SCRIPTURE STUDY: Jesus’s vision quest in Matthew 4
At the end of chapter three of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus (and us as readers) hears the voice of God proclaim, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” This proclamation sets the scene for what happens in chapter 4.
Following his encounter at the Jordan with John, Jesus retreats to a place by himself, left to figure out what this means, this proclamation that he is the beloved son of God. In some sense, Jesus’s retreat to the wilderness calls to mind the Native American idea of a “vision quest,” a turning point in one’s life where a young man figures out whom he really is and what that means. So we have Jesus, at the beginning of chapter four, fasting and alone in the desert, possibly unpacking what has just happened in his encounter with John.
The eleven verses that make up the “temptation” passage are rife with Exodus imagery. Jesus being led into the desert where he spends 40 days and 40 nights fasting should recall to us the story of Israel, a people freed from Egypt and led by the spirit into the desert for a time of testing that lasts 40 years. But whereas Jesus’s ancestors spent their time in the desert complaining about there not being enough food or drink (and God answering with manna and flowing water from the rock), fashioning a golden calf and worshipping it instead of God, and so on, Jesus will meet the challenge of his testing. The Israelites are tested and falter time and time again during their 40 years, but Jesus will recapitulate their time in the desert with his 40 days—but he will meet the tests and remain faithful to God.
The devil starts the questioning of Jesus with an interesting conditional phrase: “IF you are the Son of God…” This phrase is attached to the proclamation at the end of chapter 3, connecting the two passages, and hinting to us that the very thing which Jesus was contemplating while in the desert was indeed what happened in the Jordan with John and what does it mean. And the devil has some easy ways for him to unequivocally answer the question of his identity. “IF you are the son of God…” well, then, do this and you’ll know for sure. Right? But Jesus doesn’t take the bait, recalling instead the words from Deuteronomy, words that again recall the manna passage and the Israelites own crying out for God to give them something to eat.
In the second temptation, the devil evokes in Jesus a powerful emotion—fear. He perches Jesus on the top of the temple and again suggests that a way of being sure about his identity is to throw himself off, even quoting scripture (the devil can quote scripture too!) as to how the scenario should unfold. But Jesus resists again, quoting Deuteronomy.
The final temptation offers us some interesting political analysis. The insinuation in verses 8-9 is that the kingdoms of the world belong not to God, but to the devil—they’re his to give. These verses should cause all of us to be skeptical of aligning any kingdom, any political ideology, any economic empire, any nation or state, with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not equivalent to any political reality we might find here on earth. And no matter what good we think we might be able to do by wielding the power that comes along with positions of status and influence within such systems, we would do well to remember Jesus’ refusal to make any deals with the devil to be the master of such power (again by quoting Deuteronomy).
Whereas the Israelites time of testing and preparation as the chosen people of God was a series of failures and mistakes, Jesus realizes his identity as God’s chosen son by meeting each challenge and remaining faithful.