We start into the season of Lent, this Sunday, with the story of Jesus being “tempted in the wilderness” (Matt 4:1–11). This story is told early on in three canonical Gospels. The shortest and most focussed version is in the earliest of these Gospels—the account of “the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God”, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark (Mark 1:12-13)
That account simply notes the bare minimum. The location is “the wilderness”. The duration is “forty days”. Present with Jesus throughout these days were both “wild beasts” and “angels”. What was the purpose of this challenging, difficult experience? Mark says that Jesus was there to be “tempted by Satan”. Under whose auspices did this all take place? The first line of the Markan account is, “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness”.
So this short, succinct, concentrated version already gives us key pointers to the significance of this story. The forty days in the wilderness stand at the start of the public activity of Jesus, as a declaration of what he is on about. And these days are part of the intention that God has, for Jesus, to prepare for his role.
The story also appears in the “book of the origins of Jesus, the anointed one, the son of David, the son of Abraham”, which we attribute to Matthew, and is placed as the first Gospel in canonical order in our scriptures. But this wasn’t the first Gospel written; the author (by tradition, Matthew) quite clearly knew, and made use of, the earlier account of “the good news of Jesus” which we link with Mark.
So in this later work, the details of the story are expanded and the plot line is filled out (Matt 4:1-11). The forty days in the wilderness becomes a time when Jesus fasted (Matt 4:2; something not mentioned in the earlier Markan account). Here, Jesus engages in a disputation with “the tempter” (Matt 4:3, which uses the language already found in the Markan version). The back-and-forth of this disputation is recorded by Matthew.
Of course, the role that is enacted by this figure—the tempter, the devil, the tester, the Satan—is the role of divine advocate, the one we know from the book of Job as the prosecuting attorney, the accuser, the one who puts the case that Job needs to answer. The whole of that book demonstrates how such a courtroom setting plays out, as the argument is investigated, the evidence is explored, the case for a verdict is painstakingly built.
Matthew’s account is the version that we are offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent (Matt 4:1–11). Matthew also sets the encounter in the wilderness (4:1). In the biblical tradition, the wilderness plays a pivotal role in the story of the Israelites, freed from captivity in Egypt, yearning for the promise of land and safety still ahead of them. The wilderness is the place where Israel spends forty years—not forty periods of 365 days, measured precisely and carefully, but, in the way of the ancients, forty was the way of saying, a heaps long time, a lot of weeks and years, a period extending out into the unseeable future.
The wilderness experience, for Israel, was long, seemingly unending, and challenging. Yet, it was also the place where the character of Israel was forged. It was in the wilderness, throughout that long period of wandering, that they had encounters with the divine, that their identity was shaped, that their foundations as a nation were laid.
Indeed, so central is this period, that we find many references to it in Hebrew scripture, and lengthy narratives recounting incidents during that period. The story of Moses and the Israelites is narrated in Exodus 13:17–19:2 and 40:34–38, through the book of Numbers (where it is mentioned 44 times), and in Deuteronomy 1–2. There, we read of thirst and hunger in the wilderness, encounters with snakes and other trials—as well as the giving of the law, on Sinai, a mountain in the middle of the wilderness.
The journey through the wilderness figured in the songs of Israel. It is regularly recalled in the Psalms (68:7, 78:15–20, 40, 52; 95:8; 106:14–33; 136:16) as well as in various prophetic oracles and other narrative references. The exodus from Egypt and the subsequent wilderness wandering, provided the foundational story for Israel, from long ago, and still through into the present.
The wilderness was where Israel met God; where Israel’s commitment was tested; where Israel’s faith was shaped. So it is, also, for Jesus. In Hebrew Scriptures, the wilderness was not a god-forsaken place, full of temptations, but it was the place where God encounters the people, tests them, nurtures them, and equips them for their future. And so it, also, for Jesus.
The forty days in the wilderness was undoubtedly an intense experience for Jesus. The role of “the tempter” in this story is not actually to tempt Jesus to stray into immoral or unethical or unrighteous actions. On the contrary, the role of “the tempter” is actually to test Jesus, to probe and analyse his understandings, in to hypothesise and offer alternative strategies, to help Jesus to clarify and focus on what is central for him. It is a test of his character, his core qualities, and of his commitment to the mission to which he has been called.
Indeed, the devil here fills the role more of “the tester” than “the tempter”—and the Greek word used here (peirasmos) is quite capable of this alternative translation. It is most often used in Greek literature to describe the process of testing as to whether something is viable or possible, and that is the way it is intended elsewhere in the Gospels when it occurs. It only gains the secondary sense of “tempting” or soliciting something that is sinful, in relatively few instances, mostly within the letters of Paul and James.
So this is what was happening in the story that our Gospels recount: a time of testing, a testing which was designed to cut through to the centre of the issue, to engage deeply with the heart of the matter. It wasn’t an attempt by the devil to get Jesus to go off the rails, to misbehave badly, to succumb to unrighteous behaviour, to sin. Rather, this was the way that ancient Jews sought to crystallise the issue and define key matters of faith and life. That’s what was going on for Jesus during those forty days in the wilderness.
Most versions of the Bible, today, put a heading at the beginning of this story: “The Temptation of Jesus”. I wouldn’t label it as such. I would prefer to call it, “The Testing of Jesus”. What is his mission all about? Is he clear about how he will carry out that mission? What strategy does he have, as he enters into the public proclamation of his good news about God’s kingdom? These are the issues that are at stake in this particular story.
The Gospel writers believed that the forty days in the wilderness was a time for Jesus to face testing, and that this testing was mandated by God. This way of understanding the story is underlined when we look at the top-and-tail of each account. The shortest and earliest account states that “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). There is a violence, an aggression, in the term used here. But it is an action of the Spirit, forcing Jesus to enter this trial. It is something that he had to do, under the impulse of God’s direction.
One later account modifies this, and softens the verb to say that “Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness” (Matt 4:1). We find this in Matthew; and that version ends with “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (Matt 4:11). That picks up on what Mark had said, that “the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). So the story ends with an implicit approval, by the divine, through the vehicle of the angels, regarding what has transpired in the wilderness.
Another later account makes this quite clear and explicit. The version we attribute to Luke begins “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). That intensifies the sense of divine guidance and approval in what is about to take place. And the account ends with a similar note: “The devil departed from him … then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” (Luke 4:13-14). Could it be any clearer?
Indeed, a still later account, which is not in the canon of New Testament books, but was revered by some in the early church, includes a section that reports on something from this story, placed onto the mouth of Jesus: “even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me to the great Mount Tabor”—a reflection of the section of the story that talks about Jesus being taken up to a high mountain (Matt 4:8). [That comes from the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and is quoted by Origen in his Commentary on John 2:12.] So in this version, the testing of Jesus is actually carried out, not by the devil, but by the Spirit!
My proposal is that, as we read this story, we need to banish thoughts of “temptation” and the notion that Jesus might choose a false and unrighteous pathway. What is actually taking place, is a strenuous and engaged encounter, in which Jesus is challenged to clarify his divine calling and better equipped to live out the mission that he has been given, by God, during his adult life.
In that sense, this story is not a remote, back-then, archaic account … it is a living, here-and-now, immediate insight into how we, ourselves are to live out our faith in the hustle and bustle of our own lives. That is precisely the pathway that we are encouraged to enter, as we stand at the start of the season of Lent, and as we experience our own time of re-evaluation and reassessment of our own walk of faith today. What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be? How can we best live that out in our lives?
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One thought on “Testing (not temptation) in the wilderness (Matt 4; Lent 1A)”
Thanks again for an interesting view on this wilderness/temptation passage.