Matthew 4:1-11


Matt. 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After he had deliberately gone without food for forty days and forty nights he was hungry. So the tempter came and said to him, “If you really are the son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” He answered: “It stands written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds through the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the Temple. “If you really are the son of God,” he said to him, “fling yourself down, for it stands written, He will give his angels orders to care for you, and they will lift you upon their hands, lest at any time you should strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it stands written, `You must not try to put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again the devil took him to a very lofty mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, and said to him, “I will give you all these things, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it stands written, `You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone you will serve.'” Then the devil left him alone, and behold, angels came and gave him their service.

There is one thing which we must carefully note right at the beginning of our study of the temptations of Jesus, and that is the meaning of the word to tempt. The Greek word is peirazein (GSN3985). In English the word “tempt” has a uniformly and consistently bad meaning. It always means to entice a man to do wrong, to seek to seduce him into sin, to try to persuade him to take the wrong way. But peirazein (GSN3985) has a quite different element in its meaning. It means to test far more than it means to tempt in our sense of the word.

One of the great Old Testament stories is the story of how narrowly Abraham escaped sacrificing his only son Isaac. Now that story begins like this in the King James Version “And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham” (Gen.22:1). Quite clearly the word to tempt cannot there mean to seek to seduce into evil. It is unthinkable that God should try to make any man a wrong-doer. But the thing is quite clear when we understand that it means: “After these things God tested Abraham.” The time had come for a supreme test of the loyalty of Abraham. Just as metal has to be tested far beyond any stress and strain that it will ever be called upon to bear, before it can be put to any useful purpose, so a man has to be tested before God can use him for his purposes. The Jews had a saying, “The Holy One, blessed be his name, does not elevate a man to dignity till he has first tried and searched him; and if he stands in temptation, then he raises him to dignity.”

Now here is a great and uplifting truth. What we call temptation is not meant to make us sin; it is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to make us bad, it is meant to make us good. It is not meant to weaken us, it is meant to make us emerge stronger and finer and purer from the ordeal. Temptation is not the penalty of being a man, temptation is the glory of being a man. It is the test which comes to a man whom God wishes to use. So, then, we must think of this whole incident, not so much the tempting, as the testing of Jesus.

We have to note further where this test took place. It took place in the wilderness. Between Jerusalem, on the central plateau which is the backbone of Palestine, and the Dead Sea there stretches the wilderness. The Old Testament calls it Jeshimmon, which means The Devastation, and it is a fitting name. It stretches over an area of thirty-five by fifteen miles.

Sir George Adam Smith, who travelled over it, describes it. It is an area of yellow sand, of crumbling limestone, and of scattered shingle. It is an area of contorted strata, where the ridges run in all directions as if they were warped and twisted. The hills are like dust heaps; the limestone is blistered and peeling; rocks are bare and jagged; often the very ground sounds hollow when a foot or a horse’s hoof falls upon it. It glows and shimmers with heat like some vast furnace. It runs right out to the Dead Sea, and then there comes a drop of twelve hundred feet, a drop of limestone, flint, and marl, through crags and corries and precipices down to the Dead Sea.

In that wilderness Jesus could be more alone than anywhere else in Palestine. Jesus went into the wilderness to be alone. His task had come to him; God had spoken to him; he must think how he was to attempt the task which God had given him to do; he had to get things straightened out before he started; and he had to be alone.

It may well be that we often go wrong simply because we never try to be alone. There are certain things which a man has to work out alone. There are times when no one else’s advice is any good to him. There are times when a man has to stop acting and start thinking. It may be that we make many a mistake because we do not give ourselves a chance to be alone with God.


Matt. 4:1-11 (continued)

There are certain further things we must note before we proceed to detailed study of the story of the temptations.

(i) All three gospel writers seem to stress the immediacy with which the temptations followed the baptism of Jesus. As Mark has it: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk.1:12).

It is one of the truths of life that after every great moment there comes a moment of reaction–and again and again it is in the reaction that the danger lies. That is what happened to Elijah. With magnificent courage Elijah in all his loneliness faced and defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1Kgs.18:17-40). That was Elijah’s greatest moment of courage and of witness. But the slaughter of the prophets of Baal provoked the wicked Jezebel to wrath, and she threatened Elijah’s life. “Then he was afraid, and he arose and went for his life and came to Beer-sheba” (1Kgs.19:3). The man who had stood fearlessly against all comers is now fleeing for his life with terror at his heels. The moment of reaction had come.

It seems to be the law of life that just after our resistance power has been highest it nose-dives until it is at its lowest. The tempter carefully, subtly, and skilfully chose his time to attack Jesus–but Jesus conquered him. We will do well to be specially on our guard after every time life has brought us to the heights, for it is just then that we are in gravest danger of the depths.

(ii) We must not regard this experience of Jesus as an outward experience. It was a struggle that went on in his own heart and mind and soul. The proof is that there is no possible mountain from which all the kingdoms of the earth could be seen. This is an inner struggle.

It is through our inmost thoughts and desires that the tempter comes to us. His attack is launched in our own minds. It is true that that attack can be so real that we almost see tile devil. To this day you can see the ink-stain on the wall of Luther’s room in the Castle of the Wartburg in Germany, Luther caused that ink-stain by throwing his ink-pot at the devil as he tempted him. But the very power of the devil lies in the fact that he breaches our defences and attacks us from within. He finds his allies and his weapons in our own inmost thoughts and desires.

(iii) We must not think that in one campaign Jesus conquered the tempter for ever and that the tempter never came to him again. The tempter spoke again to Jesus at Caesarea Philippi when Peter tried to dissuade him from taking the way to the Cross, and when he had to say to Peter the very same words he had said to the tempter in the wilderness, “Begone Satan” (Matt. 16:23). At the end of the day Jesus could say to his disciples, “You are those who have continued with me in my trials” (Lk.22:28). And never in all history was there such a fight with temptation as Jesus waged in Gethsemane when the tempter sought to deflect him from the Cross (Lk.22:42-44).

“Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” In the Christian warfare there is no release. Sometimes people grow worried because they think that they should reach a stage when they are beyond temptation, a stare at which the power of the tempter is for ever broken. Jesus never reached that stage. From the beginning to the end of the day he had to fight his battle; that is why he can help us to fight ours.

(iv) One thing stands out about this story–the temptations are such as could only come to a person who had very special powers and who knew that he had them. Sanday described the temptations as “the problem of what to do with supernatural powers.” The temptations which came to Jesus could only have come to one who knew that there were amazing things which he could do.

We must always remember that again and again we are tempted through our gifts. The person who is gifted with charm will be tempted to use that charm “to get away with anything.” The person who is gifted with the power of words will be tempted to use his command of words to produce glib excuses to justify his own conduct. The person with a vivid and sensitive imagination will undergo agonies of temptation that a more stolid person will never experience. The person with great gifts of mind will be tempted to use these gifts for himself and not for others, to become the master and not the servant of men. It is the grim fact of temptation that it is just where we are strongest that we must be for ever on the watch.

(v) No one can ever read this story without remembering that its source must have been Jesus himself. In the wilderness he was alone. No one was with him when this struggle was being fought out. And we know about it only because Jesus himself must have told his men about it. It is Jesus telling us his own spiritual autobiography.

We must always approach this story with a unique and special reverence, for in it Jesus is laying bare his inmost heart and soul. He is telling men what he went through. It is the most sacred of all stories, for in it Jesus is saying to us that he can help others who are tempted because he himself was tempted. He draws the veil from his own struggles to help us in our struggle.


Matt. 4:1-11 (continued)

The tempter launched his attack against Jesus along three lines, and in every one of them there was a certain inevitability.

(i) There was the temptation to turn the stones into bread. The desert was littered with little round pieces of limestone rock which were exactly like little loaves; even they would suggest this temptation to Jesus.

This was a double temptation. It was a temptation to Jesus to use his powers selfishly and for his own use, and that is precisely what Jesus always refused to do. There is always the temptation to use selfishly whatever powers God has given to us.

God has given every man a gift, and every man can ask one of two questions. He can ask, “What can I make for myself out of this gift?” or, “What can I do for others with this gift?” This kind of temptation can come out in the simplest thing. A person may possess, for instance, a voice which is good to hear; he may thereupon “cash in on it”, and refuse to use it unless he is paid. There is no reason why he should not use it for pay, but there is every reason why he should not use it only for pay. There is no man who will not be tempted to use selfishly the gift which God has given to him.

But there was another side to this temptation. Jesus was God’s Messiah, and he knew it. In the wilderness ne was facing the choice of a method whereby ne could win men to God. What method was he to use for the task which God had given him to do? How was ne to turn the vision into actuality, and the dream into fact?

One sure way to persuade men to follow him was to give them bread, to give them material things. Did not history justify that? Had not God given his people manna in the wilderness? Had God not said, “I will rain bread from heaven for you”? Did not the visions of the future golden age include that very dream? Had not Isaiah said, “They shall not hunger or thirst”? (Isa.49:10). Was the Messianic Banquet not a settled feature in the dreams of the kingdom between the Testaments? If Jesus had wished to give men bread, he could have produced justification enough for it.

But to give men bread would have been a double mistake. First, it would have been to bribe men to follow him. It would nave been to persuade men to follow him for the sake of what they could get out of it, whereas the reward Jesus had to offer was a Cross. He called men to a life of giving, not of getting. To bribe men with material things would have been the denial of all he came to say and would have been ultimately to defeat his own ends.

Second, it would have been to remove the symptoms without dealing with the disease. Men are hungry. But the question is, why are they hungry? Is it because of their own foolishness, and their own shiftlessness, and their own carelessness? Is it because there are some who selfishly possess too much while others possess too little? The real way to cure hunger is to remove the causes–and these causes are in men’s souls. And above all there is a hunger of the heart which it is not in material things to satisfy.

So Jesus answered the tempter in the very words which express the lesson which God had sought to teach his people in the wilderness: “Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut.8:3). The only way to true satisfaction is the way which has learned complete dependence on God.

(ii) So the tempter renewed his attack from mother angle. In a vision he took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple. That may mean one of two things.

The Temple was built on the top of Mount Sion. The top of the mountain was levelled out into a plateau, and on that plateau the whole area of the Temple buildings stood. There was one corner at which Solomon’s porch and the Royal porch met, and at that corner there was a sheer drop of four hundred and fifty feet into the valley of the Kedron below. Why should not Jesus stand on that pinnacle, and leap down, and land unharmed in the valley beneath? Men would be startled into following a man who could do a thing like that.

On the top of the roof of the Temple itself there was a stance where every morning a priest stood with a trumpet in his hands, waiting for the first flush of the dawn across the hills of Hebron. At the first dawn light he sounded the trumpet to tell men that the hour of morning sacrifice had come. Why should not Jesus stand there, and leap down right into the Temple court, and amaze men into following him? Had not Malachi said, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple”? (Mal.3:1). Was there not a promise that the angels would bear God’s man upon their hands lest any harm should come to him? (Ps.91:11-12).

This was the very method that the false Messiahs who were continually arising promised. Theudas had led the people out, and had promised with a word to split the waters of Jordan in two. The famous Egyptian pretender (Ac.21:38) had promised that with a word he would lay flat the walls of Jerusalem. Simon Magus, so it is said, had promised to fly through the air, and had perished in the attempt. These pretenders had offered sensations which they could not perform. Jesus could perform anything he promised. Why should he not do it?

There were two good reasons why Jesus should not adopt that course of action. First, he who seeks to attract men to him by providing them with sensations has adopted a way in which there is literally no future. The reason is simple. To retain his power he must produce ever greater and greater sensations. Wonders are apt to be nine day wonders. This year’s sensation is next year’s commonplace. A gospel founded on sensation-mongering is foredoomed to failure. Second, that is not the way to use the power of God. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” said Jesus (Deut.6:16). He meant this; there is no good seeing how far you can go with God; there is no good in putting yourself deliberately into a threatening situation, and doing it quite recklessly and needlessly, and then expecting God to rescue you from it.

God expects a man to take risks in order to be true to him, but he does not expect him to take risks to enhance his own prestige. The very faith which is dependent on signs and wonder is not faith. If faith cannot believe without sensations it is not really faith, it is doubt looking for proof and looking in the wrong place. God’s rescuing power is not something to be played and experimented with, it is something to be quietly trusted in the life of every day.

Jesus refused the way of sensations because he knew that it was the way to failure–it still is–and because to long for sensations is not to trust, but to distrust, God.

(iii) So the tempter tried his third avenue of attack. It was the world that Jesus came to save, and into his mind there came a picture of the world. The tempting voice said: “Fall down and worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of this world.” Had not God himself said to his chosen one, “Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession”? (Ps.2:8).

What the tempter was saying was, “Compromise! Come to terms with me! Don’t pitch your demands quite so high! Wink just a little at evil and questionable things–and then people will follow you in their hordes.” This was the temptation to come to terms with the world, instead of uncompromisingly presenting God’s demands to it. It was the temptation to try to advance by retreating, to try to change the world by becoming like the world.

Back came Jesus’ answer: “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and swear by his name” (Deut.6:13). Jesus was quite certain that we can never defeat evil by compromising with evil. He laid down the uncompromisingness of the Christian faith. Christianity cannot stoop to the level of the world; it must lift the world to its own level. Nothing less will do.

So Jesus made his decision. He decided that he must never bribe men into following him; he decided that the way of sensations was not for him; he decided that there could be no compromise in the message he preached and in the faith he demanded. That choice inevitably meant the Cross–but the Cross just as inevitably meant the final victory.


Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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