Our reading this week is Matthew 3-4, most of which takes place in the wilderness or desert of Judea. This area is west of the Red Sea, stretching from about Jerusalem to Jericho and even farther south. The wilderness or desert is a place where fugitives and outcasts often go, as well as groups like the Essenes who are usually given credit for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also, the wilderness is a place probably safer for prophets like John to gather crowds so as not to alert Roman or even Jewish authorities, although we will see Jewish leaders coming out to him.
After a brief introduction of the character of John and his location in the desert, we hear the strong imperative of John in v.2: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” (“Kingdom of Heaven” is best understood simply as “reign” or “rule” of God and is used through out Matthew in the same way we hear Kingdom of God in other gospels.) This imperative from John will also be, word-for-word, Jesus’ first proclamation at the beginning of His ministry in Matt. 4:17: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoeo, which in Greek means to change one’s mind. John the Baptist, though, is a Jewish prophet (even if he spoke Greek)–the one for whom Israel has been waiting to come in the Spirit of Elijah and to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is thus calling for a complete transformation of one’s life to resubmit to the ways of God. The last book of the Old Testament—and indeed the final verses of it—anticipate the prophet Elijah returning to prepare Israel for the day of The LORD, i.e. YHWH. :
“Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of YHWH comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
So when John shows up on the scene wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, Jewish readers (remember, Matthew is written especially with a Jewish bent) would immediately recognize him as an Elijah-like figure (see 2 Kings 1). John is a cousin of Jesus, yet even as such and as an eschatological prophet of the magnitude of Elijah, John openly insists: “one who is more powerful I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” (Matt. 3:11)
Yet, Jesus insists on being baptized by John, saying “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (v.15). When Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens were opened (a sign of God revealing something), and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and then resting on him. The Father speaks from heaven, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”(v.17) This divine voice and statement seems to combine two texts from the Old Testament: Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.
Ps. 2:7 I will proclaim YHWH’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.”
Isaiah 42: 1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Then we come to chapter four, which we did not spend as much time on in our meeting this week. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness (or desert) to be tempted by satan. This language of leading into the wilderness carries with it the strong and distinct echo of God leading Israel and Moses out of Egypt, into and through the wilderness. Matthew 4:2 says Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, stirring up in readers’ minds the story of Moses fasting 40 days and nights before receiving the law on Mt. Sinai (cf. Ex 24:18; 34:28), as well as events from other stories like Noah (it rained 40 days and nights), Elijah (1 Ki. 19:8), and others. Israel as a group likewise was tested in the wilderness for 40 years.
We have noted how Jesus is presented as something like a new and greater Moses, yet it also seems that Jesus even embodies or represents Israel itself as whole–and all Israel was meant to be. Jesus’ time in the desert will look quite different, however, than Israel’s time wandering in the wilderness. Jesus, the Messiah, is completely faithful and obedient.
The devil tempts Jesus in three ways: to eat, to test God, and to worship Satan in exchange for power. Interestingly, the devil not only uses material comfort (food and land or power in temptations 1 and 3 respectively), but the devil even quotes scripture—albeit out of context—in an attempt to make Jesus sin against God. (We should note then just how careful we really ought to be when citing passages, reading them in consideration of their historical, literary, canonical, and other kinds of contexts.) Jesus, each time, responds to Satan with scriptures, all of which are from Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, the core of the Jewish scriptures and first five books of the Bible.
Perhaps, if we are followers of Jesus, and if we really want to be like Him—we too should spend more time not only in scripture, but in all of scripture—including the Old Testament a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible! In fact, that is part of the reason we are reading Matthew this time instead of one of the other three gospels, in hopes of further immersing ourselves in the story of God, including especially the story and backgrounds related to Israel.
Immediately after Jesus’ temptations and after Satan leaves, “angels came and began ministering to his needs.” (4:11). A good question came up in our meeting this week about whether Satan physically appeared to Jesus, or if it was sort of in His head, and we noted that the text does not really say. However, the broader narrative of scripture certainly teaches the existence of the accuser and angels and demons, as mentioned here with angels attending to Jesus. Angels sometimes appear as people, so presumably so could Satan. However, we can note that in the final temptation, Satan took Jesus to “a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world”—yet there were no places where that would literally be true. So perhaps the scope of the view is hyperbolic, or perhaps this did indeed take place in a vision. Either way, the real devil really tempted Jesus–and Jesus really resisted and obeyed God instead.
After this, we learn that John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod Antipas, and Jesus leaves Nazareth to live in Capernaum by the sea. Matt 4:17 reads: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Walking along the sea of Galilee, He calls His first disciples as the labored in fishing, two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Matthew notes they all immediately left their nets and followed Jesus.
In the final section this week, Matthew 4:23-25, Jesus’ fame spreads has he teaches in their synagogues and proclaims “the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (v.23). Great crowds begin to follow Jesus, and his ministry is officially up and running.
Next week, we will look at the famous Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7, but for this week, reflect on the following questions:
Are we humbling ourselves before the Lord Jesus like John?
Are we reorienting our lives (i.e. repenting) to complete submission to God and to His ways? Are we encouraging others to do the same?
Do we see Jesus as the climax of human history the way John did?
Are we, like Jesus, immersing ourselves in scripture and resisting temptation?
Are we, as disciples in 2021, following Jesus in our daily lives with such urgency as the first disciples?
Are we living Kingdom-focused lives that embody the beliefs we claim to hold?
May the Lord bless us in this endeavor and give grace to us when we need it. May the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, healed the sick, and gave sight to the blind—work in and through us to bring about the will of God on earth, as it is in heaven.