Pulpit and Pew: Matthew 4:4-11


Winter Conference, FREEA, Appleton, WI, February 14, 2016

Matthew 4:1–11

by Melvin H. Koss

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him 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 command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

Matthew 4:1–11

This text is the Historic Gospel Lesson for today, the first Sunday in Lent. It presents to us the Lord in conflict with the devil at the very beginning of His public ministry on earth. As we begin again the Passion Season of the Church Year, we hear in this text how our Lord began his work of defeating the devil and crushing the serpent’s head. When Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden of Eden God promised a Savior to them as he spoke these words to the devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). There would be a descendent of the woman who would conquer sin and the devil by crushing his head and completely taking away his power. Our Lord Jesus Christ is that descendant, and in our text he begins this work of conquering sin and overcoming the devil for us. The complete victory would be accomplished on the cross when the Lord would cry out as He died, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30). This formal beginning of the Lord’s work against the devil is then a fitting text for this beginning of the Lenten season when we again look in detail at our Lord’s work of redemption.

The devil is mentioned in the text six times with three different words: “devil,” “tempter,” and “Satan.” The Greek word for devil is “diabolos,” from which we get the word diabolical. “Diabolos,” translated devil, is used four times in the text, and means the slanderer. Slandering is telling lies about someone, and is not the devil indeed the father of lies? Was it not with lies that he deceived Eve in the Garden as he told her, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it (i.e. the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil”? (Gen. 3:4-5). They did indeed get to know good and evil, and that knowledge included the fact that they were now sinners and on the way to the grave needing redemption from their sins and salvation from eternal death. “Tempter” is used once in the text when the devil presented the first temptation to our Lord. The Greek word here comes from the word for putting to the test. That is what the devil was doing. He was putting the Lord to the test, tempting Him to sin. The third word “Satan,” which is the same in Greek, is also only used once in the text. It is when the Lord tells the devil to be gone after the third temptation. Satan is the adversary, the enemy, the one trying to get the Lord to sin and go against the Father’s will.

So much for words for the devil. Let us consider next the origin of the devil. He was created as one of the good angels. After the sixth day of creation we read, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Thus all creation including the angels was created good. We do not know just when some angels went bad, but it had to be between the completion of creation and the fall into sin recorded in Genesis chapter three. We read in the book of Revelation, “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev. 12:7-10). Somehow the devil and his followers, the other evil angels, tried to rebel against God and fought against Michael and the other good angels. The devil and his angels lost this battle and were cast out of heaven. The devil then tried to get back at God and attacked the crown of God’s creation, man. Thus sin came into the world and with it the need for a Savior.

Let us now look in detail at the text for this morning. It begins with the word “Then,” which means “at that time.” What happened immediately preceding our text was the baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River by his forerunner, John the Baptist. This was the first public appearance of our Lord in his adult life. He travelled south from Nazareth in Galilee, where he had grown up, to the Jordan River in Judea near Jerusalem, where John was preparing the way for the Lord by preaching repentance and baptizing. John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11).

Matthew then continues by relating the Baptism of our Lord. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:13-17). This Spirit which descended upon our Lord like a dove at His baptism now leads Him into a wilderness, a desolate place. Here our Lord and the devil would be alone because the Lord had not yet called any of His disciples. The purpose of our Lord being lead into this wilderness area as we are told was to be tempted by the devil. It was God’s will that this temptation take place at this time when our Lord was ready to begin His public ministry. We also note that the Lord did not resist but willingly submitted to the Father’s will. Some have tried to figure where this wilderness was, but if that was important the holy writers would have told us. What is important is what happened here and that is what must be concentrated on.

We are told that the Lord was there in this wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Forty is a number which occurs frequently in the Scriptures. For example, the Flood began with a rain which lasted forty days and forty nights; the children of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness journeying from Egypt to Canaan; Elijah once fasted for forty days; Jonah said that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days; Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after His resurrection. From reading only Matthew’s account we might think that the devil tempted the Lord only at the end of those forty days, but we are told in both Mark and Luke that the Lord was tempted for this entire forty day period. Mark says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12-13). And in Luke we read, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-2). These three specific temptations listed in our text were the final three attempts on this occasion for the devil to get our Lord to sin, and thus they are described in detail. The devil certainly attacked our Lord throughout His earthly life, before these formal temptations as well as after them. We also know that the Lord was tempted to refuse the cup placed before Him as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Remember how he prayed three times, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39). Fortunately he did not succumb to this temptation but drank fully of this cup and gave up his life for the sins of the world, and thus He was able to cry out at the end in victory “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).

Some wonder if the devil took on a visible form as he tempted the Lord in our text. We know he took the form of a serpent when he tempted Eve in the garden. Here the text tells us nothing about this, so it does not pay to speculate. So again let us concentrate on just what the text does tell us.

Forty days can be a long period of time, and we are told that for this long period of time our Lord does not eat anything. The text tells us that He fasted for those forty days. That would be like us not having eaten anything for the past month plus ten more days. Would we not be quite hungry at this time if we had not eaten for the past 40 days? We can be sure that our Lord also was hungry at this time because he is true man, and thus he hungered for food just as we do if we do not eat. The devil tried to take advantage of our Lord’s human nature and his hunger and we have this first detailed temptation. The devil always tries to find a weak point for attack and this time it was our Lord’s hunger. Since the Lord was hungry the devil uses food as his means of temptation. Food plays an important part in our daily lives. Think how important events are celebrated: a Thanksgiving feast, a Christmas dinner, perhaps even a romantic Valentine’s Day meal. Since food is a basic physical human need the devil uses it here as his means of temptation. Was it not with food also that the devil tempted Eve in the Garden? He had her look at the forbidden fruit and made it look like something was being withheld from her, and thus he succeeded in tempting her to sin. The devil always knows our weaknesses also and uses whatever weakness is handy at the time to tempt us.

So now, knowing our Lord’s hunger, the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil tried to place doubt in our Lord’s mind. Certainly, if he truly was the Son of God, God would not have let him hunger so. It would have been so easy for the Lord to turn those stones into bread. There should be no doubt that He was the Son of God, for had he not just heard from His Heavenly Father as He was baptized, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”? Turning the stones into bread could have been a quick way to satisfy His hunger, and performing such a miracle could have helped attract followers, but his ministry was to be established through the preaching of the Word, not through performing spectacular miraculous events.

Had not the Lord been sustained by his heavenly Father without food for the last forty days, and could not this have continued? The Lord could of course have miraculously turned those stones into bread. He did later on two occasions miraculously stretch a few loaves and several fish into enough food to feed thousands of people each time. So here he could have made these stones bread, but our Lord knew that physical food was not the most important thing, so he responded to the devil, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” The Lord knew the Scriptures well, and now he used this sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, as a mighty weapon against the devil. This is the same tool we have at our disposal today when we are assaulted by the devil’s fiery darts and flaming arrows of temptation. So then let us be well acquainted with the Scriptures so that we have a full arsenal to use in our own daily fights against the devil.

This quote comes from the fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy. Moses was speaking to the Children of Israel at the end of the forty years in the wilderness. He said, “You shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:2-3).

Whereas the devil was successful when he tempted Eve, he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get the Son of God to sin. You have no doubt heard “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” So now the devil brought a second specific assault against the Lord. He took the Lord to the holy city, Jerusalem itself, and set the Lord on the pinnacle of the temple. The pinnacle of the temple was some high point at the top of the temple, which may have been on the east side of the temple overlooking the Kidron valley. Just how they got there we are not told, but again we are told what happened there, and this is what is most important. As Jesus had used the Word of God against the devil in the first temptation, so now the devil tried to use this the Word of God against our Lord. He said to the Lord, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Thus, as the Scriptures were used against the devil in the first temptation, so now the devil tried to use the Scriptures to get the Lord to sin in this second temptation. This quote is from Psalm 91, and these words were chanted in the Gradual this morning. The devil however cleverly twisted the meaning of this quote by leaving out these key words, “to guard you in all your ways.” It is the devil’s way to twist things to serve his purpose. This warns us to be aware that when Scripture is used sometimes it is misused. Taking things out of context and sometimes leaving out key phrases can completely alter the real meaning of Scripture. That is why it is important for us to be well versed in the Scriptures and know what they really say with the help of the Holy Spirit. Let us then continue to daily read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures.

The devil says God will send his angels to protect us, but it is that they will “guard us in all our ways” that is when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. We will not be protected when we take unnecessary chances. Jumping from the pinnacle of the temple would be taking just such a chance. Certainly if the Lord had done this and had been miraculously saved from death, this would have made an immediate impression on the people and he would have had quite a following here at the beginning of his ministry. Would not this be a spectacular way to begin His ministry? But his ministry is to be founded on the Word, and this is what He used again against the devil. The Lord said, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt. 4:7). The Lord could have pointed out to the devil that he had misquoted the Scriptures, but that was unnecessary. What is necessary is to point out what the Scriptures do say, and they say, “Do not test God.” Jumping from this high point of the temple and expecting God to save him would indeed have been testing God. It is interesting to note that this second quotation of our Lord is also from the book of Deuteronomy, this time chapter 6, verse 16. Here Moses is also speaking to the children of Israel at the end of their forty years in the wilderness. He has reminded them to serve and fear only the Lord their God, and to not serve other gods. He says they should not put the LORD their God to the test, as they had done at Massah when they had no water. Let us then remember to be about our daily business and not test the Lord our God by taking unnecessary chances.

Matthew has now described how the devil tempted our Lord Jesus two times and was defeated both times. But the old evil foe did not give up. Here now is the third temptation: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matt. 4:8-9). “Again,” yes, this is now the third time in our text that our Lord was tempted. The devil does not give up. He tries over and over to get us to sin. Just because we may have successfully avoided one temptation does not mean we will not be tempted again. The devil comes again and again, and so now he came with a third temptation for our Lord. This time the devil took our Lord to a very high mountain. We do not know which mountain it was, nor how the Lord was taken there, nor by what means the devil showed him all these things. We are told what happened, so again we will concentrate on what the text tells us. The devil tried to appeal to the Lord’s human side, showing Him all the glitz and glory of the world. The devil said he would give all these things to the Lord if the Lord would fall down and worship him. The devil acted as if all these glorious things of the world belonged to him. No wonder he is called the prince of this world. This again could have made a good start to our Lord’s work on this earth. Imagine the following He could have had if He had paraded about in fancy royal robes with all kinds of gold and silver jewelry and perhaps even a kingly crown with many dazzling gems. But again this was not how his kingdom was to be built. It is a kingdom not of this world and it would be established and founded upon the Word alone.

Our Lord had now had enough, so he said to the devil, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matt. 4:10). Again we see the use of the Holy Scriptures which enabled the Lord to obtain the victory over the devil. The Scripture used this time was again from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 13. Moses is here speaking to the Children of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, and in this verse he reminds them that they are to worship only the Lord their God. We also note the power of the Lord’s words, for “Then the devil left him” (Matt. 4:11). Later in His ministry he would also speak to evil spirits and the spirits would have to obey. The Word has power. The Lord told the devil to leave, and this is how he later healed several who were possessed with such spirits. He spoke to the spirits and they left, leaving the person no longer possessed.

Finally we are told that “angels came and were ministering to him.” The Lord as we heard had fasted, not eating anything for forty days, so now angels were sent and they served him. Ministering means serving, as a servant serves food. We can imagine an elaborate banquet of foods being set before the Lord. His heavenly Father had sustained him for the past forty days and he now sustained him in royal fashion, sending holy angels with food. This gave him the energy to then begin His actual ministry. Thus Matthew tells us in the verse following our text that, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” He then began his work on earth not with miracles but with the preaching of the Word. That is the important thing we can learn from our text, that the Word and Holy Scriptures are all important in our faith-life.

We can in our lives today follow the Lord’s example in our battles against Satan. St. Peter in his first Epistle writes, “Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him firm in your faith” (I Pet. 5:8-9). We can use the Holy Scriptures as a mighty weapon against the devil’s onslaughts. St. Paul tells the Ephesians: “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and
supplication” (Eph. 6:10-18).

Prayer is another important tool. Our Lord prayed in the Garden as He was tempted to let the cup of suffering pass by and not drink it. So let us also use prayer as another tool in our arsenal against Satan. That is why the sixth petition is included in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” Luther explains this petition in the following way: “God does not tempt people to sin. But we are asking that He guard and keep us from the allurements of the devil, the world, and our flesh, so that we are not deceived and led into false faith, dark despair, or any other shame or evil. And even though we are assailed by temptations all our life, we pray that in the end we would win the spiritual war and claim the victory” (Luther’s Small Catechism in New Clothes, 18).

We are also reminded that we will not be tempted above what we can withstand. St. Paul says to the Corinthians “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13).

Let us be thankful that we have a Lord and Savior who took our place under the law and was able to withstand all temptations. The author to the Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

In conclusion then, since we know the devil will also be tempting us today, let us remember to use the same tool the Lord used to defeat the devil, that is the Word of God. We must the remember to wield this “sword of the Spirit” in our fight against the “Old Evil Foe.” Let us remember what Wilhelm Arends says in the following hymn:

Rise! To arms! With prayer employ you,
O Christians, lest the Foe destroy you,
For Satan has designed your fall.
Wield God’s Word, a weapon glorious!
Against each foe you’ll be victorious:
Our God will set you o’er them all.
Is Satan strong and fell?
Here is Immanuel.
Sing hosanna!
The strong ones yield,
With Christ our Shield,
And we as conquerors hold the field.
(TLH 444,1)


(Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.)