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Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11 is one of those passages that is at once both familiar and unexamined. We know it well as the account of the temptation of Jesus, following the glory of his baptism and the voice from heaven affirming him as God’s Son.

Many sermons are based on these verses, hoping to provide the hearer with good and meaningful guidance for facing the inevitability of temptation for the followers of Jesus. While that is not a bad idea, if that is the limit of our engagement with the passage, we miss what may well be one of the formational passages for understanding the significance and complexity of the Incarnation.

Another approach to the passage is the suggestion that what Jesus experienced following his baptism is a parable for what the believer may expect beyond those moments of great blessing and exhilaration. The devil will not let blessing stand without challenge. So, look out for what follows an experience of God’s nearness and blessing.

Again, while those may be somewhat helpful, the text is about so much more than that. In this passage is the account of the epic battle between goodness and evil. Jesus, the Son of God, the representation of all that God intended Israel to be as God’s chosen vessel, is confronted with the same array of appeals that plagued their journey. They were to be “a light to the nations.” They held the treasure of the Law, the perfect expression of the mind of God. They were to be a “holy nation, a kingdom of priests.” Through them the world was to see the holiness of God, the power of God, and the goodness of God. But they miserably failed. Through disobedience, sin, idolatry, greed, and injustice, they finally lost everything. Their sacred city, Jerusalem, was utterly destroyed. The Temple of God, the place where God dwelt among God’s people, was ransacked and burned. For decades they lived in exile. Even when they returned to their land and city, the record was one of continued defeat and occupation by other powers and rulers.

Sinful self-interest that had marred God’s good creation from the start was all too powerful. They were powerless, in their own strength, to overcome it. But Jesus, the perfect representation of both God and humankind, faced the temptation full force, face to face, person to person. And Jesus faced it down, not as God who could not have done otherwise, but as a human, with the very real possibility that he could have failed. The writer of Hebrews observes that although Jesus was God’s Son, “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

It is significant that this temptation, like his baptism, is situated at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. It was the background from which he launched into the next three years, facing the growing opposition that eventually led to the cross. It was because of the ongoing efforts of the tempter to undermine him that the writer of Hebrews could say that Jesus is able to sympathize with us because he has been, in every respect, tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15).

In the Gospel of Luke account of the temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13) the closing verse says, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” The temptation of Jesus was not finished in the wilderness.