Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Temptation of Jesus Christ

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 4:1-11

Exegetical Notes on The Temptation of Christ

by Brian P. Stoffregen

Gospel Reading: St. Matthew 4:1-11

Each year in the RCL, the First Sunday in Lent centers on Jesus' Temptation.

I like this quote by Kenneth A. Halstead (From Stuck to Unstuck: Overcoming Congregational Impasse). It isn't from a commentary on this text, but a commentary on church life.

Evil may be wrong, but it is not stupid, at least not at its most powerful. It does not deal in honest, straightforward, and fair competition. It fights dirty and deceptively, using every clever, double-binding trick to trap us and rob us of our humanity and our eternal birthright. [p. 176]

From the beginning in the Garden, to Jesus' temptations, and ours; the Liar entices us with things that appear to be good -- not with things that appear to be evil.


It is difficult to know how to translate peirazo (4:1) and the more intensive ekpeirazo (4:7) -- "to test" or "to tempt".

The word is often used in the LXX of God testing people:

God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gn 22:1).

When God rained bread from heaven, God asked that they gather only enough for that day. "In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not" (Ex 16:4).

Why does God test people? One reason is given in Dt 13:3b: "for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul." A slightly different reason is given in Dt 8:16: "to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good."

On one hand, I don't like the idea of testing that will do me good, but on the other hand, I have an appointment for a test at the doctor's office. The reason a doctor prescribes tests is for the good of the patient.

Perhaps the reason for Jesus' "testing" in the wilderness is given its best expression in Dt 8:2-3 (v. 3 is quoted by Jesus in answer to the first "test"):

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

There is this positive side of peirazo and ekpeirazo -- they refer to a test. Generally when teachers or driving instructors or doctors give tests, they are not trying to flunk the testees, but to help discover what they know and what they can do. This is one way of looking at "being tested by God." God wants Jesus/us to pass the test -- to prove our abilities to God and to ourselves.

peirazo and ekpeirazo can also have negative connotations: "to tempt" or "to try and cause someone to make a mistake" or "to try and cause someone to sin"

At the same time that God is "testing" to discover the depths of one's faithfulness, the "Tempter" may be "tempting" someone to sin. God's purpose is to strengthen faith. Satan's purpose is to weaken faith.

Note that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted/tested (v. 1). This is softening of Mark's account where the Spirit "throws Jesus out" into the wilderness (1:12). As Boring (Matthew, NIB) notes: "... [Jesus'] submission to temptation is not an accident or a matter of being victimized by demonic power, but is part of his obedience to God" [p. 163].


The "tempter" (4:3) in our text is also referred to as diabolos (4:1, 5, 8, 11) and Satanas (4:10).

I don't think that most of our temptations come from Satan, but from other people. Every other time peirazo is used in Matthew, the tempters/testers are human beings: Pharisees and Sadducees (16:1); Pharisees (19:3); Pharisees and Herodians (22:18); and a legal expert (22:35). Jesus always responds to these tests with scriptures -- either direct quotes or allusions -- as he does in our text.

The Greek Satanas is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for "adversary." In the Hebrew scriptures the satans or "adversaries" are primarily other people, not supernatural beings. This word is used in two other verses in Matthew. The first is 12:26, where it seems to refer to a supernatural being or power: "If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How can his kingdom stand."

Its other use is 16:23, where it refers to a human being: "Jesus turned and said to Peter, 'Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.'"

The "satanic" is that which opposes God and the coming kingdom. It may come from evil forces, evil beings, or human beings with misplaced minds.


Wherever it comes, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something. Temptation is not coercion. The serpent in the garden didn't make Eve and Adam eat the apple. The devil in our text can't make Jesus turn stones into bread. "To tempt" means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempters can't make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don't take away the will. Rather, they try to change one's will.

In my own experience, often when I sin, it is not a problem of knowledge. I usually know what is good and bad. It is a problem of the will. I just want to do the bad. Or there are times I just don't want to do the good. More often than not, it is not a question of ignorance -- of not knowing the difference between good and bad. It is a question of one's will or conviction -- what do I want to do and what will I do.

It is the responsibility of the parents and of the church not only to teach its baptized members the difference between right and wrong; but also to help motivate them to want to do the right thing. The devil (and much of society) is still around trying to make us want to do the wrong thing.

diabolos usually translated "Devil" literally means "the slanderer" or as an adjective: "slanderous". (This other meaning is used in 1 Tim 3:11; 2 Tim 3:3; Tit 2:3.) It is the word used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew SaTaN, which, as I noted above, literally means "adversary". (Besides the four instances in our text (vv. 1, 5, 8, 11; it also occurs in 13:39 and 25:41 of Matthew.)

The way diabolos seeks to change our wills is by lying, by stretching the truth. Generally, diabolos entices us not to do great evil acts, but to good things for the wrong reasons. It could be argued that none of Jesus' temptations were to do anything grossly evil, but to do good things for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time.

What's wrong with turning stones into bread (if one can do it) to feed the hungry? Later, Jesus will turn a couple fish and five loaves of bread into a feast for 5000.

What's wrong with believing scriptures so strongly that he trusts the angels to protect him? Later, Jesus will walk on water, perhaps slightly less difficult than floating on air.

What's wrong with the King of kings and Lord of lords assuming control over the kingdoms of the world? Isn't that what we are expecting at the parousia?

The Slanderer entices Jesus with good things -- perhaps even proper things for one who is the Son of God. NOTE: The "if" (Gk ei) may be better translated "Since". The assumption is made (especially after the voice at his baptism) that Jesus is the Son of God. This truth is not questioned. As Boring (Matthew, NIB) states: "The disputed issue is not whether Jesus is the Son of God, but what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God" [p. 163]. Parallels might be made with "Since you are a Christian . . . ." or "Since we are a Christian congregation . . . ." What kind of actions should be expected from us? What does it mean to be a Christian or a Christian community? Which of those actions are fruit of believing or testings from diabolos?

What's demonic about these good requests? A general answer is given by Jesus' first quotation of scriptures, Dt 8:3, which I quoted above. A problem with all three temptations is that they come from a word other than God's. If Jesus does what the Slanderer asks -- even if they are very good things, he is then living by a word that is not coming out of the mouth of God.

I wonder how any minister or congregational leader (or Christian) can faithful perform their duties if they are not steeped in the word of God. This might be a fitting way of connecting this text with last week's command, "Listen to him."

Gundry (Matthew) offers a slightly different answer: "The Devil does not tempt Jesus to doubt his divine sonship, just pronounced at his baptism, but to rely on that sonship in self-serving ways that would lead him disobediently from the path to the cross" [p. 55].

How many of us and our congregations are guilty of "self-serving" ways?

Boring (Matthew, NIB) raises an important question and provides some good answers:

Is Satan language passe? The interpreter's first question today may be whether there is still a place in our thinking for images of Satan, especially since such images can be abused by a literalism that uses "the devil made me do it" as an escape from personal responsibility and that brands its opponents as tools of the devil. Yet, language and imagery of the demonic played an important theological role for Matthew, and it can continue to do so for us. Such imagery provides a way of acknowledging the reality of an evil greater than our own individual inclinations to evil, a supra-personal power often called "systemic evil" today. Another valuable aspect of such language is that it can prevent us from regarding our human opponents as the ultimate enemy, allowing us to see both them and ourselves as being victimized by the power of evil. [p. 165]

Could the demonic be involved in many of our church conflicts? Should we name Satan as the diabolical enemy, rather than that problematic parishioner? Could our self-serving desires be coming from evil forces outside of ourselves? How do we talk about the NT world with its assumption of invisible powers to a world that has largely discounted or laughed at the phrase, "the devil made me do it"? When is that a copout of personal responsibilities? When might a person be possessed by evil?


The first temptation presents an opposition which I suggested was part of Jesus' conversation with John at his baptism. Jesus is not motivated by needs -- John said that he "needed" to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus doesn't do it. Jesus is motivated by the word of God or fulfilling all righteousness (which certainly leads Jesus at times to care for human needs).

Boring (Matthew, NIB) notes the following about Matthew's wording:

Matthew has changed the singular "stone" and bread" ("loaf") in Q to the plural "stones" and "loaves." Since one loaf would more than suffice for Jesus, the devil's argument is not only for Jesus to use his divine power for his own advantage, to alleviate his hunger (but denying his humanity and the trust in God Jesus teaches in 6:24-34), but also to use his divine power to provide food for all, meeting an obvious human need, corresponding to popular messianic expectations, and carrying enormous political power. [p. 163]

A significant contrast is presented in this temptation. As I noted above, the assumption is made that Jesus is the Son of God; but Jesus responds by quoting a verse that insists on his own humanity. Literally translated: "Not by bread alone shall the human [anthropos] live...." This suggests that Matthew's view of Jesus' life on earth was that of a mere human being, not that of a superman -- which tends to be closer to the American idea of a messiah.

Was it in the second Superman movie where he gives up his powers to be just like one of us? I remember my anger at that scene. I didn't want a human hero. I wanted a Superman. Robert Capon as part of a wonderful section on the humanity of Jesus in a chapter called "Superman," concludes with:

The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying. [Hunting the Divine Fox, p. 91]


Note: the second and third temptations are in reverse order in Luke. Last is a more significant place than "in the middle". Mountains are more important in Matthew than in Luke. Conversely, the Temple plays a more important role in Luke than in Matthew. This may be a reason for the change in order.

Since Jesus is motivated by the Word of God, the next temptation centers on the word of God. More properly it deals with the proper use of the Word of God. Note also that this temptation doesn't take place in the wilderness, but at the temple. Could there be temptations even in church?!? I presume that there were high precipices in the wilderness from which Satan could have tempted Jesus to jump. Gundry (Matthew) suggests that the "selection of the Temple implies the public display of a messianic sign" [p. 56]. How do we balance the public display of our faith, e.g., letting our light shine before others (Mt 5:16); and not practicing our piety before others to be seen by them, and thus losing our reward from our Father in heaven (Mt 6:1)?

The "messianic sign" that God has decreed for Jesus is the cross. Not superman-type performances.

One may use scriptures like the Tempter -- to try to change God's will -- to seek to manipulate God. Rather than seeing it as promise, a gracious gift of God. When it is used to test God, it becomes an instrument of judgment, testing God's and our own faithfulness.

Nearly every speaker I've heard with a handicapping condition has commented about being told: "If you had enough faith, you would pray and God would heal you." As a child, I can remember praying, "God, if you really exist, then do this or that for me." We can turn the promises of God around to try and manipulate God. Rather than living by the Word of God, we seek to have God act according to our words. (One of those speakers then gave her response to such people: "If you just had enough faith, you would pray for me and God would heal me.")

Jesus' response from Dt 6:16 provides more direction about this temptation. The entire verse reads: "Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah." In order to discover how they tested God at Massah (the Hebrew word for "test"), we need to look at Ex 17:7: "He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, 'Is the LORD among us or not?'"

The "test" was questioning God's presence among us. How do we know the Lord is among us? By God's word promising to be with us. Like in a marriage, as soon as one starts wondering or asking, "If you really love me, then ...." then one is no longer living by the marriage promise, but using it to manipulate the other. When we start looking for miracles to prove God's presence, we are not living by God's word. (This isn't to deny divine miracles or loving deeds by spouses, but when they are required to prove the promise of love, they become signs of unbelief in that word.)

Boring (Matthew, NIB) adds an interpretive note concerning Matthew's community and ours:

Matthew is not merely reporting a once-upon-a-time encounter between Jesus and Satan, but is illustrating that even the well-intentioned theologies and interpretations of Scriptures in his own community can become the vehicle of a demonic alternative to the path of obedient suffering that Jesus has chosen as the path of messiahship. [p. 164]


The third temptation is on a high mountain (the same phrase used in the transfiguration). It also could be another connection with Moses. He went to the top of Mount Nebo "and the LORD showed him the whole land" (Dt 34:1). (Throughout the temptation story, Jesus is more closely related to people's failure during the Exodus than to the failure of Adam and Eve in the garden.)

The power and authority over the kingdoms of the world comes at too high a price -- selling his soul to the devil by worship him. I wonder if sometimes our congregations' desires to be bigger and better might mean selling out to powers other than God. I recently read an essay called: "Shall we schedule a menu of worship services?" by Paul Bosch. He raises this question: "But is numerical growth an inherent good? Could it be that some growth is achieved at too high a cost: at the expense of faithfulness to the gospel and its welcome of diversity? Jesus, after all, did not urge 'success' on his followers; he urged faithfulness."

Whether or not he is right in his opposition to "a menu of worship services," I think that he does challenge us about the distinction between worldly success and kingdom faithfulness.

Does the devil have the kingdoms of the world to give to Jesus? Jesus doesn't argue this point, but as the "slanderer" and "father of lies" (Jn 8:44), the devil will use every deceit to entice Jesus to turn away from God. I don't think that this passage can be used to support the demonic control of the world.

Yet, Carter (Matthew and the Margins) notes:

Roman imperial theology declares that Rome rules by Jupiter's will. Here Rome is shown to be allied with the devil's reign. The devil's claim discloses the hidden power manifested in the external actions of the empire and vassals such as Herod. ...

...At issue is sovereignty -- "To whom does the world belong?" To God (cf. Gen 1; Lev 25:23; Ps 24:1) or to the devil? If Jesus receives the devil's offer, he acknowledges the devil's authority and rule. But it is God's empire that Jesus is commissioned to manifest (1:21, 23). ... The play on the noun basileia (="reign") in 3:2 and 4:17 and the plural form used by the devil in 4:8 (basileias = "empires/kingdoms") must not be missed. God, not the devil, has commissioned Jesus to this role. [pp. 110-111]

This passage is a warning that what may seem to be good and right and proper for us as Christians and Christian congregations to pursue may be only a lie from the devil to entice us to sell out the gospel to some other words not from the mouth of God. Especially if there is a relationship to this temptation and the Roman Empire, how should we be "ruling" our congregations in a way that is godly rather than following the business ways of the world -- even if those ways are highly effective and efficient?

Jesus' response is almost a quote from Dt 6:13: "The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear." The word for "serve" is the same in Matt and LXX (latreuseis). Specifically this word means "to perform religious rites as part of worship" and it is translated "service" or "worship," which probably led to the parallel with proskuneo, which is usually translated "worship," although it also has the sense of "to bow down or fall down before". It refers both to body position or an attitude and activity of reverence or honor. Only the Lord our God deserves this honor.


The word from the mouth of God is powerful -- even over Satan. Jesus says, "Go away, Satan!" and the Devil leaves. God has authority over the tempter. While this text is a warning to all about the dangers of temptations, it also expresses Jesus' power over the Tempter -- his will is not changed and with a word he dismisses Satan. But the ordeal was not easy. At the end angels come and waited on (diakoneo) him.

diakoneo (from where we get "deacon") is a word that original referred to "waiting on tables," i.e., to serve food. Boring (Matthew, NIB) notes the irony in this concluding verse: "By placing the kingdom of God first, even though it meant rejecting food and the help of angels, Jesus finally receives both, thus becoming an anticipatory example of his own teaching (6:33)" [p. 164].

See Also:

Sermons and Commentaries for 40th Day of Lent (40th Friday)

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