Matthew 4:1-11


The first test is in that first little word Satan uses: IF. "If you are the Son of God ..." Because the unstated possibility behind the word, "IF," is, "And maybe you're not really." It takes us out of our hearts and into our heads. It breaks the bond of confident trust. This test is repeated when Jesus is crucified and the scornful crowds mock Jesus: "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." (Matthew 27:40)

Year A

Lent 1

Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 4:1-11, The Message   or   Matthew 4:1-11, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

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Matthew has made extraordinary claims for the unknown son of an unknown carpenter from a backwater unknown hamlet. If we are to believe Matthew, his claims about Jesus - "the Messiah, the Son of David," (Matthew 1:1); "This is my Son, the Beloved," (Matthew 3:17) - if they are to be believed, these high claims must pass the severest test.

In Job, Satan acts as a secret agent of God who tests the loyalty of Job through a series of tragic calamities. Indeed, the name "Satan," comes from the Persian for just such a person - a secret agent of the King who secretly tests subjects' loyalty to the King.

However, by the time of Jesus, Satan has become a rogue agent who not only tests loyalty but also recruits persons to join his circle of anti-God people.

Testing of loyalty through trial and temptation is not uncommon in the Bible - beginning in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3; the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, Genesis 22; and the people of Israel in the wilderness:

This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors. 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.
Deuteronomy 8:1-3

The reference to the number forty is also significant - it rained for forty days and nights, Genesis 7; the forty years in the wilderness before entering the Holy Land; King David and his son, Solomon, the two greatest Kings of Israel, each reigned for forty years; and most significantly Moses' own fast:

He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
Exodus 34:28

And finally, the resurrected Jesus remains with his followers for forty days before ascending into heaven.

While it is not wise to read too much into the numbers (I do not believe in numerology), it certainly is wise to pay attention when the Bible uses the number "forty." It signifies that something very extraordinarily Holy is about to happen - God will be particularly present and involved.

The three tests / temptations are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is indeed worthy of the most exalted position: Son of God. (Three is also a significant number.)

The first test - turning stones into bread - is not so much about Jesus possibly mis-using his special relationship with God for personal gain (though that IS a worthy sermon). The test is really in that first little word Satan uses: IF. "If you are the Son of God ..." Because the unstated possibility behind the word, "IF," is, "And maybe you're not really." It takes us out of hearts and into our heads. It breaks the bond of  confident trust. This test is repeated when Jesus is crucified when the scornful crowds mock Jesus: "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." (Matthew 27:40)

Well the whole of the New Testament exists precisely because of this point: Jesus IS the Son of God.

And in this passage we see this proclaimed not only by angels and voices from Heaven, but now by Jesus' own words and actions. Jesus begins to demonstrate that he is indeed worthy of the high honour ascribed to him.

Jesus meets the tempter's challenge NOT with his own skill, wisdom, power, or authority; but by doing the only honourable thing a worthy son would do: quote his father. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

The second test also involves that sneaky little word, "if," but now the Devil also uses scripture to tempt Jesus. Jesus used scripture to rebut the tempter for the first test; but as we all know from personal experience, even the Devil can quote scripture for their own purposes. (Psalm 91:11-12)

The thoroughness of Jesus' knowing of his father's character, aims, and purposes is now being deeply tested. Jesus again does the honourable thing by quoting his father (Deuteronomy 6:16) to rebut and correct how the tempter has mis-used his father's words.

Thirdly, the Devil tempts Jesus by claiming that actually he, the devil, can act as an agent of God, and bestow on Jesus what belongs to God (the nations of the world and their glory), if only Jesus will honour the Devil and show him the obeisance a loyal subject ought to (by bowing).

Again Jesus meets this challenge by quoting scripture (Deuteronomy 6:13) and remaining true to his loyalty to God.

Thus Jesus has passed the loyalty test in the court of the heavenly realm - now he will begin his earthly ministry and be severely tested there also.

David Ewart,,
Short, easy to use, faith inspiring explanations of the meaning of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for your sermon, homily, bible study, or reflection.

Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 36-37; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al.

Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

   1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, 
   "It is written, 
      'One does not live by bread alone,
         but by every word that comes from
            the mouth of God.'" 

   5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
      '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.'"

   7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written,
      'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

   8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
      'Worship the Lord your God,
         and serve only him.'"

   11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Matthew 4:1-11 (The Message)

   1 Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. 2 Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, 3 which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: "Since you are God's Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread."

   4 Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: "It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God's mouth."

   5 For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, 6 "Since you are God's Son, jump." The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: "He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won't so much as stub your toe on a stone."

   7 Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: "Don't you dare test the Lord your God."

   8 For the third test, the Devil took him on the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth's kingdoms, how glorious they all were. 9 Then he said, "They're yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they're yours."

   10 Jesus' refusal was curt: "Beat it, Satan!" He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: "Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness."

   11 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus' needs.

Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

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