“According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 4: Testing Times
We began our journey into Matthew with the opening credits and witnessed a potentially Oscar winning cast list of descendants. We then witnessed the continuing dreams of Joseph and the arrival of gentile princes to witness the birth of one born to be King of Kings. We were given a glimpse into the darkness of King Herod the Great before journeying down to the banks of the Jordan and witnessing Jesus being baptized by John.
We noted John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus and the revelation that appeared following the baptism. The voice of God declares ‘This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. The Holy Spirit hovers over Him in the likeness of a Dove. We saw how both the proclamation and the symbolism had a background rooted in scripture.
It is time for us now to leave the waters and head into the wilderness. Let us look at the opening verse of chapter 4.
‘Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.’ (Verse 1)
The baptism of Jesus was a spiritual highpoint, both for John and for Jesus. For John it was the revelation that the One whom he had been waiting for had arrived. For Jesus there was a confirmation of His identity as the beloved Son of God and the empowering of the Holy Spirit as He began the work He had been born to accomplish. But as so often happens following a spiritual high, there is a time of testing.
For John that testing came in the form of his arrest and eventual execution. For Jesus it came as the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to prepare for the days that lay ahead of Him. We are also introduced to the character of the devil, the great adversary and opposer of all that Christ will seek to do.
Satan, Lucifer or the Devil as he is known, appears in a number of biblical books. He’s there in the second creation account offering Eve tasty fruit. He lays down a challenge to God in the Book of Job. He and his legions wage war in the Book of Revelation and meet their doom.
In Matthews’s gospel the Devil is pictured as a persuader who seeks to convince Jesus to abandon His mission or take steps that would make it invalid. He hangs around in the shadows. He makes a brief appearance when Peter seeks to dissuade Jesus from facing the Cross. Jesus addresses Peter with the words “Get thee behind me Satan!’ (Matthew 16:23)
The devil in Matthew is not a comical red robed horned cartoon character, but something altogether more sinister. He is a personification of the inner, seductive voice of wrong. He has voice that speaks to our baser instincts and desires and encourages us to act upon them rather than seeking a spiritual path.
The Greek word translated as ‘temptation’ is the word ‘peirazein’. ‘Peirazein’ is better translated as ‘test’ rather ‘temptation’. The object of a temptation is to catch us out but the object of a test is to enable us to make the right choices. In school, when we were given a spelling test it wasn’t designed to make us look stupid but to teach us how to spell correctly. So the ‘tests’ Jesus faces in the wilderness are to help Him clarify His vision as to how His mission will be accomplished.
Let us look at the first of the tests. Verses 2-4
After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "
Fasting is a spiritual discipline practiced by both religious and secular folk. Some fast to lose weight. Others to concentrate on a particular spiritual discipline such as prayer. Some fast during Lent from a particular food group such as chocolate. Luke tells us that Jesus ate no food, Matthew simply tells us He was hungry.
Hunger is more than just a physical sensation. The atmosphere in the desert would be dry and hot. Jesus is completely alone. The environment itself was bleak. Not only does He fast from food but He is removed from any kind of stimulus.
Matthew likes to use numbers symbolically. The number 40 symbolized a period of probation. The rains of Noah’s flood fell for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses receives the 10 commandments during a period of 40 days and 40 nights he spends on the mountain. When in the wilderness spies are sent out to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13:25) the spies return after 40 days (and presumably 40 nights). The Israelites roam in the desert for 40 years. Through His 40 days of fasting Jesus prepares to meet the test.
The first test comes as a challenge to His identity. At His baptism a voice has declared Him to be the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God” urges the voice; “tell these stones to become bread”.
During the 40 years they spent in the desert the Israelites survived on manna that fell from heaven. Jesus is challenged to make manna from the rocks of the earth. Such would certainly relieve His physical hunger pains.
Matthew Henry comments “Satan is an adversary no less watchful than spiteful; and the more ingenious he is to take advantage against us, the more industrious we must be to give him none. When he began to be hungry, and that in a wilderness, where there was nothing to be had, then the Devil assaulted him.” Which is a round about way of saying that temptations tend to strike us at our points of greatest weakness.
Yet this testing isn’t really about food or depravation, but about identity. If Jesus were the Son of God, why did He have to go hungry? The voice He had heard, was it for real? Surely turning a little stone into a morsel to chew upon would dispel any doubts that He had. Was such a small act really out bounds? Echoes of the Genesis story and the serpents questioning “Did God really say you shall not eat the fruit” are translated into “Did God really call you a beloved son?”
For many of us we likewise struggle to find our identity within our faith. At our baptism we are marked with water as a sign of our being children of the covenant. In the baptismal service we are claimed as sons and daughters of God. Growing into such an assurance is life-long process.
Though we pray every Sunday, ‘Our Father’ we have those times when we are unsure of both how we relate to God and how God relates to us. Although we seek to depend upon God and live openly before God we are also champions of our own independence and are often troubled that our actions do not well represent the faith we claim to believe in.
When troubles come we hear people declaring they feel abandoned by God. Isn’t God our parent? Shouldn’t the parent be taking care of the child? But not everybody takes that approach. In the Old Testament book of Job we discover a person whose status as a child of God is stretched to the limits, yet he remains faithful and we hear him declare; “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. (Job 13:15 NIV).
The Devil likes to use the word “If”. “If you are so and so… then do this”. How many times in our own experience have we struggled with the “If” word? Instead of just getting on and doing something we have said, “Well if only I had this or was that or had the other”. How many times do we look back and think “What if?”
Jesus answers all three of the temptations with the phrase "It is written”. In each case the replies He offers come from the Book of Deuteronomy.
To the temptation to turn stones into bread he responds with Deuteronomy 8:3. The full text comes from a passage shortly after the Israelites have entered the land of promise and are bid to remember the gracious provision of their Father God.
It reads ‘He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers 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.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
In the original context the words were an exhortation for the people of Israel to be faithful to the laws of Moses. It was in the law that they found their unique identity as the people of God. For the Christian Church it can be read as an encouragement to find out identity in the revelation of God that we find in the 66 books of the Bible.
God knows we need to eat. There are numerous passages (such as the feeding of the 5000) where the ability of God to meet our needs is clearly displayed. We are positively encouraged to feed the hungry and act justly towards the most needy of our sisters and brothers, for in doing so we are serving Christ. Bread isn’t the issue here! 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
What is at stake is our identity in Jesus Christ as sons and daughters of an awesome God. To place it in a contemporary context our issue isn’t so much a lack of bread as an over-abundance of provision that causes us to forget our reliance upon God. We need to modify the Lords Prayer from saying “Give us our daily bread’ to read ‘Stop giving us so much bread that we forget to thank You for it”.
Our materialistic ways blind us to the need for spiritual growth and cause us to neglect our need for relationship with God. As we forget whose we are we also forget who we are. The first test is a challenge to identity.
The Temptation to Presumption (verses 5-7)
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: " 'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.' " Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "
Having failed to rob Jesus of His sense of identity as a Son of God, the Devil turns things around. “So... let’s say you are the Son of God. How is anybody going to know about it? I've got a great idea. Play superman. Show them you can fly! That would be awesome. You know who you are and if you do this everybody will know who you are.”
The temple was built on the top of a great plateau with a sheer drop of 450 foot down into the valley below. The ancient historian Josephus (in his Antiquities) describes it as so very high, that it would make a man's head giddy to look down to the bottom.
Every morning the priest would come out onto the roof of the temple and await the coming of the dawn. When the sun rose the priest would blow the trumpet and summon worshipers to morning prayer. It would indeed be quite sensational if once the worshipers had gathered the priest launched himself out into the unknown and hoards of angels came and bore him up on their wings! 'I believe I can fly...'
You will notice that the devil quotes scripture and becomes the one who says “It is written'. There is nothing in the scripture he quotes that is unreasonable. The temptations end with Jesus being ministered to by angels. There are some incidents in Matthew when Jesus escapes from crowds or triumphs over sticky situations that bore witness to the fact that God was taking care of Him.
The devils use of scripture reminds us that just because somebody can quote the bible chapter and verse that doesn't mean they have good intentions! There are those who will happily attach their personal peeves and prejudices to bible verses that seem to suit their particular causes, be they social, political or financial. And do so for all the wrong reasons!
It cautions us to be careful of the way we handle God's Word. Every verse has a context. Taking verses out of their situations, either their historical or grammatical contexts, opens them up to being misinterpreted. You sometimes hear people saying, as though it ends a debate, 'The Bible says...' Oftentimes you can quietly be thinking to yourself, 'Yes, but the bible also says....'
Which is kind of what happens here. Jesus matches the Devil quote for quote. The quote Jesus gives leaves no room for creating self-inflating fantasies. “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
There are many reasons why throwing yourself off high buildings is not recommended, not least of them being that it is a very, very, stupid thing to do. However we do well to acknowledge that stupidity and religion can be very comfortable bedfellows. The Church does not always take the side of reason!
We also know that super-human feats and wonders can quickly become yesterday’s thing. A Kingdom founded on sensation mongering would be doomed to failure.
Yet neither of these really get the root of the problem with this temptation. It is an invitation to presumption. It invites us to believe that we can do anything, be anything and get away with anything and that at the end of the day God will smile upon us. It asks us to deny that our actions have consequences. It suggests we should not be content with being followers of Jesus Christ but embrace the notion that we ourselves are gods and that whatever we do with our lives God will look after us.
If we expect that because God has promised never to leave us or forsake us, that we have no obligation to seek to live His way, then we are being presumptuous. If we believe that because God has promised to supply our wants, God should give us whatever we fancy; we are fooling nobody but ourselves.
If we live on the basis that because God has promised to keep us, we can happily flirt with any kind of danger or excess; to quote Matthew Henry 'This is presumption, this is tempting God. ... He is the Lord our God.... We must never promise ourselves any more than God has promised us.”
Before we look at our third temptation I'd ask you to remember that Matthew has been talking in the previous chapters about kingship. He gave us that whole chapter about King Herod the Great as a picture of everything a king wasn't meant to be. And of course everybody knew that whilst Herod may have been big in Judea, compared to Caesar he was just a pawn in the game. Because if you were talking about world domination then really you had to talk about Rome. Judea was a colony. Rome was an empire.
The Third Temptation – Idolatry Verses 8-10;
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’
Matthew has pictured Jesus as the descendant of the David, of the Kingly line, welcomed by worldly Wise Men as being the King of the Jews. But what sort of Kingdom will he rule over? And what kind of King will he be?
The devil takes Him to a very high mountain and lays before Jesus all the splendor of the world, all that was wonderful and fantastic and everything that a person could ever desire. 'And you know what Jesus? All you got to do is one chorus of ‘I did it your way' and I'll give you the lot. Just a little bit of R-E-S-P-E-C-T , that’s what I want you to do for me... is that too much to ask?
The devil’s command challenges Jesus to accept the status quo of the rebellious state of the world, to acknowledge that violence, power, selfishness and practical atheism could win the day, and to go along with the whole show.
Notice this about the final temptation;
- It begins by looking. Just like Eve in the Garden of Eden the fruit looks good and she can't wait to get a bite of it. So as the riches and glories of the best this world can offer are laid before Him the Devil hopes to entice Jesus. Later He would teach that the eye was a gateway to all kinds of evil.
- It focuses on things. We live in an age where many are possessed by their possessions and no matter how much they get it never seems to be enough. Life isn't about stuff. He who has the most toys leaves one heck of a lot of useless junk for his children to clear up when he's gone.
- It ignores the whole. The Devil just offers up all that glitters and is like gold. The striving and fury of human history, the suffering and inequality of life are completely ignored.
- It appeals only to the unthinking. There is no logic involved in this temptation. Nobody can have it all! Those who try usually end up consumed by the task and die lonely. Absolute power absolutely corrupts.
For Jesus this was a test to see if He would compromise on all that He was setting out to achieve. Maybe He could pretend that the human condition wasn't so bad after all. Maybe He could try and bring change in the way it usually came, through might, coercion and short term victories rather than seeing things through the long haul, whatever it cost.
But He knew that you couldn’t change the world by becoming like the world. The last thing the world needed world was another King of the same old- same old!
His rebuttal is terse and direct. “Devil... away. Worship only God!’ The First commandment is sharply contrasted with the ways of the world. Through His actions Jesus declares that there is nothing in life or on earth, nothing that money can buy or power confer, that is more important than living a worshipful life before God.
The tests have been faced and Jesus has passed with shining colors! So we conclude... verse 11;
Who were these angels? Of course we'll never know, but it always seem to be the case that when you trust in God and are battling through things that God sends along angels to help you through. You think your alone, but your not. Some complete stranger offers a word... that song comes on the radio... you come across that passage in a favorite book you had never noticed before... God provides angels and we often entertain them unawares.
So; temptations. The big three. Avoid them if you can.
Firstly, the temptation to forget that we are daughters and sons of God. That through the grace of Jesus Christ we are Gods ultimate concern.
Secondly, the temptation to presume upon God's love. There is a God and it isn't ourselves.
Thirdly, the temptation to compromise what we believe in order to gain the illusory pleasures of this world. The temptation to make idols of just about anything! Worship God. That's all.
Of course these tests are ones which come to us in many different guises and forms. Hopefully when we recognize them we can come though them and be the stronger for it!
And next time: Jesus finally gets around to beginning His ministry!