Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also 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 splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
This chapter can be broken into three parts: The Temptation of Jesus, the Calling of the first Disciples, and Jesus healing the sick. I find it one of the most challenging parts of Matthew because it leaves so many questions unanswered. For example, how did Zebedee feel when his sons just up and walked away from their work? He was right there, mentioned in the story – we don’t get a line about his reaction?
And what about this Temptation in the Desert story? How do we know it happened? It is not Jesus telling this story, remember, it is Matthew. And it’s not like Matthew was there – Jesus was alone in the wilderness. Also, it’s not like Jesus left and returned to Matthew: This test came before the calling of Jesus’ disciples. I guess it makes sense that Jesus would have told them about it, just as anyone recounts interesting and relevant stories to their friends. It just seems so stylized with exactly three tests and exactly forty days and forty nights.
Of course, if you don’t believe in Jesus (or at least, don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, even if he did exist as a person), then it is easy to dismiss this Temptation story – or even cite is as proof of the Gospels’ faults and the list it among the longer list of faults in the Bible at large. True, it is a second-hand story and we have no way to verify it. So that means it is possible that it didn’t happen. Or, that it didn’t happen the way Matthew says it happened-which, honestly is what I believe. I’ve expressed my admiration for Matthew before, and the delicacy with which he had to write this Gospel, but the guy had an agenda and bias, for sure. I don’t think he lied, but I do think he carefully crafted this work to show how the life of Jesus fit into the teachings of venerated prophets. This Temptation story is the perfect place to fit in scriptural references to highlight Jesus’ personal knowledge of the Old Testament and use significant and symbolic numbers (three and forty) to further solidify Jesus’ standing in the minds of Matthew’s Jewish readers.
I see this story as a symbolic portrait, kind of like the Jesus version of George Washington Crossing the Delaware River. For those unfamiliar with it, in December 1776 George Washington did indeed surprise and defeat the British-allied forces when he crossed the river in the Battle of Trenton, later commemorated in a painting by Emanuel Leutz. However, the crossing was at night – and I’ve never seen a night that looks like this painting; Washington’s heroic stance would have capsized the boat; and – I just learned this – the flag depicted in the painting wasn’t a design in use at that time, but it is one we all recognize as an early American flag. Real event, idealized depiction. Matthew (possibly) did the same thing here in the Gospel.
My NIV study notes provided excellent insight into this Temptation of Jesus story. It reads, “The significance of Jesus’ temptations, especially because they occurred at the outset of his public ministry, seems best understood in terms of the kind of Messiah he was to be…It was, moreover, important that Jesus be tempted/tested as Israel and we are, so that he could become our ‘merciful and faithful high priest’ (Heb. 2:17).” In other words, this story illustrates how Jesus goes through temptations just as we do, and highlights his humanity. However, unlike us, Jesus resists all temptations, establishing his divinity at the same time. It’s really quite an elegant piece of writing, after you sit with it for a bit.
If this little tidbit of Gospel makes you uncomfortable, seriously question your belief in Jesus, or even reaffirm your disbelief in Jesus, I get it. It’s a passage that really challenges my faith. But remember, not any single passage defines the Jesus’ message, or the Bible at large – we have to read in context, and look for broader themes. In this passage, we can recognize Jesus as a real man who faced temptation – even if you see him as a fictional character you can acknowledge that those who wrote about him saw him as flesh-and-bone, not a divine apparition. He got hungry, tired, angry; he touched people, walked on the ground (as well as the water), and spoke the common language of the time. Even if he were fictional, he was conceived of as a real man.
I emphasize Jesus’ humanity to bring up my closing point: Jesus was a man who made a difference. The early disciples mentioned in this chapter heard his message of love and healing, and got up to follow him, as have millions throughout history afterwards. The chapter closes with Jesus healing the sick. He had compassion upon those suffering. Jesus knew suffering: he knew hunger, cold, pain, loneliness, just as we do in our own varying extents. Even if you don’t believe in the Gospel, don’t believe in Jesus, we can still be like Jesus: we can have compassion, we can help to heal, we can speak for the oppressed. And that, my friends, is what I believe Jesus would want us to do. We can quibble over whether or not he actually spent forty days in the desert, whether or not he was actually tempted by the devil, whether or not he even existed, but time spent wasting our breath on arguments that can never be resolved keeps us from making a positive difference in the world. To everyone out there making that positive difference – to all the activists, nurses, teachers, volunteers, caretakers, and more – I just want to say thank you. No matter what your beliefs, I see you as a sibling in Christ doing what matters. Maybe I’m putting words into Jesus’ mouth the same as Matthew did, but I think Jesus would also see anyone (anyone) making that positive difference as a kindred spirit, as well.