The True Son

There is something special about the way Matthew organizes his Gospel – particularly the first eight chapters or so. I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but it is worth noting again:

As Matthew proclaims the truths about Jesus’ life and ministry to his readers, he goes out of his way to hold Jesus up as a sort of “New Israel”.

In particular he is saying: Israel, like Adam, was God’s beloved son (cf. Matt. 2:15); but Israel, like Adam, failed to live up to this standard. Who, then (this is a question we are meant to ask ourselves as we read the Old Testament) could live up to this standard? Here is Matthew’s answer: Only Jesus.

Take a moment and consider where we have come so far in Matthew.

  • Jesus (like Israel) was threatened by a king who ordered the murder of infants (Matt. 2; cf. Ex. 1). 
  • Jesus (like Israel) was rescued by God and sent into Egypt, and eventually rescued out of Egypt (Matt. 2; cf. Ex. 13).
  • Jesus (like Israel) passed through the waters (Matt. 3:13-17; cf. Ex. 14).

Now, at the beginning of chapter 4, Jesus has entered into the “wilderness”, where He is “led by the Spirit” (just as the Israelites were led into the wilderness by the Spirit of God in the form of a cloud and a pillar of fire) and will remain for 40 days of testing (just as Israel was tested for 40 years in the wilderness).

These connections play an important role as the story progresses. Jesus is approached by “the Tempter”, where He is “tested”. And what we find is that the nature of these temptations are really the same temptations that were continually being put in front of Israel.

The Temptation
“If you are the Son of God,” says the devil to introduce the first two of the three temptations (remember that this story follows Jesus’ baptism, where God declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” – 3:17). In other words, “If you really are the true Israel; if you really are the true Adam, then you will pass the tests that those previous sons of God failed.”

The first test is physical. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and, as Matthew observes, “He was hungry” (probably an understatement). So the devil finds His opportunity. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3).

The Israelites had likewise been hungry in the wilderness, but their response was to grumble – even after God offered the miraculous provision of quail and manna (See Exodus 16).

The second test relates to Jesus’ status. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” After all, the devil is saying, if you are who you say you are, then why not prove it? Why not publicly demonstrate this so that they whole world will see? They were, after all, standing atop the temple at this point – not just a high place, but a very public place. But as He did later on the cross, Jesus was willing to remain humble for the sake of His mission.

Finally, the devil offers a third test. He “showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’”

The irony, of course, is that Jesus knew that all of these kingdoms, and all of this glory truly did belong to Him. The devil was simply offering Jesus the opportunity to speed things up a bit – to avoid all the coming suffering and death and to take this kingdom without the “messy” part. But, Jesus knew, it was precisely the “messy” part that would give Him true authority and power. Jesus would suffer and die in order to conquer death, to defeat the devil, and to take up His throne.

So Jesus resisted these temptations. But how He resisted them is fascinating. 

The Response
Jesus does not respond to the devil with lengthy, theological reflections on the nature of temptation or insights into human nature or theology – He responds by quoting Scripture. And not just any Scripture, he quotes directly from the book of Deuteronomy; directly from Moses’ retelling of Israel’s own temptation in the wilderness.

As the devil tempts Jesus with miraculous food, Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 – part of a larger passage that reads:

“And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna… that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:2-3).

Jesus has clearly been in God’s word during the time of His own testing, feeding on and being nourished by it. He has no need for the devil’s offer.

Jesus’ response to the second and third temptations are similar. He quotes from a section of Deuteronomy two chapters earlier, from the retelling of the Law – and, particularly, from Moses’ teachings on the Ten Commandments: “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by His name you shall swear… You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you did at Massah…” (Deut. 6:13, 16).

Throughout this encounter, Jesus is speaking into the history of Israel, to show that God had faithfully given His people the tools to resist temptation, to remain faithful. And while the entire Old Testament is the story of sons of God (Adam, Israel) failing to live up to expectations – constantly giving into temptation. Jesus here proves to be the one true and faithful son. He alone proves worthy of the title, “Son of God”.