“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We dare not miss the ominous resonance of this “then.” With “then,” Matthew gestures to the mystery of the incarnation. The Father willingly wills the Son to be subject to time, to be subject to our flesh, to be subject to the devil.
Jesus, the Son of God, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness and abandoned to the “tempter.” This “then,” therefore, anticipates the agony of the cross and the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
Jesus is to be subjected to Israel’s testing in the wilderness, a testing in which Israel proved her inability to live faithfully despite God’s good gifts. The Son, however, will be obedient, but we cannot overlook the cost of his obedience. His obedience depends on his trusting the Father’s faithfulness to Israel through the scripture.
Jesus is able to resist the devil, a devil able to quote scripture, by being a superior exegete to the one who would tempt him. Jesus, the faithful interpreter of Israel’s scripture, teaches us how to read so that we might know how to resist the devil.
First, however, Jesus must fast for forty days and nights. He thus replicates the hunger that God gave Israel in the wilderness in the hope it might learn humility. Jesus, the very embodiment of humility, accepts our humiliation and undergoes a fast for our sake.
His fast is not unlike that of Elijah in 1 Kgs. 19:4–9. Elijah has challenged Jezebel, and his life is in danger. He escapes to the wilderness, where he is ministered to by an angel, who gives him food to sustain him for a forty-day journey to Mount Horeb.
Jesus has been fed by the Father’s benediction, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” but like Israel and Elijah he must now face the one who is always ready to threaten our ability to live by God’s good gifts—the devil.