THE KING’S PREPARATION Matthew 3–4
“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1).Before Jesus began to preach, John the Baptist prepared Judea for His appearance. And God did a preparatory work in Christ’s own life!
Biography: John the Baptist
John was Jesus’ cousin, about six months older than Christ. He had been filled by the Spirit from his birth, being readied for his mission (Luke 1:14–17). We don’t know how long John lived a hermit’s life in the Judean wilderness (Matt. 3:4). But when Jesus was about 30, John appeared on the banks of the Jordan and began to preach. John’s appearance excited the Jewish population. Burdened by heavy taxes and ruled by an increasingly brutal Herod, there was an intense yearning for the Messiah to appear, a yearning attested in many first-century sources. John, austere and ascetic, burning with passion for God and holiness, seemed a likely candidate. His announcement that “the kingdom of heaven is near” stirred Jewish yearning into bright expectation. John persistently denied that he was the Messiah (John 1:19–28). Instead he called for his listeners to confess their sins, repent, and prepare themselves spiritually for the true Messiah, whom God had revealed to him was even then living among them. Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40 to define John’s role. That passage launched the second half of the mighty Old Testament prophecy; a half in which the dominant theme shifts from judgment to joy. John’s mission of preparation was to ready the people spiritually, for in a brief moment “the glory of the Lord [would] be revealed, and all mankind together will see it” (Isa. 40:5). I suspect that when John denied being Messiah, many turned away. “Nothing but a messenger,” they may well have thought. Yet this messenger readied hearts for Jesus, and thus for endless joy. There is no greater ministry any of us can have than John’s. We cannot meet the deepest needs of others. But we can introduce them to Him who can meet every one.
John predicted Messiah’s appearance, and preached baptism as a sign of repentance (3:1–12). Christ was baptized to identify Himself with John’s righteous message (vv. 13–17). The Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness, where He overcame temptation and demonstrated His commitment to God (4:1–11). Thus prepared, Jesus began to preach (vv. 12–17), called His first disciples (vv. 18–22), and demonstrated His God-given authority by miracles of healing (vv. 23–25).
Understanding the Text
“John the Baptist came, preaching . . . and saying, ’Repent’ “ Matt. 3:1–6. It’s clear from Matthew and especially from Luke that John’s preaching, like that of the Old Testament prophets, focused on the personal and social sins that marred society. John preached against materialism and selfishness (Luke 3:11), and against such widespread sins as overcharging (v. 13) and extortion (v. 14). Those who confessed their sins were warned to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). John’s emphasis is important. In the first century the Jews took a bath in a mikvah in order to be ritually pure for worship. In contrast John called for an inner change of heart and mind (repentance), which is to produce a pure and holy life. Repentance has always been a part of the Christian Gospel. Not “repentance” as being sorry for sin, or an effort at self-reform. In Scripture repentance is a change of heart and mind about God that bears fruit in a holy life. Without repentance there is no salvation, simply because whenever Jesus enters a life by faith, He does just such a transforming work in the human heart. “Do this to fulfill all righteousness” Matt. 3:15. Many have debated why Jesus wanted to be baptized. John, His cousin, who knew Him well, was embarrassed to baptize Jesus even before he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. John’s baptism was for repentance—and John knew Jesus as a godly Jew who had no need to repent. As a young sailor I went with my church youth group to a Billy Graham meeting in Madison Square Garden. When Billy called for those in the great hall who would dedicate their lives to the Lord to stand, the others in my youth group all stood. I remained seated. I had already dedicated myself to God, and it didn’t seem right to just “go through the motions.” The Lord knew where I stood with Him, and I was satisfied with that. If I had understood these verses in Matthew better, I would have stood with them. Why? Because I would have realized that Jesus was baptized not because He needed to be, but in order to identify Himself with John’s message! It was right for Jesus to take a stand with John. Just as it would have been right for me to identify myself with Billy’s call to commitment. It’s an important principle for us to apply. We too need to be identified with what is right, and what is righteous. We too need to be willing to take a public stand. John’s Gospel tells us that it was only as Christ stood in the water beside His cousin, and the Spirit descended on Him as a dove, that John realized who Jesus is—the Messiah he had been commissioned to announce. “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted” Matt. 4:1. This verse emphasizes the importance of the temptation in preparing Jesus for His mission. The Spirit of God specifically led Christ into the wilderness “to be tempted.” Why was the temptation so important in Jesus’ life? Because soon He would begin to preach, presenting not only the kingdom, but Himself as King. And as King, Christ must be Victor—not merely over the puny powers of nature or Satan, but over the pull of His human nature. Adam and Eve were unable to resist temptation, and all mankind fell. Christ now had to triumph over temptation, and in triumphing qualify Himself to lift all mankind up again. Our temptations seem insignificant beside His: no cosmic issues are at stake. Yet Jesus’ temptation does put ours in a special light. Temptations are not “bad.” Nor are they intended to trip us up. God permits us to be tested, and sometimes even brings tests our way, in order that we might triumph over them. Each test passed victoriously strengthens us for the productive life God intends us to lead. “Man does not live on bread alone” Matt. 4:2–4. Medical science has shown that after 30 to 40 days of fasting, hunger, which disappears the second or third day, returns. All the body’s stored resources have been used, and the return of hunger is a sign that the body must have food again. Jesus had fasted 40 days and “was hungry” when Satan approached our Lord and challenged Him to turn stones into bread. After all, as Satan suggested, that would be a minor miracle for the Son of God to perform! Jesus answered by quoting a passage in Deuteronomy: “Man does not live on bread alone.” Perhaps the most important word here is “man.” Think about it. Jesus did not respond to temptation by calling on His resources as Son of God, but instead met each one as “man.” If Christ had met temptation by drawing on His deity, there would be no help for us in His example. But since Jesus met temptation as a man, using no more resources than are available to any human being, you and I have hope! We too can overcome our temptations. We can follow Jesus’ example, draw on the resources He used, and triumph! (See DEVOTIONAL.) This first temptation was directed against Jesus’ physical nature. He was hungry. He wanted bread. Why not make bread? Christ quoted Deuteronomy 8:3, which calls on man to live by the Word of God. The point of Christ’s response is this: human beings are physical creatures. But we are more than animals. We have a spiritual nature that is to control the physical. God’s will, not our physical needs or desires, is to govern our choices. Today many people argue that if you want something, take it. If you feel an urge for sex, satisfy it. After all, it’s “natural.” Yes, it’s natural for animals to satisfy their desires. But because we are more than animals, it is not “natural” for man to be driven by physical hungers. We are spiritual beings, and what is right and natural for us is to be driven by the living Word of our God. “Throw Yourself down” Matt. 4:5–7. This temptation is a subtle one. Understanding it hinges on the nature of the “if” Satan used in speaking to Jesus. Christ had been led by the Spirit into the wilderness. He had fasted 40 days, and was hungry and weak. And then, when He was weakest, Satan appeared! It would only be natural if Jesus, acting by choice in His humanity, had felt doubt. You or I surely would have. “God,” we might have cried out, “if You really love me, why are You doing this to me now!” Satan picked up on this doubt, and said, “If You are the Son of God.” This is not the “if” we use in place of “since.” It is the “if” of uncertainty. Satan was trying to nurture any kernel of doubt that might exist in Christ’s human heart. And then Satan suggested a way to find out. “Jump off the pinnacle of the temple, and the Bible promises angels will catch You before You land. Then You’ll know You have a special relationship with God.” Again Jesus quoted Deuteronomy, this time 6:16. Human beings are not to test God. They are to trust Him. God has shown His love throughout history, and has no need to prove it again to His own. This is one temptation we are particularly susceptible to. When troubles come, we feel panic and uncertainty. We begin to doubt, and to wonder if God is with us or not. Jesus reminds us that the way to triumph in such situations is not to demand God prove His presence, but simply to trust the love He has demonstrated so clearly. For us, that ultimate demonstration is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Surely He who has given His own Son to redeem us will never leave or forsake His own. The “pinnacle” was the corner of one of the great walls that surrounded the temple court, and fell off into the Kidron Valley far below. Jesus would not have been observed leaping into the valley. The test Satan proposed was not intended as a shortcut to popularity, but as reassurance of God’s love. See Matthew 4:5–7. “All this I will give You” Matt. 4:8–10. Satan’s third temptation was also subtle. He offered Christ immediate authority over all this world’s kingdoms. Why would this be a temptation? Surely the Creator of the world could hardly be bribed with what He already possessed, and would one day claim. I suspect that Satan’s appeal was to Jesus’ compassion. The world of that day as today reeked with injustice, and was deluged in the tears of human tragedy. Think of all the wars that would have been avoided were Jesus to rule today. Think of the sick who would be healed, the injustices corrected. It would surely be a good thing for Jesus to rule: good as far as you and I are concerned. Jesus responded by refusing to pay the price. God, not Satan, is to be worshiped. God’s will is to be our ultimate authority, and we are to bow to Him in all things. Even something “good” could not deter Jesus from obedience to the will of God. Even when that will would lead Him to a cross. All too often we Christians are tempted by opportunities to do good. We may rush in, sure that God is pleased because our motives are so pure. But even the opportunity to do good can be one of Satan’s traps. Like Jesus, we are to determine God’s will for us, and to choose that will, even when God’s will keeps us from doing something that seems good. I am far more tempted by opportunities to do good than to do evil. Recently I was invited to spend a number of weeks in South Africa, where some of my books seem to be making an impact on the church. Everything I could learn about the invitation marked it as an opportunity to do good, and I wanted to accept. Yet I was unsure, and after asking a number of friends to pray, finally decided that the Lord didn’t want me to accept the invitation at that time. What a hard thing, this turning down opportunities to do good. I suspect many of us, already overloaded with church duties, find it hard to resist the invitation to do one more thing. We need to make it a habit not to say yes lightly. We need to remember that we are to live our lives as Jesus did, by the will of God. And that sometimes God has other priorities for us than a “good” that may keep us overactive, even if we are active “for Him.” “From that time on Jesus began to preach” Matt. 4:12–17. With His victory won and His authority over inner, human frailties demonstrated, Jesus began His public ministry. He returned to Galilee, and made Capernaum the headquarters of His mission. It’s significant that the personal, inner issues were settled before public ministry began. God wants to do an inner work in our lives too, to qualify us for ministry with others “Preaching the Good News . . . and healing every disease and sickness” Matt. 4:23–25. The miracles Jesus performed did authenticate His claim to be sent from God. But we need to note something important about those miracles. Jesus performed no miracle to ease His own hardships—not even the miracle of turning stones into bread. His miracles were performed for the benefit of others, and most frequently took the form of healing the sick and restoring the injured. There’s something appropriate about this kind of miracle. Jesus came offering inner healing to a lost humanity. And to demonstrate God’s compassion, He healed their bodies as well. It is still appropriate that those who share the Gospel with others have an equal concern for the social and physical ills that cause human beings so much pain. We demonstrate God’s compassion today when we minister not just to men’s souls, but to material needs as well.
Overcoming Temptation(Matt. 4:1–11)
I memorized the Bible verse. I quoted it to myself over and over again. I thought it surely would give me victory over the particular temptation that had me so defeated. But quote as much as I would, no victory came. I was just as vulnerable with my Bible verse as without it. I suspect many of us have had this experience. We see Jesus recalling verses from the Old Testament and quoting them to Satan. Jesus was victorious. Why aren’t we when we do the same thing? The answer lies in the distinction between magic and faith. Magic is using an object or chant in a desperate attempt to ward off evil or control circumstances. Faith is a quiet confidence that what God says is true enough to act on. I had been using my Bible verse as a magic talisman, waving it desperately to repel temptation. But when we look at Matthew 4, we see that Jesus used Scripture in quite another way. He went into the Word, found a principle or truth, and said in effect, “I will now live by this truth.” Jesus saw the Word of God as truth, and determined to act on that truth. It was this exercise of faith that gave Him victory over His temptations. And it is just such an exercise of faith that will give us victory when we are tempted today. Yes, let’s look for the key to our victory in the Word of God. But let’s not use the Bible in a pagan, magical way. Let’s take God at His Word, act on what He says, and let God use our faith to give us the victory in Him.
Find victory by following Christ’s example and living the Word of God.