The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, and the devil tempts him – Matthew 4:1-11 – which we are studying for Sunday, February 2. This means we’re finally out of 1 Kings 8, for which hallelujah! [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this week’s text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We might think of Matthew’s gospel as the one that emphasizes Jesus’s fulfillment of Hebrew scripture; that emphasizes Jesus’s Jewish context; that makes connections with wisdom and wisdom literature; that is structured as long teaching passages interspersed with narrative.

This week’s text is in the opening narrative. This runs from Matthew 1 through the end of Matthew 4, starting with genealogy, the infancy narrative that features Joseph, wise men from the East, the massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, John the Baptist as the voice crying in the wilderness and denouncing the brood of vipers fleeing from the wrath to come and not being worthy to carry the sandals of the one coming after him, Jesus’s baptism, Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness (this week), Jesus hearing that John was arrested, fulfilling the prophet Isaiah, calling disciples Peter, Andrew, James and John, teaching, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, and healing the sick.

All that leads up to the Sermon on the Mount.

So our text this week is one of the earliest narrative events of the gospel.

The other synoptic gospels tell this story, too. (Mark 1:12-13 is very short and doesn’t include the specific temptations; Luke 4:1-13 is more like Matthew’s version, but switches the order of the Temple and the kingdoms, mentions the devil departing “until an opportune time,” and doesn’t have any angels.)

A lot of Biblical stories happen in the wilderness or the desert, e.g. Moses and the burning bush, the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, or the Israelites after not being able to enter the land of Canaan the first time, the prophet Elijah going off to hear God in a sound of sheer silence, … and in Matthew 14, Jesus feeding 5,000+ people.

This text is coming up in the lectionary this year (A) as the gospel for the First Sunday in Lent, along with Genesis 3 (go figure), Psalm 32 & Romans 5:12-19. The parallels come around annually in years B & C – this IS the story for the First Sunday in Lent – so we will know it well if we are regular churchgoers, will have heard plenty of preaching on it, and will likely have strong liturgical associations. Let’s just be aware of that.

CLOSER READING: The actors in v1 are “the Spirit” and “the devil”. Our study Bible points out that the verb used here – tempting or testing – is used elsewhere in Matthew for the action of Pharisees and Sadducees, and Jesus always replies with scripture.

[The word translated “led” here is not the same word used in the prayer Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:9-13, by the way.]

“Forty days and forty nights” should probably remind us of Moses (Exodus 34:28), who is also in the wilderness and who also fasts that whole time. Though it could also remind us of Elijah (1 Kings 19:8). Or Noah (Genesis 6:12).

In v3 the actor is identified as “the tempter,” or “the one tempting.” We identify the tempter with “the devil” since “the devil” acts again in v5 and v8.

The conditional “If you are the Son of God” appears in v3 and again in v5 as the rationale for the action the tempter suggests.

Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.

The devil can quote scripture too. [Maybe a good thing to remember.] In v6, it’s Psalm 91:11-12. [Notice he leaves out Psalm 91:13!]

Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16. Which, if we think about it, especially from a Trinitarian perspective, could be taken as a threat, or at least a warning. The devil shouldn’t be doing this.

There is something about showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” and making it conditional on falling down before the devil and worshipping him, that seems frankly pointless. Because who would expect Jesus, of all people, to fall for that?

[So maybe we are not getting the whole story here. Or maybe it is here more for our benefit: “Remember, we don’t prefer the kingdoms of the world and their glory to God.”]

If the devil is telling the truth – a big “if,” isn’t that? – then the kingdoms of the world and their glory are in his gift. That’s something to think about, too. [Remember: we renounce evil, and its power in the world. Which it does really have. In the world.]

Jesus replies by telling Satan to go away – which, assuming it implies that he could have done that earlier, gives us something else to wonder about – and by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13.

Satan complies, angels appear.

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In some ways, this is a very straightforward story. It has a simple structure. It’s clear. There are no tough Greek words. It’s not ambiguous at all.

In another way, though, it’s mysterious.

If we ask ourselves what is happening here, what it tells us about God and about humanity, what we are supposed to notice, what we can learn from this … we could think about that for a long time.

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mosaic angel representing St. Matthew the Evangelist