Christ as a Reader of Scripture: A View of the Temptation Scenes in Matthew and Luke

“Victory and triumph to the Son of God,
Now entering his great duel, not of arms,
But to vanquish by wisdom hellish wiles!”
—John Milton, Paradise Regained

Milton turned a lot of heads in Paradise Regained by setting Christ’s victory over Satan in the Wilderness Temptation scene, rather than the places that most of his contemporaries placed it; the Virgin Birth, the struggle in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection. But Milton had a method to his madness. For the author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the battle between Jesus Christ and the devil was a battle of interpretation. Both knew the scriptures well, and both had the ability to incorporate them into their own narratives. As Milton sets it up, the victory must go to the better reader.

This is not quite what Matthew and Luke are doing in their versions of the Temptation scene, but it is also not quite NOT what they are doing. Especially Matthew, who is the most scripturally knowledgeable of all the gospel writers and whose audience had the most interest in understanding how Jesus related to the Hebrew scriptures. Matthew’s version of the Temptation might reasonably be described—though not with anything like Milton’s scope—as a competition between Jesus and Satan to determine the best reader of the Bible.

Here’s what I mean.

First Temptation: Stone to Bread
He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:2-3 NSRV)

The first temptation makes much more sense in Matthew than it does in Luke because it gets to the heart of Matthew’s typological reasoning. From the very begging, Matthew portrays Jesus as a Moses type. Like Moses, the Baby Jesus had to be hidden from a foreign ruler bent on murdering Hebrew children. Like Moses, he came out of Egypt. And, just as Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. Does it not stand to reason that Jesus would be able to create manna when he was hungry?

Satan ups the ante by alluding to another story from the Exodus drama, found in Numbers, when the Israelites are accusing God of bringing them out of Egypt to die of thirst. God commands Moses to “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and “command the rock before their eyes to yield its water (Numbers 20:8), which is basically what Satan says about bread. Moses didn’t command the rock. Rather, he struck it, and though it brought forth water, God was angry at Moses for his disobedience, and Satan seems to be taunting Jesus with this and saying, “don’t be like Moses, command the rock to be bread.”

Jesus completely understands the allusions to Moses, though, and he answers them by quoting what Moses himself told the Israelites about manna:

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:2-3)

Jesus wins the argument by knowing more about the context of the very scripture that Satan is trying to use to prove his point. The point of God giving the Israelites manna was not corporeal, to feed their hunger. It was a spiritual gift to teach them that there are more important things than bread, and that these things come from God. Satan didn’t just get it wrong; he got it exactly wrong. And Jesus explained exactly why.

Second Temptation: Jump Off the Temple
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7 NRSV)

The second temptation is the only one in which both participants quote scripture directly. But Satan engages in the clear interpretive error of trying to quote the Psalms to understand what it means to be the Messiah. The statements that he makes—“He will command his angels concerning you” and “on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”—both come from the 91st Psalm, which was not seen as a Messianic chapter by the Jews of the Second Temple period. It is a Psalm of comfort with broad promises to all believers.

But that is not how Satan presents it. He engages in a kind of in interpretation that has been all too common in the world. He starts with some verses that just happen to be in the Hebrew Bible and assumes that they must be prophecies of the Messiah, and he immediately presents them, bereft of any context, to Jesus as ways to prove his status as the “Son of God.” It sounds absurd if you think about it. “Hey Jesus, here’s some stuff that the Bible says about not letting you scrape your foot; if you jump off the temple, you might scrape your foot. So, prove you are God’s son by jumping off so he will send an angel to save your foot from getting scraped.”

Jesus sidesteps the whole silly argument by once again quoting Deuteronomy, where Moses says, in effect, “I SAID I WOULD PROTECT YOU, BUT DON’T PUSH YOUR LUCK AND DO STUPID THINGS JUST TO SEE IF I WILL SAVE YOU, ‘CAUS I WON’T.” Or, as the NRSV puts it, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” (Deut. 6:16)

The incident at Massah, it turns out, is the same incident that Satan alludes to in the first temptation when the Israelites were thirsty, and they challenged God’s commitment to their salvation. Jesus is using the same scripture that Satan subtly invoked in the first temptation to connect the contexts together in a way that Satan’s argument does not anticipate.

Third Temptation: Become a Politically Powerful Messiah
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.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” (Matthew 4:8-10)

The final temptation is perhaps the most important of all to Matthew’s Narrative (not so for Luke, who reverses the order of the second and third temptations). It is here that Satan tempts Jesus with political power—the very thing that being the Messiah is supposed to mean.

Once again, Satan is misreading the scriptures, but he is misreading them in the same way that most of Jesus’s disciples misread them. Messiahship has become, in Jesus’s culture, a political office whose job description includes getting rid of the Romans, restoring the United Monarchy, finding the Lost Ten Tribes, and restoring the United Monarchy to its status under David and Solomon. All of this is roughly comparable, at least metaphorically, to what Satan could show Jesus from the top of a very high mountain.

But that is not what being the Messiah means. This is perhaps the most important thing that Matthew has to establish in his gospel. After spending most of the first part of it demonstrating through scriptural citations that Jesus is the promised Messiah, or the Christ, he must also demonstrate that Messiahs don’t do what most people think they are supposed to do. And what better way to do this than by making political power the final Satanic temptation that the Messiah overcomes.

To refute this view, Jesus quotes the most basic, fundamental commandment of the Jewish religion: worship God (which also comes from Deuteronomy 6, the same chapter about not testing God like they did at Massah that he quoted after the second temptation, and the same chapter that he will later quote as the basis for the first great commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5)). Don’t worship anyone, or anything else. Including political power.

In just 11 verses, Matthew narrates the story of Jesus vanquishing Satan by being the better reader. Satan comes to this “great duel not of arms” knowing a lot of scriptures; Jesus comes knowing a lot about the scriptures; these are very different things. Satan knows chapters and verses, and he knows how to build chains of reasoning by ripping the texts from their contexts and ignoring their original settings. Jesus understands those settings. He knows the stories behind them. He understands their genres, their speakers, and their intended audiences.

Perhaps the greatest Satanic temptation that Matthew describes is the temptation to be shallow readers—to comb through the sacred texts looking for stray quotes that confirm our beliefs and then piece those proof texts together to answer questions that they were never meant to address. This is the kind of interpretation that Satan excels at and that Jesus refuses to do. In this, as in all things, we need to be more like Jesus.


  1. David Hann says:

    This essay is brilliant to me and unveils a whole new way for me to understand the New Testament CFM lessons this year. I am blown away brother. But i don’t understand fully your comments on Psalm 91; in my Bible header, it is identified as a Messianic Psalm. Anyway, thanks for big helping of food for thought this week.

  2. Unfeigned says:

    What a delightful read. Thank you!

  3. Great point! Have you ever heard people declare “even Jesus was tempted and being tempted isn’t a sin.” While I dont disagree in the narrow sense of how it is portrayed with Jesus’ story, it’s often not how it’s used these days. It too sounds like skimming the scriptures, while entirely missing the point.

    Jesus didn’t define his identity based on the temptation, and didn’t insist he must act in it because it was tempting. He didn’t refer back to it time again across his ministry. He quoted scripture and the prophets, rejected the temptation, and commanded the one doing the temptations to leave him alone. And he never gave into it. That’s the standard. We may not always measure up. But it’s still the standard.

  4. Mormonism is the only religion where a convert is almost required to read. Reading clearly is essential.

    “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.” Moroni 10: 3-5

  5. BluePlanet says:

    Michael Austin for Sunday School teacher of the year…

  6. David Day says:

    Thank you so much @Michael Austin.

    @David Hann, apparently your Bible header for Psalm 91 was written by someone who was engaging in exactly the kind of prooftexting being described.

  7. David Frederick Hann says:

    Your welcome. Okay

  8. Deanna Wendt says:

    So awesome! Thank you for your insightful words and reasoning. Greatly appreciated!

  9. Thanks Michael — great reading (as usual).

  10. Stephen Morris says:

    To David Hann: prior to the release of the 1979 LDS edition of the KJV (in which the LDS chapter headings first appeared), the Church had engaged in a long process of reviewing the scriptures and creating chapter headings, cross references, and footnotes that tied them all together. Two members of that committee were Bruce R. McConkie and Boyd K. Packer. Elder McConkie wrote the chapter headings; thus, they reflect a “strict constructionist” LDS view of the scriptures. Elder McConkie himself wrote that the headings are not doctrinal. Originally Psalm 91 was not a prophecy about the Messiah. However, Christians, including LDS, see it as such.

  11. Not a Cougar says:

    Soooo, I brought up the idea of Satan trying to quote a scripture out of context for his own purposes in Sunday School today, and it went over like a lead balloon. Nobody would bite on the idea that Psalm wasn’t messianic. Oh well.

  12. Dr. Austin, thanks for this. It added to my Sabbath and my scripture study this week.

  13. If this sort of thing appeared in church magazines, I would actually read them.

  14. Stephen Hardy says:

    The New Testament is my favorite book of scripture. Please, Michael Austin, please post frequently this year.

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