Matthew 4:1-17, Jesus Binds the Strong Man

The Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)

[January 15, 2012] Last Sunday we discussed the meaning of the Lord’s baptism. By being baptized by John unto repentance, Jesus made a decision to renounce and deny and lay down His sinless and holy and perfect soul in loving submission to God’s will and judgment as an intercessory offering for others. In doing so, by renouncing His human ego, He identified with His divine hypostasis, and immediately it was revealed to Him as the heavens opened and the Father declared Him “My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight.”

This passage reveals the meaning of our own baptism, for in going down into the waters we too submit to God’s judgment of death on us and we bury ourselves with Christ in His. In rising, we take on a life in which we are His, in which we live no longer on the basis of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but by the Tree of Life. Outwardly, we live under the judgment of God and take the way of the cross in the world. Inwardly we live by the life of Christ in us who is an opened heaven to us, where our communion with God is unobstructed by our sin. Our soul lives under the judgment of God on the one hand, and on the other it lives like a newborn child in complete dependence on the spirit, that is, on the Holy Spirit. This is the life that we begin to grow into when we accept Christian baptism.

The Temptation of Jesus (4:1-11)

Please read the discussion in The Lord’s Temptation and Choice from Trinity Sunday, May 18, 2008. I will not repeat everything again.

When Jesus came up out of the waters of the Jordan, He was imbued with a new consciousness, not so much of Himself or of God but of reality. For it was in renouncing Himself that He discovered that He was the coming of God. This consciousness of His unique divinity too place at the same time that He renounced His fully developed adult ego. Psychologically it was not as if He returned to the preconscious oceanic world of the subconscious in which we are innocently one with everything. It was in the other direction; He exceeded the development of His ego and with full awareness of what He was doing, laid it aside for what it was. It was there but He no longer identified with it. In identifying with His true “I,” His hypostasis, that is, His divine Sonship, His perspective of who He was as Jesus was seen in the scope of a divine viewpoint of all things. He was no longer attached to His own incarnation (I mean, with a soulical attachment that wants to hold on to it). There was, in a very real sense, only God, and in seeing only God He saw with open eyes God’s relationship to the creation, and God’s relationship to the particular world with which He interacted as Jesus. When Jesus began calling people to Himself, He did so without the interference of any sense of His own ego. He spoke straight out of His Person (His hypostasis) as the divine Son. So what changed in Jesus was not His objective knowledge of these things but His subjective consciousness of them.

At that moment, the Holy Spirit came upon Him, and at once led Him up into the wilderness. It was the first test of this new condition in which our Lord found Himself. Later Satan would tempt Jesus again through Peter, who begged Jesus to not take the pathway of the cross. And again in Gethsemane, He struggled with His soul. At no time did Jesus waver, yet at least on these occasions, the temptation tested Him. The temptation was real, and He struggled with it (in the Garden His soul was sorrowful unto death, and Luke describes Him as sweating blood), but He did not waver.  In the end, He took His resolve to its utmost limit, when He could have beseeched the Father, and “He will provide Me at once with more than twelve legions of angels,” and laid down His soul in death. But here, in the desert, before His ministry could proceed, He “bound the strong man” (Matthew 12:29) and removed any ground within His holy soul on which Satan could dance and entice Him out of His chosen path. This was the purpose of the temptation; to get this thing settled so Jesus could be free to proceed.

We may imagine that since Jesus was divine—His humanity was the human nature of His divine hypostasis (Person)—the temptation was not real. If He was God He could not sin, we are thinking. After all, whatever God does is what God wills; right? Yet that is to not appreciate that His soul was truly a human soul. Just as His body was truly human and could be inflicted with hunger, weariness, pain, mutilation and death, so too His soul suffered (as we saw in the Garden, it suffered “even to death”). He was “tempted in all respects like us” (Hebrews 4:15; see 2:18). What tempted Him here, however, was not ordinary sin, but rather His “rights,” His entitlements, as the holy and sinless One. There was no way in which He deserved to suffer the consequences of our sins; or deserved to suffer the anger of God when He submitted to the judgment of God. He was not in any way obligated to do this for our sake. His human soul was repelled by this and struggled against it, because it was not “fair.” It was not inflicted on Him—this is important to understand. It could not be inflicted. And herein lies the temptation. It had to be freely chosen in His soul or else it could not happen. That choice made it an intercession for us. For in it His human soul interceded for us and for the whole creation. It was the holocaust of His soul, not His divine will, which made the intercession of His passion effective for us. Why? Because it had to fulfill the righteousness required of us, if our repentance were to be acceptable to God. So yes, the temptation was real.

What was tested was His new consciousness of Sonship: “If You are the Son of God.” In each case, the temptation was to misunderstand this Sonship, to understand it intellectually (in the soul, that is, as if it were the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge), instead of to be it in the place of awareness where “the heavens are open to Him.” In each case, it is to act on the basis of an understanding of what Sonship is or means or entitles Him to. And in each case, Jesus responds by saying that it is irrelevant what He thinks; what matters is what God says. For us, of course, we are so easily misled into thinking that our own thoughts are what God says that this would be a fiasco. This has become so public these days that the public thinks of Christians as a “hate group.” Are they wrong? All we can say is, “But you did not so learn Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him as the reality is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:20-21).

How important it is for us to know the division of soul and spirit, for we do not know the thoughts and intentions of our heart (Hebrews 4:12)! Jesus, however, knew the difference, as all these temptations make clear. When Jesus quotes the divine Word, He surrenders His own opinions and ideas and yields to God’s will. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out through the mouth of God.” The word “word” in Greek is rhēma, not logos, and refers to the freshly spoken word, not the permanence of the word as an idea. This does not exclude the Scriptures; certainly not since Jesus continually turns to the Scriptures to combat each temptation. Rather, it makes the Scriptures inseparable from the One who speaks them. The words of Scriptures are not given to us as a legal text that we then take into our own hands and turn foul. This, in fact, is what we do. We make the Scriptures into the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and separate it from the living God. The devil does this when he quotes Psalm 91:11-12. Jesus does not take this bait. He will not use Scripture. We speak of the Sermon on the Mount as if it were a legal text instead of as the personal call of Jesus who calls us into relationship to Himself. The Sermon on the Mount is a description, not a prescription, though it has that form. The function of the form, its imperativeness, is not to hand us something that we can then make independent use of, but rather to call us into relationship to Himself. Our obedience is not to an idea but to Him. The word is rhēma, not logos, and if we do not hear it this way, we miss the point.

But that is to get ahead of ourselves. The point here is that Jesus—as a human being—denies Himself, His soul, and recognizes only God’s will for Him.

Matthew describes three temptations. We can interpret them in many different ways. To turn stones into bread may be a temptation to self-indulgence, a public display of power may be a temptation to fanfare and fame, and the last temptation may be to the Nietzscheian will for power and control. I have suggested that in view of the church’s struggle at the time with the Shammai school of the Pharisees and the nascent zealot movement, which started at the time of Jesus and was pressing at the time when Matthew wrote, that we might view these temptations as having to do with the role of the Messiah.

By turning stones into bread, Jesus can meet the needs of the people (Jesus was not opposed to this: He multiplied loaves and fish to feed them). By throwing Himself from the top of the Temple, He could get their attention (Jesus also performed signs: His works of healing and power). By assuming power for Himself, He can transform society and make it according to His will (Jesus knew that this was His destiny: One day He will come as King of kings and Lord of lords). In each case, the temptation is to act on His own, and in each case, the concept of the Messiah is false.

We would be wise to compare this to the temptations that face the church today.

Is it the church’s role to meet people’s needs? We think this is good in and of itself. Or we think that we must meet their material needs before we can preach the Gospel to them. Or we think that by meeting their needs we can entice them to become interested in the Gospel. All these are misguided, because we define what people need on our own terms, or we allow people to define their own needs, when in fact it is God who declares what we need. By satisfying people with bread (or whatever), we protect them from the demands of the Gospel. God becomes a means for their needs to be met rather than One who makes an absolute demand of us. This is not to say that we should not feed the hungry. But it is not the church’s mission to meet people’s needs as they (or we) perceive them. Their real need is for the Word of God.

Should the church try to get people’s attention by impressing people with the things they crave? Here the important thing is to draw the people in. We draw them in by offering them entertainment and keeping them entertained. Numbers are what matters. We will manipulate the Scriptures or the name of God to make them appealing to the masses or to the youth culture or to the elderly who fear change. The devil even tempted Jesus to manipulate the power of God to win people over. Do not the Pentecostals attempt this? Or the Catholic and Orthodox churches with their sacraments? When the culture is in denial about our environmental crisis, why is Christianity also in denial? When the culture is obsessed with people’s sexual rights, why is Christianity running after the piper? How did Christians ever get so embroiled in the manipulations of politicians? On the one hand the church turns its back on the poor, parading “capitalism” (of all things!) as if it were in any way not antithetical to Christianity; on the other hand, the church elevates the poor—inadvertently making poverty a crime—and makes the government their savior. In either case, the so-called church has lost sight of what it is and become a slave to culture and society, and people’s cravings and expectations, manipulating Scriptures for its self-chosen causes.

But should not the church attempt to establish the Kingdom of God in society? While we may not explicitly imagine a theocracy such as the Medieval Papacy envisioned, we think that secular society ought to espouse what we think are Christian values (whether we are speaking of the right or the left is irrelevant). What the religion of Islam wants is the same thing. If only we can take control of society and make it the way we want it to be. Indeed, do we not all want this? Denominations make pronouncements of “social justice” and in their self-righteousness presume (or pretend) that someone is still listening. The real temptation, I think, is to imagine that we can bring about change from the top down. If we can influence government, or the wealthy, to do the right thing, then we are accomplishing something. Of course they will not, no matter how much we influence policy. The role of government is to restrain the wealthy and powerful. But give the government the power to do so and then the government also needs to be restrained. If society will change, it will have to done at the base, by ordinary people, who change the way they live. That will change the way the powers that be seek to establish their power. Changing policy will not bring about the change that is needed here. Policy can only reflect the change that has already taken place, as those in power try to secure their power more tightly. What Christianity is doing now is essentially falling down and worshiping the ruler of the world.

There is another place that the church ought to be, and that is where Jesus is in the midst of the world.

Jesus remains in the consciousness of Sonship that He entered at His baptism, it was going to be the way of the cross (see Matthew 16:21-23). He refused to give any ground to the devil until the devil left Him for a while. We do not hear of the devil tempting Him again until Jesus reveals the cross to His disciples at the end of His Galilean ministry. At that time the Tempter will not come from within Himself (as he did in the desert) but from the first of His disciples. The next time He must confront Himself it will be in Gethsemane. Inside the frame of baptism and cross, the wilderness and the garden frame His ministry, and thus also define it. From beginning to end, His way leads to the cross. He lays down His soul, giving it up as a ransom for many.

That angels came and ministered to Him shows Jesus in His natural state, as if the wilderness had become a Garden of Eden. Whereas first man failed in temptation and was expelled from the Garden, with cherubim guarding the way to the Tree of Life; now the Second Man overcame in temptation. The angels cause Him no fear and do not restrict His passage. Indeed, by the cross He will become the Tree of Life to all who come to Him. The ministrations of angels are His birthright and show the Father’s pleasure.

His Galilean Residence in Capernaum (4:12-17)

Jesus returns home when He hears that John the Baptist was arrested. After seeing His mother and brothers, He goes to Capernaum and there resides. Luke, of course, tells us something more about His stay in Nazareth, but Matthew is silent about it, probably because it does not suit his purpose, which is to write a manual for the churches whereas Luke was writing a bios. Instead, Matthew turns our attention to the prophecy in Isaiah 9. Isaiah 7-9 presents King Ahaz as one who refused to put his trust in YHWH and brought darkness on the people. Tiglath-pileser, the king of Assyria, annexed Galilee from Israel in 733 BCE (2 Kings 15:29). Now Judah stood in the shadow of death. The great light that arises is the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah, who unlike his father will put his trust in YWHW and thus overcome the Assyrian threat. He foreshadows the Messiah.

Matthew interprets the people sitting in darkness and in the region and shadow of death as the people of Galilee, which is fine if Isaiah in chapters 1—40, by depicting Israel under the Assyrian threat sees into the distant future when Babylon will be the world power and One like Hezekiah will truly and finally deliver His people. The people of Galilee, like all people by the time the prophets got through with their preaching, are under the judgment of God. Jesus comes to them as a great light that has risen. For though He does not yet outwardly put an end to the judgment of God that lays like a pall on all people, He does shine an inner light that anticipates the coming deliverance and transformation of creation.

Verse 17 is the conclusion of the first section of Matthew. “From that time Jesus began to proclaim and to say, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near.’” Matthew 1:1—4:17 depicts the emergence of the Kingdom of the Heavens. We get a suggestion of it in the beginning when Joseph adopts the eight day old infant into the lineage of King David; He is sought after as the King of Israel by Gentiles and at the same time threatened by a rival king; then His parents bring Him to Nazareth (in fulfillment of the prophets who call Him, Netzer, “The Branch”). In the second part, Jesus comes to John for the baptism of repentance and the heavens open and the Spirit descends on Him, the Father recognizing His faithfulness and revealing His Sonship; Jesus is led into the wilderness to have His new consciousness of His divine Sonship tested (will He continue in the way of repentance or will He rely on His rights as the sinless One?); and then emerges into the public life of Israel, bringing Himself to Capernaum (in fulfillment of the prophets) and continuing the proclamation of John.

When John preached that the Kingdom of the Heavens had drawn near, He was preaching about the nearness of the Coming One. When Jesus preached the same thing, He was presenting Himself as the Coming One. The Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near in His very person. Let whoever has ears hear.

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