The Temptations of Christ in Their OT Context

It is so nice to catch context that was unperceived before, especially for me in cases where I thought the context was clear.  I had noticed before that Jesus’ three Scripture quotations in response to Satan’s temptations were found within a span of 3 chapters, Deuteronomy 6 and 8.  It has always seemed to be the perfect case study for encouraging devotional reading (in the Bible) each morning.  It seems as though this particular portion of Scripture was fresh on Jesus’ mind, as though He had just read it, when Satan came to tempt Him.  But as I read through the Deuteronomy side as opposed to beginning with Matthew, and with the context of Exodus-Numbers fresh on my own mind, the temptation references resonate even more deeply with me.

Temptation 1: Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread,” Satan says.  Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” I do not know the Pentateuch like Jesus did, so this verse would not have come to mind for me.  But Jesus gets straight to the point, with complete knowledge of the context of what He says, yet speaking only what needs to be said.  Here is the fullness of Deuteronomy 8:3, a part of Moses’ “farewell address” to the following generation of Israelites, who would enter and possess the Promise Land:

He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.

Until today, I had not caught that Jesus was not merely referencing food in general, but He was pointing to the specific example of the 40 years of manna in the Wilderness.  And I had not fully pieced together this lesson from the manna, that God was not simply taking care of the dietary needs of His children because they needed to eat, but He was using this situation to teach them that He holds their very lives in His hand–perhaps more fittingly, in His mouth.  He speaks either life or death over them, and so it is.  Should God speak and withhold the manna for a couple of months, all of His people will perish.  Through their dependence on food He is teaching them dependence on Him.  Jesus, being the perfect Son of God, knows intimately what it is to depend completely on the Father.  And so He speaks these words to Satan so that ignorant believers of days yet to be–people like me–might piece together the lesson of the Wilderness: Our livelihoods depend completely on God, whether we recognize it or not.

Following the Deuteronomy context a little farther, we read in 8:7-20 Moses’ synopsis of the issue for those who will enter the Land.  God brought them through scarcity in the Wilderness before they reached Land of Plenty so that they might know, believe, and remember in the place of plenty that their lives depend entirely on God.  Here is a piece of vv.11-14: “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God…otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses…and when your herds and your flocks multiply…then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God….” And then we reach the crux of it in vv.16-18:

In the wilderness He fed you manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that he might test you, to do good for you in the end.  Otherwise, you may say in your heart, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.  But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is to this day.

Jesus, in His beautifully terse response to Satan, is pointing us back to the fuller lesson of the Wilderness in Exodus 16.  We do not sustain ourselves by our own labor in a resource-rich world.  We are sustained only by the Word of God proceeding from the mouth of God.

Only now do I more fully catch the beauty of God’s composition of Scripture (He knows what He is doing).  Of course, the location of Jesus’ temptation makes the context all the more poignant: He is in the Wilderness.  Israel fails the test of the Wilderness; Jesus passes with flying colors by complete reliance on “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

Temptation 2: Testing God (Matthew 4:5-7)

Again, until now I missed the context of Jesus’ words.  Satan this time attempts to use Scripture against Jesus, “Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, “He will command His angels concering You” and “On their hands they will bear You up, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.”‘” Jesus’ response, again, cuts right to the heart, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord Your God to the test'”–a good general life principle.  We should not try God’s patience, despite its exceeding length.  But Jesus is taking us deeper than this surface-level imperative.  He is challenging our knowledge of Scripture.  Obviously, He knows that Psalm 91, which Satan quoted, speaks of Him, and that not a hair on His head will be touched apart from the will of the Father, but Jesus’ objective in this temptation is not simply to reveal His power and the special love that the Father has for Him.  He is taking this moment, in the midst of His temptation, to teach ignorant believers like me more about how we should relate to God.

Jesus’ words come from Deuteronomy 6:16 and are only the first half of the verse, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.” The lesson is that we should not test God, but the context for our lesson is what happened at Massah.  Massah may not ring a bell for you, but its partner name Meribah may.  The two place names seem to be used interchangeably similarly to the way the American Southeast may be referred to as the South (historic-geographical), Dixie (historic, sometimes racial), the Bible Belt (religious), or the Red States (political).  Each of these names bears a different connotation for the same area.  Massah means “test;” Meribah means “quarrel.” Moses ascribed both of these names to the place of Exodus 17 where the oh-so-quick-to-complain children of Israel began to grumble about a lack of water, quarreling with Moses and testing God.  God instructed Moses to strike a rock, from which He would deliver water.  In spite of their attitudes, God did indeed provide for His people, but this event proved symptomatic of a general faithlessness that would characterize the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the Wilderness, on account of which they would die in unbelief outside of the Promised Land.

Jesus understands the events of Massah and Meribah.  The lesson is clear: Do not test God out of mere selfishness.  In His short reponse to Satan, Jesus shows us that instead of faithlessly testing God we should walk by faith in response to His commands.

Temptation 3: Worshiping Another “God” (Matthew 4:8-11)

For me, I think this may be Jesus’ most instructive response to Satan’s temptations. “Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.'” Thank God it was Jesus instead of me in this place.  My tendency, perhaps yours as well, is to perform a quick cost-benefit analysis before making a decision.  In my case it would probably go something like this: Pro – I receive authority over all mankind; Con – I pay some lip service to the one offering the authority.  Decision – Yes, please.  And I would be dead wrong.

This temptation to honor another god hearkens back to three stories from the book of Daniel that many of us learned as children, involving Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  The first is in Daniel 1.  The four young men skipped out on the mandate to eat the choice food from king’s table, which could have cost them their lives.  They trusted that God would remember them as they sought to live in accordance with His commands in their eating.  God came through for them.  The second is in Daniel 3.  King Nebuchadnezzar set up an image that was 90 feet tall and then commanded everyone to worship the image.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had become administrators over Babylon under Daniel by God’s provision, refused to bow down and worship the image, which meant they would be flung into a fiery furnace.  In Daniel 3:17-18 the three men cried out, “…Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” What happened?  Of course, the God who is able to deliver them did so.  And, in an interesting turn of events, a fourth man appeared in the furnace with them, one “like a son of God.” Some have speculated this was in fact the pre-incarnate Christ, which is interesting in relation to the third temptation of Matthew 4.  The third story is in Daniel 6, where a new mandate is laid down that no man may pray to any other “god” outside of the new king, Darius the Mede.  Daniel had committed himself to praying to God while facing Jerusalem three times per day, and he would not break his commitment to God.  On account of his commitment to the one true God, he was thrown into a lions’ den with no escape humanly possible.  God sent an angel (Jesus again?) to shut the mouths of the lions so that Daniel would be unharmed.  These three accounts of four devout men from the book of Daniel all point to a unified precommitment on their parts…

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
-The first and second commandments from Exodus 20, quoted verbatim in Deuteronomy 5.

Jesus quickly dismisses Satan’s offer of earthly dominion with an appeal to Deuteronomy 6:13, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only,'” a derivative of the first of the 10 commandments.  In our fallen minds the fullness of the world sounds bountiful because we vastly underestimate the majesty of the King of Heaven.  Jesus, Son of God, does not.  He knows that the treasures of this world fall far short of the surpassing worth of heaven, so He instructs us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20a)….” Our right response, observing Jesus as He pushes temptation aside, is rightly: “Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus; You can have all this world, Just give me Jesus.”

Summation of References

  • Temptation 1
    • Located in Matthew 4:3-4
    • Quoting Deuteronomy 8:3
    • With Exodus 16 in mind
  • Temptation 2
    • Located in Matthew 4:5-7
    • Quoting Deuteronomy 6:16
    • With Exodus 17 in mind
  • Temptation 3
    • Located in Matthew 4:8-10
    • Quoting Deuteronomy 6:13
    • With Exodus 20; Daniel 1, 3, 6 in mind
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