There are so many amazing stories about Jesus in the Gospels that they can vie for precedence and obscure somewhat from our minds their individual greatness. This problem of over familiarity certainly applies to the Temptation of Jesus. I shall follow Matthew’s report:1
Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” (Matthew 4:3-4)
Jesus Christ may have been the anointed of God, but He was still human. His humanity was no façade for the full power of God behind it. To be what He came to be for us He had to be “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:15), who laid aside His divine prerogatives (Phil. 2:5-7) that we might be saved. Therefore, when it is said that He spent forty days fasting in the wilderness and was hungry, we may fairly deduce that He was famished, and not at His best physically nor mentally. We must insist on this if we are to take His humanity seriously, and, indeed, if He is to be any sort of example for us. For just as we grow faint and weary and our brains get fogged over if we don’t eat, we must not for false piety’s sake pretend that Jesus’ flesh was above such ordinary things. His temptation by Satan came not when He was in tip-top mental and physical condition (for how often are we granted the same?), but when He was vulnerable and weak; which is to say, at the most inconvenient time.
The first temptation takes advantage of Jesus’ great hunger.
“If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” (Matthew 4:3)
We must not think that there was no more to it than the satisfaction of breaking a self-imposed fast. Clearly, the fast was in view of this confrontation and Jesus knew that Satan would take this tack. If there had been any witnesses present, they probably would have seen a more involved interaction than what we have here. What Scripture is a true record of what took place, but not necessarily a full record. We have been given what the Holy Spirit wanted us to have. It is enough for His purposes. The doubt-filled “ifs” of Satan add more frustration to the scenario. Jesus is being tempted to provide His credentials. Notice what Satan does not ask. He does not ask “If you are the Messiah.” Messiah may or may not have the authority to deal with the devil, but the Son of God definitely would. The heart of Satan’s strategy is to get Jesus to rely upon His divinity instead of upon the Spirit of God with whom He has recently been anointed. Recall that it was at that baptism that Jesus heard God’s voice declaring “This is My beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). Now the Tempter baits his hook with this truth, by casting suspicion on it. But it is a little matter to clear up. Just turn these stones into bread and all doubts will answered. But Jesus is not under any obligation to anything but the Father’s providence. And that has thus far not given Him bread. The Lord knows that, and so He deflects the temptation by turning the attention to the words of God.
He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
The point of this response is that Jesus’ mind is situated under the authority of the Word of God. This is in contrast to Eve, where Satan got her to remove herself from the umbrella of the Word and to locate herself beyond its authority. In other words, Eve became independent of God’s Word, and so lent herself a permission she was never to have had; namely a position to make up her mind without necessarily having to remain within the limits of what God had said. This state of autonomy is the default stance of every sinner ever born, and hence, of every Bible interpreter ever born, saved or lost. The only way for the saint of God to avoid lapsing into this default of independence is to take God at His Word! I am persuaded that means that we must not spiritualize Scripture, nor ought we to rely on any hermeneutic where the plain sense of the words are obscured, redirected, typologized, or their meanings transformed. Faith in Scripture that has been spiritualized is faith in that spiritualization (or transformation etc.). It is not faith in what God said.
Jesus knew that His mission as the God-man was not to access His divine nature when things got hard for His humanity. Hence, there is but one safe path; to believe that God means what He says even when one is tempted by the ones circumstances to make the words mean something other than what they actually say. Jesus’ answer to the Tempter comes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Yahweh mentions how He tested Israel:
Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers.
“And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.
“So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:1-3)
There is no doubt that this passage is grounded in the covenant at Sinai (cf. Deut. 7:9, 12). As Peter Craigie states, “The act of remembering prompts obedience to the covenant law.”2 In Deuteronomy 8:18 we read about Yahweh establishing “His covenant which He swore to your fathers.” This covenant can only be that which was sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since Moses and his generation were still very much alive when this was spoken. Therefore, Jesus’ words to Satan were not only well chosen because they informed him that Jesus would depend upon God for food, but because they were rooted in the covenants. God’s covenants, despite a slew of scholars to the contrary, are hermeneutically fixed. Jesus is saying that the words of God; especially the covenanted words, must be believed.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.