Setting: the DESERT OF JUDEA, autumn, A.D. 27 (Mt 4:1-11; Mk l:12-13: Lk 4:1-13)
(below) The Temptation of Christ (Bartsch 41, New Hollstein 41, National Gallery Lucas van Leyden 67, Lavalleye 107).
Mt 4:1-11 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ a ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “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.’ b ” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also 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 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ d ” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Satan’s three-fold temptation of Jesus (to turn stones to bread, to throw himself off the temple, to worship Satan) to disobey God’s commands, twisting scripture, misquoting Ps 91:11, 12, was to deceive/trick/tempt Jesus into failing his mission (to suffer, die, and be raised). Yet as Jesus quotes scripture back to him, he successfully resisted all three temptations.
The tempter begins with a question, “If you are the Son of God.” Ironically, that is the question all of the Gospels seek to answer (“Who is this man?”), yet it immediately follows here Jesus’ baptism when the Father clearly proclaimed “This is my Son . . .” It is also paralleled at Jesus’ crucifixion when he was taunted and mocked by those who said, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mtt 27:40). In each case, these temptations are a tempting/testing of God incarnate, as Jesus notes in v. 7 (see Deut 6:16), but they increase in severity of evil with the final offer of the world’s kingdoms if Jesus would just bow to him in worship. On both accounts, this would have been impossible, since the kingdoms of the world already belonged to Jesus (since he made them; see Mt 9:35-11:1), and they would all probably have ceased to exist if Jesus, the holy incarnate and good Creator, the King of all kings, had bowed and worshiped the Evil One.
It is noteworthy that Satan’s temptation to pre-empt Jesus’ mission (to suffer death) absolutely contradicted the mission of Jesus to suffer in God’s ordained way, and to be raised up in God’s ordained way. Substitutes and short-cuts to redeem the world would end in resolute failure. This is the “testing” (הסנ) of God (prohibited in Deut 6:16; Ex 17:7) that is meant here, alluding to the Mosaic context where Israel was warned to remember to keep God’s commands, take possession of the land, and to worship God alone (not idols as at Massah).
Other OT motifs include the correlation of Adam, the son of God with Christ the only begotten Son of God; the seed promise to Adam and Eve of a Victor over the serpent Satan, as the suffering Servant-Son, he fulfills this covenant promise of redemption. Mosaic typology includes the forty days and forty nights (Moses on Mount Sinai and forty years of wilderness wanderings), stones into bread (miraculous provision of manna), and striking of stone (water). As the Bread of Life, Jesus represents the spiritual significance of the bread of manna in the wilderness, the only bread of salvation that will save the world, and yet he is tempted to make bread out of stones to feed himself. The OT temple imagery is also profoundly significant here, since the highest point of the temple represents the entire history of the redemption theme of the restored Presence of God, the sanctuary sacrifices, and all that the temple represented, which would have been lost if Jesus had tested God by leaping from its highest point (see Heb 2:17-18). The True High Priest would have totally profaned his task and failed to complete his mission to enter the Most Holy Place in God’s appointed way, through the Cross. Jesus is the OT Lamb that would be led to the slaughter at his first coming, and only at his second at the end of the age would he come in full glorious splendor. The temptations also highlight the OT motif of the truly wise man, able to discern truth from lies, as the Logos of the universe, the most intelligent human to have ever lived, he vanquishes the Evil one through successfully fulfilling Adam’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly roles perfectly. In each temptation, Jesus responds to the lying Tempter by quoting appropriate Scriptures. He then had authority to cast away Satan, and fulfills the promise to Adam and Eve that their descendant would crush the Serpent’s head, even though his heal would be struck (Gen 3:15).