Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)
For much of church history—and down to the present day—Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness has raised questions regarding the peccability of the God-man: could Jesus have sinned? Can God be tempted? The focus has thus been on the interplay between the divine and human in Christ.
But despite the utility of such questions, they do not represent the Evangelists’ concerns. As many scholars now recognize, the rhetorical purpose of the temptation narrative lies in its relationship with Israel’s Exodus experience; by both allusion and quotation the temptation narrative evokes Israel’s sojourn through the wilderness. What Matthew and Luke intend to demonstrate through this story then is that Jesus has undergone a new Exodus of sorts: in his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation Jesus has relived Israel’s founding myth. Not only has he relived it, he has succeeded where Israel failed. Whereas Israel abandoned God in the wilderness of Sinai, Jesus remained loyal to the point of death in his own wildernesses, both beyond the Jordan and in Jerusalem. In this way Jesus redeemed Israel’s story. He fulfilled the Law not just by obedience to its regulations but by faithfully acting out its central narrative. In short, the temptation lays bares an underlying typology between Israel and Christ.
For the most part this typological connection serves as little more than a datum in our theologies of atonement: truly Jesus fulfilled the Law and thus made propitiation for sin. Or as explained by Mann and Albright: “For Jesus, the Son, the same struggle of conscience [as that experienced by Israel] had to be met, and the dominion of sin could be broken, and its captives freed, only in submission to the Father’s will” (Matthew, 37).
Yet much more can be said. The parable of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness does not merely address humanity’s spiritual enslavement to and spiritual redemption from sin; as if earthly realities could be separated from spiritual ones. Rather, the temptation also speaks to the material experience and concrete future of the early churches, the new Israel of God. The parable of the temptation encapsulates not just the work of Jesus, but also the pathos and destiny of the churches as they wandered as strangers in hostile and all-devouring pagan lands.
A new Exodus and a new Conquest?
A more expansive picture emerges as the typological pieces are put into place. A few probable allusions should therefore be mentioned.
- The baptism of Jesus which immediately precedes the temptation evokes Israel’s crossing of the waters at the Red Sea. God’s Son enters the waters of death and is drawn out into the testing grounds of the wilderness (cf. Exodus 4:22-23).
- As the ringleader of the rogue divine council, the Devil stands in for those pagan deities whom Israel worshiped in the wilderness (Exodus 32, Numbers 25). Jewish tradition identified these gods as demons (Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Cor 10:20) and Satan as their king (Mark 3:22, Revelation 16:13-14, Matthew 25:41).
- The kingdoms which the Devil claims as his own correspond to the pagan nations of Canaan. Though Israel inherited this land for a time on account of God’s promises to the Patriarchs, Israel served the gods of the Canaanites and were thus sent into exile, their Davidic kingdom toppled.
With these three connections recognized, the new Exodus typology in Matthew is secure and sweeping. Jesus relives not only Israel’s wilderness experience, but also their redemption through the sea.
Though many would stop there, an inheritance/conquest motif also appears in the testing of Christ (point 3). By the end of Matthew’s narrative Jesus will announce that he has received “all authority on earth” and that from heaven he stands ready to judge the nations and inaugurate his kingdom over them (Matthew 25:31-46, cf. 24:29-31). The kingdoms which God will now commandeer, however, are not a federation of Canaanites, but the nations of the pagan Greco-Roman world—the nations ruled by the Devil through the agency of Babylon, the city of Rome (Revelation 17-18). Satan’s idolatrous enslavement of these nations will be undone by God’s newly installed king.
Beside representing the new Exodus/Conquest typology at the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, the temptation narrative also characterizes early Christian experience, praxis, and hope. The temptation is as much about the work of Jesus as it is about the work of the early churches.
Like Jesus, the churches that awaited Christ’s full possession of the nations voluntarily occupied a liminal space within the pagan Greco-Roman world. They too suffered want and temptation in hostile lands before entering into their inheritance. They too were exiles and wanderers upon the earth (1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:32-40).
Like Jesus, the early churches submitted to God rather than to the Devil and his pagan systems. They chose to become vulnerable to such systems as they awaited the revelation of the kingdom. They emulated Jesus in the wilderness as a new and faithful Israel. They would inherit the Promised Land only through fidelity to God.
The early churches believed they would “inherit the earth” just as Jesus had inherited the earth at his heavenly exaltation (Matthew 5:5, 28:18, Revelation 2:26-27, cf. LXX Genesis 15:7, Deuteronomy 26:1). As I have argued elsewhere, this hope was realized in the collapse and conversion of the arbiter of the known world, the Roman empire. Though these Christians did not inherit the kingdoms of the earth on the Devil’s terms, they inherited the kingdoms nonetheless. Over the brutal pagan kingdoms of the Greco-Roman world God established a new Israel, the kingdom of God. Within the structures of Christendom God would, for a time, vindicate his people and teach the nations his ways.