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What if We Got the Temptation of Jesus Wrong? Part II

Part 1 of this series dealt with understanding various issues surrounding the testing of Christ in Matthew 4:1-11 in terms of translation, syntax, and historical context. This present survey will examine the same passage in literary context, particularly Jesus’ use of Deuteronomy, as an exercise in intertextuality. You can read Part 1 here.

The Premise of Intertextuality

The idea of communication denotes a certain level of intentionality. If an author lacks desire to express himself then he would forgo communication. Therefore, if there is communication, we must assume authorial intention, and that this intention can be ascertained through the deliberate choices he makes to express himself in method and substance.

In Constantine Campbell’s work Advances in the Studies of New Testament Greek, he describes the idea behind system theory (though only applying it to the use of verb tenses). Campbell’s premise however, can be expanded to the whole process of communication. Campbell summarizes one aspect of system theory by stating, “Meaning is created through meaningful choices within a system of options. When a language user chooses a certain word, she is also ‘unchoosing’ [sic] other options that might have been chosen. . . Each choice says as much about those not chosen as those who are.”1

With this idea in mind the exegete must grapple with the question of why Jesus chose to cite Deuteronomy in response to Satan instead of other available options. It also forces the interpreter to consider how Matthew would have intended these quotations by Jesus to be understood in light of his larger argument. Such considerations fall within the subdiscipline known as intertextuality. 

OT Allusions Suggest a Larger Context

In describing intertextuality within the Old Testament, Abner Chou notes how “The prophets do not merely make allusions to individual verses, phrases, or even words, but also to the main ideas of large sections of texts.”2 The thesis of Chou’s book is that the New Testament writers continued the prophetic method of exegesis in which their quotations of the Old Testament are to be expounded, in light of the larger revelation of the Scriptures. This use of the scriptures within larger contexts can be seen in the works of Chou, and cannot be recounted here in full.

For brevity sake, this article will operate by accepting Chou’s premise that allusions, quotes, and other Old Testament imagery was meant to be understood within its larger literary and historical context. For Matthew 4:1-11, it makes logical sense that Jesus would be alluding to more than the individual verses he is quoting within the book of Deuteronomy, and that by quoting Deuteronomy he is referring more widely to the Wilderness years, and the early settlement of Canaan. However, to correctly apply this intertextual approach, we must wrestle with a few key hermeneutical points which are often neglected. 

Who Was the Original Audience?

The first thing to point out is that the Wilderness Generation (i.e. the generation of adults led out of Canaan who refused to enter the promised land; Numbers 14:30-31, 32:11) was not the original audience of the book of Deuteronomy. Many scholars, and well-meaning pastors, are quick to point out the similarity between Jesus’ testing events and the particular areas in which the wilderness generation failed; namely, hunger, testing God in regards to protection, and idolatry.

This line of interpretation leads to the conclusion that Jesus overcame all the areas in which the wilderness generation had failed. While correct, such a conclusion stops short of the overall message because they fail to remember the identity of the original audience, and the authorial intent of the book of Deuteronomy. When Deuteronomy was written, there were only three remaining members of the Wilderness Generation, including Moses (whose death was imminent), Joshua, and Caleb. Deuteronomy 2:14 makes this clear:  “And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them” (Deut. 2:14). No one was left from the wilderness generation to be rebuked by those same statements from which Jesus quotes (Moses, Joshua, and Caleb were all willing to go take the land, Numbers 14:5-9). 

Thus the passages of Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes must serve some other purpose than rebuke for failure. The argument of Deuteronomy does however show that the goal was to serve as an admonition. This was done by a constant summary of negative examples of the Wilderness Generation, and exhortations to the Second Generation to covenant faithfulness. Deuteronomy alludes to this intention in multiple places such as Deut. 1:34-37 where Moses reminds the nation of Israel of the consequences of disobedience: 

“And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’ Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there.

Moses then reiterates the point in Deut. 4:1-3 where he reminds the Second Generation of the subsequent moral failures of the Wilderness Generation and exhorts them towards obedience: 

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Baal-peor, for the Lord your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor.

These two passages serve as a small sampling of Moses’s intention in Deuteronomy urging the Second Generation towards covenant faithfulness in light of their parent’s failures. 

How Did Jesus Understand Deuteronomy?

The next issue in intertextuality is to ascertain how Jesus would have understood the message of Deuteronomy. Accepting the idea of progressive revelation, Chou’s argument demonstrates that when prophets and New Testament writers cite Scripture they are often alluding to larger contexts both literary and historical.  The question then becomes, what is the larger historical and literary context in Jesus’ and Matthew’s thought?

I don’t think it would be presumptuous to assert that the larger context of Deuteronomy would include the outcome of the Second Generation, in light of Moses’s sermon in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy leaves the reader asking the question, “Will the Second Generation be faithful, or will they fail like their parents failed?” Providentially, the question is answered in Joshua 24:31, wherein the reader is assured that Moses’s intention for Deuteronomy was effected in the lives of the Second Generation. Joshua 24:31 reads, “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.” The greater context shows that the people who made up the Second Generation were proven to be faithful to the covenant as Moses intended them to be.  Jesus would have understood not only the Wilderness Generation’s failures from Deuteronomy, but also the Second Generation’s faithfulness whenever he referred to Deuteronomy.

The only question remaining is whether Jesus would have meant for this aspect to be implied in his quotations of Deuteronomy as part of the greater context in Matthew 4:1-11. I believe this can be sustained from the inner context of the passage, as well common hermeneutical practices common to Jesus’ era. 

Chou asserts, in agreement with Beale and Carson, that the principle of gezerah shavah was a valid hermeneutical principle during the time of the Biblical writers. This enabled those exegeting to read certain portions of Scripture in relation to others, so that when “the same words [are] applied to two separate cases it follows that the same considerations apply to both.”3 Therefore, when we see the Wilderness Generation associated with Joshua in Deuteronomy in Deut. 1:38, and again in Joshua 24:31, we can know that a person who spoke of the Second Generation would have understood everything between Deuteronomy 1 and Joshua 24 as forming the historical context of that generation.

The assessment of the Wilderness Generation is that they did remember the commands of Moses and this remembrance led them to obedience during the leadership of Joshua. The Second Generations’ covenant obedience led them to inherit and dwell in the land as promised. The faithfulness and outcome of the Second Generation is held in stark contrast to their fathers’ sinful rebellion which cost them their lives and the ability to enter the promised land. This understanding of Deuteronomistic history fits well with the context of the testing account, because each of the temptations Jesus overcame were mentioned as particular failures of the Wilderness Generation in the book of Deuteronomy.

However, there is more to Jesus’ use of Deuteronomy than contrasting his own behavior with that of the Wilderness Generation. By quoting Deuteronomy I believe that Christ was seeking to establish a connection to the Second Generation, the faithful generation. This argument is made from Jesus’s intentional selection of passages from Deuteronomy as opposed to other passages.

Jesus’s Citation Choices

This premise brings us back to our systems theory assertion. By selecting to quote certain passages, Jesus by default chose not to quote others. Jesus could have quoted other scriptures in Exodus and Numbers if his sole aim was to contrast his success with the Wilderness Generation’s failures.

For example, in the first test, Jesus could have cited Exodus 16:4, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not,’” and thereby contrasted Israel’s failures with his success.

In the second test Christ could have referenced some portion of Numbers 14:20-23. Though this passage does not explicitly give a command it nonetheless shows how Israel had put God to the test, and showcases God’s expression of displeasure.

For the third test, Jesus might have quoted from the best-known portion of the Hebrew Bible, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  In fact, Jesus could have gone a step further and quoted Ex. 23:13, “Pay attention to all that I have said to you, and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard on your lips.”

Had Jesus quoted these scriptures, the popular interpretation would have suffered no loss, except perhaps a stylistic mishap in the second temptation. Had Jesus quoted these other passages the point would still be that Jesus succeeded where the Wilderness Generation had failed. The fact that Jesus didn’t use these well-known examples suggests that he was seeking to establish something more than his success over the Wilderness Generation’s failures. 

The First Son of God Failed

By selecting to quote Deuteronomy Jesus must have also desired to link himself to the faithfulness of the Second Generation.  If Jesus is drawing attention to the faithfulness of the Second Generation by implying the contrast between the Second and the Wilderness Generation, he is amplifying not only the failures of the Wilderness Generation, but also the success of the Second.

When this idea is collated with the argument from my first article we can then come to some interpretive conclusions about the testing of Jesus. In the testing event, Satan is seeking to determine if Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God, in whom God is well pleased. By quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus is linking himself to a Second Generation who succeeds after the failure of a previous generation.

The first Son of God, from a salvation-historical standpoint, was Adam. However Adam, like the Wilderness Generation, had failed in his time of testing which had drastic ramifications on his descendants. Now if Jesus is seeking to contrast himself with a prior generation of the Son of God, why would he link himself to an entire nation through his quotations? It makes little sense logically for one man to be obedient and link himself with an entire nation.

But if that nation had failed because they descended from one man who had failed previously sending them into punishment, the idea becomes clear. If Jesus could keep the law on behalf of a nation, he could replace their previous federal head who had failed. This would prove Christ is the faithful second generation of the Son of God. Like the Second Generation of Israel, Jesus’s covenant obedience would lead to an inheritance of the promise of God, but like Adam, his inheritance could be passed down to the entire nation.

The Apostle Paul describes this type of reasoning in Romans 5:18-19 from a didactic standpoint, but it is best portrayed in narrative form here in the text of Matthew 4:1-11. So now one question remains: how do we put it all together?


In Matthew 4:1-11 Satan continuously attempts to bait Jesus into proving his divine Sonship through means which would dishonor the Father. At each turn, Jesus replies to Satan in a way which stresses the continued effects of Scripture on the lives of those who serve God. By quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus implies that he is the faithful Son of God in the way that his earthly father Adam was not, and in a way that his nation previously was not.

Through Jesus’ obedience, he is granted the ability to enter into the promised inheritance by being the first fruits of the resurrection life, just as the second generation of Israelites were faithful to enter into their promised land. Furthermore, Jesus’ use of scripture was intended to prove to Satan that not only was Jesus the Son of God, but he was the obedient, faithful, and loyal Son of God in a way that no one else was able to be.

On account of this story, we can know that Jesus is the Son of God, and as such he can exercise all the divine prerogatives: interpreting the Scriptures, giving divine commands, forgiving sins, healing the afflicted, and overcoming satanic oppression.

Not only can we know that Jesus has these divine prerogatives at his disposal, but we can trust Jesus to use those in a way that is pleasing to the Father.

Jeffrey B. Gibson, Temptations of Jesus in Early Christianity (T&T Clark, 2004)

Rick Brannan & Jeffrey Glen Jackson, New Testament Use of the Old Testament Dataset (Logos, 2015)

  1. Constantine Campbell, Advances in the Study of Greek, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 98.
  2. Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018), 54.
  3. Ibid., 35.
Written by
Donald C. McIntyre

D. C. "Mac" McIntyre is a licensed Southern Baptist minister and concurrently a PhD student at Baptist Bible Seminary (Old Testament) and Liberty University (Theology and Apologetics). Mac's research interests include the Pentateuch, Psalms, Matthew, intertextuality, and expository preaching. Mac and his wife Sara live in Charleston, West Virginia, with their four children. Mac's sermons can be found at

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Written by Donald C. McIntyre