Matthew 4:1-11 - The Temptations of Jesus
vv. 3-4 - Then “the tempter” came to him. Interesting name. I don’t know that this name is used for Satan in any other passage in the Bible. Actually it is: in 1 Thessalonians 3:5. Same idea. Paul is worried that the people had lost their faith because the tempter had led them astray. That is exactly what he is trying to do here. Interesting, though, that he is given a functional description.
He is called “the devil” in v. 1. “the devil” speaks more of his pure evil. It has overtones of malicious intent and a total absence of any good. “the tempter” is more a particular expression of that evil in his attempt to lure Jesus away from the sure foundation of a holy view of God, whole dependence upon God, finding identity in God and trusting his life into God’s hands. “the tempter” tries, at Jesus’ greatest points of weakness, depleted in every way by his fast, to lure him into even the smallest compromise by the subtlest of tactics. He doesn’t even have to get Jesus to go for the big ones - the obvious 3. All he has to do is plant a doubt he can nurture.
So, the first words out of his mouth are very reminiscent of “did God say?” “If you are...” Doubt is the first seed of all sin. He avoids entering at the obvious point. He doesn’t say, “Since you are hungry and are the Son of God, make some bread.” That would be too frontal. Rather, the tempter goes for the doubt: “If....” Just plant a question. Play with the mind. Create identity doubt. “If you are the Son of God....”
The first attack against the human soul is to create the seed of displacement. If Satan or his demons can get any human displaced from their identity as a child of God, the battle is over. All life flows from relational integrity with the Father. If we are not in him, we are dead. So the enemy challenges us to prove who we are: “If you are the Son of God....” But the minute we move to some reactive action to prove who we are, we are no longer resting, abiding, believing in who the Father has decreed we are. The minute we move to prove who we are, we are already displaced and the battle is all but over.
The opening salvo looks like it is going at his hunger. But it isn’t. It is going at his identity. The appeal to the flesh is just the point of weakness he is trying to exploit, but the goal is to create an identity shift; to move Jesus from abiding in the Father and who the Father already says he is: “This is my beloved Son....”
The temptation’s physical application has two parts:
a. The abuse of authority. Jesus really is the Son of God and has inherent authority to do what he wills with the creation. However, in this particular capacity, the mission depends not upon his own authority, but upon submission to the Father’s authority. It was movement away from the Father’s authority that caused the first Adam to fall. Jesus, in order to redeem what has fallen, must keep integrity in submission to the Father’s authority.
b. The satisfaction of human need through independent action. Jesus can meet his own needs in this moment. The greater truth that stands behind all creation, however, is that all that is necessary for human sustenance in the physical is a generous provision of the Father (Genesis 1:29). The assumption in the devil’s words is that one can exercise spiritual power, outside of God’s authority, to create one’s own provision for the physical body.
Practical note: Temptation often comes after great spiritual experiences. Jesus just experienced a high moment in his development as a human being. No higher honour could have been given him. No greater affirmation of his approval could have been demonstrated than to have the physical descent of the Holy Spirit to alight upon him and the audible voice of his Father from heaven giving him affirmation of his love, relationship and approval. Yet here he is forty days of fasting later, in the weakest state of his earthly life, facing Satan in a very difficult situation.
Spiritual experiences are not so much to be gloried in as to be building blocks of remembrance for future challenges. They give us the resource of spiritual nourishment to face the next tactic of the devil. People who glory in experiences for their own sake, often fall soon after from the failure to translate that affirmation of Divine presence and love into preparatory soul work in their thinking. They too often think life is supposed to continue that way and are caught off guard when, soon following such an experience, they are assaulted by the devil. It is easy to translate such an attack into a thought that God has failed to protect, or into a failure to engage reality and fight for a lack of belief that such an attack could come while we are in the midst of such an amazing experience.
High experiences often give us a sense of ultimate security. They are tastes of heaven. But we must never forget they are mere foreshadows and affirmations (testimonies) of the Spirit of the reality of what is to come. But for now, they are mere affirmations of the future, not the ongoing reality of the present. In the present we are in a war. God will give us affirmations in the Spirit of his love (Romans 5:5). But we must use such experiences to remind ourselves of God’s goodness when the tempter comes, not blame him for a failure to protect us so it can be all bliss here on earth. The kingdom of God is indeed coming and is revealed in part measure through such experiences. But it is not fully here yet.
So the first direct temptation ensues. Jesus is hungry. He needs food to sustain his body by any normal standard. He is then tempted to “grasp” at divinity and to use Divine power to cause the stones to become bread. As God, Jesus is fully capable of doing this. As man, he can’t. In him are both capabilities. Which will he be - the God who can do this at will? or the man who will trust in the Father’s provision even if it means death? Satan does not appeal to his humanity. He appeals to his divinity. As God, Jesus knows he can do it. But it will be at the cost of the mission. To fulfill the role as Saviour, he must live only to serve the will of the Father - the call of the first Adam.
So he responds: “It is written....” Jesus goes to the Scriptures to resource his rebuttal. Jesus doesn’t use any general Scripture. He chooses one that attacks the very heart of the temptation. Selective use of Scripture is an essential part of all Jesus would do on earth. His very life and mission on earth flowed from the word of the Lord. So now, when his mission is in danger, he keeps his eyes focused on the word of the Lord to sustain the mission.
He chooses the passage from Deuteronomy 8:3. No passage in all Scripture could have spoken to the core of the temptation like this one. The very passage context speaks of God “testing” the Israelites to “know what was in you heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not.” And the first test was to see if they could be satisfied with the bread that came from heaven (manna - the supernatural physical provision for their bodies). The issue here was not God’s ability to provide. He had already created the earth and made every good provision for all mankind (Genesis 1:29). Creating food was no problem for God at all. It was the issue of trust that was at work. Would they trust his character to come through? Would they rise in faith to see what God would provide? Would their hearts be content with whatever he did provide? These were all issues of the heart.
That is the temptation of Jesus. He is in a weakened state. He is hungry (when the text mentions this specifically [4:2], it is akin to saying, “hungry to the point of death” - it was a starving hunger). He is God in the flesh and can create food at will. He doesn’t even need the stones. That would be a lesser miracle. Manna just fell - made from nothing. But Satan even appeals to the physical creation in the temptation, because stones have the shape of bread. To the weary, starving hungry eye, they could mutate with the imagination into a vision of bread, giving every possible appeal to the flesh and the sensory faculties, pulling the heart and will to exercise Divine power illegitimately.
Jesus stays the course. He reminds Himself of the issue of trust and how God’s sons had failed miserably in the past for failure to trust in God’s provision and to be thankful for that provision. Jesus rests firm in the Father’s will. Defeated on that front, Satan moves to the next temptation.