The Temptation of Christ: An Exegesis of Matthew 4:1-11

The passage in Matthew 4:1-11 recounts the narrative story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: “1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written,”‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6and 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.'” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.9And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” 11Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.” (English Standard Version)
This passage describes the encounter that Jesus had with devil, alone in the wilderness after He had been fasting for over forty days and forty nights. This comes soon after his baptism by John the Baptist where Jesus was proclaimed as the beloved Son of God as the Holy Spirits presence and power was rendered unto Him. Jesus was tempted by Satan to challenge his power as the Son of God, yet Jesus was also human. Jesus was no more or less susceptible to temptation as are any other humans. Nevertheless, as Jesus was equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit, knowledge of Scripture, and had the obedience to God, he was able to ward off the temptations of Satan. In analyzing the background and foreground of this passage, which sits at the end of the first narrative section of the narrative/discourse literary structure of the book of Matthew (Varughese 113), I have come to realize that this temptation of Jesus and his spiritual ability to resist temptations is the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry and work. The whole text is a symbolic narrative, which is divided into three, sermon-like points marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit and by quotations by Jesus from the book of Deuteronomy. This passage is symbolic of the forty years the Israelites were tempted in the wilderness and the human nature of Jesus.

This passage occurs immediately after the baptism of Jesus and directly before the calling of his disciples that comes before the Sermon on the Mount, beginning the discourse from the narrative. The Greek word for wilderness, Eremos, means “solitude, an uninhabited region, and a wasteland” (Thayer and Smith). Therefore, the wilderness was an obvious symbol in the culture of this day and age. I believe that this passage was recorded as to illustrate the humanness yet also the divine power of Jesus Christ. He was not prone to temptation, he could succumb to it just like anybody, but with the power of the Holy Spirit and scripture, he was able to ward off Satan a duel like way. Satan asks three times, Jesus refuses three times. This text clearly shows that Jesus was tempted by the Tempter just as much as we are, yet he does not give in, he does not sin.
This passage occurs at the beginning of the first narrative section of Matthew. Often viewed as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the function of this passage seems to verify his humanness as well as his authenticity as the Son of God. This temptation of Jesus comes directly after his baptism and his anointing of the Holy Spirit by God, his father. The beginning of this passage “tells us that Jesus was [led] into the wilderness by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil” (Albright and Mann). I believe that without this temptation, as a confirmation of his humanness is a vital part to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
This passage is a symbolic narrative filled with quotations from the Old Testament, more specifically the book of Deuteronomy. It is symbolic in the way that it is remindful of the Israelites forty years spent in the wilderness. It is somewhat of a three-point sermon— an epic duel between good and evil. First, Satan tempts Jesus to “command…stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus’ quotes scripture, saying no to Satan and “resisting the lust of the flesh”. (Albright and Mann). Secondly, Jesus’ is tempted to throw Himself down from the “pinnacle of the temple” (Albright and Mann) so that the angels may come and rescue Him, displaying His power and glory—resisting the “lust of the eyes”. Thirdly, Satan tempted Jesus to fall down and worship him so that he might obtain all the kingdoms of the Earth. Again, Jesus refuses by quoting scripture; resisting “the pride of life”. (Albright and Mann)
Matthew Henry explains the temptation of Jesus as “the story of a famous duel, fought hand to hand, between Michael and the dragon, the Seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, nay, the serpent himself; in which the seed of the woman suffers, being tempted, and so has his heel bruised; but the serpent is quite baffled in his temptations, and so has his head broken; and our Lord Jesus comes off as a Conqueror, and so secures not only comfort, but conquest at last, to all his faithful followers.” (Henry)
The structure of the narrative is outlined as follows:
I. Introduction: Setting the scene (4:1-2)
II. First Test and Response (4:3-4)
A. Temptation by Satan to turn stones into bread
B. Jesus’ response/refusal and quotation of scripture
III. Second Test and Response (4:5-7)
A. Temptation to abuse power and authority (4:5-6)
B. Jesus’ response/refusal and quotation of scripture
IV. Third Test and Response (4:8-10)
A. Temptation to gain wealth and earthly power
B. Jesus’ response/refusal and quotation of scripture
V. Conclusion: Jesus rests/the angels serve Him (4:11)

The movement of this passage does not really follow that of a basic narrative story. The exposition begins with the introduction and the setting of the scene, “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.” The rising action occurs during the first two temptations where the conflict, the temptations of Satan, is developed by the refusal of Jesus to succumb to them. The climax of this passage is reached, I believe, during the third temptation when Jesus has had enough. After the temptation to fall down and worship Satan, Jesus replies with “Be gone Satan!” ending the temptations. Following this, the angels comfort Jesus and take care of him in the falling action.
In this passage, there are three different types of temptation. The lust of the flesh (v. 4:3), the lust of the eyes (v. 4:5), the pride of life resisted (v. 4:9). This test of Jesus in the wilderness after fasting for forty day and nights is very symbolic of the time the Israelites 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness as told in Exodus.
The tests by Satan and the refusals to succumb to the temptation are in somewhat of a three-point sermon outline. Each time the devil temps Him, he overcomes Satan by quoting scripture from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy was a major part of the Jewish scripture of this day and age.
The first temptation seems to come at such a perfect time. It is the first temptation after Jesus’ huge 40 day fasting. This would be a huge temptation to any human, and I am sure Jesus felt as much of a temptation as you and I would have. It was not necessarily a sin to command stones into bread. The sin would have been in the abuse of power and the succumbing to the wishes of Satan. He knew that it was not the will of God.
The second temptation, the test of the eyes, was an attempt to convince Jesus to abuse his power by causing the angels to rescue him from a great, unnecessary fall. Jesus had no reason to do this, His time had not yet come for him to reveal His glory and He was not about to just randomly jump from a high cliff so that his angels might come and rescue Him just to prove his immortality.
The third temptation his Satan last and futile effort to corrupt the Son of Man. Satan told Jesus that if He would only bow down and worship him that all the kingdoms and the power of the world would be His. Now Satan has often been referred to as the Great Deceiver. Even if Jesus had bowed down to Satan, it is more than likely that the kingdoms of the Earth would not be His. Not only did Jesus know this, be he would not, could not, and most certainly refused to bow down and worship Satan. By this point, Jesus had had enough. “Be gone Satan!” He shouts before rebuking the last temptation with another scripture from Deuteronomy.
After all the temptations and Satan leaves, Jesus is comforted after passing this great test. Through this passage, He has been confirmed as the “beloved” Son of God, human yet God-like in nature. This appears to be one of the last times we see Satan until the temptation of Jesus in the garden to run from the cross. Even though Jesus’ heal had been bitten in the wilderness, He comes through strong to crush Satan’s head on the Mount of Olives.
The three main points of the text are the three responses Jesus gives to Satan. The structure of the passage reminds me of baseball. Satan’s pitches, Jesus’ hits, Satan’s pitches, Jesus’ hits and so forth. Right before Jesus quoted the scripture, each time He would say, “It is written…” obviously not only drawing attention to the fact that the temptation has been stopped with scripture, but to reinforce his refusal.
I conclude that this passage exists to not only serve as an example for Christian believers but to prove that Jesus was indeed also tempted. He was God and man. No more was it easier for Him to rebuke Satan that it is for us, because we are equipped with the same weapons; the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures.
This text is important to me because of the intimate way it shows Jesus. It reminds me so much of the temptation in the garden of Gethsemane. In both passages, we see Jesus in a very naked, vulnerable and innocent state. Both times, Satan shows up to tempt Him but Jesus remains the conqueror knowing that He had come to earth for a greater purpose. This text is also special to me in a way that it reaffirms how I should be living. We are called to be like Christ. During his ministry, He was filled with the Holy Spirit. As we are also filled with the Holy Spirit, we are able to refuse to succumb to temptations with our knowledge of the scripture. For it is written in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. 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.”
We can look to this scripture as a very clear example of how Jesus became humble. He was so obedient to God; He could do all of the things Satan tempted Him to do and never think anything of it. That is not what He was sent to Earth to do, and He knew this. He was not just God nor was He just man—He was both and this text makes it very obvious who this Man really was, even though He was bombarded with temptations left and right, my God never sinned so that He might rescue me from my own sin. As for me, that concept drives my entire existence.


Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew. Vol. 26. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.
Varughese, Alex, et al. Discovering the New Testament. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2005.
“Wilderness,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Edited by James Orr. Blue Letter Bible. 1913. 5 May 2003. 23 Oct 2007.

Jamieson, Robert; A.R. Fausset; and David Brown. “The Gospel According to Matthew.” Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Blue Letter Bible. 19 Feb 2000. 23 Mar 2007.
Thayer and Smith. “Greek Lexicon entry for Eremos”. “The New Testament Greek Lexicon”.
Henry, Matthew. “Commentary on Matthew 4.” Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible. Blue Letter Bible. 01 Mar 1996. 27 Mar 2007.


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