Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And 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, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:1-4)

What is the lesson here? What should be preached from this passage?

One might suggest that Jesus is both teaching and demonstrating that the spiritual life, centered on feeding on the Word of God, should be of first importance to Christians. Jesus here is not only teaching this self-renouncing re-prioritization by example but also Himself enduring it, learning it by trial, as it were. Part of His preparation for His work is to learn to subdue the flesh, as he will have to do climatically on the cross. So the lesson is that we, the church, should be ready and willing to suffer in the flesh for the sake of spiritual well-being. Store up your treasures; fear not them who can kill the body; seek His kingdom first; walk according to the Spirit; and so on.

Here is one scholar’s interpretation along these lines:

Jesus thus recognizes for Himself and for His disciples that the Word of God is food for the soul, and that this is ever to be ethically higher than the satisfaction of the hunger of the body. It is a yielding to temptation when the hunger of the soul is neglected in order to satisfy the hunger of the body. There are times when the soul should be so absorbed in feeding upon the Word of God that the hunger of the body will not be experienced, or if experience, will be altogether neglected.

It is amazing that such use of this passage finds so much (apparent) support in Scripture, and seems to produce so many wholesome principles, because it is a basically incorrect interpretation. It reduces Jesus basically to a “moral fanatic,” and a rather pitiable one, without even “the benefit of a great national cause to work for, such as, for example, Gandhi had.” The story treats Jesus as an unextraordinary movement leader, one willing to starve himself to make an unspectacular point, and if pressed it would make fasting, perhaps even for up to 40 days, a commandment of God—and not fasting right up to the edge of one’s life sinful neglect of Christian duty. No. This is dangerously false teaching that will lead a congregation into the despair of works righteousness; it converts regenerate obedience into merit; and it sets trust in Christ up for painful breakdown.

There is a rather serious hermeneutical flaw that leads to this misinterpretation and misuse of the story: neglect of the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus. The story is read as though Jesus is an exemplary person and only an exemplary person. Obviously on some level Jesus is exemplary; but that level is very thin indeed. On the whole, in His person and His work, He is inimitable, and to try to ‘be like Jesus’ is basically a confused and potentially idolatrous rule.

The basic contention of Christianity with respect to the person of Christ is that he is the Son of God. If this is true, then it follows that we cannot take the experiences of Jesus and assume that they could all be experienced by ourselves, if circumstances required. Others may die on the cross, but their death would have no substitutionary significance . . . Others might be tempted to escape the cross, but a yielding to such a temptation would not cast untold millions into hell.

This interpretation, therefore, assumes “that the ethics of Jesus has nothing to do with his cross or even with the uniqueness of his divine sonship.”

So the conversation must be interpreted as one between the messiah of Israel, the Holy One of God, and Satan, the chief accuser of God’s people and the principle personal opponent to redemption. Only in that redemptive framework will the passage be rightly understood:

Now it is true that all the disciples of Jesus should put the hunger of the soul above the hunger of the body, but it is not true that this was the meaning of the temptation for Jesus if Christianity is to be taken in any higher than a purely naturalistic sense. If Christianity is true, the temptation of Jesus by Satan was the effort on the part of Satan to keep Christ from walking the via dolorosa to the cross. Such a temptation could come to no other human being because no other being could walk the via dolorosa, and if he could, Satan would be glad to see him go, since it would do no harm to his kingdom at all.

It is rather essential that the passage is interpreted to emphasize who Jesus is and what He has done. To the extent that the church is in view in the passage, it is as the unsuspecting, undeserving beneficiaries of the obedient suffering of the Son of God. The passage is about demerit met by grace; it is not an admonishment to greater and lonelier striving for personal holiness in order to earn increased communion with gentle friend Jesus.

The point is that the passage is about an interaction, very near the singular turning point in the history of redemption, even in the history of the world. This interaction is between the second Adam, the final priest of the kingdom of priests, the final prophet of the prophetic nation, the Son of God—of Israel God’s first-born son according to the flesh—the One who from Him all men have life and in whom the church will find new life and the beginning of the remaking of all things—and the tempter and accuser of God’s people, bent on nothing more than the failure of redemption. Satan’s aim is not to discourage an unusually wholesome, determined person but to thwart the once-for-all work of the one mediator between God and man.

So not only the redemptive context nor only the historical context are sufficient in themselves for interpreting the passage well. All sorts of confusion and theological error appear when the passage is removed from its redemptive-historical context: it is not that, generically, attention to the Word of God is contrasted with bodily needs and urges. It is rather that at the inauguration of His earthly ministry, Jesus the incarnate Son takes up the mantle of the priestly elect people of Israel in order to fulfill the law of God as the second Adam on behalf of the church for the glory of the grace and justice of God. What should be prioritized in interpretation and in preaching, therefore, is what Christ endured, that He endured it in our flesh and on our behalf, that His loving, obedient endurance was for hope and the love of the church, and that it has been accomplished, and hope and deliverance for the people of God secured in His very person, and is now present in His Spirit, to the glory of God.

[Quotations are from Charles A. Briggs and Cornelius Van Til, found in Van Til’s Christian Theistic Ethics, 9-11]