Matthew 4 – Dealing with the Devil

Matthew 4 Bible with Green and Blacks 85 percent Cacao Dark Chocolate

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Today’s PassageMatthew 4

I feel like Matthew 4 is mostly setting the stage for Jesus’ ministry. Jesus retreats to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, begins preaching and healing, and calls the fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Most of the narrative here paints Jesus’ activity with a broad brush, and even when it gives us the specific scene of the fishermen’s calling, it’s a quick-and-dirty details-light account that’s over before you know it.

But something in Jesus’ wilderness temptation caught my attention: some quality of specificity that’s absent from the rest of the chapter. Matthew is setting the stage here, as in the rest of the chapter. But with the temptation, he’s not breezing past it, summarizing, or glossing over. Satan is making a play here, and Matthew thinks it’s important to get into the details of it. Perhaps he thought Mark’s account was too sparse? And where did he get his information concerning Jesus’ forty days alone in the wilderness? From Luke, from one of the other disciples such as Peter, maybe even a first-hand account from Jesus himself? I could speculate, but one thing’s for sure: Matthew wants us to know about Jesus’ dialogue-duel in the desert with the devil.

The devil may have a plan to trick Jesus into sin, but Jesus knows exactly what he’s getting into. As the scene opens, Matthew tells us, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (1). The Spirit takes him beyond the reaches of civilization into the arena for the explicit purpose of being tempted by the devil. But how do we square that with James’ teaching that “God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13). Here we apparently have God the Spirit leading God the Son into temptation; it would seem that God is both subject and object of tempting. But this is one of those cases where I bring up an issue to which I have a resolution in mind, so that I’ll have something to write about.

The problem of God doing the tempting is easily resolved; technically, it’s Satan doing the tempting here, so the Spirit gets a pass. You might argue that the Spirit knowingly leads Jesus to a place where he’ll be subjected to temptation, and therefore the Spirit is complicit. But if you’re going down that road, you might as well cut to the chase and put God on trial for allowing evil to exist, a can of worms we have dealt with before and are not getting into today, thank you very much. Point is: you’re not getting the Spirit on a violation of James 1:13. God ain’t the tempter.

But in Matthew’s gospel, as well as the other synoptics, Jesus unmistakably does endure temptation at the hands of the devil. How do we reconcile that with James 1:13? With a look at the original Greek, of course, because I’m Jackson Ferrell and this is Chocolate Book. The word Matthew uses is πειράζω, peirazō, a versatile verb with a variety of uses, whose root meaning is basically “havin’ a go at it and seein’ what happens.” You might use it to describe attempting to do a thing, see if something is possible, or putting another person through a trial, either to show that his character is up for the challenge or (if you’re the devil) to get him to sin by putting him into an enticing situation.

And that brings us to the word James uses. It’s ἀπείραστος, apeirastos, literally meaning “untempted.” It shares the peir- root with peirazō, but both words take the “undergoing a trial” concept in a different direction. I think one could render James’ word apeirastos as “unassailable.” You might try to get Jesus Christ to sin (if you’re the devil), or question God’s goodness, or challenge his trustworthiness. God, though, remains unchallenged, passing every trial you devise as if it’s no trial at all. And with each of Satan’s enticements in the wilderness, that’s exactly what we see Jesus Christ do.

God allows us to go through trials to show either ourselves or others what we’re made of. If we pass the trial, we might discover that God has taught us and equipped us to be better than we thought we were; alternately, God might show others, as with Satan’s testing of Job, that we were capable of enduring the test when they thought we weren’t. And if we fail? That’s our warning signal that we need to repent, and that we need God more than we thought we did.

Jesus Christ, unsurprisingly, passes his test in the wilderness with flying colors. Even when faced with the devil’s most devious temptations, he proves himself unassailable.

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