, did you notice in the bible reading how each time Jesus is tempted – what does he do? He quotes Scripture back at the devil. But not just any Scripture. Each time he does it, it’s from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. And each time the context in Deuteronomy is about Israel’s history of disobedience in the wilderness as they prepared to enter the Promised Land:Deut 8:2a, 3 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years… He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Which is the bit Jesus quotes in response to the first temptation, about turning stones into bread.Deut 6:16 Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah.
Massah is where Israel “tested God” by complaining about a lack of water. Which is what Jesus quotes in response to the second temptation.Deut 6:10a, 13a When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you… Fear the LORD your God, serve him only
Which Jesus quotes when the devil offers him the whole world in exchange for idolatrous worship.
So what we have here in Matthew chapter 4 is Jesus re-enacting the history of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. A bit like all of the Gallipoli re-enactments we’ll be seeing this year. They already started last year – with a re-enactment of the fleet leaving Albany, Western Australia, 100 years to the day. And there’ll be plenty of others as ANZAC day draws closer. Along with the tedious mini-series.
But Jesus’ historical re-enactment is significantly different. With Gallipoli, we’ll be re-enacting it to remember history. But in Matthew chapter 4, Jesus is re-enacting in order to change history. He’s doing Israel’s wilderness wandering all over again. But this time, God’s “son” gets it right:
In the first temptation, he trusts God to provide for him – unlike Israel in the wilderness, who grumbled and turned against God, until he sent them manna. He refuses to turn stones into bread, and so provide for himself – when this time of fasting was all about relying on God the Father to provide.
In the second temptation, he refused to put God to the test – unlike Israel, who are described as “testing” God’s patience with their constant grumbling.
In the final temptation, Jesus is cast in the role of Moses – being taken up to a high mountain, just as Moses was. There, Moses could see not only the Promised Land, but in every direction. The whole world, if you like. And he got to see the riches of the land that Israel would inherit.
Later (in Deut 8) Moses warned the people against idolatry and self-reliance – not to be seduced by the riches of Canaan into thinking they somehow created their prosperity for themselves. Or think the gods of the Canaanites were the ones who had given it to them. He warned them to serve God only.Deut 8:18-19 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.
But where Israel failed – often spectacularly, just think of the golden calf incident – but where Israel failed, Jesus didn’t. He refused idolatry. He refused to worship someone other than the one true God. He wouldn’t bow down to the devil.
In all three temptations, Jesus functions as Israel’s “champion.” Their hero, who fights their battles on their behalf. The “pioneer and perfecter of faithfulness,” you might say. If you were the writer to the Hebrews.
So we see, here, Jesus fulfilling the role of God’s “son” – his representative to the world – that Israel was supposed to have been. Back in the wilderness, getting it right this time. Showing how it should have been done. Announcing that he was about to lead the people of God back into the Promised Land – the real return from Exile. That’s what this story is primarily about. Jesus – and who he is.
And yet… that’s also where it connects with our story. Those of us who, like Israel, are wanting to live faithfully as the people of God. Jesus is our champion, too.
In his 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus symbolically re-enacts the scene of Israel’s failures. Each time doing it right, rather than the mess Israel had made of it. Fulfilling their calling as the people of God. Living rightly on their behalf, because they were unable to do it.
So in a way, if you want to individualise it, you can imagine Jesus symbolically re-enacting the scenes of your failures. The times when you were tempted, and gave in. The times when you tested God by your complaining. The times when you chose the idols of the world rather than loyalty to God. Jesus has lived your life, and done it right. What you were unable to do, he has done for you. That’s the essence of the gospel, isn’t it?
More than that, he’s not only done what we couldn’t do. Jesus has made it possible for us to begin to live like the people of God should do. It’s no co-incidence that just before this story of temptation, the Spirit descended on him at his baptism. The same Spirit that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes possible for us to have within us. The new heart promised to the people of God when they truly returned from Exile.
So that’s how the story of Jesus’ temptation can be an encouragement to us. He’s not just an example to aspire to. To be honest, if that’s all he was, it’d be pretty depressing. Like watching a Masterchef croquembouche being made by an expert. Sure, you might pick up a couple of handy tips on how to make one. But you know yours is never going to measure up.
No, this story is an encouragement because Jesus is not just an impossible example to emulate. It’s because he’s lived the life we couldn’t. He’s borne the punishment for our failures. And he’s been raised to life so that we can have the power to live the way God intended us to live. To be the people of God in a way that Old Testament Israel never could.