The Temptations of Christ: Part 1


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

-Matthew 4:1-4

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights. As we discussed last week, Jesus’ practice of fasting in preparation for the tasks of ministry connects him to the two paradigmatic figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses (who brings the Law) and Elijah (who represents the Prophets). Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in preparation for the writing of the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:28). Elijah fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness after fleeing Queen Jezebel, on the way to Mount Horeb, where God gives him the task of anointing Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his prophetic successor–all of whom God will use to drive out idolatry from Israel.  (1 Kings 19:1-18).

Further, Jesus being led into the wilderness after his baptism in the Jordan follows Israel’s Exodus pattern, where the nation was led by the Spirit as a fiery cloud into the wilderness after it had crossed the Red Sea. After 40 years of wandering, the Israelites are sent into the Promised Land to found a nation that worships Yahweh and showcases His justice. In that way, Israel would be Yahweh’s Image, the Son that blesses all the nations of the earth.

These allusions frame our understanding of the task Jesus will undertake after his season of preparation. He will bring the rule of God back to the land, and He will drive out idolatry from the land, and He will choose disciples to help in that task. He is the faithful Son that Israel could not be that blesses all the nations of the earth. Already, he must be aware that this task will ultimately lead him to the Cross–the Innocent will die for the sake of redeeming the Guilty, and reconcile a broken world back to the Father’s Love.

But just as Jesus prepares to commit himself to this ministry, he is confronted by the Devil.

The Devil tempts Jesus, but not in random ways disconnected from the overall biblical narrative. The Devil’s temptations of Jesus on the issues of 1) bread, 2) trusting the Lord, and 3) worship each echo Israel’s temptations on food, testing the Lord, and worship. Further, as New Testament scholar David Seccombe argues in his book, The King of God’s Kingdom, Satan is probably tempting Jesus to achieve his messianic role by Satanic means.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Matthew 4:3.

There are a number of levels here in the first temptation.First, we ought to immediately see the connections to Israel. During their 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites had many instances where they complained about food to Moses.

In Exodus 16, the Israelites begin to grumble about their lack of bread, and for the first of many times, they say that they would rather be well-fed slaves in Egypt than starve to death in the desert as a free people. Despite Israel’s ingratitude, God graciously rains bread from Heaven–this is manna.

In Deuteronomy 8, Moses explains that Israel’s hunger in the desert for 40 years was a test to see what was in the people’s hearts. The lesson Israel was supposed to learn was that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In other words, they were to learn to rely on the Lord for their provision and sustenance, not grumbling against Him, but trusting that everything He gave them, even when they did not understand it, was for their good. Over and over again, the Israelites fail this test. (See Numbers 11 for one heart-breaking example).

But unlike Israel, Jesus resists the temptation. In his reply to Satan, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3.

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:4.

Second, we must also see that implicit in the first temptation is an offer for Jesus to exploit his messianic status without going to the Cross. If Jesus is able to turn stones into bread, then he could conceivably feed the people of Israel and thereby prove that he is Israel’s rightful King. If he fills the bellies of the Jews, they will follow him and demand that he be enthroned as the true Jewish ruler.

This is more than just a guess of what would happen if Jesus chose to feed the people miraculously–it’s exactly what happens in John 6:1-15. Jesus feeds the 5,000 by multiplying the five barley loaves and two fish. This leads to the people believing–at least for a time, before Jesus starts telling them to eat his flesh and drink his blood–that Jesus is the Messiah, and they seek to make him king by force:

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. John 6:14-15.

Here we see two things. First, unlike Israel in the desert, Jesus trusts in the Father’s unfailing goodness towards him. Second, Jesus trusts in the Father’s goodness even if it means that He will be led to death on the Cross, even though he could prove his status as the true King of Israel by feeding the people. Jesus will provide bread for the world, but on God’s terms, not Satan’s.

After Jesus has fed the crowd in John 6 and escaped it when it seeks to make him king by force, the crowd rushes to find Jesus on the other side of the sea. There, they have this interesting exchange:

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” John 6:25-40.

Jesus does turn stone to bread, but he does so in obedience to the Father, not out of Satanic expedience.For three days, the stone of his tomb hides within it the true Bread of Heaven–the divine life that was blessed, broken, and given to the world to nourish it with new life.

Jesus will not use his power for his own selfish benefit, but only in accordance with the word of the Father. This proves the Jesus is not only the true Israelite, but also the true Man, the true Image of God. Because of he is the Perfect Image of God, Jesus can be the true Bread that gives life to the world, the Son who stands in eternal rebuke and triumph over the machinations of Satan.


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