In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil following his baptism by John, his own cousin.
But before Jesus can begin his ministry of revealing the Kingdom of God, Jesus must first undergo a series of temptations that will forever define him. He must decide in his own heart, and for the testimony of his followers, what kind of Messiah he will be.
What kind of king and kingdom will Jesus choose? His way then becomes our way. The temptations of Jesus are a matter of our own discipleship.
“Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” 1 John 2:6 (NIV)
In order to understand the temptations, we must see them in conjunction with the previous event. They should not be isolated from Christ’s recent baptism. John the Baptizer recognizes Jesus as the coming king of the promise, the Messiah for Israel. And that’s what he will be.
So, what kind of Messiah will Jesus be for his people?
The temptations of Christ are not just examples of Jesus overcoming sin. They were never meant to be read as examples of Christ experiencing random temptations. The gospel writer sees them as the defining moment for the person and work of Jesus.
“Only as we see what Jesus rejected, can we know what he has affirmed.” Donald Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, 34.
The nature of these three temptations is critically important for seeing what Jesus will not do in his ministry.
Bread from Stone—Kingdom Economics
After fasting forty days and forty nights (a reenactment of Israel’s wilderness wandering), Jesus was tired and hungry. This clearly would have made any proposal appealing to the flesh. Our physical state often affects our spiritual condition.
And this was the point of the fasting. Jesus makes himself completely vulnerable to opposition. It would have certainly been a time of closeness with the Father and a time of great challenge in his humanity against Satan. Jesus must now face his greatest challenges as Messiah.
The devil came to him and said, “If (since) you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus replies, “It is written, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt.4:3-4).
Was Jesus simply tempted to eat because he was hungry? What does this have to do with the baptism event and Jesus’ coming Kingdom ministry?
Jesus embodies Israel and reveals the nature of his divine mission. The connection to Israel’s history and Christ’s words of total submission to God is obvious. So, what does this have to do with his kingship and Kingdom?
There were two classes of people in the Roman Empire: upper and lower class. Evidence suggests that 90% of the citizens were of the lower class. Most folks were unbelievably poor.
Since Jesus is the Messiah, the devil tempts Jesus to be a welfare king. “Turn these stones to bread” he said. How will Christ deal with the economic problems of the world? This is the question Christ answers. It is a question every king must consider.
Will he open the grain houses upon his arrival? Like Julius Caesar returning from Gaul seeking to manipulate and pander to the masses, will Jesus use his power to win people through their stomachs? What will be his method of proving his divine rule?
Jesus relates to the hunger of people all over the world. He embraces the hunger of others. Jesus’ response ought to be seen as a rejection of solving the problem as an earthly king would.
He doesn’t ignore the physical needs of the world. Jesus will go on to feed many who are hungry. However, the Kingdom of God is much bigger than a loaf of bread—it is more than food. And Jesus doesn’t need bread because he is the bread of life.
Jesus deals with poverty in a different manner. He will feed folks, but he seeks to do more than feed mouths. He will seek to restore the dignity of others and reconcile them to God.
Base Jumping From the Temple—Bad Religion
Then the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. Satan says, “If (since) you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Matt 4:6). The devil then proceeds to quote Scripture (Psalm 91), twisting it to tempt Jesus to action.
Is Jesus going to swoop in and gain the approval of the religious establishment? He very easily could have removed all doubt to who he was.
A grand entrance would certainly gain recognition that he was indeed the Messiah. Yet he resists the temptation to gain approval of those religious folk. If Christ were going to convince the religious leaders, the “Doctors of the Law,” this would be the way to do it. But he doesn’t do it.
Jesus chooses not to parachute in and remove any obstacles from them hearing his message of the coming Kingdom.
He will make his presence known in the Temple, but only right after he drives out those practicing bad religion. This is quite different than the entrance he was tempted with by the devil.
FYI: This isn’t how you win the votes of the Sadducees on the left (who were in charge of the Temple) or the Pharisees in the “Religious Right” who were popular with the people.
Instead, Jesus storms in to the heart of Jewish religion, and turns it upside-down. The Temple is no longer the place of worship and symbol of God’s presence. For the Spirit of God has come to dwell in men. There is now something, someone, greater than the Temple.
He is Immanuel, God with us.
Jesus will not do any pandering to the religious elite. No sir. Jesus will shut down institutional religion for good and tell the ruling party that they are now out of a job.
There’s a new king in town. His name is Jesus… the Christ from Nazareth.
Kings and Kingdoms—The Politics of Jesus
Jesus has already rejected two powerful offers to play by the world’s rules and give the people the Messiah that was expected—a Messiah that fixes this present age by methods characteristic of this world.
Jesus refuses to manipulate people using the old avenues of power. Instead, he will offer people bread from heaven and true religion that’s good for the soul, which is much more satisfying.
Now Jesus faces his most difficult challenge yet. Jesus is taken to a high mountain. In the ancient world, mountains were seen as places where deities come to earth. From the pagan “high places” to the receiving of the Ten Commandments, God chose to work within this ancient mindset.
And this final temptation should be seen as an offer of divine importance.
“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.” Matthew 4:8,9 (NIV)
Lest you think this temptation is merely about getting Christ to commit to devil worship, let’s look closer at what really faces Jesus in this final bout with the devil.
Christ is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The devil has power over them, which Jesus does not deny. The evil one still manipulates these kingdoms today. The Messiah will crush these kingdoms as Daniel prophesied (Dan 7:14). But how will he crush them?
Will he take the world by force using violence? Will he succumb to the way of the present evil age and the prince of the air by putting his hand to the plow of political power? Will he commit to the way of the devil—the source of all war and violence?
Will he be an Alexander, a Julius Caesar, an Augustus, or better yet… a King David? This would not be the last time he is faced with this temptation (Matt. 16:23; 26:51,52; Jn. 6:15).
Christ redefines power in his rejection of earthly kingship. He rejects the avenue of earthly politics to advance the Kingdom of God. As God’s full revelation of his own character, he intentionally rejects power-over methods of coercion and force to advance the Kingdom.
Jesus embodies God’s will for his people and all those who seek to enter in to the rightful reign and rule of God on earth. Do not pass by this temptation and miss the foolishness of the Kingdom of God, for therein is power that we have not fully known in our day.
We must be willing to say to the prince of the power of the air and the kingdoms he controls, “Away from me! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt. 4:10).
Walking the Kingdom Way
If we’re really concerned with WWJD, maybe we should first look at what Jesus would not do for the sake of clarity.
The temptations of Jesus prove that Christ rejects the secular concept of Messiah in both the way he confronts social injustices, instutionalized religion, and the political powers of his day.
Jesus is faced with three major social institutions: economic (bread), religious (temple), and the political (mountain).
Notice that Jesus would not capitulate to the world system. The rejection of these three temptations characterizes the entire ministry of Christ.
Until we’re willing to reject what Christ rejected, we have not fully accepted the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.
If we desire to follow Christ, we must embrace the way of the suffering Messiah, instead of that way which is common to man.
We must walk the Kingdom way. And that way always looks like Jesus.
D.D. Flowers, 2012.