We’re 30 years after the birth of Jesus, he’s just been baptised and filled with the Holy Spirit…it looks like things are about to get exciting. So what happens next? “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (v.1). Oh…so before we get to the exciting stuff about Jesus healing people, his teaching and his proclamation of who he is we’re told about a little fight he had with the devil in the wilderness.
So, why did Matthew include this part of Jesus’ life? Is it just to teach us about how to fight temptation? I don’t think so. Certainly we can learn a lot about how to fight temptation from this passage but primarily it’s there to tell us something much more important. Something big about Jesus.
Read Matt. 4:1-11 and what is the first thing that strikes you? For me, it has to be that Jesus doesn’t give in. He doesn’t sin by following the devils temptation. After 40 days without food you’d been on the verge of serious health damage. I reckon I would have told the stones to become bread! The first thing we learn in this introduction to adult Jesus is that he doesn’t sin…even in desperate circumstances. This guy is something special!
But I think Matthew wants to tell us even more. When we remember how concerned Matthew is throughout his Gospel to show that Jesus is the one Israel has been waiting for (he cites the Old Testament over 130 times!) we can see that he is actually making an even bigger statement about who Jesus is…a Messianic statement -’Jesus is the Messiah Israel has been waiting for and is the fulfillment of Israel!’
The testing of Jesus shows us that where Israel failed when wandering in the desert after being freed from Egypt, Jesus succeeded. In Deuteronomy 8:2 Moses says to Israel:
Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.
Israel failed the test miserably but when Jesus is tested in that same way he succeeds. Let’s look at the three temptations:
- The devil tempts Jesus to “put the Lord your God to the test” (v.5-7). In Exodus 17 we read of how the Israelites were thirsty and had no water. They started grumbling and demanding water from Moses. Ex. 17:7 tells us “they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” Israel tested God…Jesus didn’t!
- Jesus refuses to bow down and worship anything other than God (v.8-10). Deuteronomy 9 tells us of how while Moses was meeting with God on Mount Sinai the Israelites built a golden calf and worshipped it. God says they “turned away from what I commanded them and have made an idol for themselves” (Du. 9:12). Israel worshipped something other than God…Jesus didn’t!
- When tempted to turn stones into bread Jesus doesn’t, instead he remembers that truth that God will provide all the sustenance he needs. In Exodus 16 God sends manna – a flour substitute – to the Israelites with instructions of when and how to collect it but the Israelites don’t listen to God and instead follow their own ideas. Therefore they don’t learn the lesson God had for them, that man lives on “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”, as Deut. 8:3 tells us the manna was meant to achieve. The Israelites ignored God and didn’t believe that He would provide for all they needed…Jesus did!
The temptation of Jesus didn’t happen primarily to teach us how to fight temptation. It happened, and is recorded by Matthew, to show at the outset of Jesus’ ministry that he is the fulfillment of Israel. He is the good news, the one God had promised, who would establish a new covenant.
The temptation of Jesus, then, isn’t a pointless section of the Gospel narrative which slows down our getting to the exciting stories of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. It is a wonderful proclamation of who Jesus is and what he came to do!