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The Gospel of Matthew has long been claimed by theologians as the most Jewish of the four Canonical Gospels (Harris 98). The author of Matthew stresses the role of Jesus Christ as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, or as a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Matthew 4. 1-11 draws upon the main themes of Exodus, presenting Jesus as compared to the Israelites in their journey through the desert. The wilderness can be seen to represent the negative and the positive aspects of human covenant life, as expressed in Exodus as well as in Matthew 4.
The wilderness can be seen as a place of transformation and trial, as evidenced by the scarcity of food and water, the temptation of idolatry, and the need for a faith that is rooted in deep surrender and trust in God to nourish and protect. The wilderness represents human life. Matthew 4. 1-11 presents itself as a fulfillment of the covenant formed at Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus, while emphasizing Jesus Christ as the God-man among us, ‘Emmanuel’ (Matt, NRSV, 1.
Biblically, the wilderness represents a place of extremes: The risk of death is imminent and very real, and survival depends on choices made and factors that are beyond the control of humankind. Perhaps it was this dual nature of the wilderness: A place to encounter and enter into a trusting relationship with God, but also a place to face the dark side of nature, that led American naturalist John Muir to write, “In God’s wilderness is the hope of the world” (Muir 86).
In the Book of Exodus, the unpredictable, dangerous landscape of the Wilderness leads to a primal fear of death that manifests itself in many of the Israelites losing faith in Yahweh to protect and provide for their tribe: The Israelites doubt that God will provide the water that Moses draws out of the rock, the Israelites fear hunger before God produces Manna to feed the multitudes, and at Sinai, the Israelites engage in idolatry through the worship of the golden calf (Exodus). Through all of these trials, the Israelites falter and doubt the promise of God.
Although they are delayed and punished for their shortcomings, the Israelites finally reach the Holy Land (Josh 10. 14). In the Book of Matthew, the Israelites’ time of journey in the desert can be seen to mirror Jesus’ time of trial in the wilderness (as celebrated in Christian liturgy as Lent). Just as the journey to the Promised Land was littered with frightening and dangerous events that eventually led to Joshua conquering Canaan, the time of Lent leads to the ‘Good News:’ The hope of Eternal Life through the Passion of Christ (Josh 10).
Where the people of Israel gave into human fear and temptation, Jesus became the ‘perfect human,’ giving his life willingly to God and humanity. However, the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the humanity of Jesus in the face of Satan’s temptations: Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights, but he feels human hunger, “He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” (Matt 4. 3). Likewise, Jesus feels human fear and terror in the Garden of Gethsemane, begging the Father to “Remove my cup of wrath” (Luke 22. 42).
Thus, Jesus faces the same temptations as the Israelites in the Book of Exodus when He faces the Devil in the Wilderness, but He demonstrates a perfect faith that is evidenced not by His lack of fear, but rather His complete and perfect obedience. Jesus’ time in the wilderness can be seen as a journey of transformation and covenanting that allows Jesus to emerge renewed and filled with the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus enters the wilderness just after His baptism by John the Baptist where the voice of God declares that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt 3).
This can also been seen to echo Jewish scripture, where God claims Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac as his own, the child of the Covenant (Gen 17. 1). The time of trial in the wilderness can be seen as a period of transformation, in which Jesus earns His role as the Savior. In much the way that Jesus bestows power upon Peter following the foot-washing ceremony in the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Matthew provides the story of Jesus in the Wilderness as a time of commissioning.
Throughout Matthew 4. 1-11, Jesus refutes the Devil’s temptations through the use of Hebrew Scripture. This highlights Jesus’ role as the Messiah, and claims him as the Davidic King prophesized by Isaiah (Is 26. 1). It is this emphasis on Jesus’ salvific role depending on His obedience, dedication, and hard work that is demonstrated in Matthew 4. 1-11 that leads to His Passion on the Cross. The importance and sacrifice inherent in His death depend on His sacrifice as a gift of free will, which is mirrored in his choice to give His life over to God, in spite of the Devil’s promises.
The concept of wilderness is one that is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures: In fact, both the Abrahamic and Sinai covenanting are presented in the context of voyaging through the unknown. The obedience and faith in God that is emphasized through the Book of Exodus becomes perfectly executed through the life and Passion of Jesus. His experience in the wilderness highlights His perfection and devotion even in the face of His complete humanity, and represents the perfect fulfillment of the Journey to the Promised Land, and humanity’s Covenant promise.
The Gospel of Matthew highlights the fact that the period of Lent leads to the promise of Easter, and the advent of a life free of death, in perfect communion with God. Works Cited Harris, Stephen L. , Understanding the Bible. USA: Palo Alto Press, 1985. Muir, John, Ed: Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. John of the Mountains: the Unpublished Journals of John Muir. Milwaulkee: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
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