Words for the Wilderness

The backdrop for understanding the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4/Luke 4 is Israel’s time in the wilderness. The parallels aren’t difficult to see. I’ve adapted the following from Liefeld and Pao (Luke, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). 

  • Israel was God’s son (Exodus 4:22-23); Jesus was proclaimed God’s Son at His baptism (Luke 3:21-22). 
  • God led Israel into the wilderness; the Spirit led Jesus. 
  • Israel was there for 40 years; Jesus was there 40 days. 
  • Israel was tested by God; God allowed Jesus to be tempted by Satan. 
  • Israel failed miserably when tested while Jesus triumphed gloriously. He showed Himself to be God’s true Son.
  • At the time of their testing, both were vulnerable.

To that last point, when Israel was in the wilderness, they were fresh off their miraculous rescue by God. Not only had they come out of Egypt, but they had done so by crossing the Red Sea and then seeing the waters close over Pharaoh and his army. Egypt was in their rear-view mirror and Pharaoh would bother them no more. They had been delivered!

            Jesus had just been manifested to Israel as the Messiah through His baptism (John 1:31). Words from His Father were spoken and the Spirit came upon Him. There’s almost always a vulnerability that comes with great victory. We’re basking in the moment, our guard is down, and if we’re not careful, we can fall victim to overconfidence. Satan the opportunist knows how to take advantage.

            Israel quickly collapsed under the heat of their trials in the desert sun, but not Jesus. He stood tall. Satan came at Him three times but was rebuffed each time. 

            How did this happen?

            Jesus repelled him with Scripture. Not just any Scripture, but Scripture from Israel’s wilderness time. Specifically, the book of Deuteronomy—the book that rehearses Israel’s wilderness experiences. In other words, Jesus did what Israel did not do by putting into practice in the wilderness the principles they had ignored. By doing so, Jesus showed Himself to be a true Son of God. 

In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to rely on something other than God. He was tempted to use His own powers to turn stones into bread and feed Himself. He was tempted to assert Himself (“If You are the Son of God”), rather than humbly trusting God. After all, He had fasted for 40 days—hadn’t he already shown His submission to God? What would eating a little bread hurt?

            It would have been natural for the story of the manna to come to Jesus’ mind (it might have been in Satan’s mind and prompted his taunt). Like Israel, He was in the wilderness and hungry. Satan was essentially suggesting that Jesus produce some manna on His own—don’t wait for God to send it. Even though Israel received manna from above every morning, they never really learned to wait for God. They never really learned the truth that man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

            But Jesus knew. And He told Satan He would be waiting on God and living off His word (Deuteronomy 8:3).

            In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to receive the right thing in the wrong way. “Just step on over to my side,” Satan told Him, “and you can have all that I have.” Satan has authority over the kingdoms of the world in the sense that people can chose to follow his way. Because so many do, he is referred to as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV). It’s not an ultimate authority he possesses—it’s limited and temporary. But he offers it to Jesus if He will bow down to him. 

            Jesus would later rebuke the two disciples on the road to Emmaus because they didn’t understand the Scripture’s teaching that the Messiah had to suffer before receiving glory (Luke 24:26). He understood God’s plan for Him involved the cross and refused the shortcut Satan was offering. Disciples who want to follow God without any hardship or suffering fall right into the trap Satan was setting for Jesus. Christ would not take the shortcut or bow down to the one who offered it. Unlike Israel, who on several occasions in the wilderness involved themselves with other deities for whatever “benefits” they offered, He would serve and worship only God (Deuteronomy 6:13)! 

            In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to be presumptive. “You want everyone to know your God’s Son? Throw Yourself down from the top of the temple. Everyone will see it—and anyone who doesn’t will hear about it. After all, it says in Psalm 91 that the angels will protect You.”

            And there it is—one of the fascinating pictures in all of Scripture—Satan proof-texting from the Jewish Scriptures at the temple in Jerusalem. There’s lots of irony there, isn’t there? 

            Proof texting is like posting on social media, it can be a wonderful thing when it is done correctly, but too often it is not done that way, so it needs to be done judiciously. The problem with proof texting is we’re isolating a passage from its original context, so it opens up the possibility that either we will use it incorrectly or someone will misunderstand it. It’s like you and me switching phones and reading each other’s texts. We could jump to a lot of erroneous conclusions because we wouldn’t know the context behind the messages. In the same way, quoting a slew of biblical texts without supplying any context is almost always a recipe for misunderstanding and not good basic communication. When Paul was instructing the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts, he rebuked them for their infatuation with tongue-speaking—the miraculous ability to speak in a language unknown to you (1 Corinthians 14:5,13). He said he would rather speak five words that could be clearly understood than ten thousand words in a tongue. The principle should be clear: good communication requires context.

            That’s what we see in Jesus’ use of these three passages from Deuteronomy. As we’ve seen, they’re all taken from instruction given to Israel while in the wilderness. They were tempted in the wilderness and so was Jesus—therefore His quotes/proof texts from Deuteronomy are in harmony with and especially applicable to His situation. 

            Grandstanding in the way Satan suggested by throwing Himself off the temple would have been putting God to the test. It would be like us getting out of our vehicle and running through rush-hour traffic and expecting God to protect us. Jesus knew Psalm 91 well enough to know that’s not what it taught! He would not put God to that kind of test (Deuteronomy 6:16)!

            The next time you’re wondering what value a book like Deuteronomy has for people in the 21st century, just remember when Jesus was up against the wall in the wilderness, it was the book He turned to. That has to be worth something, don’t you think?



Published by A Taste of Grace with Bruce Green

I grew up the among the cotton fields, red clay and aerospace industry of north Alabama. My wife and I are blessed with three adult children and five grandchildren.

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