Open Matthew 4:8-11.
“All the kingdoms of the world!” Satan claims to have them. He offers them to Jesus. History is full of people who would kill for that! Empires will do anything for that kind of power!
But how can Satan claim to have the kingdoms of the world anyway? The Jewish hymns declare that YHWH rules the whole earth and advise the nations to acknowledge him (e.g. Psalms 2, 8, 45, 72, 79, 97, 99, 110, 149). Does Satan really have all the kingdoms in his grasp? Well, … sort of.
YHWH God created the earth, trusting humans to manage it. When they rebelled, God didn’t lose his place as ruler: it was they who were locked out of his garden (Genesis 1-3). Yet humans in rebellion against his authority introduced such unsustainable violence that God had to bring down the whole mess and start over with Noah (Genesis 4-8). He conceded human government as preferable to anarchy to keep violence under control. The nations are the result of that concession—people who live under human government instead of divine (Genesis 9). But they weren’t satisfied with limited power: they started wars, hunting humans to build kingdoms, but the heavenly sovereign still limited their power (Genesis 10-11). Through Abraham, God resolved to restore the blessing of his rule to the nations (Genesis 12).
So the kingdoms of the world exist by God’s permission. They actually belong under his authority, but they do not acknowledge him as their king. They give honour to other rulers and other gods. When they do, other spirit beings are more than willing to accept that honour (Deuteronomy 29:16-17; 32:17; Psalm 106:34-38). The nations are therefore under the direction of other spiritual powers, with Satan as the chief prince of those powers. There is therefore a sense in which Satan controls the kingdoms of the world, but it’s only because the nations give him that place. He has deceived the nations into giving him their allegiance. If he was unmasked as a usurper, his power would disintegrate like the snow of Narnia when Aslan appeared.
Israel’s vocation was to show the nations their true ruler. But Israel followed the nations into disobedience. As a result, Israel lost everything—their land, their sovereignty, their nationhood. Instead of leading the nations back to God, they became slaves of other powers.
That’s why John’s message was so explosive: “Turn back to your heavenly ruler! His kingship is about to be restored” (3:2). John introduced the king who would restore God’s reign. Heaven confirmed that Jesus was the anointed ruler, the one the Father was pleased to appoint (3:16-17).
No wonder Satan was running scared! He was afraid of being unmasked. He must seduce Jesus now, at all costs. Jesus refuses to use the power vested in him for his own ends (to satisfy his hunger). Jesus refuses to treat God as his servant (jumping off the temple). So Satan offers Jesus everything he has—all the kingdoms of the world!
According to this offer, Jesus will become Caesar, and more. The Roman Empire and beyond will be his. All power on earth! For less power than this, people war against their enemies and assassinate their friends. Politics means negotiating for the best outcome you can get, and this is as good as it gets! Is it okay to collude with evil to achieve a good result?
The kicker is in Satan’s final word. Can you hear the seduction? He will have not only the kingdoms but “their glory” (4:8). Imagine the splendour of walking into Jerusalem to the adulation of the temple rulers who defer to him! Imagine Herod and Pilate bowing before him, and offering him their palaces. All the glory of the empire! No longer will he be starving in the wilderness: it will all be his.
And all he has to do is to acknowledge Satan’s right to rule. That’s what “worship” is (3:9) — giving Satan his worth, his right to rule. It’s what all of history has been about.
But there can be only one true ruler over the earth, only one sovereign to serve. It’s what Israel was commanded. Jesus will not follow everyone else into rebellion against God’s authority. He knows that path leads to “being destroyed off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15).
Standing in his Father’s authority, Jesus issues his first command as king-elect: “Be gone, enemy!” The deceiver is exposed, and has to go.
No more negotiation. Now, it’s war.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 141–142:
Many inhabitants of the Roman Empire felt that Rome ruled the earth’s kingdoms (e.g., Rev 17:18; Jos. War 2.361; 3.473; Sall. Catil. 36.4; Ovid Metam. 15.758–59, 859–60; Corn. Nep. 23 [Hannibal], 8.3); to rule the earth would include the subjection of the Roman emperor. Although most Jewish people agreed that evil angels ruled the nations (Dan 10:13, 20–21), it was a delegated authority (cf. Jn 12:31; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; 1 Jn 5:19; Test. Sol. 1:12); despite the devil’s claims (cf. also Lk 4:6), God, not Satan, had ultimate authority over the world’s kingdoms (Dan 4:25; cf. m. ʾAbot 3:15). By resisting the devil’s offer of the glory of the world’s kingdoms (4:8), Jesus perseveres for a kingdom with greater glory (25:31).
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 135:
There is not much subtlety in this temptation: it is a simple choice of allegiance. It is an offer of the right end by the wrong means—if indeed even the end is right, when it is expressed in terms of paramount glory in contrast with the obedient and self-sacrificing role which Jesus will be called to fulfill as God’s chosen servant. We shall meet a similar contrast in 10:35–45, between the human ambition of James and John and the paradoxical role of Jesus the servant who gives his life as a ransom for many.
Should the devil’s offer be read as sheer bluff, or was he understood to have some real authority over “the kingdoms of the world”? Several times in the NT he will be described in such language as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 6:11–12; 1 John 5:19; Rev 12:9–17); in 12:26 he has his own “kingship.” As such he is understood to have real power in the present age, though always under the perspective of the ultimate victory of God. And as such he can offer power and glory, but not ultimate fulfillment, still less an authority in accordance with the will of God.