In the testing of God's Son, the messianic vocation of Jesus is tested by the powers of darkness. The story finds its source in the Exodus, in the wilderness testing of Israel. Jesus faces a similar test to the people of Israel, but unlike Israel, he does not fail.
v1. Matthew links Jesus' testing with his baptism. Jesus moves from the water (as Israel moved from the Reed Sea) and enters the wilderness. The agent of testing is the "devil" who rises up to defend his domain (the kingdoms of this age, Babel, the secular city, the world) against the attack of the messianic king.
v2. Jesus' fast for forty days most likely images Israel's forty years journey. At the end of the fast, Jesus is weak and hungry.
v3-4. Jesus certainly had the power to miraculously provide food for himself and it would not be unreasonable for him to do just that. Yet, in the context of wilderness typology, the question is, will God supply the needs of his son during his journey to glory (to Zion)? Life, in its fullest sense, comes by relying on "every word that comes from the mouth of God". God has said it, and he will do it. Unlike the nation of Israel, which constantly failed the test of faith (eg. Massah when they "put the Lord to the test by saying, Is the Lord among us or not?" Ex.17:2-7, Deut.6:16), Jesus does not doubt God's promise to sustain his Son through his wilderness journey.
v5-7. Jesus is now taken (most likely in a vision cf. Ezk.8:1-3) to a projecting part of the temple. The devil's test (temptation) is that Israel's acceptance of the messiah can be guaranteed by a powerful sign. For the messiah to rest on signs and wonders is to doubt that God's way to glory through suffering is somehow flawed. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness", 2Cor.12:9. Moses and the people of Israel failed this test of faith in the wilderness (Num.20), but Jesus does not fail.
v8-10. As Moses once viewed the promised land from Mount Nebo, so Jesus sees the world before him, as in a vision. He came to receive the promised land and establish an eternal kingdom, a new dominion over heaven and earth, Dan.7:14. To do this, "the enemy", Satan, must be defeated, just as Israel had to defeat the Baal-worshipping Canaanites. Since the world is Satan's domain (cf. Jn.12:31, 2Cor.4:4, 1Jn.5:19), Satan offers Jesus a compromise solution. Jesus may have dominion, but on Satan's terms. Israel had long ago compromised their faith and looked to the Golden Calf to help attain the promised land. Jesus did not fail this test, but rather, he chose the way of faith rather than compromise.
v11. The aid that Jesus was unwilling to ask for himself is now provided by attending angels.
This passage particularly applies to the church today, although certainly not the institution, but rather the worshipping community of believers who gather week by week with their living Lord. The temptation story gives us three insights into the business of serving our Lord.
i] Does the Lord support his servants as promised, or is self-help necessary? The people of Israel were a normal mob of believers, and like any modern day church they grumbled and doubted their way from Egypt to the promised land. The Lord had promised to provide all their needs for the journey, and yet they doubted, time and again. Unlike them, Jesus did not doubt, rather he rested totally on God's provision for his vocation.
We modern day Israelites have our vocation, and we are bound to rely on the provision of the Lord. For example, Jesus asks us to communicate the gospel to our broken world. His word tells us that this gospel is the "power of God unto salvation for all who believe." So, we don't have to rely on selling techniques, psychological manipulation or group dynamics, to achieve results. To doubt his promise courts disaster.
ii] Is the Lord's mission self-authenticating, or does it need promoting? Other than Christ, Moses was probably the greatest of the Lord's men, but even he felt the need to authenticate both God's plan and his place in it. The sign of water from the rock was his downfall. Jesus faced a similar test, but did not fail.
The need to authenticate the church is with us today, as it was all those years ago. There are those who look to miraculous signs and there are those who look to a more subtle authentication - large successful congregations, social justice, spirituality, relevance..... We put the Lord to the test when we forget that his program is self-authenticating.
iii] Is the victory the Lord's, or does he need help? Israel sensed their venerability and were quick to rely on a Golden Calf, the symbol of Egypt's might. Jesus faced the same test. Rather than submission and sacrifice, the kingdom could be his if only he would submit to dark powers.
The Christian church has often feared for its very survival and so there is nothing new in the seeming demise of Christianity today. Yet, to build our security on the systems of this age, on structure rather than substance, or relevance rather than reality, is a disaster. "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain", Ps.127:1
Consider all three tests and discuss how we face similar tests today.