Message: The End of the Beginning (Pt. 1) | Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11 | Speaker: Stephen Choy
Before we read from our passage this morning, let’s take a moment to revisit where we are in this book because Matthew has painstakingly laid out a roadmap for us to follow as he guides us through the early life of Christ. This book, I have said it before, is primarily didactic—that means it intends to educate us, and not merely to educate us but to do so theologically. All of us ought to read this book and come out with a higher view of both God and his plan for his people through the gift of his Son.
But we shouldn’t just come out with better theology because Matthew isn’t teaching us theology simply to fill our minds. He’s teaching it to fill our hearts. This is the entire goal of fulfillment. Christ comes to fulfill the law in every sense so that in our grasp of the theology—in our grasp of God’s incredible character and work through Jesus—our whole lives might reflect more than just what the law prescribes but the one who prescribed it.
This is why the evangelist starts with a genealogy. He means to signal that a new beginning has come in the revelation of Christ—the Messiah, and with it a new people who live under his dominion. That’s Matthew 1. But then, Matthew 2 reveals that Jesus isn’t only the dawn of a new creation, but he also embodies a new exodus whereby he is hidden in Egypt and then brought out as God’s protected Son, just like his corporate son, Israel.
So, intentional is Matthew to arrange the imitation of Israel’s history in the life of Jesus that he skips 25 years of his life in order to align his exit out of Egypt with his baptism in chapter 3. Just like Israel left Egypt by passing through the Red Sea, so too does Jesus leave Egypt and pass through the waters for his baptism as a sign of God’s new plan to save his people.
And what happens after Jesus both passes through his own proverbial Red Sea and becomes the way through which all of us pass through it with him? Well, that’s where we are in Matthew 4:1-11 as Christ is brought, according to Matthew, into the wilderness. So, please follow along as I read to you from Matthew 4:1-11. TWoL: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But 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 6 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.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 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.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Our passage is the (beginning of the) end of the beginning, and what it teaches us is that righteousness is costly. It is often difficult and almost never immediately gratifying. Yet, the text is here to serve both as a practical warning and as our foundation for hope. What we learn is that, as the people of God, we are to take no shortcuts in fulfilling God’s will God’s way—for only in doing so will we receive God’s intended blessing. All that Jesus has experienced thus far, and what he will experience in our verses—all of his nearly 30 years on earth—bring us to perhaps the greatest confrontation between two beings that has ever taken place in history.
And while we’re not meant to miss the gravity of the confrontation, we’re also not to forget that we’re talking about Jesus this morning—the Son of God, who could have ended this whole ordeal with a single word, but he, himself, takes no shortcuts in fulfilling the will of God in the way of God, and we are to follow suit—making sure always that we aren’t only pursuing God’s intended ends for us but doing so through God’s intended means. And the first way we’re to do that is to . . .
1) Receive Instead of Dictate
Verses 1 and 2 set the stage for us, and they reveal to us three quick things. First, it tells us that God, through His Spirit, is the one orchestrating these events in order to prove that Jesus is truly the Son of God, that’s what’s meant by the “then” connecting us to his baptism. The heavens were rend open (ch. 3), and the proclamation of God’s favour over his Son was publicly declared. So, the Spirit whisks him away into the desert in order to show us the extent of his Sonship—not only that he is the eternally begotten Son, but that he is the true, righteous Son. He is both Son by divine right, and, in this text, we learn, he is also the Son by human merit. God wants us to know that. The devil merely shows up as an instrument in God’s plans to accomplish his will. Satan, himself, has no determinative power over Christ here, rather he is where God wants him to be.
Second, God is orchestrating things for Jesus to mimic Israel’s experience in the wilderness. We’re told he fasts for forty days and nights, which reminds us of the forty years that Israel was in the desert, but it also reminds us of Noah and the Ark, Moses on Sinai, David’s years as king, Ezekiel on his side, and Elijah on his way to Sinai/Horeb. Jesus isn’t just fulfilling Israel; he’s fulfilling all his covenantal predecessors, and he’s doing it as a human who gets hungry—he faces weakness and want in order to show the depth of his greater desire for righteousness than all those who came before. By doing so, he proves he is the greatest of all humanity not just Israel.
This leads me to the third thing. In Christ’s being brought into this situation to be tested by the sovereign God and confronted by the devil, Jesus is also reliving and reconstituting the experience of Adam. Not much mention or allusion has been given to Adam yet in Matthew, but Matthew, inspired by the Spirit, knows that the genealogy of man’s sinfulness doesn’t begin with Abraham. And his allusion here to Adam in verses 1 and 2 is a clear indicator that, while this book is targeted at Jewish Christians, Jesus is the Messiah—the greater Adam—for everyone past, present, and future because he overcomes the devil’s temptations, unlike the prior Adam, and he does it without any of the advantages that Adam possessed in Eden.
All this sets the backdrop for the coming of the one who God intends to administer the test, who isn’t some deadbeat or someone who Jesus prefers to see. It’s the devil. Now, there’s a huge temptation nowadays with familiar texts like this to flatten it out and to treat it like we’ve read it 100 times before. But this is the maker and sustainer of the universe against the very thing that waylaid God’s creation by a simple twisting of words and set into motion the downfall of our entire race. If you desire to read about drama and tension in any kind of literature, this is the epic of epics. It’s the one known in Matthew as The Tempter or The Deceiver against the one who by nature cannot be tempted and tempts no one (James 1:13 in ref. to God). It doesn’t get more cosmically untethered than this.
And this tempter—this deceiver—goes for broke starting with the temptation that, although Jesus is the Son of God, he should acknowledge that his Father is not quite so good as he or the rest of Scripture makes him out to be. This “if” to start the devil’s quote in verse 3 is better translated as “since”—“since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread, so that you can eat and not be hungry.”
The devil’s not dumb. He knows exactly who Jesus is, so he skips the pageantry and says, “since you are God yourself—since you are the omnipotent being, second person of the Trinity, just satisfy yourself. Why do you need the Father’s permission? Why are you letting him hurt you like this? Just do what you want and need to do—the Father can’t stop you. Trust that you know what’s best for you.”
Here, the devil’s not offering Christ a simple temptation to fill his stomach. No, he’s appealing to the human, sinful inclination for us to be sufficient in ourselves and apart from God. The temptation is: don’t be satisfied in what you have. Don’t take your lot in life as something to be pleased about or content in or even in the thought that God wants this for you because it’s clear that by your hunger—by your suffering, that this cannot be the case.
And yet, what is Jesus’ response? His response is to quote from Deuteronomy 8:3, which isn’t only a fitting response—namely, that his food is to do what God tells him to do—but he’s quoting directly from the portion of Scripture where Moses has just outlined the entirety of God’s law to his people, recounted their 40 years of wandering, and reminded them of God’s gift of manna to them as sinners. Moses is admonishing Israel that if only they seek to be righteous before God—if only they seek to satisfy his desires more than their anxiety to fill their stomachs, then they’ll also find that all of their needs and more shall be met.
Christ, here in the wilderness, having received no manna of his own and in complete obedience to the law, is resting on that promise. He doesn’t complain against God. Instead, he recognizes that those who concern themselves with righteousness first will be accompanied by the meeting of all their needs. Why? Because in so doing, you live out the character of God, and God always seeks to honour those who live out his character.
And this is utterly profound because Jesus is God. He can dictate what should be, and whatever he dictates would be good in and of itself. But here, Christ shows the depth of his submission to the will of God by acknowledging that the means of possessing and obtaining the good end are not to be dictated by him but, as God’s Son, to be received on the Father’s terms.
Christ knows that God has already dictated his will to us in his Word. We are not sufficient outside of what he has declared for us in that Word to be good. So, to attempt to seize what is good apart from the means by which God intends us to achieve it—to live contrary to his revelation—is to turn that good thing into something bad. To seek the control of our own fates and our own lives on our own terms is to make the claim that God is insufficient to meet our needs, or worse yet, it’s to make the claim that God isn’t worthy of our obedience even when we are in need. And make no mistake, God is always worthy, even if we were always needy.
It’s in his knowledge of this that Jesus takes no shortcuts in accomplishing the will of God because he knows exactly who God is and what he wants. That is why he quotes from Deuteronomy 8. Jesus knows his Scripture and history. Israel ought to have known how to behave in response to God’s immense grace, and yet, they sought to satisfy themselves on their own terms. And because of Israel, Jesus knows what happens to those who live according to their own sufficiency, and what happens to those who find their sufficiency in God. He knows that man’s self-centered striving results only in sorrow and nothingness, whereas dependence upon God results only in the joy that he brings us, personally, in the gift of all things.
Thus, Jesus’ living—his food, if you will—is to do what his Father desires him to do even at the cost of his own needs, knowing that as long as you are honouring God, he superintends to help you continue honouring him until you have finished all that he requires you to do. This, dear church, is the epitome of faithfulness shown in Christ’s heart to live only for that which pleases his Father. And we, very much, live in opposite to this model, don’t we? We plan out our days, figure out our meals, schedule our activities whether or not such things are to the pleasure of God. This has become the extent of our sin—that we seek to be sufficient in ourselves first before giving our lives in service to him.
But Christ isn’t only trying to provide us with an example in order for us to rectify that, but he actually rectifies it through his life, death, and resurrection not only so that we might find forgiveness for our waywardness, but so that he might restore us to the path that he, himself, has already tread and keep us, by his Spirit, from veering off to the right or to the left. Living a life dependent upon God is more than just about God filling your stomach, it’s about knowing that unless God wants you alive, you’d be dead—it’s about knowing that unless God, there is nothing else. Let this be a lesson to us who follow Jesus to take no shortcuts in our desire to receive that which God wills for us and to receive it on God’s terms.
2) Submit Instead of Attract
The second temptation (vv. 5-7) speaks not only to Christ’s ability to prove that he is the Son of God like in the first, but it also speaks more explicitly to his purpose (the first does as well, more subtly, but now Satan is trying to intentionally compromise the mission of Jesus). One of Matthew’s prevailing themes, like I’ve said, is that Jesus has come to separate the true people of God for himself as their Lord. And what does that necessitate? It necessitates that they follow him, believe in his ministry, and trust in him to be their long-awaited Saviour.
So, what does the devil do? He brings Jesus to the place where he might have the greatest effect on those people. He brings him to the center of their world—the pinnacle of the temple, which is the highest point of the entire city, and he tells Jesus to throw himself down because if he does, God’s angels will come and save him.
Now, before I explain the heart of Satan’s temptation, we must first understand the methods of Satan’s trickery because here, as our Bibles tell us, he’s quoting from Psalm 91:11-12. And people will cast this off by saying that the devil is simply twisting and misusing Scripture here, and to an extent he is, but not by misinterpreting the text. His technical interpretation is correct. It’s accurately applied. And it’s contextually astute.
But the way the devil works—the way he tempts is far subtler and devious than simply taking Scripture out of context or using it in a way that creates an obvious advantage for himself. He leaves that beginner’s tactic to atheists, cultists, and to the health and wealth preachers of our day. The devil, instead, rightly interprets Scripture, and he comes into the mind of one who can affirm that interpretation, but then, at the same time, he’ll walk into your heart, and he will see a thing that you desire, which is good to desire only not in that moment. Then, he will take that desire, convince you of your right to have it now, while simultaneously telling you that your pursuit of it isn’t only justified by Scripture but encouraged. And before you know it, you’ve compromised your own godly convictions, because you think that the Bible has you covered.
We say, “I’m going to say these words because nothing can snatch me away from the hand of God. I’m going to go to that club and live like a sinner because I am the righteousness of God. I’m going to look at that picture or watch that movie because no one can separate me from the love of God. I’m going to be uncaring towards that unsaved, unlikable person because God hates sinners, and if God wants to save them, he’ll find a way to save them.”
See, the devil works like this—he temps us to put ourselves in front of the Bible so that its words serve us instead of the other way around. He means to trap us in our conceit and our desire to have glory our way. And this is exactly what he tries to do with Jesus. This second temptation is the devil’s attempt to see Jesus’ desires and trick him into pursuing them before they are meant to be pursued: “You know why you’re here—to get followers, to convince them you are the Son of God, to get them to do what you, God himself, have always wanted them to do. Better yet, you know God actually intends to give you this. So why wait? You’ve said it yourself—these are your words, ‘if you jump from this place, angels will catch you,’ so jump, and the people will see who you are, and they will follow.”
But Jesus, again, chooses to obey God over pursuing his own desires—even if those desires, when rightly appropriated, are good desires. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6:16, which references Exodus 17 where Israel’s tested God at Massah and Meribah due to their lack of water. They believed God had abandoned them. So, Moses rebukes them for their testing, that despite all God’s already shown them, they still do not trust him, and then Moses strikes a rock, exposing their shame and causing water to come out of it.
Just like that first temptation, Jesus is reliving Israel’s experiences, and yet vindicating himself and satisfying the requirement of God by trusting God—by not testing him—by not putting himself and his desires before the promises of God who is always faithful to fulfill them in his time.
This is what Matthew, through Jesus, is teaching us—that to make our desires ultimate, no matter how good those desires might be, and to place them before the prerogatives—before the will of God is to test God—to require him to prove to us that he is who he says he is—to make ourselves the arbiters—judges of whether or not he is worthy of our following him. To test God is to make possessing our desires as we see fit more important than actually knowing and desiring God as he is and as he intends to reveal himself to us. To test God is to place ourselves in the position where God ought to be.
One commentator puts it this way, “to use divine energy [which Christ could have done as the Son of God] in order to gain self-assurance or prove what is known by faith is to tempt God—this Jesus can’t do—all that he does, he does under the prerogative of God. [When God says, now you are glorified, Jesus will be glorified.] When God says do the impossible, Jesus will do miracles, when God says die, Jesus will die, and when God says rise, Jesus will rise, but not yet.” Here, the devil is coaxing Jesus to jump the proverbial gun and give him and his people a sign that proves he is this person who he claims to be—to skip the unpleasantness of everything that is about to come in order to do so and thereby thwart the trust that he has in the Father. In other words, the devil is trying to undermine the cross.
But this, true Son of God takes no shortcuts. He never places himself before the Word or Will of God. He knows God shall bring people to him, but to do so, in the magnitude and grandeur that God intends to do it, Jesus must submit himself to that divine Will—and he must submit himself all the way to Calvary, where he will pour out his blood for our sin and pay for the wrath of our unrighteousness, because in so doing, he will not only attract followers, but he will secure them to himself forever. Jesus doesn’t just come to establish his authority; he comes to establish his dependability as the one in whom we can both be in awe of and place our eternal affection in. And the only way he can do that is by refusing the offer of the devil, laying down his own desires, and humbly submitting himself to what may be the more difficult, yet better way of the Father.
Let me just say that there is a myriad of ways that these verses can apply to us but allow me to draw one application to us as a church. Many of us want to see change come to TCCBC, including myself—for God to bring in a new tide of converts and a generation of hungry saints—for certain ministries to be better developed and perfected, and, perhaps, some of us are tempted to try and achieve those things by making ourselves more attractive to the world—having offerings to the community that sort of catch the eye so that people might come in and experience the truth of our ministry.
As your pastor, I love hearing the zeal and desire to be a light to those around us—for such desires are good things to have. But we must also be very cautious in this because the pursuit of such things may become unhealthy and dangerous if we do so contrary to the way that God intends for us to achieve them—if God intends for us to achieve them. And while we may not want to hear it, holiness and healthiness, both in the larger church and personal context, almost always take place slowly, and, even more likely, they often come painfully without any natural, explainable attraction to the world.
Yet, this is how God works in the world. This is how God works through his Son—that he might bring every sinner who belongs to the kingdom of heaven not through the spectacular but through his death like a common criminal upon that bloodstained cross. It is the gospel that we will live and die on, discipled to each of its members through the preaching of the Word and its evangelization in the world. This shall be the means of our witness, and if God wills, our growth.
And such a thing is incredibly painful to say and think about because it means dying to self—it means putting aside those things that we think are humanly and broadly attractive—it means doing things that do not come naturally and opening ourselves up to the possibility of ridicule by other sinners who do not and cannot understand why we do what we do. In all of this, we must be willing to suffer the scorn and derision of the world for the sake of displaying him who was scorned and derided for us.
It is through that painful process of laying aside the weight of our own glory, just like our Saviour did, that we must persevere and not lose hope, which is made possible by prioritizing our patience and satisfaction in our God—in being assured that he will accomplish what is good for us to desire, but that he will do it in the time that also brings the most glory to himself, and in that, we would be wise to heed Christ as he waited to see it.
Let this be a check to us, church—to ask ourselves whether our patience and our satisfaction are in him and the means that he gives us to live out his plans in our lives according to his good pleasure. Ask yourself if he and the revelation of his Son in the gospel are the primary motivation for all else that you pursue? If you cannot say yes to these questions, then we ought not jump to our self-imposed need to fix and receive other things. Take no shortcuts in doing the will of God according to the ways of God. Prioritize your trust in him, and he will make your path straight.