I like movies that have two features: 1) they have the hero and the villain meet head-to-head at a climactic point in the film, and 2) movies that have depth to them: I catch more things from the movie the more times I watch it.
They say that the best books get better with time and with re-readings. And I find it true of art in general: the test of a good song, or a good book, or a good movie, is that it gets deeper and better the more I revisit it. Have you ever watched a movie, and thought it was a good movie, but then watched it later, and caught all sorts of things that you missed on the first go-around—and that made the movie even better?
I find this dynamic to be true of the Bible in general, and we’ve been seeing it play out in Matthew’s Gospel over the last few weeks. The Bible is both true history and creative art. And I think the more we engage it over time, the deeper and better it becomes. Matthew’s going to take us deep today.
Last week, in the final scene of Matthew chapter 3, we saw the Triune God spring into action, and we saw heaven coming to earth.
But this morning, all of that will be shaken up. This morning we’ll see the photo negative of that scene. The “heaven on earth” scene of 3:16-17 is completely turned upside down. And in 4:1-11 we see the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) show up to scenes that look much more like “Hell on earth.”
We’ll walk through 3 scenes in this passage this morning:
The Spirit sets the Stage (v. 1-2); The Son enters a Showdown (v. 3-10); The Father sends Salvation (v. 11).
We’ll walk through these 3 scenes, and then try to tie everything together in one point at the end, and then begin to apply that point together. Let’s dive in.
1) The Spirit sets the Stage (v. 1-2)
Jesus had entered the Jordan and submitted to baptism. God the Father had affirmed him as the Beloved Son, and the Spirit had descended on Jesus in the form of a dove.
But things take a surprising turn at this point in the story. The Holy Spirit has a job for Jesus to do: get out to the desert so you can wrestle with temptation and the devil. I get the impression from Matthew 4:1 here that Jesus could still be dripping wet from his baptism when the Spirit tells him to go to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
We’ve probably heard the rest of the story, and we know what’s coming, and we believe that Jesus lived a life without sin. So we might wonder, why would the Spirit send Jesus on this mission? And I think God’s reasons in sending Jesus to the wilderness are essentially identical to the reasons that Jesus submitted to John’s baptism: 1) To fully identify with sinful humanity, and 2) to proclaim that he wanted to be part of God’s purposes. We’ll see these reasons unfold as we walk through the rest of the passage.
Jesus listens to the Spirit, and goes into the wilderness. Verse 2 sets the stage even further for us. Jesus is not only in the wilderness, the desert, but for forty days and forty nights he’s engaging in some form of fasting: abstaining from food and probably water at points.
This is Lent season, and perhaps many of you are voluntarily staying away from foods or certain conveniences. And so this hits home for you, perhaps.
I’ve got to admit though: often, I am terrible at self-denial. It’s a big ask for me to forego a meal. It’s a challenge for me to put my technology or my phone away for an extended period of time. I can do it! But I probably won’t be happy about it!
It reminds me: you know how Snickers came out with those candy bar wrappers a while ago (and they’re probably still around) with just one word to describe you when you’re hungry? The words included “grumpy,” “tired,” “cranky,” irritable,” etc (It was a great marketing move!) I am often many of those things when I try to give up food or a meal or my phone or other conveniences.
So Jesus is in the desert, the wastelands, like Death Valley, and he’s been engaging in rigorous self-discipline not for a meal or for a day, but for forty days, and forty nights!
And if that phrase “forty days and forty nights” from verse 2 sounds familiar, sounds like déjà vu, that’s because it is!
Matthew’s making a connection here. There’s someone who went up onto a mountain in the Old Testament for forty days and forty nights: Moses! Matthew’s audience hears this phrase “forty days and forty nights” and they’ll think, wow, this guy Jesus sounds a lot like that guy Moses!
But you might be saying, wait, wait, wait. Moses is going up to a mountain called Sinai in the OT. He’s going to meet with God and receive the 10 Commandments. But Jesus is going down into the desert, like Death Valley, and he’s not meeting with God, he’s meeting the Devil.
And that’s a really good point. And it takes us to a lesser-known part of Moses’ story. Not only did Moses spend forty days and forty nights on the mountaintop with God, but immediately after that, Moses comes down, sees that the people had already broken the covenant that God had literally just given him. And what does Moses do, immediately? In Deuteronomy 9:18, 25 Moses tells us. He fasts for another 40 days and 40 nights, because the people had broken their covenant with God. He’s interceding with God, asking for God to forgive the people.
So Jesus isn’t going up to a mountain at this point. He’s going down into the desert, fasting for his people who have broken the covenant. And he’s about to do battle with the devil!
But we have to think: the Spirit is leading Jesus into the desert. And Jesus is fasting. And he’s getting ready for this great showdown with his archenemy, and with the archnemesis of God’s people. It doesn’t seem like a good combination, does it? If you were to compete in athletics, you want your body and mind and emotions to be in peak shape. But Jesus is about to enter combat with the devil, and it looks like he’s already beaten.
That takes us to the next scene in this text: The Son enters a Showdown (v. 3-10). We’ve seen 1) The Spirit set the Stage, and now we’ll turn to see how 2) The Son enters a Showdown.
Jesus was in the wilderness to meet wrestle with the temptations of the devil. And here in 3a, after forty days and forty nights, the “tempter” finally appears. And Jesus and the devil would go through three rounds of spiritual combat.
To give a bit of a spoiler to this showdown, well, Jesus wins. But also, he wins in a way that proves he is the true Son of God. Jesus is greater than Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, and Jesus is greater than Adam and Eve, the first children of God. I think that’s enough of a spoiler for now. Let’s take a closer look at the three rounds in this showdown between Jesus and the devil.
Round 1 starts in v. 3b. Notice the first words out of the tempter, the devil’s mouth: “If you are the Son of God…”
Remember last week and the end of Matthew chapter 3? God the Father had publicly affirmed Jesus as the Son of God. But when the devil arrives, he takes God’s words and immediately calls them into question. Does this sound like déjà vu from the passages we’ve seen in our weeks together? This sounds like Adam and Eve in the garden, in Genesis 3. The snake’s question there was “Did God really say…?” And Satan’s question here follows that same strategy. The Devil’s sowing confusion, sowing doubt in God’s word to Jesus.
What is the devil’s temptation in verse 3b? “…command these stones to become loaves of bread.” In other words, “prove that you’re the Son of God by feeding yourself on your own timetable!” But Jesus isn’t taking the bait. He doesn’t have to prove to anyone that he is the Son of God. God the Father literally just affirmed it. And Jesus would wait for God’s timing and direction, not Satan’s.
So Jesus replies to Satan by quoting from the OT Bible: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3 here. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses had been reminding the children of Israel how God had protected them and provided for them in the wilderness/desert, on their way to the Promised Land. Sin had put them in the wilderness, in the desert, for forty years. But Moses was reminding them how God had graciously been providing for them and gave them bread from heaven for their hunger. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses was encouraging Israel that they would make it to the Promised Land.
Do you see the impact of the passage that Jesus quotes? The devil knows Scripture. We find that out in the rest of the story. The devil knows what passage Jesus is quoting. And Jesus is essentially saying, I am God’s Son! I’m standing in the wilderness, but I’m on the way to the Promised Land. I’ve come to identify with my people, but I’m also going to bring heaven to earth. And God will provide for me.
Jesus totally demolishes the Devil’s attack in round one. But round two begins in verse 5, and things are escalating quickly. The devil takes Jesus, whether physically or in some kind of a vision, to the pinnacle of the temple. Now in the mind of the Jewish people in Jesus’s time, the temple was the center of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was the center of the world.
So the devil’s taking Jesus to the highest point of the center of the world, and tempting Jesus to display his divinity in a way other than God intended. The devil again is calling God’s word to Jesus into question. The devil says in verse 6a: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down!” Show the world who you are! Get the glory you have coming to you in the kingdom, and get it NOW.
And the devil quotes Scripture to sharpen the temptation. Jesus had quoted Scripture at the devil, and now the devil quotes from Psalm 91 right back at Jesus. It’s a total curveball for us readers. Am I the only one that finds that disorienting to read? The devil knows Scripture? And Jesus has to sort through the devil’s deceptive use of Scripture?
Let’s just acknowledge that Satan had picked a relevant passage. Psalm 91 has been a favorite for many people, even today. The psalm speaks about how God is a refuge for his people in a world burdened by curses and death. And yes, one of the sweetest promises of Psalm 91 is that angels would protect the people of God. The devil is taking up this sweet promise in verse 6 and dangling it like a carrot in front of Jesus saying, “Cash in on this NOW! You won’t have to go to the cross or even go through any more suffering in this desert! Show the world who you are, and God’s got to have your back! He’s promised to! Look at Psalm 91!”
How does Jesus respond, in verse 7? He responds by quoting Scripture again. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” That scripture is Deut 6:16. Again, this is in the same area of Scripture as Jesus had quoted from before. And Jesus is essentially saying, “I am the Son of God, and I will gain the kingdom by submitting to my Father’s will, not by forcing my will on him.”
Satan had been appealing to Jesus’s future kingdom and blessings by quoting from Psalm 91. But Jesus kept on quoting verses from the OT showing that he didn’t see himself in the Promised Land—in the kingdom yet. Jesus is quoting wilderness passages. He’s saying that he’s waiting on God to bring the kingdom at the right time.
And that takes us to Round 3, starting in verse 8. The Devil’s getting desperate. Jesus has proved himself stronger than the devil expected. So the devil tries one last-ditch attempt to take Jesus down, in verses 8-9. I think the devil knows Jesus would inherit glory and a kingdom, and that this glory and kingdom would cover not only the Temple and Jerusalem, but the whole globe. So the Devil again tempts Jesus to short-circuit the process. Moses went up to a mountain to receive the Commandments; the devil takes Jesus up a mountain to receive corrupt kingdoms. On this high mountain, the devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, if only Jesus would fall down and worship the devil.
This was a desperate attempt. And almost laughable. Jesus demolishes it immediately, and puts an end to the showdown, in verse 10. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 this time, and banishes the devil: “Away with you Satan!”
The devil had totally overplayed his hand. He’d tried to throw Jesus’s identity as God’s Son into question. He’d tried to cast doubt about God’s word to Jesus and God’s words in the pages of Scripture. He’d tempted Jesus to get his kingdom and glory prematurely—and sinfully. And the devil had utterly failed. Jesus held to his identity. He’d believed God’s word. He identified himself with the wilderness passages rather than the salvation passages, and he waited for God’s timing. Jesus had overcome the devil’s temptations. Jesus had won the showdown.
And that leads us to the third scene of this passage. We watched how 1) The Spirit sets the Stage, 2) The Son enters the Showdown, and now let’s watch how 3) The Father sends Salvation.
Verse 11 is a short verse. But it packs a punch! It provides us with two details. First: the devil leaves. Second: angels arrive, and wait on Jesus. This second detail is especially significant. We should associate these angels with the action of God the Father. God the Father isn’t mentioned in verse 11, but angels come from him. This is a theme in the OT, and Jesus would even make this connection later in Matthew 26:53, during his arrest before his crucifixion. Jesus says, if I called on the Father, “he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels[.]”
So this is a significant detail because we see that the Father’s affirmation from 3:17 still holds now in 4:11. The Father’s approval of the Son continues during and after the Son’s suffering.
And it’s a significant detail because of the passage that the devil had quoted in 4:6 about the angels. God the Father would protect Jesus! He would send his angels! Just not on Satan’s timetable.
Satan probably shouldn’t have brought up Psalm 91. The devil had intentionally quoted from Psalm 91:11-12. But the devil didn’t quote further. Jesus knew Psalm 91:13. And it made all the difference. What is Psalm 91:13?
In Psalm 91:13, God is speaking to his beloved child. And God says, “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”
That sounds a lot like a word to the King who will step on the serpent, from Genesis 3:15. Maybe Adam and Eve failed as children of God, and gave ground to the devil. Maybe Moses had to leave the Israelites in the wilderness on the edge of the Promised Land. But Jesus is the true Son of God, who steps on the serpent in the desert, so that he could get his people back to the garden.
We didn’t quite talk about it on Ash Wednesday, but in Genesis 3 God sent angels to keep the children out of Eden. Now, God sends angels to help the Son of God bring Eden to earth.
The Father sends Salvation.
And this takes us to the main point of this passage. We’ve seen how 1) The Spirit sets the Stage, 2) The Son enters a Showdown, and 3) The Father sends salvation. So what is the main point of this story?
See the Spirit send Jesus through Hell on earth, so that the Father could bring Heaven to earth.
And to apply this passage today, I have two groups of people in mind. I have in mind the people who are in the desert of temptation right now. You’ve been in that desert, that wasteland for a while now… but you’ve been holding on to God. You’ve been camping on God’s word. And you’ve been overcoming the devil in the power of God’s Spirit. Let me just encourage you to keep going! Let me encourage you to stay strong, and God will continue to rescue you.
The other group of people I have in mind those who are in that desert of temptation right now, and are giving in. The desert is the devil’s territory, and as you’ve ceded ground to him, you’ve found your own soul become more and more of a wasteland. You may even be at the point where you can’t even imagine God rescuing you. You can’t even imagine being free and being whole again.
And the thing I want you to see and know is that Jesus is meeting you there in the desert. He’s with you in the wasteland when your soul is empty and dead because of sin. He knows that place, and he’s meeting you there, and he’ll walk with you out of there to freedom!
It just begins with a simple step with him this morning. It begins by responding to him by confessing your sin to him and asking him and others to help. You may not have angels meeting you in the wasteland, but Jesus will meet you there, and he can bring you out in the strength of his Spirit. Jesus came to bring Heaven to earth, and he can start by turning your soul into a garden.
See the Spirit send Jesus through Hell on earth, so that the Father could bring Heaven to earth.
 Mark (1:12) says “immediately” when describing this scene.
 (Exod. 24:18; 34:28; Deut 9:9, 11)
 As a side note, this is one of the first connections that Matthew makes between Moses and Jesus. There will be more déjà vu moments like this in Matthew’s Gospel as we walk through it.
 Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison Jr, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Vol. I (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988) 365.