Satan the Tempter

Matthew 4:1-11
1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle 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 “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Some days, while writing these devotions, it is so difficult to stay on the path and not chase theological rabbits into their holes. Today’s reading is just such a case. I thought it would be an easy day. This is a familiar passage and I wasn’t expecting new ideas to emerge. That was arrogant. There’s just so much information to share and I don’t want to cheat the passage by skimming over the top. Thanks has to go to The Concordia Commentary Series: Matthew 1:1-11:1 by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs (©2006 CPH) for the amazing insight that this passage holds. I will be summarizing some of his thoughts on this passage.

Just a note of interest – In these 11 verses, the devil receives three different names. First he is called “Slanderer”. He speaks against us at every turn. In verse 3 his is called “Tempter”. He knows exactly what to put in front of us that will have the greatest chance for causing us to stumble. And finally, in verse 10, he is called “Adversary”. He is our enemy in every single way, waiting to accuse us of our sin for he knows that we are indeed guilty.

The break between chapter 3, where we find the baptism of Christ and chapter 4, where we find the temptation of Christ, is unfortunate because the events are completely connected as is evidenced by “Then . . .” in verse 1. Jesus is declared by the Father in heaven to be His beloved Son. “Then” immediately Jesus heads out into the desert for a time of spiritual testing and demonic temptation. He fasts for 40 days so physically He is weakened and hungry. The desert and the 40 days both harken back to the Children of Israel as they escape slavery in Egypt only to spend 40 years wandering in the desert. That too was a time of spiritual testing and temptation. Where the Children of Israel fail miserably in their efforts to live as God demands, Jesus succeeds.

The first temptation presented to Jesus was to deal with the hunger that would be raging after 40 days without food. Satan challenges Him to turn the stones into bread. Even in making this challenge Satan acknowledges that Jesus has the power to turn stones into bread. Satan knows who this is and the power that He has. Jesus answers with the truth. The Word of God is the only thing that can truly deal with our hunger, for it is spiritual. Physical hunger is nothing when compared with spiritual starvation. Jesus passes this first test and proves that He is worthy to bear our sin for He alone is sinless. With His victory over the devil comes our own.

Round two of the battle between Jesus and the devil finds them at the top of the temple in Jerusalem. For this round, Satan heads into the ridiculous. At least with the last challenge, Satan tempts Jesus with something that was a real need – the assuaging of physical hunger. But this time, he wants Jesus to throw Himself off of the pinnacle to see if the Father will actually send angels to keep Jesus from harm. Then begins the back and forth as Jesus and the devil use God’s Word as their weapon.

Let’s look at the actual texts that are quoted by Jesus and Satan. Here is where we can see Jesus’ commanding strength and the devil’s ability to quote the Bible (with his own spin) in order to win his point. Satan starts with Psalm 91. With this volley he takes the passage out of context and leaves out a line. Compare what he says in verse 6 of today’s reading with the actual passage below. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Psalm 91:9-12
9Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge—
10no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
11For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.

As you can see, the psalmist is very clear about the conditions under which we find refuge in the Lord. We can always find refuge and protection in the Lord when He is our hiding place, our dwelling place. This passage has nothing to do with testing God to see if He is truly powerful or truly loving enough to help us. Jesus responds with “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” He is quoting directly from Deuteronomy 6:16 which is a reference to an event that took place in the wilderness wanderings of the Children of Israel. That story is quoted for you below.

Deuteronomy 6:16
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

Exodus 17:1-7
1All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
7And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

When these verses are examined inside of their context and placed over the ridiculous scenario that the devil has contrived, you can see how this particular challenge plays out.

“Satan wants Jesus to test whether God’s power is available to protect and save Him, just as the people of Israel wondered whether God would provide water for them in their thirst. But Jesus will doubt neither God’s promise nor His power. He will not deviate from His Father’s ‘ways.’ [Jesus] has no need to learn whether God’s power and purposes are guiding Him.”
Gibbs, Jeffery. ©2006 Concordia Commentary Series: Matthew 1:1-11:1. p195. CPH.

We too have no need to “test” God. He promises His protection and so we can trust that He will always be there for us. Testing Him is an arrogant activity and Jesus stays away from that satanic ploy. Who are we to test the Lord God Almighty? In that regard, we are nothing and it needs to be avoided.

As Christ mirrors the Children of Israel in the desert wanderings (Exodus), we come to the final challenge from Satan. He wants see if Christ would bow down to an idol as God’s people had done centuries earlier. (see Exodus 32) After being out in the wilderness for less than 2 months, God’s people completely fall apart and build a golden calf, so they have something to worship; and this with the support of Aaron, one of their leaders (and Moses’ older brother!) Now, as Jesus is poised to enter into His public ministry which will ultimately lead Him to the cross, will He too bow down to an idol?

“The last temptation differs from the first two in a remarkable way. In the first, Satan assumed that Jesus has power, and asked how He would use it. In the second, the slanderer acknowledged that God promised to exercise power on behalf of Jesus, but he asked Jesus to doubt that promise or misuse that power. In this final and climactic temptation, Satan presumes that the Son will worship and serve someone, so he seeks to turn Jesus aside from wholehearted worship and service of God His Father. Jesus, however, will not turn aside. His life and ministry will be a perfect act of worship and service to God.”
Gibbs, Jeffery. ©2006 Concordia Commentary Series: Matthew 1:1-11:1. p 196 CPH.

After Satan has lost yet a third battle, he leaves Christ alone – for the time being. He will continue to tempt Christ and stand in the way of His work until the very end. But for now, Jesus is left in the hands of ministering angels. To summarize this passage, let me leave you with a final quote from Dr. Gibbs for it is brilliant in its assessment of this passage.

“It is common to hear sermons preached on this text that extols Jesus as the one who shows us how to resist temptation. This hermeneutical move assumes that Matthew presents Jesus as our model and that the method by which Jesus resists Satan’s temptations involves the appropriate use of Scripture to refute the evil one’s lies. Given the dominant Christology in this Matthean context, it is difficult to conclude that the evangelist wants his audience to view Jesus primarily as a moral example. There is a sense in which [this passage] can have that force. However, given Jesus identity as the Son of God in place of the failed, fallen, sinful nation [of Israel], the primary message of Matthew 4:1-11 must be that Jesus is the Victor over Satan on behalf of the nation and ultimately on behalf of all people.
Gibbs, Jeffery. ©2006 Concordia Commentary Series: Matthew 1:1-11:1. p 197-198 CPH.