Prior to the beginning of His ministry, Matthew shares with us two things that happened to Jesus—His baptism and His temptation in the wilderness. These are to be taken together as inaugural and initiatory to His mission.
Jesus’ baptism was (among other things), His public manifestation to Israel. John develops this aspect as he tells of the Baptist’s words that “I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing in water was that He might be revealed to Israel (1:31). And it’s worth noting that Christ didn’t show up at the Jordan in a chauffeured limousine—He stood in line with sinners! And what He did at the beginning of His ministry, He did at the end as He was crucified not before a camera crew, but between two criminals (insurrectionists). In all of this, He was acting as Israel’s savior by identifying with sinners. This was in direct opposition to the behavior of the Jewish leaders who isolated themselves from sinners.
When Jesus was baptized the Spirit came upon Him in the form of a dove and God announced from heaven, “This is My Son, Whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus is singled out by the Spirit and the Father. If you were there on the banks of the Jordan that day, you knew that beyond the significance of your own response and that of others, was the marking out of this Man in these ways. The same word of mouth that had drawn people out to hear John would resonate again concerning the introduction of Jesus.
From there the He “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (4:1). Wilderness or desert in Scripture usually refers to a place that is uninhabited due to its climate, terrain or animal life (Mark 1:13). It is hostile to life. In such a place He remained without food for forty days. Satan showed up and did his best to get between Jesus and God but unlike his ancestors who expressed their distrust through grumbling, ingratitude and rebellion, Christ places Himself under God’s word, His worship and refuses to act presumptuously.
As a mature man of thirty He is fully tempted but completely confident in His Father. The wilderness which has worn down a nation, toppled its leader and proven inhospitable to is unable to bring Him down. Israel has a new king. It is not Herod the Great; it is Jesus the Christ. The nation has a new arc to their history because for One has come out of the wilderness to save them (1:21).
It’s tempting to view Matthew 4:12-17 as merely a transitional section and that is certainly one of the functions it serves. But it is so much more than that. While it introduces us to Jesus’ ministry, it also acts as a conclusion to his initial presentation to Israel through His baptism and temptation. It tells us that out of the wilderness came One who brought light to those “living in the land of the shadow of death” (v. 16). It’s part of a quote from Isaiah 9:1-2. The land humbled by the Assyrians (2 Kings 15:29) would be honored by the Savior who walks out of the wilderness with the life of righteousness dripping off Him.
Doesn’t it all make you want to puff out your chest a bit to know Someone like that? Doesn’t it fill your heart with a godly pride and make you want to say, “This is our Savior; Whom we love. In Him we are well pleased!”
How could we not be?