Four Principles For Spiritual Combat: Exposition of Matthew 4:1-4

OPENING TEXTUAL NOTES

You will notice as we get into Matthew’s gospel that one of his literary formulas is the word “Then” (GK τότε)

This word is frequently used to progress the narrative forward by connecting the preceding account to what follows. “Then” opens the first two temptations and is duplicated in the third using the word “Again” to avoid redundancy.

One helpful note is that some translations, like the CSB and NIV will translate the Greek word καί (which usually means “and”) with the word “then” to preserve the sequential nature of the text. For exegetical purposes, however, καί functions differently in the text as it joins related thoughts, while τότε moves Matthew’s thoughts forward.

You will benefit by reading the NASB or ESV to note these literary functions as you study your Bibles.

MATTHEW 4:1-4

As the Lord led the people of God under Moses into the desert for testing for forty years, so was Jesus led for forty days and forty nights into the wilderness to be tested by Satan.

Exodus 23:20, 23 (CSB) — 20 “I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared.23 For my angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

This trial is part of the divine purpose to demonstrate that the Son was unswervingly response to his mission and faithful to his Father.

Hebrews 5:1–10 (CSB) — 1 For every high priest taken from among men is appointed in matters pertaining to God for the people, to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he is also clothed with weakness. 3 Because of this, he must make an offering for his own sins as well as for the people. 4 No one takes this honor on himself; instead, a person is called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 In the same way, Christ did not exalt himself to become a high priest, but God who said to him, You are my Son; today I have become your Father, 6 also says in another place, You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. 7 During his earthly life, he offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. 9 After he was perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 and he was declared by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

VERSE 1: Led Into The Wilderness By The Spirit

Matthew 4:1 (CSB) — 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

When we read this verse in Matthew, it is not immediately evident whether or not Jesus was tempted even before facing Satan for the entire duration of his time in the wilderness.

Mark, however, makes this point explicit:

Mark 1:13 (CSB) — 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving him.

NOTE: POSSIBLE SYMBOLISM OF WILD ANIMALS

Revelation 6:8 (CSB) — 8 And I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following after him. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague, and by the wild animals of the earth.

We should observe an interesting reversal between Jesus and Moses / Elijah:

  • Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted as a man – Matthew 4:1-11
  • Moses entered the glory of God on the Mountain – Exodus 24:18
  • Elijah flees persecution and journey’s forty days to Horeb and enters God’s presence – 1 Kings 18:1-18

Led by the Spirit”: Jesus did not enter the wilderness to be tempted on his own, but was led by the Spirit.

  • He did not set out on his own
  • He was not pursuing his own desire
  • He was pursuing the will of his Father
  • He was doing what his Father showed him to do
  • He was obeying what his Father told him to do
  • He trusted in the power of his Father to sustain him
  • He trusted in his Father’s declaration when he was baptized
  • He followed the Holy Spirit where he led him

Jesus teaches us our first and most important principle in Spiritual combat:

Galatians 5:16 (CSB) — . . .walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh.

Romans 8:5–9 (CSB) — 5 For those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on the things of the Spirit. 6 Now the mindset of the flesh is death, but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mindset of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it is unable to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him.

The reason we so often succumb to temptation in our spiritual wildernesses is because we do not walk in the Spirit. In particular, when things are going well and blessings abound, we give up pursuing communion with the Holy Spirit and settle on the niceties and blessings of this world, contenting ourselves with them instead of using them as a means to enter heaven’s courts with thanksgiving on our lips.

VERSE 2: When I Am Weak

Matthew 4:2 (CSB) — 2 After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

One of the most astonishing truths of the gospel is that Yahweh took on human flesh, the very radiance of God’s glory entered the human domain as a mortal, being capable of experiencing the greatest of all indignities that besets human mortality – death itself – and emptied himself of the privileges, honor, and glory rightly due him so that we could become like him, a new creation, and share in the glory of God.

Wrap your head around this for a moment:

Hebrews 1:3 (CSB) — 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Philippians 2:6–8 (CSB) — 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.

This Jesus became hungry.

This shows you just how important it is to God that Jesus become like us and personally understand what it is like to struggle against sin and temptation.

By this act alone Yahweh’s empathy as our Mediator is forever removed from the realm of mere theoretical knowledge. Jesus the Messiah, being fully God, knows what it is like to be human and experience the urges that his creation experiences.

Therefore,

Hebrews 2:18 (CSB) — For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.

After”: Jesus spent forty days being tempted by demonic powers in every imaginable way until his physical strength is fully exhausted.

The powers of hell itself unleashed everything against Jesus, in whom the grace of God was demonstrated:

2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (CSB) — 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. 10 So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

VERSE 3: Sin Crouching At The Door

Matthew 4:3 (CSB) — 3 Then the tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

This story is as much about Satan and the powers of darkness as it is about Jesus, for it describes the work of the Devil, the nature of sin’s temptation, and the downfall of the kingdom of darkness when it failed to snare the King of heaven’s Kingdom!

The Tempter Approaches”: Satan’s origin and fall is vividly depicted by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision:

Ezekiel 28:12–19 (CSB) — 12 “Son of man, lament for the king of Tyre and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord God says: You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God. Every kind of precious stone covered you: carnelian, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, lapis lazuli, turquoise and emerald. Your mountings and settings were crafted in gold; they were prepared on the day you were created. 14 You were an anointed guardian cherub, for I had appointed you. You were on the holy mountain of God; you walked among the fiery stones. 15 From the day you were created you were blameless in your ways until wickedness was found in you. 16 Through the abundance of your trade, you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I expelled you in disgrace from the mountain of God, and banished you, guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. 17 Your heart became proud because of your beauty; For the sake of your splendor you corrupted your wisdom. So I threw you down to the ground; I made you a spectacle before kings. 18 You profaned your sanctuaries by the magnitude of your iniquities in your dishonest trade. So I made fire come from within you, and it consumed you. I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of everyone watching you. 19 All those who know you among the peoples are appalled at you. You have become an object of horror and will never exist again.’ ”

Satan had been a spectator of the glory which Christ possessed with the Father:

John 17:5 (CSB) — 5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with that glory I had with you before the world existed.

When Satan saw the sign of Christ’s birth, he knew that the King had laid aside his glory for the task of world redemption, to break the bonds of sin’s captivity from the souls of humanity, and lead captivity captive so that those who had languished in the pains of darkness could be ushered into the Kingdom of Light!

If you are the Son of God”: We must also conclude that the Prince of this World must have witnessed Jesus’ baptism and heard the Father’s proclamation. What God had just declared, Satan comes when Jesus is physically at his weakest to call into question:

Matthew 3:17 (CSB) — 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

Therefore, Satan focuses his temptations on challenging God’s word to induce Jesus to look beyond God’s proclamation to prove his own Sonship.

  • How often do we suffer this same attack in our spiritual wildernesses, calling us to doubt our adoption?
  • How often do we question God’s calling, doubting that he will establish what he has called us to do?

Tell these stones to become bread”: The Tempter is smart enough not to only tempt us to do what we should not do, but to also tempt us to do what we may do. Satan’s subtle hope was that Jesus would forsake his role as representative-man and assume the place of deity – though it was both within his power and his “right” to do so – and turn these stones into bread to feed himself.

We must not miss two striking parallels, one between Jesus and Moses, and one between Jesus and Adam.

JESUS AND MOSES: when Israel was parched in the wilderness of Zin, they assembled against Moses and Aaron because there was no water. So, Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting and the glory of the LORD appeared to them.

Numbers 20:7-12 (CSB) — 7 The Lord spoke to Moses, 8 “Take the staff and assemble the community. You and your brother Aaron are to speak to the rock while they watch, and it will yield its water. You will bring out water for them from the rock and provide drink for the community and their livestock.” 9 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence just as he had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron summoned the assembly in front of the rock, and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels! Must we bring water out of this rock for you?” 11 Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff, so that abundant water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. 12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me to demonstrate my holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them.”

JESUS AND ADAM: Satan tempted Adam to doubt God’s proclamation and satisfy his spiritual longing to become like God by taking the forbidden fruit. Our whole human race has ever since shared in the consequences of Adam’s fall, becoming slaves to the power of sin and death, but our Redeemer has come so that those who are like Adam in the flesh might be born again in the image of the Heavenly Man:

Genesis 3:4–5 (CSB) — 4 “No! You will certainly not die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

1 Corinthians 15:45–49 (CSB) — 45 So it is written, The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 Like the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; like the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

Therefore, Isaac Watts wrote concerning the victory won by Christ:

In him the tribes of Adam boast

More blessings than their father lost

VERSE 4: Spiritual Warfare

Matthew 4:4 (CSB) — 4 He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus teaches us three more principles for spiritual combat in this verse. These three principles show us what to do when temptation comes, how to deal with sin’s logic, and how to understand our own nature so that we do not succumb to sin’s deceptions.

Answered”: Our second principle for spiritual combat teaches us that temptation always requires an answer.

Sin thrives in the shadows of ambiguity and confusion. Where truth has been obscured, or where confusion prevails in our thinking, sin gains an opportunity to deceive our minds and distract divert the course of our life, leading us into spiritual oppression and captivity.

Answers clearly state the principles that guide our life. They set the course of our life in the critical moments of decision that so often determine our fate and write the story – whether good or bad – of our lives.

I want to make two important observations about the nature of “answers” that I hope will help us cultivate this discipline in our life:

First, our answers must be true of our life.

Can you imagine if Jesus had answered Satan with all the right theology here, as if to say “See, Satan, I know my theology!” But then still did Satan’s will because what he said had not become personally true of him? His answer would have been totally meaningless if he were not sustaining his spiritual life with the word of God.

In the same way, when we neglect the truths that we know in Scripture, we cannot really answer sin’s temptations with those truths because they do not characterize our lives.

Second, we must resolve to stand by our answers no matter the cost.

In the same way that wars are not won by big battles, but by thousands of little victories that make big victories possible, so also we must win our biggest spiritual battles by the thousands of little daily victories won by consistent training in godliness.

In particular, we must learn how to stand by our word with resolve, so that we can cultivate the truths in our life on a daily basis.

I’m reminded of this truth:

Psalm 15:1-2 (CSB) — Lord, who can dwell in your tent? Who can live on your holy mountain? 2 The one who . . . keeps his word whatever the cost . . .

It is written”: the second principle of spiritual combat teaches us that our weapons are not of this world, but are powerful through God,

2 Corinthians 10:3–4 (CSB) — 3 For although we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh, 4 since the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds . . .

Ephesians 6:10–12 (CSB) — 10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by his vast strength. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.

Satan’s challenge to God’s proclamation that Jesus is his beloved Son cast the shadow of doubt on Jesus’ sonship, as if Jesus had to prove what was already declared true by God. Jesus responds to Satan’s deception by exposing it with the light of truth. In other words, sin’s deceptions can only be defeated by a word of truth.

Therefore, Jesus tells us to abide in his word:

John 8:31–32 (CSB) — 31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you continue in my word, you really are my disciples. 32 You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Bread alone”: the third and last principle of spiritual combat in this lesson pertains to the nature of humanity.

Humans are not simply material beings that can be sustained by physical means alone. We also require spiritual sustenance because there is a spiritual dimension to our nature. By answering Satan’s temptation this way, Jesus demonstrates that our sin is the result of the human race looking only to its physical nature while neglecting our spiritual needs.

You and I are spiritual beings, designed for communion with the Holy Spirit, therefore, we must nurture our spiritual natures:

1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 (CSB) — 23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will do it.

CONCLUSION

As Jesus’ ministry proceeds relentlessly towards the cross, he faced exacting and fierce temptation by demons, Satan himself, his peers, public detractors of his ministry, jealous religious leaders, who sought to trap him and delegitimize his Messianic claim, and disciples who became disappointed with his ministry because he didn’t live up to their expectations.

Have you ever felt any of these things?

Ultimately he would be “tempted in every way as we are”, yet Jesus remained “without sin” in order to demonstrate his readiness for the ministry of human redemption, over which Jesus presides as our empathetic High Priest, who has been personally touched with the feelings of our infirmities.

Hebrews 4:14–16 (CSB) — 14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.

The temptation to which Adam succumbed and consequently led the human race into sin’s captivity was resisted by Jeus Christ, who came to lead the human race into the Kingdom of God.

Therefore, by thwarting Satan’s deceptive temptations in the wilderness

Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation began

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