Of the four evangelists, Matthew most emphatically portrayed Jesus as a king (Matt 1:2-17; 13:41; 16:28; 19:28; 25:31-34). Analyzing the literary context of Matthew 3-4 reveals that the arrival of King Jesus was similar to that of human kings. Heralds would announce the arrival of a new king and John the Baptist heralded the arrival of Jesus. At the announcement of a new king, the king’s adversaries would oppose him and seek to secure their own territory. The Devil sought to fortify his hold on humanity by tempting Jesus in the wilderness. But Jesus was a different kind of king. Jesus submitted to the rite of His herald, being baptized by John in the Jordan. And Jesus was victorious over the Devil not by His own might but by the word of God.
In Matthew 3-4, Matthew, the Devil, and Jesus cited the Old Testament. How they employed passages from Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah revealed how they viewed the relationship between Jesus and the narrative of God’s redemptive work.
(1) In Matt 3:3, Matthew identified John the Baptist as the herald that Isaiah predicted would prepare the way of the Lord. Isaiah 40 marks a change of tone for the prophet. Messages of judgement in Isaiah 1-39 are followed by Isaiah’s exclamation, “‘Comfort, comfort My people,’ says your God” (Isa 40:1). The prophet spoke of a voice crying out, “Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert” (Isa 40:3). Isaiah prophesied the time of God’s mercy upon Judah, when the Lord would remember His people and extend grace to the oppressed. John the Baptist was the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (Matt 3:1-6//Mark 1:2-6//Luke 3:1-6//John 1:19-23). John did not portray his message as the culmination of God’s program. John was preparing the way for One more powerful than himself, One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, One whose judgment would have eternal consequences (Matt 3:11-12//Mark 1:7-8//Luke 3:15-18//John 1:24-28).
(2) In Matt 3:13-17, Matthew wrote that the Spirit descended upon Jesus, just as the Spirit was expected to guide Israel’s Messiah. The Gospel writers describe Jesus’ baptism as opening His public ministry (Matt 3:13-17//Mark 1:9-11//Luke 3:21-22//John 1:29-34). Just as the Spirit was upon Moses (Num 11:16-30), Saul (1 Sam 10:10), and David (1 Sam 16:13; Ps 2:2; 51:11) to guide them in their ministries of leadership, Isaiah predicted that the Lord would anoint His deliverer with the Spirit of God (Isa 11:2; 42:1, 7; 61:1-2). Matthew noted that when Jesus came out of the Jordan river, the heavens were suddenly opened, and the Spirit descended upon Jesus.
(3) In Matt 4:1-11, Jesus and the Devil quoted Scripture. Just as King Herod jealously sought to destroy Jesus in His infancy in Matthew 2, the Devil was threatened by Jesus’ arrival and wanted to dissuade Jesus from fulfilling His mission. In the wilderness, the Devil tempted Jesus to forgo His messianic mission (Matt 4:1-11//Mark 1:12-13//Luke 4:1-13). But Jesus was operating with divine aid. Matthew recorded that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil (Matt 4:1). There the Devil launched a frontal attack against Jesus, urging Jesus to throw Himself down from the temple and rely upon God to rescue Him. The Devil cited Ps 91:11-12, the psalmist’s confession that the Lord would send angels to protect him so that his foot would not strike a stone. But Jesus responded to each of the Devil’s temptations by citing Scripture from Deuteronomy 6-8, where Moses exhorted Israel to fully embrace the Law and enjoy God’s blessing in Canaan. Jesus relied upon God’s powerful word and was blessed with the strength to endure the Devil’s deceptive attacks.
(4) In Matt 4:16, Matthew stated that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee fulfilled Isa 9:1-2. After announcing the ruin Israel would experience in the exile, Isaiah prophesied a day of hope for those dwelling in what was once Israel, that is, the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah said, “The gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times when He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. But in the future, He will bring honor to the Way of the Sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations” (Isa 9:1). Matthew understood Jesus’ departure for the north to be a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, commenting, “The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadow land of death, light has dawned” (Matt 4:16). The Gentiles of northern Palestine were the first to enjoy the Messiah’s ministry. There Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be His followers (Matt 4:18-22), preached in the synagogues (Matt 4:23), and healed the sick (Matt 4:23-25).