Understanding the Temptation of Jesus in Light of Matthew 3:17

August 27, 2019 · 1525 words · 8 minute read Temptation of Jesus   Baptism of Jesus   Satan   Faith   Matthew   New Testament   Thought  

I propose that Matthew's account of the temptation of Jesus is best understood in light of the previous events which occurred at the baptism of Jesus (especially Matthew 3:17). I present the case for my argument and how this reading of the temptation of Jesus helps us understand the passage better.

I recently heard a sermon on the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) in which the pastor said something that caught my attention, got me thinking, and led me to what I think is a deeper, richer understanding of this passage. While the pastor did not say what I am about to say explicitly, he hinted in its general direction and I am very grateful not just for this sermon, but also for his faithful ministry of the word of God. While I will not name him, he is a faithful minister of God’s word for whom I am extraordinarily thankful and God knows who he is and will reward his faithfulness.

The thesis of this blog is that the temptation of Jesus in Matthew’s narrative (Matthew 4:1-11) must be understood in light of the previous narrative, the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17) - especially God’s assertion about Christ in Matthew 3:17.

Initial Observations

Let me start with a few observations about Matthew 3:16 - 4:11; below is the text of the passage in the NASB translation:

After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written:

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written:

‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Here is the same passage with some annotations (the emphasis in bold are mine):

After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written:

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:

‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written:

‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Notice that after Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends to and comes upon Jesus. Then, God the Father makes the declaration “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (referencing Psalm 2:7). Pause to consider this statement; God the Father is affirming and declaring, at least to John the Baptist and Christ, the sonship of Jesus Christ. Then, Jesus, led by the Spirit whom we saw descending to Him, goes into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil” (notice how the word “then” at the beginning of the temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1) connects it temporally with the baptism narrative (Matthew 3:13-17)). So far the sonship of Christ has been declared and affirmed by God and Jesus is in the wilderness to be tempted.

Main Point

Now, notice how Satan begins his first and second temptations: “If you are the son of God…”. This brings me to the key point of this blog post and my understanding of the temptation of Jesus. I believe Satan is tempting Christ to doubt what God the Father said in Matthew 3:17 (“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”). There are other temptations at play as well (e.g. the temptation to turn rocks into bread to satiate His hunger), but the fundamental temptation is to doubt God the Father’s statement and feel the need to prove what God the Father has declared to be true. I have little doubt that Satan was well aware of Christ’s true identity (as were the demons throughout Christ’s ministry (e.g. Matthew 8:29)). Still, I believe that Satan is challenging what God has said and challenging something even he knows to be true just as he did to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Satan is tempting Christ to doubt God the Father’s word.

The First Temptation

The temptation to turn stones into bread is not just designed to get Jesus to meet His physical needs, but is also designed to make Jesus feel the need to prove what God the Father has already declared to be true (that Jesus Christ is the Son of God). This is why Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 8:3; Jesus recognizes that the nature of Satan’s temptation is doubting God the Father’s words so he quotes a passage that addresses the physical temptation to produce bread and the temptation to doubt God’s words.

The Second Temptation

The second temptation begins with the same phrase “If you are the son of God…” and follows suit with the first temptation. Fundamentally, Satan is tempting Christ to force God the Father to prove His declaration in Matthew 3:17. Satan’s reasoning is that, based on Psalm 91, the Son of God will be protected; he challenges Christ to demonstrate His sonship by proving Psalm 91 to be true. Jesus Christ, again, sees the fundamental problem and quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, demonstrating that He will not put God to the test in this area, but will trust God’s declaration (in Matthew 3:17).

Conclusion

In short, I believe that to understand Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus, we must read it in light of Matthew 3:13-17, especially God the Father’s declaration in Matthew 3:17. I also assert that the fundamental temptation in the first two temptations is to doubt God’s declaration in Matthew 3:17 (either by turning rocks into bread to prove it or by throwing oneself off of the temple to prove it).

Jesus Christ, unlike our ancestors Adam and Eve, did not doubt God’s words and He remained faithful even through temptation. Praise God the Father for sending His Son and for remaining faithfulness to His words! Praise God the Son for His faithfulness to the Father’s will and trust in the Father’s words! Praise God the Spirit for leading Christ into the wilderness to be tempted and for inspiring the Holy Scriptures in which we can read of the magnificence, wisdom, and power of God in Christ!

Closing Prayer

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, help us to trust Your Word like Christ did. Let us not be unfaithful and easily swayed like Adam and Eve, but let us cling to the promises and declarations You have given to us. Make us trust that your word was inspired by your Spirit and has been faithfully preserved through Christ’s body, the Church. We praise you for Christ - His sinlessness and His perfections.

“He made Him who knew no sing to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”~ 2 Corinthians 5:21