THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT – THE TEMPTATION OF JESUS
Matthew 4: 1-11
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 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.'” 4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6:4-5. Matthew’s use of Deuteronomy 6 in the narrative of the Temptation indicates that he would have known the Shema. I interpret the Temptation as a singular event in the life of Jesus, but at the same time an event that never distances itself from him nor he from it. The Temptation is a transcendent event. I will address this matter in more detail later. Because it is transcendent, it is it is always present, illuminating Matthew’s narrative motive and meaning. It culminates in an eschatology of cosmic inclusiveness reaching forward to a mission of baptism of all nations, backwards to the baptism of Jesus that occasioned the Temptation, sustained by the promise, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” 28:19-20. On a separate note, I believe that the Passion narrative is superimposed over the Temptation, for which it is but a summary and an indication of what is to follow, and whose silent message is always that Jesus is victor not victim.
The Temptation was not originally a unit as is evidenced by the way it is treated in the several traditions. Mark and John have no interest in the Temptation. Mark barely mentions it as if to say that the Passion story suffices. It is apparent that Mark does not know of the version in the Q Document. John never mentions the Temptation. Both Matthew and Luke use the Q Document, but Luke’s version is almost exactly that of Q. Matthew makes a number of changes for apologetic and didactic reasons. He expands the dialogue between Jesus and the devil. He reverses the last two temptations. Matthew also knows Mark’s version, as is evidenced by the mention of the angels in Matt. 1:11. The primary apologetic reason for the narrative of the Temptation is to demonstrate, as does the baptism of Jesus, that Jesus submits totally and unconditionally to the will of the divine. Beyond this, the Temptation narrative reveals nothing new about Jesus that has not been known up to this point. As a result, it has always been a puzzle as to the reason for this narrative, and scholars will continue to debate it. However, the story encourages, and even demands that the early Christian church behave in a similar manner in the face of all the challenges and persecutions they faced daily. An exploration of the gospel discloses that Matthew addresses doctrinal and administrative matters that were affecting the development and functioning of his congregation. The narrative of the temptation of Jesus is one such event through which the evangelist speaks to his church. On a broader note, Matthew is presenting his gospel as the narrative of the new creation. He has both Genesis and Deuteronomy in mind in the Temptation. In addition to Deuteronomy, Matthew must have known of the story of manna from heaven in Exodus 16, and of the temptation of the Lord in Exodus 17. He is drawing upon the history of the Jews to insist upon his didactic message to his congregation. A new creation story requires a new humanity, and Matthew intends to offer a theological anthropology that will define his understanding of a new humanity. At the heart of that anthropology is Matthew’s view of discipleship that I have addressed in earlier postings, that will form the foundation of his missiology, the redemption of the whole world. I believe that Matthew revises the Temptation narrative that he found in the Q Document for apologetic and didactic purposes, to prepare the disciples and the young church for the difficulties ahead.
Matthew begins his narrative by identifying Jesus. He is the son of Abraham, 1:1, and Matthew intends Jesus as the fulfilment of all the promises made to Abraham. (Gen. 12: 1-3; 17:5-7). The wise men of the east call Jesus “the king of the Jews,” and they came “to worship him,” Mt. 2:2. When they found him, “they fell down and worshiped him.” Mt. 2:11. One may pledge loyalty and obedience to a king, but does one worship him? The word for worship, proskuneo, is used with reference to Jesus nine times in Matthew, hence it holds special importance. The devil will use this same word in 4:4, demanding that Jesus worship him. Matthew must mean something quite specific with this incident. He is saying that Jesus is the son of Abraham, but he is more than that. Matthew clarifies that, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” 2:15. Jesus is son of Abraham, inheriting the promises, and he is the son of God. In the scene of the baptism of Jesus, as well as the Transfiguration, the identification of Jesus is more pronounced. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” For Matthew, the identity of Jesus is settled, the Divine itself has announced it. Consequently, in what follows, I shall focus on what the devil demands of Jesus: command these stones to become bread; cast yourself down from the pinnacle; fall down and worship me.
The ideas presented here lead me to the conclusion that the Temptation of Jesus is not intended to affirm the identity of Jesus. That is an established fact for Matthew. He has demonstrated it through genealogy, 1:1-17. He has shown it through history, “in the days of Herod the king,” 2:1. It makes a difference whether one believe that Matthew himself has constructed the narrative of the Temptation or has adapted it from Q. The latter has no interest in Jesus as the Son of God. For Q, it is enough that Jesus is identified as the Son of Man. Matthew clearly identifies Jesus as the Son of God. It is as the Son of God that Jesus enters the desert and is tempted. However, Jesus was not alone in the desert. He was led out there by the Spirit that descended upon him at his baptism. After the Temptation, the angels came and ministered to him.
The First Temptation: Everything that takes place in the Temptation narrative does so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was in the desert, fasting for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which he was hungry. Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights, “he neither ate bread nor drank water,” fasting as he received the commandments. Ex.34:28. Matthew would have known this. The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 boasted that he fasted twice a week. He was fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law. Fasting and hunger are not words used lightly. They tell us something important if we listen intently. In the pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2, Christ emptied himself so that he became fully human. Fasting in the desert and emptying himself conceal a truth that needs to be revealed. This first Temptation is not simply about turning stones into bread. It is not a challenge to the authority and identity of Jesus. Hunger in this context is not a metaphor. It was real for Jesus, and it might have been real for the church. The devil says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is demanding that Jesus change what God has made. This is the essence of this Temptation: the devil tempts Jesus to take God’s place, to dislodge the divine and to assume its place. This is exactly what the devil wishes for himself. The devil himself wants to replace the divine. Jesus rejects the demand. This creation is a gift from God, the stones are a gift from God, but only so long as they remain what they were intended to be. Is not Jesus himself stone also? “The very stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” 21:42. In 7:9 Jesus says, “Who among you, if your son asks for bread, would give him a stone?” Stones and bread are both gifts from God, having different purposes. Jesus is both stone and bread, yet he has a singular purpose, to be himself in the act of accomplishing the purpose for which he was sent. (The changing of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana in John’s Gospel calls for a different analysis in the context of the meaning of that Gospel). Bread is a daily gift from God, so we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In 26:26 Jesus took bread and said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Jesus, the bread of life, the bread from heaven, gives himself as a gift to his disciples and to the church. He who is bread itself does not need to make stones into bread. He is stone and bread. He is self-sustaining and self-nurturing and for this reason he can fast for forty days and nights. He empties himself; he is hungry; he gives himself as a gift to be consumed by his disciples and the church. The Church does not exist as rocks and trees exist. Its roots can reach only so far into the earth before it becomes “earthly” and loses its divine transcendent nature. The Church is always temporary housing for lost souls that come seeking its redemptive shelter. It is not and cannot be permanent upon the earth, without losing its fluidity of water and Word that called it into being. As transient, the Church is always the wilderness that beckons to a world in search of its soul, speaking with the voice of the living Christ, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest for your souls.” The temptation of the Church is always to silence the voice of the living Christ.
The Second Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, and up to the pinnacle of the temple. It is somewhat curious that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert and the devil leads Jesus to the holy city and the temple. There will be another time when Jesus will enter the holy city to the shouts, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” But for the present, Jesus is accompanied by the devil. Now he commands Jesus, “Cast yourself down.” He whose name, dia-bolos, meaning “the one cast down” (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9; John 12:31), wants Jesus to join him as one cast down. He wants Jesus to share his fate. If Jesus were to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he would be giving up his life in the holiest place. Jerusalem is the center of the world; it is the place from which salvation will go out to all parts of the world. It is the scene of the final struggle between the divine and the demonic in a great apocalyptic event. That is what we are told in the Revelation of John. We are also told that in the new creation John “saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb.” Rev. 21:22. He who is himself the temple cannot cast himself down. But for the moment, in the scene of the Temptation, all of this is hidden. It will be revealed at the appropriate time.
The didactic content that Matthew wants to communicate here is this: danger lurks even in the holy city and the holy temple. But where danger exists, the church can be assured that the Lord God will deliver the people. The devil knows this. He can quote scripture to support this. The devil himself was cast down, not of his own will, but by the will of the divine and the divine did not send angels to deliver him. Perhaps he himself was unsure that God would deliver Jesus. And this uncertainty is something that might have prevailed in Matthew’s congregations. He had to provide an answer that would inspire the faith of the members of his church. Matthew is warning the members of his church that danger lurks in the church itself, as Paul saw so clearly in many of his congregations. He is encouraging them to be careful and to continue trusting that God will deliver them from internal and external dangers. He does this by showing how Jesus faced such dangers and overcame them by trusting in the word of the Lord. Indeed, Jesus will later give up his life in a holy place, but not at the command of the devil. For the moment, this too is hidden from the public.
Jesus says, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Matthew is cautioning his church not to tempt the Lord by any show of unfaithfulness or doubt. They are living in critical times, and they need to be careful of their words and their actions. The young church has just discovered new life in Christ, and they know that it is difficult to practice their faith in public. Matthew has constructed the narrative of the Temptation in this way to teach his church that they must not surrender their life to the temptation of the world. The devil asks Jesus to surrender his life, to give it up, in fact, to attempt suicide if his faith is so strong that God would deliver him. Matthew is saying that the dangers and trials which the church faces must be dealt with in the same way that Jesus rebuffed the devil. I find it curious that the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and asks him to sacrifice himself by jumping off the pinnacle. Jerusalem is the place where the Spirit will lead Jesus to the cross, to be lifted up, and then after a while to be taken down by his disciples and then again to be lifted up by the Spirit in the resurrection. The devil’s task is to cast down; the Spirit’s task is to lift up. One may pray to God, “Deliver us from evil,” but one may not tempt God by willing evil and then tempting God for deliverance. Matthew’s apologia is that God will certainly deliver the faithful.
The Third Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain. Luke’s version has no mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the kosmos, the natural world. In Luke, Jesus is shown the oikoumene, the populated kingdoms. “All these I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.” We may recall that all the kingdoms of the natural world have already been given to God’s first son, Adam, Genesis 1:26-31. These kingdoms are not the devil’s to give. What is Matthew trying to teach his church with the use of this Temptation? The Q Document which is Matthew’s source for this, originated in the Palestinian Christian community. Perhaps some of the newer members who have come from Hellenistic backgrounds are not accustomed to a monotheistic faith. Some of them did not have a sense of a transcendent God who was at the same time imminent. We learn this from Paul who speaks of the people “who do not know God.” I Thess. 4:5. It is because of monotheistic preaching that these people “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. See also Gal. 4:8-9.
Note that in this third Temptation the devil does not say, “If you are the Son of God.” The Temptation is intended for a broader audience. I believe that Matthew is using a didactic technique that is intended to teach his church that the world will indeed offer them many things that are not theirs to offer to draw them away from their new-found faith. Later, in the Revelation of John, we will discover that Jesus will defeat Satan and everything will indeed be delivered to Jesus. Matthew is encouraging his church to be patiently faithful in these critical times and that their faith will be rewarded in time to come. In Rev. 2:20, the church at Smyrna which is under tribulation is told, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Matthew is teaching a lesson about the strength and persistence of faith.
How shall we understand the episode of the testing of Jesus? Twentieth century scholarship saw the Temptation of Jesus as a carefully written haggadah, a public disputation between two authorities with different points of views. In the Palestinian Christian church where the narrative of the Temptation originated, there must have been many such open disputations, challenging the new faith that attracted so many people from a variety of cultures. The narrative of the Temptation seems to have been an apologia for the defense of the faith. Matthew re-worked his source to address the concerns of his own congregation.
The devil is certainly not a flesh and blood adversary standing before Jesus challenging him, as for example the Pharisees and Sadducees did. What are we to make of the dialogue? Is it really a monologue between two distinct personas of Jesus? How to understand all this? I believe that Matthew has presented the Temptation of Jesus as an ecstatic apocalyptic vision in which Jesus is caught up, as John was in Rev. 1:10. John was “in the Spirit,” when he was caught up. Jesus entered this episode after the Holy Spirit had descended upon him, and he was led by the Spirit for forty days. When the testing was over, “angels came and ministered to him.” See also Paul’s apocalyptic vision, 2 Cor. 12. The demonic is hostile to the divine. An apocalyptic vision does not need to include each and every item that defines the content of apocalyptic. Mark 13 is an example of this. The young church was aware of such apocalyptic visions, and incorporated them into their worship as in Paul and the Apocalypse of John. Here in Matthew, there is a supernatural entity offering itself in place of the divine. There is symbolic apocalyptic language, the kingdom of this world as opposed to the Kingdom of God. There is also transport of the visionary without leaving the scene as in Revelation. There is a gradual progression within the narrative that culminated in the victory of the divine.
The Temptation of Jesus is a singular event, (apocalyptic visions by nature cannot be repeated, only re-told), a story that transcends time and place and uniqueness of meaning. It is a singular event that inhabits every proclamation, every “now” of the church. The church always exists in the context of temptation, that is, the church always exists in contexts of choices. As long as we can believe with Jesus, we too will transcend the divisions that challenge the church each day, each moment. We can never forget that the life of the church is a life of choosing. In Deut. 30:19 we read, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and cleaving to him.” Later, Joshua will say to the people, “choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” 24:15. Matthew adds his voice to theirs. Now is the day of salvation!