We all know the story. Jesus, in Matthew 4:8-9 is taken to a high mountain (where worship happened back then) by Satan. Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only he bows and worships him. Interesting, isn’t it?
I think evangelicals are extremely uncomfortable with this passage of Scripture. Why would they be uncomfortable? Precisely because Satan, in this pericope, seems to have authority over the “kingdoms of the world.” It’s uncomfortable for two reasons: 1) it possibly messes with our understanding of God’s sovereignty; 2) we are modern men, although we claim to, we don’t really act like we believe in angels, demons, and their hierarchal ruler, Satan. It seems like Bultmann’s influence really did have a lasting effect.
So what do I think this is about? When Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world, it is a temptation precisely because he has something to offer Jesus, namely, the kingdoms of the world. How could this be? Isn’t God sovereign? A lot of literature written during Second Temple Judaism attempted to answer the question of evil, suffering, and sin in the world. They often assumed the cause was fallen angelic beings. As well as this, they went so far to assume that fallen angelic beings had authority and dominion over nations. The book of Jubilees, a book dependent on the book of Watchers places fallen angels as bound before the great deluge. After this, their leader Mastema (a Satan or Beelzebul equivalent) asked God for permission to release one tenth of the evil spirits to execute dominion over humanity. Another example of fallen angels having authority and dominion over the world or nations is found in Pseudo-Moses. Israel was subject to angels of destruction, which were demonic figures who symbolized the rule of the Diadochian kings. We also see it within our own canon in Daniel 10:13. The “Prince of Persia” seems to have been an angelic figure influencing Persia. Other literature such as the Damascus Document also understands Israel at times to be subject and ruled by these fallen angels during their time of lawlessness.
When I read Matthew 4, I understand Satan’s offer to Jesus as an actual offer. In my opinion, the three temptations for Jesus were temptations to accomplish parts of the mission God placed before him without actually relying on God (for passing where Israel failed, for a messianic following, and for becoming King). Yes, Deuteronomy 6-8 are definitely in mind. Israel’s exodus from Egypt is in mind, but also is the apocalyptic dimension we find in much Second Temple literature.
What Jesus accomplished on the cross and by resurrection was the defeat of Satan. As Paul explicitly makes it clear in Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus was not always the Lord over all. He became Lord. Jesus was not always the king, he became king by God’s exaltation of him. So, in the Matthew 4:1-11 narrative, Jesus overcame the temptation from Satan. What did he do? We see it all throughout his ministry in the Gospels, we see it in Acts 10:38 (Jesus healing those oppressed by the devil), we see it in Colossians 2:15: Jesus overthrew Satan’s rule over kingdoms.
I think this bears a lot of implication for today, especially in third world countries for missionaries. What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord? It means the Satan is not. It means that when there is one controlled by demonic forces, there is authority in the name of Jesus. It means for “power encounters” that the power of Satan and his forces means nothing next to the power of the Spirit.
Perhaps you’ll think I’m a wacky Pentecostal. Tell me anyways, what are your thoughts about this passage? Do you have a different interpretation? Do you think this misses the mark?
Update: I am in no way denying the pre-existent divinity of Christ in what I say above. See comment section for more information.
Evans, Craig A., and Stanley E. Porter, eds. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2000.