Matthew IV: 1-11
“Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled.”
So begins the well-known Lenten hymn by George Hunt Smyttan (1822-1870), the Victorian Rector of Hawksworth in Nottinghamshire, a poetic meditation on the Temptation of our Lord, which was today’s extract from St. Matthew’s Gospel. We are told that after his baptism by John in the River Jordan, our Lord immediately retreated into the Judaean desert, for a period of forty days and forty nights, during which he fasted from food and drink.
The forty days have a symbolic resonance to the fasts of Moses and Elijah. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights when he went up into Mount Sinai to receive the ten Commandments from the hand of God (Exodus XXXIV: 28 & Deuteronomy IX: 9 & 18) whilst Elijah, after he had slain the prophets of Baal, retreated to Mount Horeb, where he also fasted for the same time. (1 Kings XIX: 8) The biblical symbolism of forty days is not exactly defined, but is generally viewed as a time of trial, testing or probation or, as Saint Jerome suggests, of affliction and judgement.
In the Old Testament God caused it to rain 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis VII:12); after Moses killed the Egyptian, he fled to Midian, where he spent 40 years in the desert tending flocks (Acts VII:30); the Mosaic Law specified a maximum number of lashes a man could receive for a crime, setting the limit at 40 (Deuteronomy XXV:3); the Israelite spies took 40 days to spy out Canaan (Numbers XIII:25) and the Israelites wandered for 40 years before entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy VIII:2-5). Before Samson’s deliverance, Israel also served the Philistines for 40 years (Judges XIII:1); Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel XVII:16) and Jonah warned the Ninevites that their city would be destroyed in 40 days (Job III:4).
Our current tradition is that a time of retreat or of fasting usually prepares us for some important spiritual event, such as an ordination or in preparation for the celebration of a great feast of the church, such as our current observance of Great Lent for the Feast of Holy Pascha. Many writers, therefore suggest that our Lord had gone into the wilderness primarily to prepare himself for his active ministry. Matthew and Luke’s Gospel says that the Lord was “led” into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, whereas Mark’s Gospel (I:12) has the expression, “the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness” using the more powerful Greek word suggesting to eject, to expel or to thrust. Some people are shocked at the idea that the Holy Spirit could lead the Lord into temptation, but in fact what we actually have here is God seeking a confrontation with Satan, which was an essential part of His mission to overcome his domination and for Christ is to show us how to resist and overcome temptation.
At the incarnation, when the Lord was made man, He assumed the fullness of humanity, but being perfect by nature, He alone remained sinless. Origen reminds us that in His humanity the Lord shared all the we have, except for sin, quoting from the Epistle to the Hebrews (IV: 15): “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” – in other words, who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses – “but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” St. Paul also spoke of God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” (Romans VIII: 3)
St. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310-367), known as the “Hammer of the Arians” and the “Athanasius of the West”, observes that Christ went to this confrontation in the same flesh as Adam, observing that in this confrontation we have the reversal of the temptation of Adam. [Satan] “had enticed Adam and by deceiving him led him to death. But it was fitting, because of his wickedness and evil deed, that he be defeated by that same humanity in whose death and misfortunes he glorified. It was the devil who envied God’s gifts to humanity before the temptation of Adam, who was now unable to understand God’s being present in a human being.”
The whole purpose of the Incarnation was the redemption of human nature by its union with the Godhead, by “flesh” or humanity itself, being assumed into the divine nature. St. Athanasius the Apostolic explains that “the Flesh did not diminish the glory of the Word; far be the thought: on the contrary, it was glorified by Him. Nor, because the Son that was in the form of God took upon Him the form of a servant was He deprived of His Godhead. On the contrary, He is thus become the Deliverer of all flesh and of all creation. And if God sent His Son brought forth from a woman, the fact causes us no shame but contrariwise glory and great grace. For He has become Man, that He might deify us in Himself, and He has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to Himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote. (2 Peter 1:4) And ‘what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh’” (Letter LX to Adelphius).
St. Gregory Nazianzen also emphasises Christ’s full humanity: that in order to redeem man in the totality of his body, soul and spirit, our Lord assumed all the elements of human nature, otherwise man would not have been saved. Rejecting the heresy of Apollinaris, who asserted that Jesus Christ had not assumed a rational mind, St. Gregory responded with the famous maxim “What has not been assumed has not been healed,” and if Christ had not been “endowed with a rational mind, how could he have been a man?” It was precisely our mind and our reason that needed and needs the relationship, the encounter with God in Christ. (To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius. Ep. CI.)
Satan now used the same temptations by which Adam had been overcome: gluttony (“Taste it”), vain ambition (“You will be like Gods”) and avarice for an exalted position (“knowing good and evil”).
At the Lord’s baptism in Jordan, the Divine voice was heard to proclaim “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” So, in his first temptation the Devil picks on this when he attempts to incite the Lord to prove it, “If you are the Son of God ….”. This first temptation is the most basic, as Satan tries to tempt Christ in His humanity with an appeal to our human appetites – by which he deceived Adam, the first man – by offering food, having gone without any for forty days. Saint Hilary tells us that the Lord did not hunger for human food, but for human salvation. Had our Lord acted in His Divine nature and not overcome temptation by the Spirit given to Him, we would have no example to us of how we too can overcome temptation through the power of the Spirit of God.
Although the Lord had rebutted Satan with Holy Scripture, the Devil now craftily quotes scripture in support of his second temptation – reminding us of the old maxim: ‘a text out of context is a pretext’. This temptation to vainglory, by an unwarrantable presumption and confidence in Divine Providence, is also a temptation to self-destruction,
The folly of the devil’s third and final temptation: offering worldly glory – things of only transitory and insubstantial nature – if Christ should make him His master, showed his weakness, after which the Lord drives him away. By confronting and withstanding temptation from the Enemy, the Lord – in His humanity – restored victory to mankind and reversal of the fall of Adam
As we pray in the Lord’s prayer: “Lead us not into temptation” we should know that God does not tempt us to sin and that the meaning here is clearly, “Do not let us be overcome by temptation” or “brought to the time of trial or testing” because we also pray to be “delivered from Evil, or the Evil One.”