When power is tempting (Matthew 4:2-4)

Every leader faces the temptation to use power for our own benefit.

Open Matthew 4:2-4.

Forty days without food! There wasn’t much alternative in the wilderness. No fast food. But what was he doing for nearly seven weeks?

Matthew doesn’t say but there is a clue. All three Scriptures Jesus used to combat Satan are from Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. He’s been meditating on the Law, the words heavenly monarch gave to guide his people. Godly kings did that (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).

When YHWH released his people from Pharaoh’s control, he led them out into the wilderness. Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law. For 40 days, he fasted, sustained only by the words of God (Deuteronomy 9:9).

Now Jesus is here. In the wilderness. The newly appointed ruler of humanity. Receiving instruction on how his Father wants the kingdom run. Forty days, with only the words of God to sustain him.

Afterwards he’s famished. The hot stones on the floor of the Judean wilderness begin to look like fresh bread.

Why shouldn’t he turn those stones into bread? Would it be wrong to use the heavenly anointing to survive? Didn’t God provide manna for Israel when they were starving in the wilderness? Later Jesus will miraculously provide bread for 5,000 people (Matthew 14:13-21). And for 4,000 (Matthew 15:32-38). Those people had not gone 40 days without food! Surely his need is greater? Why would it be so wrong?

Using power for personal gain is such a way of life that we barely recognize the temptation. When Israel asked for a king, Samuel warned:

1 Samuel 8:11–17 (ESV)
he will take your sons … 13 He will take your daughters … 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards … 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards … 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, … 17 your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

Every leader faces the temptation to use their power to benefit themselves. Kings expect their body guards to take a bullet for them. Presidents expect a dwelling befitting their status and a presidential jet to carry them with their support staff. Corruption is rife among politicians, and sometimes they get caught. Pastors are tempted to feed their egos rather than their flock. Health and wealth teachers openly misrepresent God as a source of personal gain. As a guest speaker, what kind of accommodation do you expect? Would you be satisfied if foxes have holes and birds have nests, but you have no place to lay your head?

I’m not suggesting that churches should treat their pastor or guest or politician worse than animals. That would not bring honour to our sovereign. I am suggesting that those of us who represent King Jesus are out of line if we expect to be treated royally. We’re better to starve than pull rank. Our status does not come from how people treat us. That’s the secret of being content with little or much.

God is our sovereign. The bread we eat each day is his providence. He also sets boundaries for humans: we are not to take his power. Not even to survive. Jesus recognized that boundary and refused to cross it:

Matthew 4:4 (ESV)
He answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

At the outset of his ministry, Jesus recognized that using his power to preserve himself would result in evil. He will not ask his followers to fight for him. He will not even accept a legion of angels to preserve his life. He won’t expect his people to preserve his life: he will use his life to protect his people.

The first human stood in a well-watered garden surrounded by food, grasping the sovereign’s fruit to empower himself, reaping death. The true human stood in a waterless wasteland surrounded by stones, refusing to grasp the sovereign’s power to save his life. This son of the sovereign will not abuse the power entrusted to him. This one can be trusted.


What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 127–128:

The most significant key to the understanding of this story is to be found in Jesus’ three scriptural quotations. All come from Deut 6–8, the part of Moses’ address to the Israelites before their entry into Canaan in which he reminds them of their forty years of wilderness experiences. … Among the lessons they should now have learned are not to depend on bread alone but rather on God’s word ([Deuteronomy] 8:3), not to put God to the test (6:16), and to make God the exclusive object of their worship and obedience (6:13). Now another “Son of God” is in the wilderness, this time for forty days rather than forty years, as a preparation for entering into his divine calling. There in the wilderness he too faces those same tests …

The story of the testing in the wilderness is thus an elaborate typological presentation of Jesus as himself the true Israel, the “Son of God” through whom God’s redemptive purpose for his people is now at last to reach its fulfillment.

[previous: The Spirit led Jesus to be tested?]

[next: Putting God on the spot]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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