The account of the temptations of Jesus Christ is sandwiched between the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry in Galilee (Mt. 3.13-17; 4.1-11; 4.12-25). The body of the narrative (Mt. 4.3-10) consists of three temptations: to turn stones into bread (vs. 3-4), to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (vs. 5-7), and to fall down and worship Satan (vs. 8-10). The first two of these temptations are introduced by a conditional clause “if”, whereas the third is a straightforward attack.
One of the key terms in the story of Jesus’ temptations is “tempt” (Greek word peirazō Mt. 4.1,3,7). Though its root meaning is “to attempt, to try”, and by extension “to put to test”, in common usage today the sense of “tempt” is “to entice” (eg. “tempting food”) or “to entice to sin” (eg. “Lead us not into temptation”).
The word peirazō in Matthew means “to tempt for the purpose of discrediting” (16.1, 19.3, 22.18,35). Satan tempts Jesus in order to discredit him or deviate him as the Son of God from doing God’s will. It is Jesus’ faithfulness as the Son of God that is put on trial. In Mt. 4.1 and 4.3, peirazō is used in this sense. The lure of bread when Jesus is hungry, the lure of performing spectacular act at the temple, and the lure of gaining “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” – in these ways the devil tempts Jesus.
However, in Mt. 4.7 the word peirazō has the sense of “testing”. The reference is to Deuteronomy 6.16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Here there is the question of testing God of his power or providence or trying his patience.
Therefore, the entire temptations’ narrative is about enticing and testing. Three strands run through all these three temptations, and these three strands are found in Israel as well as in the church. They remain perennial problems of the church even in the twenty first century. These are: (I) The Search for Identity, (II) The Search for Purpose, (III) The Search for Methods and Means.
- The Search for Identity
The temptations’ account is connected to the preceding story of Jesus’ baptism by Matthew’s favourite particle “then” (Greek word tote Mt. 4.1). At the time of baptism a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3.17). Now in the wilderness, after forty days of fasting and prayer, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God…” (Mt. 4.3,6). As Scroggie says, “After the testimony, the test.” Thus, Jesus confronts the question of self-identity before he has started his public ministry.
Dr. Erickson, a psychiatrist, notes that many geniuses and leaders have a crisis of self-identity. He lists among the persons who had such an identity crisis Luther, Darwin and George Bernard Shaw. This crisis of self-identity is also faced by institutions, and social and religious organisations. The church too confronts the question: “Who are you?”
The basic question of the temptations and of the rest of the Gospel of Matthew is: “Who are you?” Time and again this question of Jesus’ identity comes up in the Gospel. The disciples said, “Who is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt. 8.27). The disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11.3). In the city of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt. 16.13). After they gave varied answers, he turned to them and asked, “But who do you say that I am” (Mt. 16.15).
The divine testimony at the time of Jesus’ baptism establishes the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3.17). The temptations of devil reflect no doubt about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. The conditional clause in his words (“If you are the Son of God”) is not the statement of an unreal but of a real condition, a statement of fact. The “if” clause in Mt. 4.3 and 4.6 corresponds to the word “since”, than to the hypothetical “if”.
The temptations of the devil are not on the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, but on what kind of Son of God Jesus is. The issue is how Jesus uses the power and authority that the status accords him.
The divine announcement about Jesus at the time of his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” combines the thoughts from Psalms 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1. Psalms 2.7 points to Jesus’ role as the Messianic King, while Isaiah 42.1 suggests his function as the Spirit-anointed Servant. Thus the Son will exercise his Messiahship as the Servant. So Jesus is called to be the Servant-Messiah.
The temptations of devil are for Jesus to be trapped into a false identity, or to become or be shaped into the image of the expectations of the people. Jews are expecting a Messiah and they have developed many ideas about the Messiah. Some are expecting that the Messiah will come and fight on behalf of the “sons of light” against the “sons of darkness”. Some others are expecting a priestly Messiah who will come and cleanse the Jerusalem temple as it has become “a den of robbers”. The revolutionary Jews are expecting a political Messiah who will come and redeem them from the Roman bondage. So the devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory, and says, “All these I will give you” and tempts him to become a political Messiah! Jesus is tempted to do some spectaculars as the Son of God, probably to attract crowds to become his followers!
By refusing to be tempted to use his identity as the Son of God for his self-interests, or to become a Messiah of people’s expectations, and by using only the Word of God, Jesus has reaffirmed his identity as revealed by the voice from heaven at the time of his baptism. His identity is grounded in and shaped by the Word of God or the Will of God, not by the expectations of the people or the will of the people. All through his ministry, Jesus had to be conscious of this identity in order to avoid being trapped into some false identity. He had to rebuke Peter when the disciple wanted the master to be a different kind of Messiah, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me” (Mt. 16.23). After feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, when they tried to take him in order to make him king, Jesus escaped from there (Jn. 6.15)!
The people of Israel, as the chosen people of God, tested God by asking for signs in the wilderness. They wanted to be called the chosen people of God, but did not want to be servant. They wanted all the privileges and prestige of the “only beloved nation of God”, but not responsibilities. They neglected God, his covenant and his word, but wanted to use God for their self-interests.
Similar is the state of the church in the twenty-first century. The church has succumbed to the temptations and shaped itself according to the expectations of people. The will of the people takes precedence over the will of God! So the church confronts the question about its identity: What is the church? Is it an inefficient organization, or is it an efficient institution? Is it a social or caste or class club taking on all of the mores, customs and systems of our Indian society? Or is it truly the Body of Christ? The salt of the earth and the light of the world? Is it the servant of God, or does it make God its servant? This is the heart of the continuing temptation of Jesus Christ in the church: the search for self-identity.
Jesus makes it clear that God (and his Word) is not someone to be used for self-interests. Rather, Jesus, Israel and the church are God’s servants, God’s stewards and God’s ambassadors. God’s power in the church is not to be used for spectaculars, for attracting crowds, for getting attention! God wants the church to do his will: Love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord, our God!
- The Search for Purpose
By identifying Jesus as the Son of God, the voice from heaven during his baptism commissions him as the Servant-Messiah to establish the kingdom of God (or the rule of God) on this earth. For this mission Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit. In his first public ministry in Galilee, Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) and cures every disease and every sickness among the people (Mt. 4.17, 23).
The confrontation between Jesus and Satan is central to the establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth. It is by the power of the Spirit, who led him into the wilderness to be tempted, that Jesus is able to proclaim the message of the dawning of the kingdom of God, cure the sick with various diseases, and cast out evil spirits (Mt. 4.17, 23-24). Casting out demons from the lives of persons, who are controlled in body or will or both by evil forces, indicates the presence of the kingdom of God (Mt. 8.16, 28ff, 9.32-33, 12.22-32).
To the establishment of God’s kingdom Satan stands unalterably opposed. So, he tries to hinder the Son’s work or tempts Jesus to stray from doing his commissioned work according to God’s will (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43).
In the wilderness Jesus is tempted by Satan to fulfill his messianic purpose, i.e. the establishment of the kingdom, by departing from the will of God. The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and tempts him, “All these I will give you.” But the condition is: “If you fall down and worship me” (Mt. 4.8-9). Jesus’ messianic purpose is to establish NOT his own kingdom by becoming a vassal king to Satan, but the kingdom of God. As the messiah of a benevolent God, he is commissioned to serve the needs of people, and thus show God’s goodness, love and compassion to them. Jesus declares clearly his messianic purpose to the disciples of John the Baptist: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11.2-5).
Thus, Jesus is clear about his purpose as God’s Son. He says to his disciples, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10.45). Humility and service are the characteristics of the Son of God.
Israel had also been called and commissioned with a particular purpose. The covenant promise that was given to Abraham, to Moses and to others is quite clear. It was remembered very well – at least two-thirds of it – by the Israelites and the Jews. First, “you shall bear a son”. Second, “I shall make of you a great nation.” These they did not forget. Jews remember this even today! Some of them still quote it in relation to Zionism and a new twentieth century nation called Israel. But the third part of the Covenant was the statement of the purpose: “…in you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12.3). But Israel became nationalistic, jingoistic and self-serving. In their pride and selfishness, they lost their ultimate and true divine purpose.
The crisis in the church is obvious today – not only its identity but also its purpose. It is concerned more about statistics, economic success, external appearance, or even with mere existence. The purpose of the church is not to test God’s faithfulness or God’s power or God’s promises, but to show forth in faith and service God’s goodness, compassion and love.
Until we know our true identity and purpose, it becomes easy to be tempted to follow false messiahs, false purposes, and to seek false goals. But if we are the Body of Christ, we have a purpose. It is to follow Jesus Christ in life and in mission. That is, to love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord, our God, and to be co-workers with God in the establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth.
What profit would it have been to Jesus, to Israel and to the church, to gain the whole world and lose its life, its self-identity, by betraying its very purpose?
III. The Search for Means and Methods
Satan wants that something has to be done to get Jesus Christ to betray his identity and his purpose by the kind of methods he used. The temptations of Satan to Jesus are to demonstrate his divine sonship and to fulfill his divine mission by means which are not in accordance to the will of God.
By attacking the ego of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Satan is enticing Jesus to test God’s faithfulness as the provider and protector, and to establish his own kingdom on this earth. The underlying objective of the devil seems to be to break the relationship between the Father and the Son and to force Jesus to stray away from his divine purpose.
- Bread Alone
Satan’s question is sharply formulated: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt. 4.3). Are you not hungry? Are you not the Son of God? Then why not “command these stones to become loaves of bread”? The end justifies the means!
Certainly satisfaction of hunger itself is not wrong, for this is involved in the angels’ ministry later (Mt. 4.11). The fact that a miracle would be involved does not make it wrong, for Jesus often performs miracles, twice where hunger is involved (Mt. 14.13-21; 15.32-39). Then why did Jesus refuse to use his power to turn stones into bread and satisfy his hunger?
The reason for Jesus’ refusal is found in his reply to Satan’s challenge, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt.4.4). The issue is: How does one “live”? Jesus is tempted by the devil to live “Bread alone” lifestyle, by keeping aside the Word of God or the Will of God. It’s true that without bread man can not live. He will surely die. “By bread alone” man can “live”! However, he can not live the life he himself wants to live and God wants him to live. It takes both bread and the Word of God to make man live in the way God wants him to live. Bread and the Word of God are basic for man in order to live. Thus, Jesus has brought “bread and the Word of God” together. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8.2-3).
Food, clothing, shelter, sex, money, brain, work, technology, power and religion must be illuminated and judged by the Word of God, and in the light of God must be brought to the right relationship to one another. Jesus says that the entire law (the Word of God) is summed up in two related commandments of God: Love your God and love your neighbour. What does “love your God and love your neighbour” say about poverty and hunger in the world, ever growing gap between the rich and the poor (i.e. inequality), power politics, casteism, classism, nepotism, regionalism in the Christian church and in Christian organizations and institutions, oligarchy and dictatorship in the world, globalization, present day greed-based capitalism and economic policies, and so on?
“Love your God and love your neighbour” is a way of life. It is living, it is speaking, it is applying the commandment to our own life and situation.
God complains against his people, “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal” (Hos. 2.8). Only human being misuses the good things given by God. This is the human being’s tragedy! So any human being lives constantly with the two possibilities: “For Baal” and “for God”. In him coexist tragedy and glory! Man can live “by bread alone” and man can not live “by bread alone”.
To be human means to know that she/he is confronted by these two possibilities: “For Baal” and “for God”; “Bread alone” and “Bread and the Word of God”. But “the true and authentic living” requires both bread and God’s Word. This is where human beings differ from animals!
- Testing God
Taking the cue from Jesus’ reply to his challenge to “turn stones into bread”, now the devil appeals to the Word of God. In an effort to persuade Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he quotes Psalm 91.11,12: “‘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’” (Mt. 4.6). Satan’s appeal to this Psalm is especially appropriate, for the Psalmist is declaring the security of the man who claims to trust in God (Ps. 91 .1-2). God promises to intervene through his angels to protect the man who has faith in him. Satan seems to be challenging Jesus, after listening to the reply of Jesus that man lives by bread and the Word of God: “If you claim that man lives by the Word of God, then live it out by throwing yourself down by trusting in the Word of God (or the promise of God)!”
Jesus’ response comes from Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not test the Lord your God.” This verse in Deuteronomy is referring to the episode in Exodus 17.1-7 where the people of Israel test God by questioning His presence among them. Yahweh is to prove His presence and keep His promise to Israel by providing water for the murmuring people.
To comply with the devil’s proposal would be asking God to prove His presence and His faithfulness to His promise of protection. Jesus refuses to confuse confidence in God with challenging God to prove his concern. Jumping down from the temple would not express faith in God, but would needlessly test God’s faithfulness to His word.
A trust that is weak or wavering seeks a sign or a dramatic intervention to make it steady! “I don’t understand why I have to go through all of this – humiliation, agony, sufferings and trials – why isn’t life easier for me? Why so many hassles? Why so many challenges day after day? Essentially ‘Why me?’ Why can’t God do something?”
Those, who truly know God and trust Him, do not need to find something spectacular to convince themselves of God’s faithfulness. In the present day there is a growing preoccupation with miraculous signs and “promise cards”. God does miraculous things … when He chooses to do them. But if people seek the spectacular in order to believe or to convince themselves of the faith, it betrays a weak faith.
The promises of God are always valid. But they are valid for us ONLY at GOD’S TIME. It is always wrong to put God to the test at OUR TIME.
- Building the Kingdom by Shortcut
When Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms and their splendor, the temptation is subtle. Because Psalm 2 had promised to the Davidic King a world-embracing empire. It had spoken in terms of violence and warfare: “You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2.9). Doesn’t it say that the Messiah has even scriptural warrant for capitalizing upon the nationalistic hopes of the Jews and leading them on to a world-conquest guaranteed by the divine power at his disposal? It is truly an inviting prospect!
Satan seems to be saying, “Look, you have come as the Messianic King to inherit the nations. Here they are. I will give them to you. Why go through the trouble of being the suffering Servant. Give me one moment’s homage and I will hand over the nations.” The temptation is to do with fulfilling the commission with a shortcut, not doing in God’s way.
This is the common temptation to avoid the means to get to the end, or as is said, the end justifies the means. Satan always offers shortcuts. He aims at speedy and sensational results and speedy solutions. Waiting, enduring and hoping do not figure in the devil’s theology.
Jesus rejects the speedy and sensational building of the kingdom. If looked carefully, Satan’s proposal costs Jesus at least three important things: a. Being the Servant-Messiah; b. Loyalty to God; c. Establishment of the kingdom of God (Jesus is commissioned to establish the kingdom of God, NOT his own kingdom).
Jesus stood firmly and replied to the devil, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him’” (Mt. 4.10)
Today false messiahs in the church use wrong methods and shortcuts to do the ministry of the kingdom of God. They offer people spectaculars. They offer security, material prosperity and peace of mind. Instead of seeking to establish the kingdom of God, they succumb to their desires for kingdoms. The kingdoms of this world spring out of one of the most fundamental and persistent aspects of personality – the desire for power – power to rule over others.
The aim of temptations encountered by Jesus Christ is to separate him from God and His will. In order to achieve this, the devil used the Scriptures subtly, attacked the ego of Jesus, and enticed Jesus to follow the principle – “end justifies the means”.
The church too is tempted to forget the will of God in doing the ministry of God by preaching to suit the desires of the audience, doing spectaculars in order to attract people, and using all kinds of techniques and methods for survival, for raising money, for stewardship, for evangelism, for missions and for social action.
Father John McKenzie, a Jesuit Biblical scholar, wrote in the Dictionary of the Bible on the “Temptations of Jesus”: “The episode describes the kind of Messiah Jesus was and, by implication, what kind of society the church, the New Israel, is: it lives by the Word of God, it does not challenge God’s promises, and it adores and serves God alone and not the world. Jesus rejects in anticipation the temptations to which his church will be submitted.”
Balmer H. Kelly, “An Exposition of Matthew 4.1-11.” Interpretation 29, 1 (1975), pp. 57-62.
Carl Umhau Wolf, “The Continuing Temptation of Christ in the Church: Searching and Preaching on Matthew 4.1-11.” Interpretation 20, 3 (1966), pp. 288-301.
Jacques Roets, “The Victory of Christ over the Tempter as Help to the Believers’ Fight against Sin: A Reflection on Matthew 4.1-11.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 22 (2011), pp. 107-127.
John Thomas Fitzgerald, “The Temptation of Jesus: The Testing of the Messiah in Matthew.” Restoration Quarterly 15, 3-4 (1972), pp. 152-160.
Kosuke Koyama, “’Not by Bread Alone…’: How Does Jesus Free and Unite Us.” The Ecumenical Review 27, 3 (1975), pp. 201-211.
Lamar Williamson, “Expository Articles: Matthew 4.1-11.” Interpretation 38, 1 (1984), pp. 51-59.
Lewis Johnson, s. “The Temptation of Christ.” Bibliotheca Sacra 123, 492 (October, 1966), pp. 342-352.
Taylor, B. “Decision in the Desert: The Temptation of Jesus, in the Light of Deuteronomy.” Interpretation 14, 3 (1960), pp. 300-309.
Theodore J. Jansma, “The Temptation of Jesus.” Westminster Theological Journal 5, 2 (1943), pp. 166-181.
Veselin Kesich, “Hypostatic and Prosopic Union in the Exegesis of Christ’s Temptation.” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 9, 3 (1965), pp. 118-137.