“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Matthew 4:1 (NRSV)
Continuing the train of thought of Jesus walking the walk of faithful Israel, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, just as he (she? it?) did with Israel. Jesus will be tested here as Israel was before him (and Adam before that).
Like Israel, Jesus goes without food for a time, and like Israel, this becomes a testing ground. Food and water in the wilderness were powerful testing grounds for Israel. We discover that, not only did God test Israel with these things (Exodus 15:22-27), but they also become an occasion for Israel to put God to the test, which is Jesus’ second temptation (Exodus 17:1-7).
The last test is particularly interesting. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus seeing all the kingdoms of the world. Luke’s Gospel limits them to the kingdoms of the Empire. Either way, the test is the same – by allying with Satan and acknowledging him as Lord, Jesus can have power and prosperity and leave this whole suffering servant thing behind.
This was Israel’s definitive test and one that she failed. Rather than remaining faithful to YHWH and trusting Him for their survival, safety, and prosperity, they turned to the kingdoms of the world and their gods. They traded with the other nations for their riches, married into their families to seal alliances, built shrines to their gods, took on their authority structures – and as God warned, these would-be friends and allies would turn on them, bring them low, make slaves of them, and bring about the very exile their covenant foretold. The entire writing of Hosea is an extended foray into this theme, but it’s all over the prophets in various ways.
Jesus is confronted with the same temptations Israel faced, but he shows faithfulness. He does not feed himself in the wilderness, he does not put God to the test, and he does not forsake God to give his loyalty to another no matter what rewards might come of it. To drive the point home, he quotes Israel’s own Scriptures that speak to the issues. He is obeying Israel’s laws where Israel did not.
This whole episode is a big neon sign for Matthew. Jesus has gone through his Red Sea, been led into the wilderness by the Spirit, and he is tested there – reliving Israel’s history in his own life. Walking her path, but behaving faithfully at every step. This is the man who, on Israel’s behalf, will unmake her exile. His faithfulness now will break the curse of the covenant, and those who follow him will be led out of it. He will save his people from their sins.
It is because Jesus was faithful Israel that they were saved. It is because Jesus was faithful that God made him everything He wanted for Israel – everlasting ruler of all nations, dispenser of blessing and light, a city on a hill – the first of many brothers and sisters who would follow after.
And by seeing what Israel’s God was doing for her in Jesus, the Gentiles flocked to the worship of YHWH, just as the prophets said they would. But wonder of wonders – they are not separate nations worshiping with Israel at the head – God has made one new people out of His faithful and given His promised future to them all.
This embrace has drawn me in. Perhaps you as well. We are here because of what Jesus did.
- There are myriads of ways for faithfulness to be tested. Have there been events in your congregation or in your own life that have put your faithfulness to the test?
- If you have recently failed in one of these tests, what did you learn from it that will help you the next time? What brought this test about, and what made passing it so difficult?