The temptation scene as portrayed in Matthew 4:1-11 serves, like its Synoptic parallels, as a bridge between Jesus’ acclamation as God’s beloved Son at baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Particular to the purpose of the Gospel of Matthew, the passage echoes and prefigures important themes displayed in the rest of the book, and contains within it at least three identifiable theological emphases reflective of Matthew’s aims: (1) faithfulness to God over against visible or worldly results or rewards; (2) faithfulness to God and God’s consequent reward taking the path and the form of self-denying servanthood; and (3) a general downplaying of anti-God power and heightening of divine power. Below I will note general characteristics that set Matthew apart, point out parts of the temptation account that connect to other parts of the Gospel, and conclude by exploring the three theological emphases identified above.
First, the general characteristics of Matthew’s text. Mark’s temptation account is a scant two verses, straightforwardly recounting the Spirit’s driving Jesus into the wilderness (with the wild beasts who live there) for a forty day period of temptation by Satan, after which angels wait on him (Mark 1:12-13; bare parenthetical citations are from Matthew, otherwise I will give the name of the cited biblical book). Matthew and Luke locate their own temptation accounts in the same chronological position, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, but have substantially more than Mark’s mere 11 verses setting it up. Matthew’s context consists of an opening genealogy (1:1-17), the stories of Jesus’ peculiar conception (from the perspective of Joseph; 1:18-25) and of his dangerous Moses-like birth and journey to and from Egypt (2:1-23), the introduction of John the Baptist (3:1-12), and, finally, the lead-in to the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus’ baptism by John (3:13-17).
Even in these somewhat limited narrative beginnings, we have been introduced to or set up for what comes next. One example is Matthew’ use of and facility with explicit biblical quotations (e.g., 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23), which, unlike Luke’s more allusive style, are not unlike Jesus’ responses to the devil’s temptations, and so prove a hospitable textual context for them. Another “introduction,” though those of us familiar with the text might not immediately recognize it, is to the characters of the temptation narrative: God, God’s Spirit, and God’s Son, Jesus. The Spirit is active in both Jesus’ conception (1:18-21) and in his baptism (3:16), and now acts to lead Jesus into the wilderness (4:1). God the Lord sends an angel to Joseph three times (1:20; 2:13, 19), proclaims himself publicly as the Father of Jesus at the latter’s baptism (3:17), and is the subject of much of the wilderness dialogue.
As regards Jesus as a narrative character, it is interesting that, apart from his single corrective statement to John—certainly authoritative, but not hostile (3:15)—Jesus’ responses to the devil serve as his first real appearance in the story as Teacher and as Polemicist. In these roles he offers truthful instruction, both to the devil and to the hearer/reader, as well as much-needed rebuke to a threatening and misleading opponent.
Because the bulk of the temptation account itself is not found in Mark, and Matthew and Luke share a substantial amount of it between them, it is fair to assume that it is taken from Q or, at least, that Matthew and Luke are appropriating the same source for their own ends. How does Matthew use it for his purposes in the broader scope of the Gospel?
The primary answer is that he uses it as a kind of microcosm of what is to come, echoing and prefiguring themes and events which occur elsewhere in the text. The clearest example of this approach is the insertion of the phrase “Away with you, Satan!” (hypage satana) in Jesus’ third and final answer (4:10), which is not found in the Lukan parallel. This reply foreshadows Jesus’ later rebuke of Peter when he says, “Get behind me, Satan!” (hypage opiso mou satana; 16:23). In a similarly linguistic example, the devil’s first temptation asks Jesus to “command these stones [lithoi houtoi] to become loaves of bread” (4:3), which—since Luke has the singular “this stone . . . a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:3)—may echo John the Baptist’s earlier mention of “these stones” (lithon touton; 3:9), from which God is able miraculously to bring forth children of Abraham. And, if only as reflective of consistency of style, instead of Luke’s “Jerusalem” (Luke 4:9), Matthew’s inclination to Jewish distancing euphemism translates “the holy city” (4:5).
On a more thematic level, while Luke limits Jesus’ first quotation (from Deuteronomy 8:3) to what it says negatively about not living by bread alone (Luke 4:4), Matthew goes on to include the affirmative continuation: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4). This inclusion alludes to Jesus’ role as teacher and explicator of Scripture in the rest of the Gospel. Furthermore, the final place to which the devil takes Jesus is “a very high mountain [oros]” on which the devil asks Jesus to worship (peson proskuneses) him (4:8-9), which clearly prefigures the Gospel’s final image of the disciples meeting Jesus on a mountain (oros; 28:16) and worshiping (prosekunesan) him (28:17). Tellingly, Matthew omits a crucial Lukan phrase, the devil’s claim that he will give Jesus the worldly kingdoms’ “glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me [ten exousian tauten hapasan . . . hoti emoi paradedotai]” (Luke 4:6), and seems instead to place it in the mouth of the risen Jesus, standing on the mountain: “All authority . . . has been given to me [edothe moi pasa exousia]” (28:19). All authority has not been given to the devil, but rather belongs to the faithful Master risen glorious from the dead.
This brings us to Matthew’s theological emphases, beginning with faithfulness to God over against visible or worldly results or rewards. The next big “event” after the temptation account in Matthew’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount (5–7). Here Jesus repeatedly insists on finding or waiting or working for one’s “reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:20), instead of imitating those who have already received their reward on earth, for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6:4). In the same way, the entire series of temptations function as an anticipatory ruse to deter Jesus from the path of living faithfully before God by offering visible results and immediate rewards for obedience to the devil. These comport with particular political strategies, as many modern commentators have pointed out.
First, turning stone into bread (4:3-4) represents an “economic option,” that is, providing materially for all the people so that they will follow Jesus and acclaim him as king—which, in turn, becomes actualized as a real situation later in the Gospel (14:13-21; cf. John 6:1-15). Second, Jesus’ displaying his power at the temple (4:5-7) represents a “cultic” or “religious option,” that is, manifesting his identity through a wonderworking sign that would thereby “prove” himself to the people—a situation not dissimilar to what comes later when, instead of a miraculous performance in the temple, he clears it out in an angry prophetic display (21:12-17). Third, accepting kingly power and authority from the devil (4:8-10) represents a “political option,” which requires little explanation because it is so straightforward.
This final option brings us to the next theological emphasis: faithfulness to God and God’s consequent reward taking the path and the form of self-denying servanthood. The reason that Jesus cannot take political power from the devil is not only because it would require worshiping the devil instead of God (though note, per the discussion above, that Jesus says “the Lord your God” is alone to be worshiped, and Matthew uses the same word in the final scene of the Gospel when the disciples “worship” Jesus on the mountain). It is also because the devil’s way of taking, having, and using political power is fundamentally different from that required by the right worship of the true God—namely, the oppression of the pagans and the violence of the Zealots, in contradistinction to suffering servanthood, the denial of self, and Golgotha (16:21-28; 20:20-28). Matthew emphasizes this by his ordering of the temptations, because while Luke’s sequence ends “on the pinnacle of the temple” (Luke 4:9), Matthew’s Jesus concludes at the mountaintop, overlooking “all the kingdoms of the world [pasas tas basileias tou kosmou] and their splendor” (4:8). Through this ordering, we are told: the devil’s politics means worldly power, but Jesus’ politics is determined by the power of the basileia ton ouranon (4:17).
Put differently, Jesus truly is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah, and so will indeed inherit all the kingdoms of the earth, will in fact receive all authority in heaven and on earth, will even himself be glorious and so an object of worship—but all this by and through the cross. Here the prefiguring of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter finds its meaning: Peter diabolically presumes to tell Jesus the form of his Messianic calling, which of course entails avoidance of suffering. The cross, however, is the means, the path, the very content of the kingdom; no other way will suffice.
Finally, in the temptation account we find a general downplaying of anti-God power and heightening of divine power. The simplest example of this is Matthew’s removal of the devil’s claim to have authority (found in Luke 4:6), suggesting by implication that the devil is actually devoid of any authority or power whatsoever. Sustained by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4) and therefore armed with scriptural power—having been led there in the first place by the Spirit (4:1) of the One who publicly claimed him as Son (3:17)—Jesus is never finally in danger from this pretender and liar. Having been allowed to come (4:3) and tempt the Son of God, the devil leaves (4:11) without success, and “suddenly” angels come in the devil’s stead to wait on Jesus (4:11). Filial brackets guard the boundaries of this encounter on both sides, through the leading of the indwelling Spirit and immediate angelic ministry, divine protection thus ensuring that God’s Son is cared for at this crucial beginning of the gospel story.