Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Temptation of Jesus Christ

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 4:1-11

Lectionary blogging: Matthew 4:1-11

by John Petty, Progressive Involvement

Gospel Reading: St. Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.' 4But he answered, 'It is written,
"One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." '

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying 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,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone." '
7Jesus said to him, 'Again it is written, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." '

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.' 10Jesus said to him, 'Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
"Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him." '
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


Then Jesus was taken up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights. Afterwards, he was hungry. And the tempter came (and) said to him, "If you are son of God, speak that these stones might become loaves of bread." But he answered (and) said, "It has been written: The human being will not live on bread alone, but upon all words going out through a mouth of God.'"

Then the devil takes him into the holy city and stood him upon the pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him, "If you are son of God, throw yourself down, for it has been written: 'He will give his angels command around you' and "Upon the hand he will take you up, when you might not stumble your foot to a stone.' Jesus was saying to him, "Again it has been written: 'You will not tempt the Lord your God'"

Again the devil takes him into an exceedingly high mountain and he shows him all the kingdoms of the cosmos, and their glory, and he said to him, "All these things I will give to you, if you might fall down and worship me." Then Jesus said to him, "Go away Satan, for it has been written, 'You will worship your God, and you will serve only him.'"

Then the devil releases him, and behold! angels came and were serving him.

Background and Situation:

The primary source is Mark (1: 12-13), sort of. The text begins and ends in Mark, with Q material in between.

Matthew seems to soften Mark's rather chaotic temptation episode. In Mark, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Matthew, however, has the Spirit "take Jesus up" into the wilderness. In Matthew, Jesus appears fully in control throughout. He fasts for forty days and only afterward is he hungry. Unlike Mark, Matthew has no "wild beasts" with Jesus.

After that, the source is Q, and the proper parallel would be Luke 4: 1-13. Matthew differs from Luke in that where Luke has "forty days," Matthew has "forty days and forty nights."

Matthew makes two connections with Israel here. First, the number 40 recalls the travails of the children of Israel who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Second, the phrase "forty days and forty nights" recalls Moses (Ex 34:28) who had been on Mt. Sinai for "forty days and forty nights." As he does throughout the book, Matthew presents Jesus as "like Moses, but even beyond Moses."

The Tempter:

Matthew identifies the devil as "the tempter," one of only two uses of this word in the New Testament--the other is 1 Thess. 3:5. Matthew certainly gives a well-rounded portrait of this "tempter." He variously calls him devil, Satan, the evil one, the enemy, prince of demons, and "Beelzebul."

The Temptations:

In Luke, Satan's first temptation is to try to get Jesus to make a loaf of bread out of a stone. Then, he tempts Jesus by taking him "up" to show him the kingdoms of the world. Then, for a finale, tempts Jesus by taking him to the pinnacle of the temple.

Matthew does this different. In regard to bread, Matthew goes with the plural--"stones" rather than "stone," "loaves of bread" rather than "bread." The second temptation in Matthew is Luke's third--"the pinnacle of the temple." The third temptation, the finale in Matthew, takes place on a mountain.

Matthew is especially fond of mountains. Jesus' stirring inaugural sermon was on a mountain. Likewise, at the close of his gospel, the disciples meet the risen Jesus on a mountain. These mountains serve as reminders of Moses and Mount Sinai, and also tap into peoples' somewhat mystical association of mountains with being "higher up" and "closer" to God. This mountain is described with two adjectives--"high" and "exceedingly."

At the heart of the tempter's temptation is the question of Jesus' "sonship." The first two temptations are prefaced by a challenge: "if you are the son of God..." If that is so, then why not feed a hungry world?

This explains Matthew's use of the plural "loaves." If Jesus can make "loaves" of bread, then he could feed everyone on the world. The devil's challenge to Jesus is to tempt him to use his "son-ship" in a magical and triumphal way, even though for a good, even tempting, cause.

Jesus' response is from Deuteronomy 8: 3: "The human being will not live on bread alone, but upon all words going out through a mouth of God." The full verse of Deuteronomy 8: 3 is this: "He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor 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."

We tend to imagine this scene of Jesus' temptation rather piously, do we not? In the face of the devil, Jesus intones scripture, quite possibly sticking his finger and his nose in the air as he says it. We have not paid sufficient attention to Jesus' rabbinical argument. He is not piously intoning scripture just to be piously intoning scripture. He has a point to make.

Jesus is arguing that the Lord humbled Israel by letting them go hungry so that they would be open to receiving manna. Get hungry enough, and you'll eat what I give you, says God, who gives the people of Israel a new thing--"with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted"--in order to get them to understand that God's providence may come to them in new ways.

In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the "holy city." Matthew does not directly identify the city as Jerusalem, though that is probably a safe assumption, especially considering the mention of temple. If he did, indeed, mean Jerusalem, Matthew is the only one of the four gospels to refer to it as "the holy city."

Jesus is placed on the pinnacle of the temple--the height of religious power. The devil then issues a clever rejoinder to Jesus. "OK, you want to trust in God, as you just said, then why not jump off this temple?" Citing Psalm 91, the "tempter" challenges Jesus to do a religious "trick"--surely God will save him--or, if not, Jesus will destroy himself, which is the "tempter's" true agenda.

Here, the central challenge is for Jesus to use his "son-ship" to exploit his religious power over the people. The current holders of religious power, the temple bureaucracy, were unpopular with the people precisely because they mis-used religious power. The people resented the temple elite who lived up high and far off, yet soaked them in order to maintain their privilege. If Jesus does what the devil wants, he would be doing what the temple elite is already doing. It would be a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Jesus follows by citing Deuteronomy 6:16: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." The specific test referred to in Deuteronomy occurred at Massah, also called Meribah. There was no water to drink, and the people, quite understandably, were upset.

Moses appealed to God, and God caused water to flow from a rock "because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'." (Ex 17: 6-7) Say what you want about griping and complaining, but you have to admit that, for the children of Israel, it worked!

Matthew's point of view is precisely that the Lord is among us in Jesus. It is Matthew, after all, who tells us that he will be called "Emanuel" (1:23), which means "God with us," and that he is "with us" even to the end of time (28:20).

Do not put the Lord your God to the test? The fact is that people do wonder: Is the Lord among us or not? It can be dang hard to tell sometimes. Life is hard. Are you there? Matthew, in having Jesus cite Deuteronomy about an incident in Exodus, is telling us that the Lord has heard the cry of the people and has come to be "among us" in Jesus.

Finally, the devil took Jesus to "an exceedingly lofty mountain"--the great cosmic mountain of ancient myth--and showed him "all the kingdoms of the universe--cosmou--and their glory." Moses, likewise, was on top of a mountain when he viewed the whole of the Promised Land (Dt 34: 1-4). This is the second time in this short reading that Matthew has associated Jesus with Moses, and this time, his mountain is higher, and he can see not just the Promised Land, but the whole cosmos.

The devil does not cite the passage directly, but his words definitely recall Psalm 2:6-8: "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you.' "

It is an ingenious citation since it refers to son-ship, which is at the heart of the devil's challenge. The promise God makes to this "son" is precisely that he will rule the nations and possess the earth. Psalm 2 continues: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession." Just worship me, says the devil, and you will actually fulfill God's own promise. The devil is, of course, lying, but the true issue at hand is openly exposed: Who is God?

Jesus responds with Dt 6: 13-14: "The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods." Jesus responds, in other words, by citing the key commandment given to the Hebrew people: strict monotheism. The devil can't be God. God is God. Therefore, the devil can't fulfill God's promises.

Thus, the section manages to affirm both Jesus' "son-ship" and monotheism at the same time. This was a tricky issue in the early church. If there's only one God, who is Jesus? This question would play itself out in the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, but we get a glimmer of it already in Matthew, written c. AD 80.

In a later appearance on a mountain, the risen Jesus claims the fulfillment of Psalm 2. "All authority in heaven and on earth" (28:28) has been given to him. Go and teach--the teachings of Jesus are important in Matthew--and baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." We see the beginnings of trinitarian theology fairly early in the NT. Paul had done so earlier, c. AD 50, and now Matthew cites what appears to be a baptismal formula.

"All authority" is given Jesus after he had been to the cross. Any attempt to dissaude him from the path to the cross is called "satanic" (16:3). It's not for nothing that the taunting of the "tempter"--"if you are the son of God"--is repeated as Jesus hangs on the cross (27:40)

See Also:

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

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