The Temptation of Jesus in the Desert 

Exegetical Study of Matthew 4:1 – 11

By Simon Brummer (MDiv)

Part 3: Matthew 4:1 – 11: The second and third temptation, and final considerations

In the first part of our exegetical study on the temptation of Jesus in the desert as portrayed in the gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 4:1 – 11), we looked at some underlying references to the Jewish scriptures which provide the framework for this biblical passage (most prominently, the references to the number 40 and the concept of being led into the desert). 

In the second part of our study, we took a closer look at the underlying references to the Hebrew Bible regarding the specific temptations that are described in the narrative and discussed the first trial of Jesus in the desert. 

In the third and last part of this exegetical study, we will take a closer look at the second and third temptation in the narrative before we will end with some final reflections. 

The second temptation (see Matthew 4:5 – 7) revolves around the idea of testing God. As we can see in Jesus’ reply to the devil (verse 7), this temptation contains an allusion to the people of Israel who tested God in the desert. Jesus’ quote from Deuteronomy 6:16 specifically refers to the incident at Massah which revolved around the water the Israelites wanted to have (see Exodus 17). In the context of this passage in the Hebrew Bible, the notion of “tempting God” (see Exodus 17:2) implies the idea of doubting God’s presence and good will toward his people (see NET Bible note). 

In the narrative in Matthew 4, Jesus is tempted by the devil to throw himself down from the temple to demonstrate that he is the son of God. Based on Jesus response in verse 7, we can assume that for Jesus, throwing himself from the temple to be caught by the angels would have been a statement of doubt regarding God’s goodwill towards him and regarding God’s continues presence in his life. Moreover, it would have resembled Israel’s behaviour in the desert where they tempted God. Jesus, however, decided not to test God. 

The third and final temptation (see Matthew 4:8 – 10) builds the climax of the exchange between the devil and Jesus. Satan does not ask for signs anymore that would proof that Jesus is the son of God but offers him power over the earth instead if he falls down and worships him (verse 9). This alludes to the worship of idols by the people of Israel in the desert, most prominently illustrated at the incident with the golden calf in Exodus 32. The Israelites were unfaithful to their own covenant God. Jesus, however, was not willing to worship anyone else but God. His allegiance to God was steadfast and clear, which is stressed by his strong response to the devil (see Matthew 4:10). 

Interestingly, in verse 11, it says that angels came and ministered Jesus after the devil left. It is not clear to what this alludes to, but there is certainly a connection both to the preceding temptations and the subsequent development of the narrative in Matthew 4. Carson observed the following:

“The angelic help is not some passing blessing but a sustained one […] Jesus had refused to relieve his hunger by miraculously turning stones to bread; now he is fed supernaturally. […] He had refused to throw himself off the temple heights in the hope of angelic help; now angels feed him. He had refused to take a shortcut to inherit the kingdom of the world; now he fulfills Scripture by beginning his ministry and announcing the kingdom in Galilee of the Gentiles (Mt 4:12–17).” 

In conclusion, what stands out in the narrative in Matthew 4:1-11 is that in all these different areas in which Jesus was tempted, he proved himself to be faithful, in contrast to the people of Israel in the desert. Where Israel, described as the son of God in Ex 4:22, was unfaithful, Jesus, the son of God (see Mt 3:17), proved himself to be faithful towards God. Hence, for the author(s) of the gospel of Matthew, it was essential for their readers to see both the connection and disconnection to Israel’s story when it comes to the person of Jesus. For them, Jesus is the one, true and faithful son of God. 

Bibliography

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2005.

  1. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 114-115.