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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 4

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-11

The Temptation of Jesus (4:1-11)

It is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness "to be tempted by the devil." At first sight this appears strange: God exposing his Son to the blows of Satan. But is it not to battle the one whom John calls "the prince of this world" that the Son came to earth? The struggle of Jesus cannot be fully understood if we do not believe, with the Bible, in the objective reality of an evil power at work in the world, a power which from the first hour tip to the very end seeks to defeat God.

The temptation of Jesus is closely related to his Messianic vocation. It is also a reminder of the history of the Elect People. We have seen the infant Jesus symbolically reliving the Exodus of his fathers. He now experiences their testing in the wilderness. Moses fasted "forty days" on Sinai when God revealed his will to him (Exodus 34:28). Israel spent forty years in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2). Elijah travelled forty days toward the "mount of God" (1 Kings 19:8). This figure, therefore, has a symbolic significance: it designates both the time of testing and the time of revelation. It is significant that the replies of Jesus are all borrowed from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 8:3; Deuteronomy 6:16; Deuteronomy 6:13). As God had tested Moses, as he had tested Israel, his first-born son (see Hosea 11:1), so now he tests his beloved Son.

According to Jewish tradition, the Messianic Age would reproduce, and at the same time surpass, the miracles of the time of Moses. The miracle of the manna held a large place in the popular imagination (Exodus 16; John 6:30-31). There was a tradition that the Messiah would appear at the Temple and proclaim liberty to the people (see Malachi 3:1-2). Finally, tradition likewise held that Messiah’s coming would open the era of a temporal sovereignty of Israel over the nations.

It is in the context of such hopes as these that the expression "If you are the Son of God . . ." must be understood. Satan was saying: "Will God permit you, his Son, to suffer hunger? Has not all power been given to you? How will men believe on you if you do not show them the signs from heaven which are supposed to signal your coming? Do you not know that this world belongs to me and that I do with it what I will? Without compromise with me you know well that all your efforts are doomed to failure!" A strangely familiar voice!

Jesus did not enter into the game with the adversary. He did not discuss with him. (Was that not the primary fault of Eve?) Jesus opposed him with the all-powerful weapon of the Word of God. There is here a basic lesson for us: Jesus was so nourished by this Word that in the hour of temptation it sprang naturally to his lips. How much more necessary this is for us! To every "If you . . . ," Jesus replied, "God says."

The first temptation shows Jesus preyed upon by hunger, that elemental and terrible need of every human being. He truly embraced our condition. He knew hunger and poverty.. He was the Son of Man who had "nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). He refused to save himself, and later he submitted to the mockery of those who watched him die (Matthew 27:39-44). His total commitment into the hands of his Father will be considered only weakness, impotence, and defeat in the eyes of the world. But in this way he became the authentic brother of all the famished, of all the rejected of the world. It is because he has been made one of them, because he has completely assumed their sin and their misery, that he will be all-powerful to deliver them (Matthew 8:17). Thus truly will he one day be able to say that nourishment given or refused to a hungry person is given or refused to him (Matthew 25:31-46).

Jesus knows that God keeps him, but not in the manner intended by Satan. The second temptation reminds us that Scripture, depending on how one uses it, may be either the instrument of God or the instrument of Satan. This also is a warning to us. To try to force God to reveal himself by some spectacular act is not the language of faith but of unbelief and impatience (see Deuteronomy 6:16; also Exodus 17:1-7). This is to "tempt God." When the Pharisees later demand signs from Jesus, signs which would be proof of his Messiahship, they will be refused (Mark 8:12; see Matthew 16:1-4). God reveals himself in his own. time, and in a manner which pleases him. The way of the Servant is the way of simple, plain obedience to the revealed Word. Jesus knows, through the example of the prophets, that this way will not necessarily lead to success, but more often will lead to suffering and death.

The last temptation is again a question of a radical submission to the living God. Jesus refers to the first commandment, the one which pious Jews recite every day (Deuteronomy 6:13). The enemy has unmasked himself. The real issue throughout this dialogue has been a choice between two masters. Jesus’ reply is severe: "Begone, Satan!"

Bread, miracles, power are not these what false messiahs in every age offer to the credulity of the crowds? The temptations summed up in this story will be met by Jesus throughout his career: when the crowds see in him only a healer (Mark 1:35-39) ; when they want to make him king (John 6:14-15); when his own disciples reject with horror the prediction of the Cross (Matthew 16:21-23).

This solitary struggle, this initial encounter with the adversary, is as it were the first stage of the ministry which is to follow. One cannot "enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods," said Jesus, "unless he first binds the strong man" (Matthew 12:29). But there is more here: the story of the temptation gives the counterpart to the fall of the first man (Genesis 3). In contrast to the persistent sin of man who desires to make himself God, is set the attitude of the Son of God who freely chooses the way of service and thus calls into being a new humanity whose purpose will no longer be to dominate but to serve (Mark 10:43-45).

Verses 12-22

The Beginning of the Ministry of Jesus (4:12-22)

The ministry of the forerunner is completed; that of the Messiah begins. Herod has thrown John into prison. The reasons will be given later (Matthew 14:3-4). Jesus leaves the banks of the Jordan and withdraws to the north of Galilee, to the shores of the Lake of Tiberias. This territory belonged in olden times to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Invaded and annexed by Assyria at the same time as the entire Kingdom of Israel (the eighth century B.C.), it had been from that time on paganized. It was this Israel, which "sat in darkness" for more than seven centuries, on whom, as the prophecy of Isaiah indicated, the light of the Savior was to arise (Isaiah 9:1-2). This quotation, as used by the evangelist, is a confession of Messianic faith: the light of the new world rises on "Galilee of the Gentiles." And this light is none other than Jesus the Messiah.

The King coming in his Kingdom takes up the proclamation of the herald who had preceded him: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). The difference is not in the message but in the one who proclaims it: the future becomes a present. In the Person of Jesus the Kingdom of God has broken into the world. This is God’s "today." When God speaks, no delay is permitted.

This is magnificently attested in the call of the first disciples. At a single word of the Master, they leave everything their business, their family (Matthew 19:27). They no doubt already knew Jesus (John 1:35-43); but in the eyes of the evangelist this detail is not important, for the whole force of the call resides in the authority of the one who calls.

The figure employed by Jesus is impressive: It is no longer a question of taking fish from the lake, but of drawing men up out of the abyss of sin and death, catching them in the great net of God!

And these simple men obey without discussion. First they are two, then four: "Immediately they left . . . and followed him" (Matthew 4:20-22). This "immediately" characterizes, for all time, the obedience of faith.

Verses 23-25

The Announcement of the New Age (4:23-25)

Verses 23-25 of chapter 4 summarize in a few bold strokes the ministry which is going to be described in the following chapters: it is a proclamation of the New Age in words (chs. 5-7) and in acts (chs. 8-9). The formula of introduction in Matthew 4:23 is found again in Matthew 9:35 Jesus teaches, proclaims the good news, and heals.

Any qualified Jewish man attending the worship of a synagogue was permitted to read and comment on a passage of Scripture. He stood up to read and sat down to teach (Matthew 5:1-2; Matthew 13:1-2). Jesus conformed to this custom, as did the Apostle Paul later. He went about the country and taught in the synagogues (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35; Luke 4:16-20; see Acts 13:14-16; Acts 14:1). But he taught also in the open air. He preached the good news. The Greek word suggests rather a proclamation, such as that of a herald who speaks in the name of the king. And this joyous news is no other than the coming of the Reign of God. And it immediately translates itself into acts; each healing is a sign of this Kingdom which comes a victory over sickness, sin, and death.

The fame of Jesus, we are told, extends "throughout all Syria." If the editing of the Gospel took place later than the year A.D. 70 (see Introduction), this expression is more easily understood; for beginning from that time, the Roman province of Syria included Palestine. Verse 25 makes clear that the crowds who followed Jesus came not only from Galilee but also from Decapolis on the east of the Lake of Tiberias, from Jerusalem, and from the whole of Judea.

The crowds flocked to this prophet, this rabbi who spoke with "authority" (Matthew 7:28-29; see Mark 1:22), who not only announced deliverance but delivered (Mark 1:27). Here was indeed, the evangelist tells us, good news; the dawn of the Messianic Age had broken. It is in this sense that the teaching which follows must be understood: it is inseparable from the Person of the one who gives it.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-4.html.
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