The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness has always fascinated me. It can function on so many levels, but I want to briefly explore the way it functions in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus' Messianic identity.
The story is framed as a divinely ordained encounter. Jesus “was led into the desert by the Spirit” (Mt 4.1). God has just confirmed Jesus’ identity in baptism, and now he sends him into the desert to be tested. Numerous scholars have observed the striking similarities to Israel’s story of passing through water and being led into the desert to be tempted in the Exodus. Again Matthew is activating the story of Israel as he tells the story of Jesus.
After forty days of fasting, “the testing one [ὁ πειράζων]” arrives and suggests that Jesus confirm his identity as the “Son of God” (4.3, 5-7). Post-Nicea, this phrase is commonly interpreted to refer to Jesus’ ontological status as the second member of the trinity. Yet, that theological framework did not yet exist when Matthew wrote his gospel. Furthermore, Matthew has already framed this narrative as a story about Israel’s Messiah, and in the scriptures of Israel “Son of God” is the title for the king as evidenced in the allusion to Ps 2 in Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3.17).
The devil is not suggesting Jesus confirm his divinity but rather his identity as Israel’s king by feeding himself and then again by putting his identity on display in the temple (4.5-7). Finally, the Devil offers what rightfully belongs to Israel’s king – the kingdoms of the world (4.6-7). Here is the means for Jesus to accomplish God’s will without having to suffer God’s way.
In each instance Jesus refutes temptation by speaking Israel’s sacred scriptures. He refuses the satanic shortcuts to Messianic confirmation. These shortcuts could probably have prevented John’s death (Mt 4.12) and Jesus’ cross. Yet, they would ultimately fail to bring the kingdom of heaven.