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Matthew 4:1. Then Jesus was led. There were two reasons why Christ withdrew into the wilderness. The first was, that, after a fast of forty days, he might come forth as a new man, or rather a heavenly man, to the discharge of his office. The next was, that he might be tried by temptation and undergo an apprenticeship, before he undertook an office so arduous, and so elevated. Let us therefore learn that, by the guidance of the Spirit, Christ withdrew from the crowd of men, in order that he might come forth as the highest teacher of the church, as the ambassador of God, — rather as sent from heaven, than as taken from some town, and from among the common people.
In the same way Moses, when God was about to employ him as his agent in publishing his law, was carried into Mount Sinai, withdrawn from the view of the people, and admitted, as it were, into a heavenly sanctuary, (Exodus 24:12.) It was proper that Christ should be surrounded by marks of divine grace and power — at least equally illustrious with those which were bestowed on Moses, that the majesty of the Gospel might not be inferior to that of the Law. If God bestowed singular honor on a doctrine which was “the ministration of death,” (2 Corinthians 3:7,) how much more honor is due to the doctrine of life? And if a shadowy portrait of God had so much brightness, ought not his face, which appears in the Gospel, to shine with full splendor?
Such also was the design of the fasting: for Christ abstained from eating and drinking, not to give an example of temperance, but to acquire greater authority, by being separated from the ordinary condition of men, and coming forth, as an angel from heaven, not as a man from the earth. For what, pray, would have been that virtue of abstinence, in not tasting food, for which he had no more appetite than if he had not been clothed with flesh?304304 “Car, je vous prie, quelle virtu d' abstinence y-eust-il eue a, ne taster point de viande, veu qu'il n'avoit nulle faim qui le pressast? Car il est certain, et les Evangelistes le donnent a entendre assez clairement, qu'il s'est passe de manger tout ainsi que s'il n'eust point este revestu de notre chair.” — “For what virtue of abstinence, pray, was there in not tasting food, since he had no hunger that pressed him? For it is certain, and the Evangelists give us plainly enough to understand, that he had left off eating as completely as if he had not been clothed with our flesh.” It is mere folly, therefore, to appoint a forty days’ fast, (as it is called,) in imitation of Christ. There is no more reason why we should follow the example of Christ in this matter, than there formerly was for the holy Prophets, and other Fathers under the law, to imitate the fast of Moses. But we are aware, that none of them thought of doing so; with the single exception of Elijah, who was employed by God in restoring the law, and who, for nearly the same reason with Moses, was kept in the mount fasting.
Those who fast daily, during all the forty days, pretend that they are imitators of Christ. But how? They stuff their belly so completely at dinner, that, when the hour of supper arrives, they have no difficulty in abstaining from food. What resemblance do they bear to the Son of God? The ancients practiced greater moderation: but even they had nothing that approached to Christ’s fasting, any more, in fact, than the abstinence of men approaches to the condition of angels, who do not eat at all. Besides, neither Christ nor Moses observed a solemn fast every year; but both of them observed it only once during their whole life. I wish we could say that they had only amused themselves, like apes, by such fooleries. It was a wicked and abominable mockery of Christ, to attempt, by this contrivance of fasting, to conform themselves to him as their model.305305 “En ce qu'ils se sont essayez par leur jeusne, forge a leur fantasie, de se mettre du rang de Christ, et se mesurer a luy.” — “In having attempted, by their fast, forged according to their fancy, to place themselves in the same rank with Christ, and to vie with him.” To believe that such fasting is a meritorious work, and that it is a part of godliness and of the worship of God, is a very base superstition.
But above all, it is an intolerable outrage on God, whose extraordinary miracle they throw into the shade; secondly, on Christ, whose distinctive badge they steal from him, that they may clothe themselves with his spoils; thirdly, on the Gospel, which loses not a little of its authority, if this fasting of Christ is not acknowledged to be his seal. God exhibited a singular miracle, when he relieved his Son from the necessity of eating and when they attempt the same thing by their own power, what is it but a mad and daring ambition to be equal with God? Christ’s fasting was a distinctive badge of the divine glory: and is it not to defraud him of his glory, and to reduce him to the ordinary rank of men, when mortals freely mix themselves with him as his companions? God appointed Christ’s fasting to seal the Gospel: and do those who apply it to a different purpose abate nothing from the dignity of the Gospel? Away, then, with that ridiculous imitation,306306 “χαχοζηλία.” — “Ceste singerie et imitation contrefaite;” — “that apishness and counterfeit imitation.” which overturns the purpose of God, and the whole order of his works. Let it be observed, that I do not speak of fastings in general, the practice of which I could wish were more general among us, provided it were pure.
But I must explain what was the object of Christ’s fasting. Satan availed himself of our Lord’s hunger as an occasion for tempting him, as will shortly be more fully stated. For the present, we must inquire generally, why was it the will of God that his Son should be tempted? That he was brought into this contest by a fixed purpose of God, is evident from the words of Matthew and Mark, who say, that for this reason he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. God intended, I have no doubt, to exhibit in the person of his Son, as in a very bright mirror, how obstinately and perseveringly Satan opposes the salvation of men. For how comes it, that he attacks Christ more furiously, and directs all his power and forces against him, at the particular time mentioned by the Evangelists, but because he sees him preparing, at the command of the Father, to undertake the redemption of men? Our salvation, therefore, was attacked in the person of Christ, just as the ministers, whom Christ has authorized to proclaim his redemption, are the objects of Satan’s daily warfare.
It ought to be observed, at the same time, that the Son of God voluntarily endured the temptations, which we are now considering, and fought, as it were, in single combat with the devil, that, by his victory, he might obtain a triumph for us. Whenever we are called to encounter Satan, let us remember, that his attacks can, in no other way, be sustained and repelled, than by holding out this shield: for the Son of God undoubtedly allowed himself to be tempted, that he may be constantly before our minds, when Satan excites within us any contest of temptations. When he was leading a private life at home, we do not read that he was tempted; but when he was about to discharge the office of Redeemer, he then entered the field in the name of his whole church. But if Christ was tempted as the public representative of all believers, let us learn, that the temptations which befall us are not accidental, or regulated by the will of Satan, without God’s permission; but that the Spirit of God presides over our contests as an exercise of our faith. This will aid us in cherishing the assured hope, that God, who is the supreme judge and disposer of the combat,307307 “Agonotheta.” This word, slightly altered from the Greek word ἀγωνοθέτης, signifiesthe judge who presided at the public games.” The Epistles of Paul contain many allusions to the Olympic games, — sometimes so rapid and indirect, that they are apt to be lost in a translation, and at other times swelling into an extended picture, which arrests and captivates every reader. Those who are familiar with his writings, and who have occasion to treat of the same class of subjects, will naturally employ the same kind of illustrations, in conveying to the minds of others those conceptions, for which they have been indebted to this great master. While they describe the contests of the people of God with outward foes, or their more violent struggles with the old man within, they will frequently, and sometimes unconsciously, fall into similar allusions. — Ed. will not be unmindful of us, but will fortify us against those distresses, which he sees that we are unable to meet.
There is a slight apparent difference in the words of Luke, that Jesus, full of the Holy Ghost, withdrew from Jordan They imply, that he was then more abundantly endued with the grace and power of the Spirit, in order that he might be more fortified for the battles which he had to fight: for it was not without a good reason that the Holy Spirit descended upon him in a visible shape. It has been already stated, that the grace of God shone in him the more brightly, as the necessity arising out of our salvation became greater.308308 Here the French copy gives an additional illustration, of which no trace is found in the Latin original. “Le mesme S. Luc avec S. Marc enseigne que le commencement des tentations estoit de plus loin. Car Satan avoit assailli Christ quarante jours au paravant qu'il eust faim: mais les principaux et plus excellens combats sont icy recitez, afin que nous sachions que Satan veincu en plusieurs assaux, s'est finalement rue furieusement, et de toute sa force, pour voir s'il pourroit d'aventure veincre finalement celuy duquel il n'avoit peu venir a bout. Car d'autant plus qu'on est exere aux combats spirituels, Dieu permet aussi qu'on soit plus rudement assailli. Parquoy apprenons a ne nous lasser jamais, jusqu'a ce qu' ayans paracheve tout le cours de notre guerre, nous soyons parvenus au but.” — “The same St Luke, as well as St Mark, informs us, that the commencement of the temptations was more distant. For Satan had attacked Christ forty days before he was hungry: but the most important and valuable combats are here related, in order that we may know that Satan, vanquished in many assaults, had fallen upon him furiously, and with all his might, to see if perhaps he might finally vanquish him, with whom he had not been able to succeed. For the more that we are exercised in spiritual combats, God allows us to be the more violently attacked. Wherefore let us learn, never to become weary, till, having finished the whole course of our war, we have reached the end.” But, at first sight, it appears strange, that Christ was liable to the temptations of the devil: for, when temptation falls on men, it must always be owing to sin and weakness. I reply: First, Christ took upon him our infirmity, but without sin, (Hebrews 4:15.) Secondly, it detracts no more from his glory, that he was exposed to temptations, than that he was clothed with our flesh: for he was made man on the condition that, along with our flesh, he should take upon him our feelings. But the whole difficulty lies in the first point. How was Christ surrounded by our weakness, so as to be capable of being tempted by Satan, and yet to be pure and free from all sin? The solution will not be difficult, if we recollect, that the nature of Adam, while it was still innocent, and reflected the brightness of the divine image, — was liable to temptations. All the bodily affections, that exist in man, are so many opportunities which Satan seizes to tempt him.
It is justly reckoned a weakness of human nature, that our senses are affected by external objects. But this weakness would not be sinful, were it not for the presence of corruption; in consequence of which Satan never attacks us, without doing some injury, or, at least, without inflicting a slight wound. Christ was separated from us, in this respect, by the perfection of his nature; though we must not imagine him to have existed in that intermediate condition, which belonged to Adam, to whom it was only granted, that it was possible for him not to sin. We know, that Christ was fortified by the Spirit with such power, that the darts of Satan could not pierce him.309309 “Car nous savons que Christ a este muni d'une telle vertu de l'Esprit, que les dards de Satan ne le pouvoyent navrer ne blesser: c'est a dire, qcu'il estoit impossible que peche tombast en luy.” — “For we know that Christ was fortified by such a power of the Spirit, that the darts of Satan could not pierce or wound him: that is, that it was impossible for sin to fall upon him.”