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The Temptation of Christ - a lesson on Matthew 4:1-10

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 4:1-10

Jesus, at the direction of the Spirit, allowed Himself to be truly tempted by Satan. Not only did He resist the temptation, He also left a model for us to follow when we are tempted: trust God, know God’s Word, have God’s priorities.

But He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]


Getting Started: Things to Think About

New Year’s Resolutions

A lot of us are about to make resolutions about our weight. We want to lose weight in 2016. We have a number of options to that end: (1) we can eat less food; (2) we can go on a diet of specific healthy foods; (3) we can exercise; (4) we can be more physically active; (5) we can take medications; (6) we can have an elective surgery. Remove (5) and (6) from your discussion because they don’t work for this illustration. To cut to the chase, the best way for permanent, healthy weight loss is to do a combination of (1)-(4). But for discussion, ask your class, “What happens if you do one without the others?” Listen to the stories and note the trends. Basically, it doesn’t work. You have to do all 4.


Here’s the connection: Jesus says, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Based on what you just talked about, ask what they think that means. Use that to set up your class time about temptation!


Quiz Time: Israel in the Wilderness.

Let’s see how much your class remembers about the Exodus. Ask them to tell you the story of what happened to Israel after Pharaoh let them go. (Here’s a summary to help you evaluate) Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after the Israelites. God parted the Red Sea to save His people and destroy their enemy. In the wilderness, the people complained about not having enough food or water, and God miraculously met those needs. Then they were scared of the Amalekites, which God defeated. Then they came to Sinai where God gave Moses the Law and Covenant. But while Moses was on the mountain, the people persuaded Aaron to make a golden calf for them to worship. Moses then had the Tabernacle built, which they carried with them. On their way to the promised land, there are multiple rebellions which God deals with harshly. They finally reach the edge of the promised land (at Kadesh-Barnea), only to have the spies convince the Jews that they cannot successfully conquer it. God condemns them for their lack of faith and they wander in the wilderness for 40 years. During that wandering, there are more rebellions, but eventually a new generation approaches the promised land ready to take it (albeit the long way).


Obviously, you can’t go into details because that would take forever! Here’s what I consider the point: God tested Israel in the wilderness, and they took that as temptation. They were tested to see if they would trust God for their necessities. They were tested to see if they would listen to God’s laws and rules. They were tested to see if they would follow God’s plan for their life and society. They pretty much failed. But what you want to do is put that in your class members’ heads for when you start talking about how Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. What was the nature of the temptations? How did Jesus respond? In keeping with the “typology” theme I’ve mentioned, Matthew paints Jesus as everything Israel should have been . . .

This Week's Big Idea: The Baptism of Jesus

Sadly, we’re skipping over the end of chapter 3. We talked about John the Baptist at the beginning of December; this event is the main origin for his title. In case it comes up, let me give you a quick overview of these verses, what they mean, and why they’re important. You find this event in Matt 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22, and assumed in John 1. The emphasis in all three is not John’s baptism, but the anointing of the Spirit—in that sense, we look at the baptism of Jesus as the inauguration of His mission, the dawn of a new era of human history in which the Spirit of God empowers the people of God.


That’s why it is so important that the baptism of Jesus is always followed by the temptation of Jesus—the Spirit of the world-to-come encounters the spirit of the world-that-is. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for this encounter, and Jesus overcame Satan not through supernatural intervention but simply by relying on the word of God and having faith in God. There is nothing Jesus did that we could not do. That is the power of the Spirit for the people of God.


Then, once Jesus has successfully overcome Satan’s temptations, He can in all power declare His message: “The kingdom of God is near! Repent and believe!” The old is passing away, the new is coming.


Now let’s talk about the confusion we run into in the baptism of Jesus. First of all, it is not a “baptism in the Spirit.” Jesus didn’t need to be baptized in the Spirit. Baptism in the Spirit (for us) is a baptism of judgment and grace. For us, that is salvation. Second of all, it wasn’t the same as John’s other baptisms. John’s baptism was with water for forgiveness through repentance. Jesus didn’t need to repent or be forgiven.


That’s where Matthew’s gospel comes to the rescue, for John makes it clear that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, and Jesus replies that it must be so “to fulfill all righteousness.” The meaning of that phrase is the crux of the matter, and you might not be surprised to hear it come back to typology. Matthew has just said that Jesus was brought out of Egypt by His parents, and tied that to the experience of Israel. He then brings up John the Baptist who is the Elijah figure from Israel’s past. He is about to talk about the temptation in the wilderness, in which Jesus succeeds where Israel failed (40 days / 40 years). Over and over again, Jesus is what Israel should have been. Israel was a “type” of Christ pointing us to its perfect fulfillment in Jesus.


And that’s why Jesus was baptized. Jesus willingly submitted to John’s baptism to identify Himself with His people. The people needed to be baptized because they needed to repent. Unless they repent, they will never be in a position to accept the forgiveness and salvation He came to bring. By being baptized, Jesus takes upon Himself the entirety of human need, becoming a representative of humanity in every sense, bearing the burden of human sinfulness in every way. That’s why the temptation to follow in the wilderness is a real temptation. How could it help us if Jesus could not have given in? No, as true human with true danger of sin, Jesus encountered Satan himself to be tempted. But He overcame. And so we can know that we trust a God who knows and understands and still loves us.

Bonus Big Idea: The Structure of Sin and Temptation

It can’t be a coincidence that we have covered the two primary passages on “sin” in the Bible in the last year. I just want to remind you what we covered so you can quickly review it for your class if the opportunity arises. In 1 John 2, he writes,

“Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle—is not from the Father, but is from the world.”

Remember that “world” came from kosmos in this case, which can mean the physical earth, the human world, or the moral world. Here is the point that I made: We know what we love by what we obey. If we love God, we will do what He commands; however, we cannot love both God and money because both demand a certain kind of behavior. This is a hard concept to get across because most people who call themselves Christian will vehemently deny that they love the world more than God. Did you do this chart?


The lust of the flesh | The lust of the eyes | The pride of life


These are very fluid categories, so don’t get too hung up on what is what. “Lust of the flesh” refers to those things that create physical pleasure. Yes, that might include sex, but it also might include food, adrenaline, alcohol, etc. “Lust of the eyes” refers to those things that occupy our minds, like an obsession with learning, or a desire for a spiritual high, or an obsession with aesthetics. “Pride of life” can mean almost anything, but is generally taken to refer to one’s social status, political power, economic influence, high-regard, and so on. Importantly: none of those things has to be bad in and of itself! The problem (what makes it a lust):

  • Desiring (loving/lusting after) those things more than the things of God, or

  • Being unwilling to enjoy those things within the confines of God’s rules.

The other passage we recently studied on temptation was Genesis 3,

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”

In the Genesis passage, I focused on the process of temptation (and how it could be short-circuited):


She saw—She took—She ate—She gave—He ate


Temptation works because the object of our temptation appeals to something within us. In the case of the fruit, it appealed to everything about Eve, but just one of those aspects would have been enough. It appealed to her physical needs and desires (food), it appealed to her eyes and brain (delightful), and it appealed to her innermost self (wisdom). What are the things that are the most tempting to us today? It’s different for everyone. For some, it’s pornography. It could also be an illicit affair or homosexuality. Alcohol. Overeating. Drug abuse. It could also be too much of otherwise okay things: money, exercise, cars, shopping, and so on. The root action in all of those things is not necessarily wrong. What makes it wrong is acting outside the boundaries given to us by God.


NOW . . . Keep these in mind when you talk about Jesus’ temptation. Satan tempted Him with provision (bread / good for fruit / lust of the flesh), with protection (note that I actually call this a temptation of spectacle: angels saving you from a fall would attract lots of attention!) (spectacle / pleasing to the eye / lust of the eyes), and with power (earthly authority / desirable for wisdom / pride of life). There’s much overlap in these encounters. Refamiliarize yourself with 1 John 2 and Genesis 3 so you can show Jesus as how to overcome temptation.

Part 1: Face Off (Matthew 4:1)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.

I’ve already pointed out that the Spirit arranged this encounter to show Satan that his power was not unlimited and to show God’s people that they can succeed in every way Jesus did. I’ve also given you a sidebar on “wilderness”. “The Devil” is the Greek word for “accuser” and is the same as the Hebrew word for “Satan”.


Remember that we recently talked about Abraham being “tested” by God and that the word both in Hebrew and Greek can “test” and “tempt.” Because God is sovereign over everything, including the opportunities of Satan, I concluded that we can view every temptation as a test from God. Even though Jesus and the Spirit are united, I am comfortable interpreting this to mean that the Spirit “tested” Jesus by allowing Him to be “tempted” by Satan.


If you want to make an application here, you’ll need to say a little about Jesus’ baptism. Jesus hasn’t even started His ministry yet—He’s just enjoyed His first public affirmation by God—and He’s already being tempted by Satan! I think that’s valuable for us to remember. When we’re on a spiritual high note, that’s when the challenges come, sometimes by opposition of Satan, and sometimes as testing allowed by the Spirit. We should always be on the lookout for temptation, never more than when things seem to be going well!

Aside: Wilderness of Judea

The word “wilderness” is intended to evoke our idea of a desert, but in the Near East those regions usually have more rocks than sand dunes and enough wells/oases to sustain a small population. The primary wilderness of the Bible would have been the Negev, Transjordan, and Sinai. But the location of Jesus’ temptation was likely a region called Jeshimon, the Wilderness of Judah. This is where David fled from Saul. The wilderness begins not more than a few hours walk from Jerusalem. It is a desolate place, easy for outlaws to hide, filled with dangerous creatures such as snakes and scorpions. Not surprisingly, the scapegoat was often driven this direction, making it an appropriate location for Jesus’ temptation, the One who could bear the weight of all sin.



Part 2: Temptation of Provision (Matthew 4:2-4)

After He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He was hungry. Then the tempter approached Him and said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” But He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

I’ve given you a sidebar on the meaning of 40 days. Note that Satan is called “the tempter” here. Apropos. On the previous page, I gave you a summary of what we’ve learned about temptation over the past year from 1 John 2 and Genesis 3. I encourage you to get familiar with that so you can point out the overlaps!


Both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days (Ex 34:28, 1 Ki 19:8); not coincidentally they both show up on the Mount of Transfiguration. How did that work and what was the point? Moses fasted from food and drink for 40 days; that requires supernatural sustenance. There are well-documented studies of hunger strikes lasting between 20-40 days, as long as hydration continues. Under the best conditions (i.e. not exposed in the desert), a human body can survive as long as 7 days without water. So, Jesus may or may not have had water, but I think He did because this is intended to be a “human” experience.


Why the fasting? It’s simple, really. How desperate are you for intervention when things are going well? Studies bear that out. Adultery almost never happens in a strong, affectionate marriage. “Binges” almost never happen when someone has good control over his/her schedule and workload. We are most vulnerable to temptation when we are in need. Satan knows that well. So Jesus put Himself in the most desperate need possible so that no one could say that Satan’s temptations didn’t have true pull over Him.


Your leader guide gives you the right importance both of Satan’s reference to “Son of God” and to Jesus’ response from Deut 8:3. In fact, all of Jesus’ responses come from Deut 6-8, a passage closely associated with Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

Aside: What’s the Deal with 40 Days?

When we studied Revelation, we noted the importance of certain numbers. Three is the perfect divine number. Seven is the number of God’s work on earth. Four is the number of the earth (four corners, four winds, four rivers). Six is the number of Satan. Twelve is 4x3, not 6x2, meaning the intersection of heaven and earth (12 tribes, 12 apostles).


Now things get fun. The Sumerians developed two number systems: base 10 (decimal) and base 12. They divided time into 12/12 hours, 60 minutes/60 seconds, 360 days, which still influences us today. The Egyptians only used a decimal system, and of course they were highly influential on the Hebrews and the rest of the world.


Why did I go through that? Because God is very careful with numbers. The most significant multiple unique to 4 is 40—40 days of rain (Gen 7:12), 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days of temptation. On the one hand, this clearly represents a “long” time, and may be a round number. But on the other hand, it may have its meaning in “generation.” If it took 40 years to “kill off” the doubters, that means 40 years is approximately 1 generation. (Moses was 40 when considered grown up, Ex 2:11/Acts 7:23.) That would make 40 a completed earthly number.


Jesus, being the perfect fulfillment of Israel, is able to undo all of Israel’s failures. Israel failed in 40 years of temptation in the wilderness; Jesus succeeded in 40 days of intense temptation (by Satan himself) in the wilderness.

Part 3: Of Protection (Matthew 4:5-7)

Then the Devil took Him to the holy city, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: He will give His angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”

The NIV says “highest point of the temple.” The Greek word literally means “tip of the wing” which I take to mean a very exposed and visible location (see the aside). I do not think this is a temptation of protection but of spectacle (which doesn’t start with “p”). Satan is telling Jesus that the best way to get attention for His cause is to perform some kind of visible miracle, and since they both know that angels would not allow Jesus to be harmed by a fall, jumping from a high ledge would do it. The protection is simply a means of getting attention—a foolish, selfish risk. That’s why Jesus responds the way He does; there’s nothing otherwise wrong with asking God for protection.

Aside: Herod’s Temple

When you read this story, you’re probably like me in that you think that Satan took Jesus to the top of the Temple itself. This would have been the structure built by Herod the Great on the site of Solomon’s Temple, but much much bigger. The Temple itself was about 180’ tall relative to the platform, so falling from it would have been quite a spectacle (which seems to be Matthew’s point). However, there is another possibility. Herod’s Temple complex was so much larger than the old complex that he had to build a massive retaining wall. The part that has survived, the “wailing wall” on the west, is over 100’ tall, and it would have much shorter than the walls on the south and east.

That means that Satan could have taken Jesus to one of the towers overlooking the valley below that would have been higher off the ground than the Temple roof and possibly in fuller view of the commoners walking to the complex. Just a thought. Here's an artist's rendition of one such corner.


Part 4: Of Power (Matthew 4:8-10)

Again, the Devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. And he said to Him, “I will give You all these things if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus told him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”

Now Satan cuts to the heart of Christ’s mission: “I’ll give you the hearts of all the people, but I won’t make you go to the cross to get them.” I consider this a vision rather than an actual location, and I believe it was a real temptation (remember when and why Jesus said “Get behind me, Satan” to Peter?). I could be wrong about this, but I believe that Jesus would have said if Satan did not have the authority to make his offer. Satan is “the ruler of this world” in the sense of the human component, but his power is a façade. Human authority is temporary, fleeting, and incomplete, and that’s all Satan has to offer. God’s kingdom is eternal and total, and Jesus understood the difference.


What can we learn from Jesus’ stand against Satan? Matthew recorded it for us for two reasons: (1) to show how Jesus could be truly human yet truly God, and (2) to show us how to withstand Satan’s wiles. Tell your class that they need to work this in to their New Year’s resolutions (if they make them) - “I will resist temptation better in 2016.” How did Jesus do it? (1) By knowing the Word of God, and thus knowing where Satan lied. (2) By trusting God, and thus not being too tempted by Satan’s false claims. (3) By having His priorities right, and thus not feeling so much of Satan’s tug to the things that most people are tempted by—human vanity and appetite. We can do that. We must do that!

Closing Aside: What Is Satan's Power on Earth?

I think this has come up before, but let’s cover it again just to be safe. What kind of power does Satan really have? Let’s be clear: Christianity (and thus reality) is not dualist—evil and good is not as ying and yang. Evil (that which opposes God) is not equal to good (that which God endorses). There may seem to be more evil activity in the world around us than good, but that does not mean that evil could ever defeat good. Long and short, Satan is not God’s equal opposite. There are a lot of religions out there in which eternity is some cosmic battle between good and evil in which the result always hangs in the balance. That is not so. There is never any real threat to God’s power and authority; there is only the threat to the welfare of creatures living here below.


What kind of power do angels have? They can apparently intervene and take human life, else why would Jesus have cared that He could call on them? They can speak to humans. They can certainly fight other angels. Well, that’s what Satan is—an angel. A high angel, to be sure, but a created being nonetheless. He has power only as he has been given it (kind of like us). But he has been given lots of power. He led a rebellion in heaven against God (remember Revelation 12?), and now the fallen angels roam the earth, making Satan’s presence near-ubiquitous.


Satan’s work today is widespread and destructive; Luther is right in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He has the “world system” under his control by virtue of the non-Christians who run it and are severely vulnerable to his temptations. As far as Christians go, he can only “tempt” us—not possess us or control us because we are filled with the Holy Spirit—but he is very good at tempting. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to “do” much at all because he can so easily get people to do his work for him. This is why Jesus did not argue that Satan had the authority to give Him all the kingdoms of the earth. But Satan’s fate is sealed, and he knows it.

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