The Temptation of Jesus

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It’s an odd story. John the Baptist has just baptized Jesus. God has just spoken from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” We would expect that the next item on the agenda would be the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Instead, we read that the Spirit of God leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. That’s strange. Why is Jesus subjected to testing in the wilderness by the Devil immediately following His baptism and immediately prior to the beginning of His ministry and the calling of His disciples? Is it merely to provide a moral example of endurance for believers? Or is there something more going on?

If we keep in mind the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we recall that the coming age was often depicted in terms of a “new exodus” (see, for example, Hos. 2:14–15; Isa. 10:24–26; 11:15–16; Jer. 16:14–15). The writing prophets wrote in the centuries before, during, and after the exile. The pre-exilic prophets warned Israel and Judah that continued rebellion against God would result in judgment, culminating in exile from the land. They also looked beyond the exile to a time of restoration. The exilic prophets maintained this forward- looking perspective, and they looked back to the original exodus from Egypt to find the imagery needed to depict the coming restoration. When we turn to the gospel of Matthew, we find that he subtly draws on this prophetic theme in his depiction of the early life of Jesus. In the early chapters of Matthew, we find that experiences in the life of Jesus echo experiences in the life of Moses and in the early history of Israel.

Matthew’s opening chapter presents Jesus as the culmination of the Old Testament prophetic hopes. He is the Son of Abraham, the promised seed through whom blessing would come to all nations. He is the son of David, the one to whom was promised an eternal kingdom. His genealogy is divided into three sections of fourteen generations. The first section ends at the time of David, at which point the kingdom was established. The second section ends at the time of the exile, at which point the kingdom was taken away. The third section ends with Jesus, indicating that at this time the kingdom of God will be restored.

After Jesus’ birth, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream warning him to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus because Herod is seeking to kill the child. These events remind the reader of Pharaoh’s attempts to kill the infant Moses. Joseph flees to Egypt where the family remains until the death of Herod. This is said to fulfill Hosea 11:1, which reads: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Since Hosea 11:1 refers to Israel’s original exodus from Egypt, how is Jesus’ flight to Egypt a “fulfillment” of the prophecy? In its context, Hosea 11:1 is part of a prophecy that looks back at the original exodus in order to point forward to a new exodus. Hosea promises that despite the coming exile, God will restore his people (Hos. 11:11). In Matthew’s use of Hosea’s prophecy, a couple of points are made. First, Jesus’ flight from Israel is parallel to Moses’ flight from Egypt. Israel has, in a sense, become like Egypt. In the second place, Matthew points to Hosea 11 to indicate that with Jesus the time of the promised new exodus has begun. The day of salvation has dawned. 

But why is the Devil so prominent in this testing? The Devil is the ancient archenemy of God. It was he who tempted Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:1–7). Behind the scenes of redemptive history lies the conflict between God and Satan. After Adam and Eve sinned, God proclaimed judgment on the Devil who tempted them. God said to the Serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” 

Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness continues the conflict. The first Adam had faced the temptations of Satan in a bountiful garden and failed. The second Adam faces the temptations of Satan in a desolate wilderness and succeeds. He succeeds where Adam failed because He trusts the word of God. Satan twisted God’s word in his tempting of Adam and Eve and caused them to doubt. He twists God’s word in his tempting of Jesus, but Jesus does not falter.

The significance of this is that Jesus, like Adam, acted as a representative head. The failure of Adam brought sin and death on the human race (Rom. 5). In order to be our Savior, it was necessary for Jesus to live a life of complete obedience to God. His sinlessness was absolutely necessary for our salvation. In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted like Adam, but did not sin (Heb. 4:15). 

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