Notes on the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 4

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew contains two quite distinct sections.  The first half, until verse eleven is the account for the Temptation of Jesus (a.s.) by the Satan.  The second section deals with Jesus' (a.s.) early Galilean ministry and the gathering of his first disciples.

Matthew 4:1-11
1And now Jesus was led by the Spirit away into the wilderness, to be tempted there by the devil.  2Forty days and forty nights he spent fasting, and at the end of them was hungry.  3Then the tempter approached, and said to him, “If thou art the Son of God, bid these stones turn into loaves of bread.”  4He answered, “It is written, Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words which proceed from the Mouth of God.”  5Next, the devil took him into the holy city, and there set him down on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, "If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down to earth; for it is written, ‘He has Given Charge to His angels concerning thee, and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.’”  7Jesus said to him, “But it is further written, ‘Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof.’”  8Once more, the devil took him to the top of an exceedingly high mountain, from which he shewed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, 9and said, “I will give thee all these if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  10Then Jesus said to him, “Away with thee, Satan; it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and serve none but him.’”  11Then the devil left him alone; and thereupon angels came and ministered to him.

The Temptation of Jesus (a.s.) by Satan is the best known and most studied portion of the Gospel text.  Satan tempts him three times: with food to relieve Jesus' (a.s.) fast, with testing God, and with control of all the kingdoms of the earth.  This is God Demonstrating the superiority of His prophet, who did not fail where the majority of the Children of Israel did.  He mastered the carnal self by rejecting food.  He mastered the doubts of faith by demonstrating perfect understanding of his relationship with the Divine and he mastered the spiritual self by rejecting the material world.  There are several references to the period after the Book of Exodus since this is the section of the scripture Jesus' (a.s.) draws his quotes from.

From a taswawwuf point of view, this heralds the beginning of Jesus’ (a.s.) mission.  One who has not subdued the nafs and bound the ego has no place to guide another.  It is a process that is constantly repeated amongst the Elect, by every prophet and messenger, every shaykh and every imam.  Elijah (a.s.) and Moses (a.s.) in the Old Testament fasted forty days and nights, and so Jesus Elijah (a.s.) and Moses (a.s.) in the Old Testament fasted forty days and nights, and so Jesus (a.s.) as following their sunnah.  The forty days in the wilderness is his khalwat, his seclusion from the world to silence the internal dialogue and annihilate the Self.  Any sort of seclusion is generally at least forty days since that is the time it takes for the soul to adjust.  This sort of fasting where the fast is only broken at the end of the period is known as swaum wiswal.  It is not permitted for a Muslim to perform such an act of ‘ibadah unless he or she has known fana’ and baqa’

An interesting feature of Satan’s temptation is the dueling of Scripture.  And this has ever been his method.  Satan and his kind are the very first to quote scripture, whether it is Muslim or Christian or Jewish or another.  And hence we have to be wary of people who are so quick to quote the Qur’an and ahadits as well.  One of the primary features of Jesus’ (a.s.) ministry was to expose those who quoted the Words of God to justify going against His Divine Will and Justice.  This is especially the feature of the Wahhabi sect.

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Act I, Scene III

This account uses language from the Old Testament.  The three scriptural passages cited by Jesus (a.s.) are not in their order in the book of Deuteronomy, but in the sequence of the trials of Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert, as recorded in the book of Exodus.

Deuteronomy 8:3
3He Disciplined thee with hunger, and then Sent down manna, food unknown to thee and to thy fathers; He Would teach thee that man cannot live by bread only, there is life for him in all the words that proceed from the Mouth of God.

The meaning of this is clear.  It is not food that sustains us.  It is God Himself.  The food is a wasilah, a means.  It also refers to the food of the soul.  The body may seem to be sustained by the food of the world, but many neglect to feed their soul.  The temptation of making bread out of stones occurs in the same desert setting where Jesus (a.s.) had been fasting.  The wilderness mentioned here has since the fifth century been believed to be the rocky and uninhabited area between Jerusalem and Jericho, with a spot on Mount Quarantania traditionally being considered the exact location.  From this mountain, we get the concept and word ‘quarantine’ in English.  The desert was seen as outside the bounds of society and as the home of demons.

Satan quoted the following verse to tempt Jesus (a.s.):

Psalms 91:11,12
11He has Given Charge to His angels concerning thee, to watch over thee wheresoever thou goest; 12they will hold thee up with their hands lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.

But this verse was taken out of context.  It refers to the trials of those who are in service.  It is not a license to take the Lord n vain.  Satan deliberately omitted the last line, “lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.”  This gives a clear context that this refers to Divine Protection from accidents and not deliberate acts.  And Jesus (a.s.) replied thus:

Deuteronomy 6:16
16Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof, as thou didst at the Place of Challenge;

It is the height of bad adab to challenge the Divine Will.  The first to do so and the first to be condemned for it is Satan himself.  Doing so implies that the challenger knows better than the Divine.  The sin committed is shirk.  Most Christians consider that holy city refers unquestionably to Jerusalem and the temple to which the pinnacle belongs is thus identified as the Temple in Jerusalem.  I have no doubt it is so since the only other holy city would be Makkah and its time had not come yet.  And the centre of Judaism is the Temple of Jerusalem.

What is meant by the word traditionally translated as pinnacle is not entirely clear since the Greek diminutive form ‘pterugion’, ‘little wing’, is not extant in other architectural contexts.  Parapet would be more accurate, and the New Jerusalem Bible does use the translation ‘parapet’.  The only surviving Jewish parallel uses the standard word ‘sbyt’, which means ‘roof’, not ‘wing’.  The term is preserved as ‘wing’ in Syriac translations of the Greek.

Deuteronomy 6:13
13Then beware; then thou wilt be in danger of forgetting that it was the Lord Brought thee out of the land of Egypt, where thou hadst dwelt in slavery.  Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, to Him only shalt thou do service, and swear by no other Name than this.

What Jesus (a.s.) has said here is essentially the first part of the shahadah.  He has declared the Sovereignty of God and that is ever the role of the prophets and the saints.

Matthew 4:10
10Then Jesus said to him, “Away with thee, Satan; it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and serve none but him.’”

Once the temptations are over, the devil departed and Jesus (a.s.) being looked after by angels.  Presumably, they brought him food to break his fast.  In the original Greek of the Gospel according to Matthew, ‘the Devil left him’ was in the historic present tense, indicating a lack of permanence, that the devil would later return to further tempt Jesus (a.s.).

It is important to note that Satan did not become manifest until after the baptism by John (a.s.).  Ablution is a shield against Satan, the nafs and sihr.  And for something to be treated, it has to be known, found and addressed.  The first verse of this section makes it clear that the Spirit, the Holy Ghost is the one who led Jesus (a.s.) into the desert.  Our understanding is clear that Jibra’il (a.s.) was Sent to bring him to the place of khalwat, seclusion.  While Satan's goals were his own, the testing of Jesus (a.s.) was Ordained by God.

The Gospel of Matthew here uses the Greek word ‘diabolos’ rather than the Hebrew ‘Satan’ used in the Gospel according to Mark.  Both words roughly translate as ‘accuser’ or adversary’, but semantics aside, it is clear that both terms were understood as the name of a specific being, Iblis.

This fasting by Jesus (a.s.) became the model for the practice of Lent in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, a ritual that lasts forty days, but is today has become debased to less than total abstinence.  Protestants, in general, do not see this passage as a justification for Lent.  Martin Luther felt the ritual was artificial, but useful in focusing the minds of the faithful.  John Calvin felt the entire notion was silly and that if imitating Jesus (a.s.) was truly the path to salvation then believers should be striving to walk on water or turn water to wine.  The Protestants have never truly understood spirituality and thus did not see fasting as the ‘ibadah that it is.

It is important to note that in the earlier versions of the Bible, the term ‘Son of God’ did not appear.  Rather, Jesus (a.s.) was always referred to as the ‘Son of Man’.  Like many of the Bible translations, they have been updated to suit the tastes of the congregation and less emphasis has been put on the fidelity to the earliest extent text.

Matthew 4:12-17
12After this, hearing of John’s imprisonment, he withdrew into Galilee.  13And now, forsaking the city of Nazareth, he came and settled down in Capharnaum, which is by the sea-shore, in the country of Zabulon and Nephthalim, 14in fulfillment of what was said by the prophet Isaiah: 15”The land of Zabulon and Nephthalim, on the sea road, beyond Jordan, the Galilee of the Gentiles!  16The people that abode in darkness has seen a great light; for men abiding in a land where death overshadowed them, light has dawned.”  17From that time onwards, Jesus began to preach; “Repent,” he said, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The Early Galilean ministry begins from this passage when Jesus (a.s.) goes back to Galilee from the khalwat in the wilderness after rebuffing the temptations of Satan.  In this early period, Jesus (a.s.) preaches around Galilee and appoints his first disciple.  The return of Jesus (a.s.) to Galilee follows the arrest of John the Baptist (a.s.).   The early teachings of Jesus (a.s.) result in his rejection at his hometown.

Jesus (a.s.) is often portrayed as serving as one of John the Baptist's (a.s.) disciples during this period.  This is in line with the concept of a murid learning from his shaykh.  Even the prophets had their teachers.  The arrest of John the Baptist (a.s.) caused an important change in Jesus' (a.s.) ministry since now, it is his time.  In the area by the Jordan, it is presumed that Jesus (a.s.) adopted John the Baptist's (a.s.) ministry.  Baptism, however, was the sunnah of John the Baptist.  It was not something Jesus (a.s.) was known to do.

At the time of Jesus (a.s.), Capharnaum or Capernaum was a sizeable town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, with a population of perhaps ten thousand.  Capernaum was located in Naphtali, but it was near Zebulun.  The town is mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament, but does feature in all four Gospels.  The Gospel according to Matthew does not mention why Jesus (a.s.) chose Capernaum to relocate to.  The town was prosperous due to its location on the large lake and also its position on the Via Maris, the Damascus to Egypt trade route.

In the Masoretic text, the authorative Hebrew text of the Jewish Scriptures, the last line of Matthew 4:15 reads ‘region of the Gentiles.’  The word for region is ‘galil’ and that become Galilee.  The switch does not much affect the meaning of the verse as Zebulun and Naphtali were both in Galilee.  Referring to Galilee as the area of the Gentiles was significant.  Whilst Galilee had a large Jewish population, the majority of the people then were Gentiles.  The theme was to  show that Jesus' (a.s.) message is meant for both Jews and Gentiles.  In Islam, we believe that Jesus (a.s.) was sent first to the Jews to correct their misunderstanding of Scripture and when they refused to accept him, he preached to the Gentiles.  There is a common pattern of Jesus (a.s.) being persecuted by the Jews, as had happened with the arrest of John the Baptist (a.s.), but having a more receptive Gentile audience.

Isaiah 9:1,2
1Land of Zabulon and Nephthali, its burden at first how lightly borne!  But after-wards affliction weighed on it, Galilee, by the sea road where the Gentiles dwell west of Jordan.  2And now the people that went about in darkness has seen a great light; for men abiding in a land where death overshadowed them, light has dawned.

It is believed that this section is an intentional reworking of the text from Book of Isaiah.  It contrasts the darkness of the Assyrian invasion of that time to the encroaching paganism of the Roman Empire’s domination but it promises that there is a light in the darkness.

The second half of this chapter is generally seen as the introduction to the ministry of Jesus (a.s.) that will take up the next several chapters of the Gospel and in the Sermon on the Mount that begins immediately after this chapter.  This section introduces Jesus' (a.s.) two main interlocutors.  This section describes the calling of the first four fishermen, who become his first disciples: Simon Peter (r.a.), Andrew (r.a.), James (r.a.), and John (r.a.).  They abandon possessions and family to become fishers of men.  The last three verses introduce the crowds that Jesus (r.a.) addresses.  The last verses also serve as a summary of Jesus' (r.a.) ministry outlining the three forms it takes: teaching, preaching, and healing.

Matthew 4:18-22
18And as he walked by the sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brethren, Simon, who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen); 19and he said to them, “Come and follow me; I will make you into fishers of men.”  20And they dropped their nets immediately, and followed him.  21Then he went further on, and saw two others that were brethren, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John; they were in the boat with their father Zebedee, repairing their nets, and he called them to him; 22whereupon they dropped the nets and left their father immediately, and followed him.

Verse 18 introduces two of Jesus' (a.s.) most important followers, the brothers Simon (r.a.) and Andrew (r.a.).  Both of these figures play an important role in the Gospels and are given prominent roles by almost all Christian churches.  The Gospel according to Matthew immediately mentions that Peter is an alternate name for Simon (r.a.).  This has the effect of changing the meaning of Matthew 16:18 from Jesus (a.s.) bestowing a nickname upon Simon (r.a.) to merely using a nickname that had long been attached to him.  Throughout the Gospel, the name Peter is used, Simon being used on rare occasions.  The name Simon is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Shimeon, a common Jewish name.  Both Andrew and Peter are names of Greek origins.  Evidence for Andrew being used as a name for a Jew dates back to 169 BC.

The Sea of Galilee at the time was known for its prosperous fishing industry.  This was mainly based around fishing for sardines, carp, and smaller fish.  Various methods were used, but nets were common.  Fishing was a common occupation of the region and that the disciples seem to own their own equipment is evidence that they were relatively prosperous.

The phrase ‘fishers of men,’ is one of the most well known lines in the entire New Testament, and the most important metaphor for evangelism.  The image probably had an important role in the adoption of the Ichthys as a symbol of early Christianity, not the Cross which came much later.  The reference has also often been moved from the disciples to Jesus (a.s.), with him being called the ‘fisher of men,’ and the image of Jesus (a.s.) as a fisherman is second only to that of Jesus (a.s.) as a shepherd.

The command to "follow me" refers to following as a disciple would a rabbi or a shaykh.  Any good rabbi or teacher would have a group of disciples around him, any prophet would have his companions and any shaykh would have his muridun.  Thus this is a sunnah common to almost all the prophets and continued today in Islam.

The Gospel according to Matthew consistently emphasises the importance of renunciation in coming to Jesus (a.s.), as represented by the fishers' abandonment of their nets.  Fishing was a profitable, but capital intensive, occupation and abandoning everything would have been an important sacrifice.  This abandonment of worldly possessions was taken as a model by later Christian ascetics.  From an Islamic point of view, it is an abandonment of dunya in the pursuit of the Divine, zuhd.  Whilst Islam has limits for the zahid, early Christian ascetics were noted for their excesses of ascetism.

Verse 21 introduces two more of Jesus' (a.s.) disciples, James (r.a.) and John (r.a.).  They are the last disciples introduced in the Gospel other than Matthew himself later.  This verse is quite similar to verse 20 where Simon Peter (r.a.) and Andrew (r.a.) choose to follow Jesus (a.s.).  The immediacy and renunciative nature of their becoming disciples is enhanced as James (r.a.) and John (r.a.) are not only giving up worldly goods but also abandoning their father.  The breaking of family ties was not absolute but only for the purpose of spiritual training.

Matthew 4:23-25
23So Jesus went about the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every kind of disease and infirmity among the people; 24so that his fame spread throughout the whole of Syria, and they brought to him all those who were in affliction, distressed with pain and sickness of every sort, the possessed, the lunatics, the palsied; and he healed them.  25And a great multitude followed him, from Galilee and Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judaea, and the country beyond Jordan.

This verse outlines Jesus' (a.s.) life as an itinerant preacher in Galilee.  It divides his ministry into three sections: teaching, preaching, and healing.  Unlike the other Gospels, the Gospel according to Matthew makes a clear distinction between teaching and preaching.  Here, teaching is only commentary on the Scripture and the Laws, while preaching is public proclamation of the faith.  The mention of teaching in synagogues is noteworthy.  That Jesus (a.s.) being permitted to speak in a synagogue would indicate that he was a respected figure and also that he could speak Hebrew in addition to the Aramaic that was the common language of the area.  Jesus (a.s.) was viewed as a bona fide scholar of Judaism.  Jesus (a.s.) preached the Gospel of the kingdom, literally the good news of the kingdom.  While John the Baptist (a.s.) preached about the kingdom coming in the near future, Jesus (a.s.) preached of it in the present.  Whilst John the Baptist (a.s.) preached in the wilderness, Jesus (a.s.) preached in the towns and cities as well.

The term ‘the people’ occurs fourteen times in the Gospel according to Matthew, and that it is almost always short for ‘the Jewish people.’  This is reinforced by later parts of the Gospels that portray the healing of Gentiles as an unusual event.  Despite Galilee's large Gentile proportion, Jesus' (a.s.) ministry was mostly confined to Jews.  The mention of synagogues reinforces this.  He was a prophet Sent to the Jews first and foremost.

The Roman province of Syria covered a huge area.  The text likely meant the area immediately to the north and northeast of Israel.  One late manuscript has ‘synoria’, ‘region’, in place of Syria, a meaning that would also make the passage more credible.  Syria is often considered to be the location where the author of the Gospel according to Matthew wrote the gospel.

Verse 24 mentioned Jesus' (a.s.) healing power and this one goes into more detail.  The general understanding of disease among the Jewish community at the time was that it was in atonement for sin.  Thus Jesus' (a.s.) healing power is a subset of his ability to grant forgiveness of sins.  This did not make him God but indicated that he was Divine, like any prophet.

It is important to note that Jesus (a.s.) was Given the Gift of Healing just as every prophet was Given a Gift appropriate to their time.  Moses (a.s.) had great miracles since he dealt with the magical might of the Pharaohs.  The Roman Empire prided itself on its healing.  Jesus (a.s.) was there to show the extent of the Divine Gift.  He even healed death.

Verse 25 the author's affinity for geography, and especially place names.  This verse lists the places from which people came to follow Jesus (a.s.).  These are: Galilee, Jesus' (a.s.) homeland; the Decapolis, literally "the Ten Towns", largely Greek cities; Jerusalem, the political and spiritual capital of the region; Judaea, the heartland of the Jews to the south of Galilee and Peraea, an area to the east of the Jordan River.  Including  Syria in the previous verse, this covers the entirety of the Holy Land, with the notable exception of Samaria.  The Jewish author of the Gospel viewed this area in a negative light as almost all Jews did.  This is a definitive answer that Jesus (a.s.) was a prophet just like any prophet and Sent to a specific people whilst Muhammad (s.a.w.) the final prophet was Sent for all.

We Sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures. (Surah al-Anbiya’:107)


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