As he describes the temptations of Satan, Matthew wants us to see how Jesus was tempted to turn aside from his Messianic ministry to obtain quicker results by economic, religious, or political means. As the Gospel continues, Matthew will describe the Messiah's way of teaching and living out God's way of sacrificial love.
4:1-2 Matthew has already noted that the Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:18; as in Luke 1:35), and the Spirit descended on him at his baptism (1:16; Luke 3:22). Now the Spirit leads him out, probably into the wilderness of Judea (as in Luke 4:1). It was common in the ancient world to prepare for a new kind of work by a long period of fasting to clarify one's mind.
We tend to be confused by picturing a devil with a red suit, horns, and a pitchfork to toss us into the fires of hell. A better description is that "he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). And it is easy to recognize the old gramophone record of lies about God (Genesis 3:4), lies about other people, and lies about ourselves (Revelation 12:9-10). Matthew will later include the fact that Satan can even speak through the Apostle Peter (16:23).
4:3 At his baptism Jesus had been told he was the Son of God (3:17). So the first two temptations relate to what the Son of God could easily do if he chose to exercise his power. And Satan suggests three much quicker ways for the Messiah to attain control over the world.
The hillsides of Israel are covered with millions of rocks. With a bit of ingenuity surely Jesus could find a way to turn stones to bread, and people would quickly recognize him as the Messiah. It has become obvious in many mission fields that rice Christians very rarely discover what faith is about. In fact they often turn both against God and those who have tried to help them. It is impossible to use economic policies to create love in the heart.
4:4 Jesus quoted a text about living on manna from heaven during the journey to the promised land (Deuteronomy 8:3) as a reminder that the Messiah's task is to help people live in total dependence on the Word of God.
4:5-6 People are often impressed by miraculous signs, and the Son of God could easily have jumped from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and landed to impress the crowd below. Satan can even quote Scripture for this (from Psalm 91:11).
4:7 The verse Jesus quotes (Deuteronomy 6:16) suggests that Jesus was tempted to use miracles to test his power. Later Matthew will describe Jesus doing some miracles. But in the first of these the healed leper is told to tell nobody (8:4; as in 9:30). In the second, the centurion already has a great faith before the miracle occurs (8:10). The result of another miracle is that the Messiah is rejected (9:34) and the Pharisee leaders ascribe the healing of a demoniac to Satan himself (9:34). Evidently Matthew wants us to see miracles as the result of the Messiah's loving compassion (4:23-24; 9:36), not as a means of proving that he is the Son of God.
4:8-10 The third temptation is for the Messiah to make himself a world emperor. As in the exercise of all political power, this inevitably requires accepting the use of lies and deception and thereby cooperating with the god of this world. Matthew is not against the necessary function of government, but he will record Jesus' saying "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (22:21).
Jesus' simple response to the temptation is that the giving of supreme worthship to God is the first of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:3).
4:11 The difference between the Son and angelic servants is set out in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:5-8).
The section ends with a call to repent (meaning "turn," as in 3:2) because the Messianic "kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:17). Using the language of John's Gospel, the light of heaven which had always been known among all people (John 1:4, 9) was now being seen in "his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
4:12-13 After the arrest of John the Baptist (see 11:2; 14:3-12), the Messiah, who had been raised in the relatively obscure mountain village of Nazareth, now moves (probably with his mother Mary after Joseph has died) to the city of Capernaum (8:5; called his own city in 9:1; see 17:24). Matthew may have been the tax collector for the area (9:9) before he became an apostle (10:3).
Matthew also notes that his own proud city would be "brought down to Hades" (see comment on 11:23). This occurred during the Jewish rebellion which began in AD 66 and ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see the comment on 24:1-2 ff.) It seems likely that Matthew was writing his Gospel as this terrible event was already on the horizon.
4:14-16 The "distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish" of Galilee in those days reminds Matthew of Isaiah 8:22-9:1. His Jewish readers would know that the chapter goes on to speak of a child who will occupy the throne of David forevermore (Isaiah 9:6-7).
4:17 Evidently Matthew saw Jesus as the King of the Messianic kingdom who in the next section will begin to recruit his first apostles.
The story of the call of the first disciples is given in greater detail in John's Gospel (John 1:24-51). But here Matthew focuses on the four future apostles who would be closest to Jesus in the early days of the Messianic kingdom (10:2; 16:16-18; 17:1-8; 26:37).
4:18-20 Peter and Andrew had a fishing business by the Sea of Galilee. They would now learn the Messiah's fishing business of catching people one by one or by casting the net of the kingdom of heaven (13:47). Matthew must have been present at Peter's huge catch of new disciples on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41).
4:21-22 James and John also worked in a fishing business with their father. It is interesting to see how Luke omits these references to a fishing business, but records for us the words "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's interests" (NRSV margin translation of "the things of my Father," which was nicely captured by the King James Version "my Father's business"). As the Gospel proceeds Matthew will often pick up Jesus' references to the work of the kingdom in business terms (e.g. 18:23; 20:1; 21:12, 28, 33; 25:14).
Gospel preaching is announcing the good news of the Messianic kingdom (4:23). This results in an increasing healing ministry (see note on 4:7).
4:23 Matthew is careful to note that Jesus preached regularly in the various Galilean synagogues. Evidently he was asked to read, and then had the opportunity to explain the work of the Messianic kingdom (as in Luke 4:17-20). He also proclaimed the good news in the open air (as in 5:1; 13:1; 14:14; 15:29-30).
4:24-25 The healing ministry then emerges as a result of preaching the good news of the Messianic kingdom (see comment on 4:7). And the result is that large crowds come from the ten cities of the Decapolis across the Jordan, and from Jerusalem which is a long four day walk across Samaria to the south.