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The temptation of Jesus
Matthew chapter 4, verses 1-11
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and the words of approval spoken by the Father, Jesus faced the temptations of the devil. Jesus had come into the world to overcome Satan for us, and at the very beginning of his public ministry he confronted Satan. Although Matthew tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, it is also clear that Jesus went willingly. There never was any conflict between Jesus’ will and the will of the Father or the Holy Spirit.
Every temptation is a test, and the person being tested will either pass or fail. Temptations come to us in many different forms. We think first of anything that tries to lead us into sin, such as opportunities for immoral conduct or for thievery. But we must also include unpleasant experiences like pain, suffering, illness, disappointment, poverty, and bereavement. Such experiences may cause us to question God’s wisdom or love. Sometimes success, good health, physical strength, intelligence, talent, or good looks may be even more serious temptations because we are not likely to recognize them as tests that we may not be able to handle without falling into serious sin of one kind or another. If we meet all kinds of temptations properly, humbly trusting in God’s promises and relying on his mercy, God will surely enable us to endure them. And he will do even more; he will cause them to result in blessings for us.
The temptations Jesus faced were serious efforts by the devil to rob the world of its Redeemer. Satan had been successful in leading the first Adam into sin so that a Redeemer was necessary. Now he attacked the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in an effort to frustrate his work of redemption.
Satan had been created as one of God’s holy angels, but now he was a fallen angel. He had rebelled against God and had been cast out of heaven together with many other angels who followed him in his rebellion. We cannot say exactly how or when this took place, nor can we explain why God permitted it to happen and then did not utterly destroy Satan and his evil angels. The important thing for us to remember is that God is still much wiser and more powerful than Satan, and Satan cannot overpower us as long as we place our trust in our Lord and Savior.
The Greek word used for the devil here is diabolos (from which we get the word diabolical). The meaning of this word is slanderer or liar. The devil is not just a clever liar or an habitual liar; he is a constant liar. He is the father of lies. He invented the very idea of lying and told the very first lie. He makes wonderful promises, as he did to Eve (“You will not surely die” [Genesis chapter 3, verse 4]), but he has never kept a single one of them, and he never will. If he does occasionally speak a few words of truth, he distorts them or misapplies them or takes them out of context or immediately proceeds to contradict them.
We know these things about the devil, yet we keep on falling for his lies. He tells us that life will be so much more enjoyable if we disobey God’s commandments. So he persuades us to lie and cheat and steal and commit adultery, and he tells us there is nothing wrong with coveting and lust and filthy speech and misusing God’s name—as long as we don’t actually do something to harm someone else. His lies lead to all kinds of trouble and sorrow and grief and regrets. Yet he convinces people that in their case it will be different. But in every single case the devil’s promises are not intended for our good or benefit. His one and only goal is to make or keep people separate from God and to draw them into the eternal torments of hell with himself.
As we consider the temptations Jesus endured, a disturbing question comes to mind: What if Jesus had given in and sinned? This would have made it impossible for him to redeem us. But could this possibly have happened? The answer is that sin was impossible for him as the Son of God. So the outcome was never in doubt. Yet this was a real temptation and struggle for Jesus. In the final analysis, we must humbly admit that the matter is beyond our comprehension.
Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights. He had nothing at all to eat. Since Exodus chapter 34, verse 28 tells us that Moses had neither food nor water for 40 days on Mount Sinai, it seems likely that Jesus too had neither food nor drink during his fast. Only then was he hungry. During the 40 days the Father had sustained him. During those 40 days Jesus faced constant temptation from the devil, although we have no specific information about those temptations.
It is interesting to note how frequently the number 40 occurs in the Bible. The great flood began with a downpour that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. The prophet Elijah once fasted for 40 days. And the prophet Jonah threatened that the city of Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days if the people did not repent. Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after Easter. We may not be able to recognize any common theme that would apply to all these 40s, even though there is much speculation about such numbers in Bible commentaries, but we can see that God carries out his plans in definite, limited periods of time. He is in control of the affairs of his church and of the world, and his schedule will be carried out.
When the tempter said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, . . .” this did not necessarily mean that he questioned the fact or that he imagined he could get Jesus to doubt the fact. Satan might simply have been suggesting: Since you are the Son of God, you don’t have to go hungry. I can give you a simple solution. Just turn some of these desert stones into bread. The Israelites were fed with manna, miraculous food they picked off the ground, for 40 years. So there is no reason for you not to provide for yourself in this miraculous way.
But there was a reason for Jesus to turn down this suggestion. He was tempted to use his divine power to relieve his physical hunger and not to rely on the Father, who had already miraculously sustained him for 40 days. During his entire ministry, Jesus never once used his divine power for his personal benefit. Miracles he performed were always for the benefit of others. He came to live in humiliation as a man among men, and that was the way he lived his entire earthly life.
Verse 4 contains the first recorded words of Jesus after his baptism. It is significant that he quoted the written Word of God from Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 3. He used the same sword of the Spirit that we have for dealing with temptations. He stated that obeying the Father was more important than getting food for his body. On another occasion Jesus told his disciples, when they urged him to eat something, “My food . . . is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John chapter 4, verse 34).
It is interesting to note the contrast between the temptation of Adam in Eden and the temptation of Christ in the desert. In both cases Satan used something to eat in his efforts to awaken distrust in God. He succeeded in Eden, a land of plenty, where there was no unsatisfied hunger. But he failed in the barren wilderness when Jesus was extremely hungry. The temptations and sufferings that Jesus endured throughout his earthly life were greatly magnified versions of the trials we endure. Yet he never faltered, though we keep on falling into sin. He then willingly suffered the punishment we deserved for all our failures, and he gave us the credit and the blessings for all his successes. He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. With his stripes we are healed (Isaiah chapter 53). He died so that we may live.
For the second great temptation, Satan took Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. This literally happened, even though we cannot explain exactly how it took place. It is also self-evident that Jesus went willingly, for Satan had only limited power, and he could not compel Jesus to do anything against his will. This highest point of the temple complex may have been on the east side overlooking the Kidron Valley. The historian Josephus tells us that the drop there was some 450 feet, and no one could possibly survive a fall from there without divine protection.
In this case Satan also quoted Scripture. It was as though he wanted to wrest the sword of the Spirit from Jesus’ hands and use it to attack him.
He quoted Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12. These words seemed to fit the situation exactly, and Satan was trying to tell Jesus that he would be demonstrating lack of trust in the Father if he did not accept this challenge. But Satan was subtly twisting God’s promise.
This is not a promise of unlimited angelic protection under all circumstances. It is rather an assurance of the Lord’s protection while his people go about their God-given responsibilities from day to day. Martin Luther observed, “If the devil does not succeed in robbing us of our confidence in God, he will go to the other extreme and try to make us cocksure and much too daring.” To tempt God in such a way is not an act of faith. It rather is a demonstration of doubt.
The first temptation was intended to produce distrust; the second, false trust. Jesus responded again by quoting Scripture—only he applied it correctly: “Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah” (Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 16). Massah means “testing.” There the Israelites had put the Lord to the test by demanding that he provide them with water. The people were almost ready to stone Moses because they did not have water for themselves and their livestock. Moses appealed to the Lord, and the Lord instructed him to take his staff and strike the rock at Horeb. Immediately water gushed out and satisfied the thirst of all the people and their animals (Exodus chapter 17, verses 1-7).
At Massah the people put God to the test by demanding a miracle that he had not promised them. All his previous miracles in connection with their journey out of Egypt and through the Red Sea should have convinced the people that God could and would continue to provide for their needs. Their demands showed that they did not trust God. They, rather, tempted God.
Yet, through the prophet Malachi the Lord invites, almost challenges, us to put him to the test. He says to us, “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it’” (Malachi chapter 3, verse 10).
The difference between the two situations is, of course, God’s clear command. He commands us to bring our generous offerings to him and promises that he will reward us in return graciously and abundantly. When we confidently do as God says and boldly call upon him to keep his promises, we are not tempting God. We are exercising and expressing faith in him and his Word. This is pleasing to God.
It is important that we keep this distinction in mind. Christians sometimes unknowingly follow the example that Satan set and sinfully tempt God. Sometimes Christians needlessly expose themselves to danger. Then they excuse or defend their actions by saying, “I believe that when your time is up, it’s up. In the meantime God will surely keep me safe.” That is tempting God. In such a way people may actually forfeit some of the days and years that God was willing to grant them in this life. We must never confuse fatalism with Christian faith. Fatalism is the attitude that everything is preordained and nothing we do will make any difference. Christian faith trusts God to make everything work out for our good and blessing despite our failures and mistakes. It includes the responsibility of being conscientious caretakers of all the Lord’s blessings, including the days and years he allots to us.
After Satan’s first and second temptations failed, he proceeded to the third and final temptation in the wilderness. He offered to make a deal with Jesus. In a way that is not explained and that we cannot understand, Satan took Jesus to a very high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, “All this I will give you . . . if you will bow down and worship me.” Satan knew of the Father’s promise to the Son in the second psalm: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (verse 8). But Satan claimed the authority of God the Father for himself, and he pretended that he was willing to make matters much easier for Jesus. Jesus would not have to suffer and die to redeem the world. He would only have to bow down and worship Satan once out in the desert where nobody else would even be aware of it.
Of course, Satan was lying again. He could not have kept his promise even if he wanted to. Satan’s proposition was nothing but clever lies from beginning to end. The shortcut that Satan offered to Jesus would have been a dead end.
What a tragedy it is that people still fall for Satan’s lies. He misleads all of us from time to time. In spite of our better knowledge, he convinces us that we’ll be better off, wealthier, happier, more successful, if we disobey God’s commandments and follow his suggestions. He loves to call our attention to people who have openly done exactly that and appear to have prospered, but he wants us to forget about their eternal fate. It is alarming to note that there seems to be a growing number of people who actually worship Satan, offering him gruesome, bloody sacrifices; displaying Satanic symbols; even calling themselves a church. Thus they despise God’s grace in Christ Jesus and make themselves heirs of eternal damnation in hell.
We may find such forms of satanism repulsive but fail to realize that it is extremely dangerous to dabble in any practices of the occult. Horoscopes, Ouija boards, fortune telling, and the like expose people to the influence of Satan and can have dire consequences for all eternity. A Christian who gets involved in such things—“just for fun”—is guilty of tempting God. “Let your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me,” we need to pray. If that is our sincere prayer, we will want to follow Jesus’ example and say, “Away from me, Satan!” And James assures us, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James chapter 4, verse 7).
Jesus again quoted the Word of God from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only” (alluding to Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 13). Then Satan had to leave, “and angels came and attended him.” They undoubtedly brought him food and drink and, as messengers from the Father, spoke words of encouragement to Jesus.
But Satan did not give up. He kept looking for opportunities to attack. When Jesus spoke to his disciples about his impending suffering and death, for example, Peter rebuked Jesus and insisted that such things must never happen. Peter did not realize it, but he was talking just like Satan, and Jesus clearly told him so. “Jesus . . . said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me’” (chapter 16, verse 23). We are also told that Satan entered into Judas Iscariot before he went out into the darkness to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Peter repented of his sin of rebuking Jesus and of his later sin of denying Jesus three times, but Judas despaired of being forgiven, took his own life, and cast himself into eternal damnation in hell. Hell is the fate of all who succumb to the vicious lies of Satan.
We need to remember that Satan will try to deceive us as long as we live and especially in the hour of our death, but with the power of the Word of God, the sword of the Spirit, we can drive him off and remain safe with our Savior for eternity.
Jesus begins to preach
Matthew chapter 4, verses 12-17
When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
About a year elapsed between the temptation of Jesus in the desert and his return to Galilee. Events of that year are recorded in the first four chapters of the gospel of John. In Judea during those months, Jesus experienced considerable opposition and hostility, and John the Baptist was cast into prison. (We’ll hear more about the circumstances in chapter 14.)
Jesus then withdrew from Judea to Galilee, not only because of the opposition he had been experiencing but primarily because the prophet Isaiah had foretold his Galilean ministry. Nazareth in Galilee had been Jesus’ boyhood home, but now he decided to make the city of Capernaum his home and the headquarters of his work. It was centrally located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and on the road from Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea, in the territory that had been assigned to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali when the Israelites occupied the land under Joshua. Some of Jesus’ relatives and disciples also lived in Capernaum.
Galilee was populated by many Gentiles in addition to the Jews who lived there. Not all of the Canaanites had been driven out when Israel occupied the land. Furthermore, in the eighth century B.C. the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser had taken many Galileans into captivity and had replaced them with Assyrians and other Gentiles. This mixture of Jews and Gentiles had its effect upon the religious life of the people. The God of Israel was not unknown there, but the worship of God had departed considerably from the forms of worship that the Law of Moses called for. The people were “living in darkness,” as Isaiah had foretold.
Darkness symbolizes wickedness, ignorance, and unbelief. Most of the people did not know the way of salvation. But then Jesus, the Light of the world, came to Galilee. He proclaimed the saving truth throughout that land. He attracted huge crowds of people, who followed him from place to place to hear him preach and see him perform miracles.
The message Jesus proclaimed was the same as John the Baptist’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance implies a radical change of heart and mind, followed by a corresponding change in behavior. Jesus’ call to repentance was an invitation as well as a command. The people could not respond positively to that invitation unless the Holy Spirit prompted such a response through the power of the gospel. To repent and believe the gospel is not a decision anyone can make on his own.
The initial enthusiasm of the Galileans did not last for long. Many deserted Jesus when they learned that he was unwilling to be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Finally Jesus pronounced this verdict over the people of Capernaum: “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day” (chapter 11, verse 23). Sodom was synonymous with wickedness, but Jesus said Capernaum deserved a fate worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah experienced (Genesis chapter 19). Their opportunities to know the Savior were greater, for he was bodily present among them and taught in their synagogue and in their streets. That made their guilt in rejecting Christ all the greater and all the more inexcusable. What would you then say about those who grow up in a land of religious liberty, perhaps are even baptized and instructed in God’s Word, and then finally deny the Savior and go their own way?
The calling of the first disciples
Matthew chapter 4, verses 18-22
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
In the first chapter of John, we see how John the Baptist directed his disciples to Jesus, the Lamb of God. Andrew and Peter, who were brothers, immediately followed Jesus. At first this did not involve giving up their occupation as fishermen and being with Jesus full time. Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus now calls them to the apostleship. He is going to instruct and train them to go out and speak to other people about him. Later, when Jesus formally installed all 12 of the apostles, he gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal the sick as they went out in his name (chapter 10, verse 1).
Andrew and Simon Peter had no special qualifications to become Jesus’ apostles. They were fishermen. It is unlikely that they had much formal education, and many incidents during the time they followed Jesus demonstrated that their understanding of spiritual matters was often deficient or even mistaken. Jesus called them, not because they were so good, but because he was so gracious.
They were busy at their occupation when Jesus called them. They were casting a net into the lake, the Sea of Galilee. This evidently was a round net with lead weights attached to the edges. When such a net was thrown skillfully, it would spread out in a circle and sink, enclosing whatever was below it. Usually such a net would be cast from the shore into shallow water.
Peter and Andrew understood exactly what Jesus meant when he said he would make them fishers of men. In their new calling they would still have to be patient and persevering, never knowing for sure what the results of their labors might amount to. They would follow Jesus’ instructions and trust him to bring about the results he had in mind. They would use the “net” that he provided. We call that net the means of grace, the gospel of Christ in Word and sacrament. There is no other power in the whole world that can bring sinners into Christ’s kingdom. Only the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses people of all their sins, and only such cleansed sinners are received into God’s kingdom for time and for eternity.
Peter and Andrew did not have to ask for time to consider Jesus’ invitation. They already knew him as the Messiah, and they regarded Jesus’ invitation as a special privilege to be seized without delay. So they immediately “left their nets and followed him.”
Next, Jesus came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, who were engaged in fishing together with their father, Zebedee. They were in a boat together, preparing their nets for their next fishing expedition. James and John also left everything behind and immediately followed Jesus. There is no indication that their father objected to their leaving him. He could carry on the family fishing business together with other men hired to work for him.
Jesus heals the sick
Matthew chapter 4, verses 23-25
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Verse 23 is a general description of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, which involved much traveling. Wherever he went, Jesus taught in the synagogues and proclaimed the Good News of the kingdom. This Good News we call the gospel of Christ. After making people aware of their sinfulness and their inability to save themselves, Jesus assured them of God’s merciful forgiveness. The long-awaited Messiah was about to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament prophets. The kingdom of God was being established, and Jesus was inviting the people of Galilee, both Jews and Gentiles, to receive the blessings of the kingdom.
We have no way of calculating how many sick people Jesus healed or how many he freed from demon possession. But in all four of the gospels we read repeated references to such miracles performed by Jesus. Some sick people came to him individually. Some were carried to him by friends or relatives. Some came in huge crowds. Some were blind, some deaf, some mute, some paralyzed, some epileptic, some crippled or lame, some leprous, some suffering with a high fever. He healed all of them. In some cases he did not even touch them or see them. And the healings were immediate and complete.
Likewise, no evil spirit could resist his command to leave. Just as he had ordered Satan to leave him after the temptations in the desert, so he ordered Satan’s evil spirits to leave others. We’ll consider specific instances later, as we come to them. Here we have only a general description of Jesus’ work. These miracles did more than help sick and afflicted people; they also testified that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah, for the prophets had foretold that the Messiah would perform exactly such mighty works.
John the Baptist had attracted large crowds of people from far and wide. Now the same thing was happening in Jesus’ ministry. The crowds came, not just from throughout Galilee, but also from the Decapolis, which was a loose federation of ten cities east of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River that included mostly Gentiles. People even came from Jerusalem and Judea. Normally the people from Jerusalem and Judea despised the Galileans as rustic and uncultured, not practicing Jews in the full sense of the word. It was an amazing development that Judeans condescended to go north to Galilee to see Jesus’ miracles and to hear him preach and teach.
This last verse of chapter 4 provides the setting for the Sermon on the Mount, which is recorded in the next three chapters.