Episode 20: Discover Jesus in Matthew (3) Tempted by the devil

Laurence and Dan continue their exploration of the Gospel of Matthew.  This time they take a journey into the wilderness and, through the text of Matthew 4, they witness a strange encounter between the newly baptised Jesus and “the devil”, the tempter, or satan.  Who or what is this character? Is it a person or a being of some sort?  As they explore the text they discover a number of ‘flags’ which indicate that all is not as it may seem at first sight. Intrigued?!  Listen in to hear how their enquiries lead to a compelling explanation!

Show Notes

After a short recap of the study so far, Laurence and Dan start by reading the start of the passage in Matthew 4. They reflect on how this passage immediately prompts some questions, although it certainly seems like it supports the culturally accepted idea of a supernatural devil – a real evil being – who Jesus met in the wilderness.

Some immediate questions

But there are some things that need to worked through. Laurence and Dan talk about how the passage raises questions about where Jesus is, why this is happening, what caused these events, and what just happened, i.e. what is the context to Matthew 4? To top off all of these, the fundamental question remains, who or what is the devil, also referred to as the tempter or Satan?

Where is Jesus?

They start by considering the location of the three temptations of Jesus. The first is set “in the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1) when Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread for himself. But the second is in “the holy city” (Matthew 4:5) when Jesus finds himself on the pinnacle of the temple. This is in Jerusalem itself on a high point of the temple or the temple roof even! Jesus is tempted to jump to force God to save him from harm and thus no doubt receive recognition from those amazed at Jesus the wonder worker.

Thirdly, Jesus is at the top of a high mountain, (Matthew 4:8), viewing all the kingdoms of the world. This is where Jesus is tempted to have control and rule over all these kingdoms.

There is something strange going on here. Laurence and Dan talk through how Mark’s brief record of the temptations seems to suggest that everything happened in the wilderness. Furthermore, Luke records the last two temptations in a different order. They recognise that this is clue into the genre of this short passage and that it may indicate that we are not dealing with a straightforward narrative. Whilst not evidence in itself, Dan points out that standard commentaries on Matthew accept this very point.

The fact that no actual mountain could provide a view of “all the kingdoms of the world” at once suggests that this transportation was not physical but visionary. There in the wilderness Jesus “found himself” first on top of the Jerusalem temple and then on an impossibly high mountain with a view of the whole world.

France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 131–132). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.

This suggests that the temptations are to be regarded as subjective experiences of Jesus rather than involving the literal transportation of Jesus to other places

Hagner, D. A. (1993). Matthew 1–13 (Vol. 33A, p. 63). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

Why was Jesus tempted?

The next question that Laurence and Dan answer takes them into the context of the passage. Why did these temptations occur? What prompted the experience? Dan talks through three things that triggered the whole events.

The Spirit

Just before the temptations Jesus had received the Spirit as it rested on him in the form of a dove, (Matthew 3:16). And it was the Spirit that led him into the wilderness to be tempted, (Matthew 4:1). Indeed, having the God’s power and authority in the form of the Spirit was the very reason why he was tempted to change stones into bread.

The declaration from heaven

The second trigger for the temptation was the voice that accompanied the dove. When Jesus was baptised, a voice from heaven declared; “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. (Matthew 3:17). The temptations came partially as a consequence of hearing that declaration confirming Jesus as God’s Son. If Jesus was the Son of God then he surely could turn stones to bread? (Matthew 4:3). If he was the Son of God then he surely he would be protected from the perilous jump from the temple? (Matthew 4:6)

God’s quotation from the Psalms

The third trigger was the fact that this declaration came from the Old Testament itself. In Psalm 2 we read:

I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

Psalm 2:7-8

Laurence and Dan think through the implications of Jesus hearing verse 7 being quoted about himself and then his mind wandering to the very next verse. He could take the kingdoms of the world – they were his to grab. Except, not quite like that. He was to ask God, who would give him them.

Taking the kingdoms of the world

All of these three triggers show how the temptations arise out of the circumstances of Jesus’ baptism. But Laurence and Dan need to talk through what this means for understanding who or what the devil is. They notice that at this very specific moment in time, having received the authority and Spirit of God, Jesus was the only person on earth who could have taken control of the kingdoms of the world there and then. Indeed, Jesus was tempted later in the gospel to summon 12 legions of angels, (Matthew 26:53), to fight back and resist his enemies. But that was not the way he was to operate. His kingdom was to be different from the revolutionaries and the zealots.

So, the devil and the source of temptation could well be understood as a parable for what was running through the mind of Jesus himself. Dan claims that this is at the very least a legitimate interpretation of what is going on in Matthew 4 that actually deals with the oddities of the text in a way that makes sense in context.

Satan and the devil as the human impulse to rebel

For the remainder of the episode Laurence and Dan talk about the proposition that Satan and the devil in Matthew 4 are really parables for the human tendency to sin and rebel against God. It might strike us as odd that the gospel writers would chose to write these 11 verses in this way if they weren’t communicating the fact that the devil is a real being. But they acknowledge that the concept of the devil and Satan were very under-developed in the Old Testament period, so much so that recognised dictionaries clearly agree:

The notion of the Devil as an independent evil power no longer in heaven but ruling a demonic kingdom and headed for judgment is absent in the OT.

Watson, D. F. (1992). Devil. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, p. 183). New York: Doubleday.

The Old Testament data we do have for a Satan figure comes from highly poetic and stylised narratives (e.g. Job 1) or visionary experiences (e.g. Zechariah 3). So interpreting Matthew 4 as a visionary experience that is not about a real being called Satan actually starts to look like the face value reading, and certainly how the very earliest Jewish Christians would have understood it.

Laurence and Dan also talk about how this fits with the rest of scripture and how the Bible portrays temptation as something that comes from our own desires.

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:14-15

This was very real for Jesus too, as the writer to Hebrews points out and emphasises:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Hebrews 4:15

More for another day

Laurence and Dan finish by the briefest of allusions to more that is lying underneath the narrative, including the contrast between Israel failing their tests in the wilderness and Jesus succeeding. They also briefly note how Peter is called “Satan” (Matthew 16:23) in the same way as this passage, showing how this parable prefigured the events that Jesus would have to deal with in later stages of his mission. As always, there’s much more that could be discussed and explored.

More episodes in the same series

(1) First things first

(2) God with us

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