1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.
3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”
4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; 9 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, “Begone, 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 ministered to him.
Verse 1–2: Setting
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” — “Then”, as used by Matthew, frequently has the meaning of the other Synoptics of immediacy. There was no delay between his baptism and being led by the Spirit who had come down upon him, into the wilderness.
The Spirit that led Jesus into temptation was the Spirit full of power and love.
The “wilderness” was an area from the centre of the country through Judea, the southern territory of the Holy Land, and the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea. It was regarded as the abode of the devil. The actual site of Jesus’ testing may have been in the vicinity west of Jericho. The important point is that it was the place where the Israelites were tested and tempted as part of their formation to become the People of God.
A Greek word used in this passage can be translated as either ‘temptation’ or ‘testing’. “Temptation” implies an effort to lure someone into sin. “Testing” does not imply seduction to sin but an effort to find how authentic and loyal that person is. The Israelites were tested and/or tempted in the wilderness for forty years (Nm. 14: 34) as, led by Moses, they wandered never more than a few days march from their destination in the Holy Land. The purpose of the testing of the Israelites was to mold, form and strengthen them to become the Chosen People of God. Often they refused and sinned. In that case the testing was for them a temptation. Jesus underwent testing in his public ministry, the purpose of which was to show the intensity of the devil’s attacks and the strength of Jesus’ love and fidelity to his Father. We too, as disciples, the new People of God, are tested and tempted to show that the devil attacks us and that we are faithful through the intensity of our love. We should look on temptation not as an effort to make us sin but to strengthen us by testing our loyalty and love.
In the early days of the Bible, before the Exile, the testing was undertaken by God. In the Book of Job, God gave this function to the devil (Job 1–2). Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil, Satan (the tester or tempter).
Jesus was tested by the devil who is identified later as “Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Mt. 12: 24). The Pharisees accused Jesus of driving out devils by the power of Beelzebul (Mt. 10: 25; 12: 24–27). At the end of time he will be cast into eternal fire for all eternity (Mt. 25: 41).
Gospel passages do not just record history but prepare disciples to undergo their own testing and temptation in their own wilderness. The world is often referred to as a wilderness, a place of evil and temptation. Testing and temptation is an integral part of the life of a disciple. This scene is meant to encourage disciples in their temptations. Lent is a time of testing and temptation to strengthen us in other temptations by the devil. In all temptations we recall Jesus’ testing and also the verse from Hebrews 4: 15: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning”.
“And he fasted forty days and forty nights and afterward he was hungry.” — The Israelites were tested for forty years, a life span. Their first testing was hunger. God provided nourishment for them. They complained about the manna and then tested God.
Moses (Ex. 24: 18; 34: 28) and Elijah each fasted for 40 days in the desert. We know that Moses “neither ate bread nor drank water” (Ex. 34: 28). Elijah walked for forty days and nights in the strength of the food that the angel provided before he began his journey to Mt. Horeb (I Kg. 19: 8). During those days he did not eat. Lent is a period of forty days and nights with fasting. These examples are meant to encourage us to trust in God’s providence and give ourselves to renewal.
Verses 3–4: First Temptation
“And the tempter came” — Shortly after they began their forty year sojourn in the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land, the first recorded testing they had was hunger. They begged God for food, letting it be known that otherwise they would return to Egypt and the comfortable life they had there. Jesus is the representative of the new People of God, the new Israel, and his first temptation will be hunger also.
“and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” — “If you are the Son of God” recalls that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness took place immediately after his baptism when “a voice from heaven” was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3: 17). Now the devil challenges Jesus as to his identity: “If you are the Son of God”. His purpose is to put doubts into the mind of Jesus by challenging his power.
How the devil tries to achieve this end is to challenge Jesus to use his divine power to supply basic daily needs such as food. It is a test to distract him from his divine mission. If he listens to the devil he will achieve three ends — he will satisfy his own present hunger; he will advertise that he has such power which will attract people to him and so become a great political leader. The people were expecting the promised Messiah to be a political leader who would overthrow the Roman conquerors. There is always the danger that people can settle for material or political well–being to the neglect of the spiritual. In other words, settle for a political, secular, earthly messiah rather than a divine Messiah.
Jesus answers by declaring, as taught by the word of God (Dt. 8: 3), that even fundamental and essential basic human needs are not as important as the word of God which gives life. That is his mission as Messiah, to bring people to God and share his divine life. He will give them spiritual food but not neglect material food when necessary (Mt 5:1–7:29; 14:13–21; 15:32–39; 26:26–30).
Later in the Gospel Jesus will be tempted by the words, “If you are the Son of God” — This temptation will recur when Jesus is on the cross (Mt. 27: 40–43), “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
“So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
“But he answered, ‘It is written,” — This is the first time Jesus will use this expression but it is his introduction to his answer to each of the three temptations or tests. Each reply is a quotation from Deuteronomy, the Book of the Law. Chapters 6–8 refer to the importance of being nourished by the word of God.
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” — Jesus does not deny the importance of fundamental basic daily needs but he points out that there is something more important which he has been sent to proclaim, namely the word of God. This is what gives the real fundamental basic daily need. This is Jesus’ mission, as he says in St. John’s Gospel: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” (Jn. 4: 34). Man needs this word to live.
This is the fundamental mission also of the Church.
Verses 5–7: Second Temptation
“Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” — This second temptation does not take place in the wilderness but in Jerusalem, the “holy city”, on the “pinnacle of the Temple”. Again it is a temptation about his power, this time to produce a sign. Later the scribes and Pharisees will challenge him to produce a sign: “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Mt. 12: 38–42).
This temptation flows from the first where Jesus was asked to produce food. God had supplied food to the Israelites in the wilderness during the Exodus. When God gave the Israelites manna they demanded water. God gave it to them (Nm. 20: 1–13; Ex. 17: 1–7). And [Moses] called the name of the place Massah [‘testing’] and Meribah [‘quarrel’], because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the proof [test] by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”
“and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” — Once again, as in the first temptation, the tempter begins with “If you are the Son of God”. His intention is the same as in the first.
What the tempter asks is that Jesus endanger his life unnecessarily to make his Father, through the angels, protect him and let it be clearly seen that Jesus is his beloved Son. The tempter was really trying to manipulate by testing God the Father, as the Israelites did in the Exodus when, having received the manna, they demanded water.
This time the tempter quotes the word of God (Ps. 91: 11–12) to support his point.
“Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” — Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy once again (Dt. 6: 16). He claims that the devil is testing God, making a demand which God did not promise to fulfil.
God is tested when he is asked to do something definite, normally spectacular, by people who do not trust him and do not seek him with sincerity of heart. (Ws. 1: 1–4).
Verses 8–11: Third Temptation
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” — This third temptation takes place most likely outside the wilderness. It is not stated where the mountain was located.
Jesus was shown “all the kingdoms of the world” and their wealth. The devil claims that he owns all these. Jesus says that the devil is “the ruler of the world” (Jn. 12: 30; 16: 11). Nevertheless “he has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (Jn. 12: 30–31).
The devil offered the entire world to Jesus if he would worship him. What the devil asked Jesus to do is what the Israelites did in the wilderness during the Exodus: they bowed down and worshipped false gods (Nm. 25; Ez. 20: 18–26).
After his resurrection, as, on another mountain (Mt. 28: 16) from which he ascended into heaven, Jesus stated “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt. 28: 18; Ph. 2: 8–11). It was given to him by his Father, not by the devil.
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Begone, Satan! for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ Then the devil left him,” — Jesus addresses his tempter by name, “Satan”. He has no doubt who is giving him advice as to how to fulfil his mission.
Jesus commands the devil to depart and in the power of Jesus’ word, he is banished. Later there is a parallel scene when Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from being crucified. His reply was “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mt. 16: 23). Peter, like the devil, tried to re–direct Jesus from doing his Father’s will.
For the third time Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy (6: 13) showing that he depends on the word of God and obeys it perfectly. He will not worship, nor in anyway serve anyone or anything but the one, true God. This is the first commandment of the Law.
Verse 11: Angels minister
“and behold, angels came and ministered to him.” — God, with his angels, was never far from Jesus in his temptations. He was always ready to help, as required. He was not going to prevent the temptations because they were meant to strengthen and confirm Jesus in his vocation. This is the Good News for all disciples in their testings.
The following are some points on the season of Lent which Pope John Paul shared with the Church. They are listed here without comment and taken out of the document which the Holy Father wrote. They are presented here as starters for personal reflections.
- The season of Lent which we are about to observe is yet another gift from God, who wants to help us to rediscover ourselves as his sons and daughters.
- Lent is the favourable time to offer to the Lord sincere thanks for the wonders he has done for humanity in every age, and especially in the Redemption when he did not spare his own Son.
- God himself invites us to undertake a journey of penance and inner purification in order to renew our faith. He calls us ceaselessly to himself, and whenever we experience the defeat inflicted by sin he shows us the way back to his house, where we find again that unique loving care which he has lavished on us in Christ.
- The Lenten journey prepares us for the celebration of Christ’s Passover, the mystery of our salvation.
- Through faith, we know that the Paschal Mystery [the death and resurrection of Jesus] has already been accomplished in Christ; but it has still to be accomplished fully in each of us. Lent therefore directs our gaze beyond the present time, beyond history, beyond the horizon of this world, towards perfect and eternal communion with the Most Holy Trinity.
- Lent invites us to overcome the temptation of seeing the realities of this world as definitive and to recognize that “our homeland is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). This helps us to renew our sense that God is the Father who in the beloved Son shares with us his own life.
- The experience of the Father’s love urges Christians to give of themselves to others, obeying a logic of service and solidarity in openness to their brothers and sisters. Still today we see immense areas in which the work of Christians must bring to bear the charity of God. New forms of poverty and the pressing questions which trouble many hearts await a concrete and appropriate response. Those who are lonely, those on the margins of society, the hungry, the victims of violence, those who have no hope must be able to experience, in the Church’s loving care, the tenderness of the Heavenly Father who, from the very beginning of the world, has kept every individual in mind in order to fill each one with his blessings.
- If we live Lent with our eyes fixed on the Father, it becomes a unique time of charity, manifested in our spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Our thoughts go especially to those excluded from the banquet of everyday consumerism. There are many like Lazarus who knock on the door of society — all those who have no share in the material benefits which progress has brought. There are situations of persistent misery which cannot but impinge upon the conscience of Christians, reminding them of their duty to address these situations both as individuals and as a community.