The Impossibility of Ethical Neutrality: An Analysis of Matthew 4:4

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” (Deut 30.19; NASB). 1
Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth…But if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served, which were beyond the Euphrates River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh 24.14a, 15).
And after He had fasted for forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’ But He answered and said, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God” (Matt 4.2-4; cf. Deut 8.1-4).


**NOTE TO READER: Read Matthew 3-4:4, along with Deuteronomy 8

Jesus was anointed for God’s purpose in the baptism performed by John the Baptist. John knew that he needed to be baptized by Jesus but the Lord responded,

Permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3.15).

To what was the Lord speaking? In what way was righteousness fulfilled? What did His words to John even mean?

Righteous means “right living” (in its most basic sense). Holy living would also fall under this definition. The Lord’s concern then was for the holiness of God—the source/fountain of all that is holy and good and acceptable—to be made manifest.

Jesus was given flesh for a specific purpose—to glorify God. To make His glory known:

And the Word became flesh [a man], and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14; cf. Heb 1.1-3)

Jesus’ baptism—His anointing—was an act, an instance of this truth put on display. That God approved and in fact ordained what had been done that day in the Jordan River by John to Jesus is verified by the testimony of the witnesses:

After Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he [John the Baptist]2 saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and setting on Him, and behold, a voice from the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt 3.16-17).

Well pleased. That is what the Father said of the Son (the word made flesh) and this the Spirit testified about by “lighting” upon Him. In the Old Testament period oil was used in the anointing process for priests and kings (e.g., Lev 8.12; 1Sam 10.1; 16.13). This practice marked the said individual for God’s purpose.

Death to life…

Baptism signified “death to life.” Righteousness signifies a holy life being lived in devotion to God. Both terms identify the requirements to please God. When one’s object of faith is the Lord, then a “death to life” process has been assented to. And, the exercise of “right (holy) living” is demonstrated in that person’s day-to-day living.

Now Jesus was, as the Scriptures repeatedly testify, without sin (2Cor 5.21). He did no wrong (1Pet 2.22-24). He had been dedicated from birth as the Lord’s primary vessel in all creation. This is the justification for John the Baptist’s comment:

I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” (Matt 3.14).

Jesus understood a principle that many of His creatures fail to fully grasp—The only way to live, is to die to self. If anyone had a reason to say, “But I’ve done nothing wrong why must I suffer death?” it was Jesus. But, He did not argue in that way. Rather, the Lord demonstrated a principle that undergirds all of humanities purpose:

He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his in this world will keep it to life eternal” (John 12.25).

In the garden Adam was unwilling to risk his life for the Lord (or, for that matter, his wife). He’d been given careful instruction on how one ought to live, but he rejected it. In order to live, he needed to die to self. Instead, he chose to elevate self in the garden (i.e., to love his life); therefore, he lost it.3

Jesus also taught,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12.24).

Do you see the principle being stressed? It was the same one that drove Jesus to be baptized in the Jordan—a symbolic death to life practice for the man who knew no sin. The same one verified with a loud cry “It is finished” (John 19.30) on the day of His crucifixion, and reiterated on the day He arose from the grave (cf. John 21.14).

Considering the test…

Let us consider—with these things presented to us—the 1st testing of our Lord’s faith after His anointing in the Jordan River. Remember that He was born a king4, one who promoted the truth of God and was willing to die for it.

After being led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, after 40 days and nights of fasting, the devil, also called the tempter (i.e., the one who tests), challenged Jesus with a series of questions. We shall only be looking at the first because it sets the tempo for the rest (regardless of what order they might be presented in):

  • Devil (aka., Satan):

…came and said to [Jesus], ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread’”

  • Jesus (aka., Son of God/Son of man):

But he answered and said, ‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matt 4.3-4).

What was the test about?

Jesus, we are told, “was hungry” (Matt 4.2), but what was the test about?

As a man Jesus experienced creaturely needs. He grew tired and needed to rest. He grew thirsty and needed to drink. He grew hungry, and therefore, needed to eat. So again, I reiterate, “What was the test really about?” We know that Jesus was hungry.

Before answering the question (though no doubt many of you have already tried, at least in your own heads), let us consider a follow-up question: “Was it wrong for Jesus to turn the stone into bread?” As you mull that one over, ponder something else: “Was it wrong for Jesus to turn water into wine?” (cf. John 2.1-11).

Category Distinctions…

Let me help you a bit: “Were there category distinctions between later signs and this particular testing of Jesus to turn the stone into bread?

In order to answer this question we need to do two things. First, we need to make a necessary category distinction between Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding festival in Cana. From there we may move to the second category of thought; man’s position before God. As I said last week, there are times when we read in the gospels that we need to make a distinction between the man who is Jesus, and the God who is called Jesus. He was both fully human and fully divine. In Him the fullness of God dwelt, but so too did His manliness (cf. Col 1.19; Heb 2.14; respectively).

So in answering the first question we find that the key is in seeing that difference between what transpired in the wilderness (Matt 4) versus Cana at the wedding festival (John 2). Notice first the different terms used in these accounts. In Matthew 4 it is the “tempting” (i.e., testing) of Jesus, but in John 2 it is the “sign” of Jesus. One is a test, but the other is a display. What, do you think, is the reason for this distinction? The answer is very simple. In Matthew 4, Jesus is being tested as a man; particularly, as mankind’s chief representative. Yet, in John 2, Jesus is displaying his divinity. Knowing this we can say without question his turning water into wine was in no way wrong, for it offered those in attendance a testimony that Jesus was in fact from God the Father. He was unique. The Spirit of the Lord was upon Him, and the glory of God was displayed in Him.

Neutrality Error…

Now we turn our attention back to the “stone into bread” scenario. Where we tend to err is when we make a false assumption of neutrality. It is easy to say, “All of life is ethical; therefore, all of life is religious.” It is easy to see the distinction of worship found in going to church on Sunday, singing hymns, praying and reading one’s Bible. It is perhaps easy for some to see that true worship is the exercise of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. It is even easy to at least give a hearty “Amen” to Paul’s comments to the Corinthians:

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all things for the glory of God” (1Cor 10.31; emphasis added).

Or to the Romans:

The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is the one who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But the one who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom 14.22-23; emphasis added).

However, it is often difficult for a person to see how this truth applies beyond those things. So we are back to the issue at hand. Is eating a neutral endeavor? If it is not, then Christ Jesus turning stone into bread would have been an ethical and therefore religious decision. Why do I say that? Well for starters that is how the text presents the issue to us. It was the tempting (testing) of Jesus that took place. This means that there is a right versus wrong answer regarding it. There is no getting around this.

We need to get accustomed to the idea that all issues of life are ethical and therefore religious. That is the argument that God presents to mankind. Either things are done for God’s glory or things are done for man’s (i.e., the creature’s). This indicates that the underlying motives for our decision making process needs to be evaluated. This too is taught in Scripture, we are to “examine everything [and] hold firmly to that which is good” in order to “abstain from every form of evil” (1Thess 5.21-22).

Jesus in Matthew 4 is being tested as a man—i.e., this is not a question of His divinity like the “signs” recorded in John’s gospel and elsewhere. Like Adam, our Lord is presented with a scenario of tests (cf. Gen 3). Even in the garden there were layers to the testing of Adam, but we do not see them because they are not stated in writing. Regardless, they are there. In Matthew 4 (also: Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13) the layers are presented individually, but the first one, the one we have been looking at, sets the stage. In other words, everything that occurs during this testing period in the wilderness is governed by our Lord’s first response to the devil:

It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God’” (Matt 4.4).

Ethical Implications…

Think about the implications of this powerful statement. Daily needs, of which bread (i.e., food), is one, is not actually what sustains the life of man. This statement by our Lord is a reiteration of what was spoken to the sons of Israel by the mouth of Moses, the Lord’s prophet:

All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, so that you may live…” (Deut 8.1).

This runs counter to the way man naturally thinks. Not surprising given our fallen status. We tend to think that life is maintained by what we do. Sin so binds the heart (the mind) of man that he (or she) fails to see the reality of this statement (Deut 8.1) until they have been taught humility (Deut 8.2). And humility before God comes through testing, through adversity, through struggle and suffering.5 God made the sons of Israel hunger before He fed them (Deut 8.3). He made them needy—to feel their neediness—before He clothed them. He made them dependent upon Him for their well-being; what we call good health (cf. Deut 8.4).

All three elements are present when the Lord was tested. He was hungry, His health depended on God meeting His needs, and the choice before Him determined what manner of clothing He would wear; whether, it be the righteous garments provided by holiness (Eccl 9.8; Rev 3.4-5) or the filthy garments of unrighteousness (Isa 64.6; cf. Gen 3.7).6 The issue of turning the “stone into bread” to meet a real need, a need that was in His power as the divine Word (cf. John 1.1-3), was not a neutral one, but an ethical one. Had the Father willed the Son to do what the devil requested, then it would not have been sinful. However, it was the very fact that the Father had not willed it to take place (turning a stone into bread) that it would have been sinful for Jesus to do what the devil suggested to Him.

Anorexic Word and Gospel…

American Christianity, by and large it would appear has so whittled down the Word and the Gospel that they lack the ability to discern between issues properly. How can you discern all things, as Jesus did in this scenario, if you refuse to look at the entirety of the issue? If you determine beforehand what is and what is not ethical or religious,7 without taking the time to discern through the issue in light of God’s Word, then you err. If you pretend that there are some aspects of life that are not religious or ethical, then you will stumble into various practices that do not glorify God as such, but rather man (i.e., the creature).

In the balance…

We must take the time to weigh things properly. We must be willing to look at both sides of the scale, and then decide what is good or evil, right or wrong in terms of revealed truth. We must avoid making decisions on matters due only to personal preference, tradition or feeling. I have encountered all three aspects of people’s decision making process, and I have encountered those that do not like to have their thoughts weighed in the balance, but if we are going to see and do things correctly we must be willing to do the hard work of analyzing our underlying motives.

Underlying motivations…

Look back and consider what drove Jesus to do what He did. Think about the possible underlying motives. Emotions and feelings are a key driving force for believed or perceived truth in our day and age, but they are shoddy ground to make rational (i.e., goodly reasoned) decisions on. Jesus “felt” hungry, but He refused to let His hunger drive His decision making process. He needed to eat, but that did not guide Him either. Consider this: “Who would He truly have been trusting in (God or man) had He used His own power to meet His needs? A key aspect of humility before God is learning to master our own desires. We must refrain from being like Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup (cf. Gen 25.33).

Moreover, we must look at issues, at decisions that we are faced with in light of God’s purpose for our life. We were born to glorify and enjoy Him, and so our choices in this life ought to reflect that. Had Jesus turned the stone into bread, He would have violated one of the two key purposes for His coming. He came to be king; for this reason He was born. He came to proclaim truth; for this reason He lived and died. He came to serve God above and man below; for this reason He loved. Consider then, if these things be true (and they are), “Who would Jesus have served and loved in that moment, had He obliged the devil’s request?” Moreover, “Whose word would have been proved true, and who would have been recognized as the true king, had he failed this testing?”

And, when you are presented with various choices, tests or temptations in this life, “Who do you recognize as the true king? Whom do you prove your love for? By what standard are you showing that your life is built upon?” In short, do you practice living in such a way where the bread on the table (the perceived necessities for life) is more or less important that what God has said in His Word?

Finally, let us look at a few aspects of our lives and see how they are not neutral issues, but ethical/religious ones. Here are a few subjects that we can cover: Weddings/funerals; employer/employment; education; sports. My goal is for you to see each area as an area of worship, not a neutral issue to be decided however you see fit, but one consciously weighed by God’s Word. All of life is ethical, therefore all of life is religious, and in our religious practices we are worshiping something. Worship is not relegated to one day of the week where people get together sings songs, reading/exhortation and prayer. Anymore than the Word and Gospel of God is limited to the New Testament or four books called gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Nor is the Gospel just the story of Jesus, his life, death, burial and resurrection. That is the pinnacle of the gospel of God to be sure, but the good-news of God covers much more than just that.


1Unless otherwise noted the New American Standard Bible, 2020 Update (NASB) shall be used throughout this document.

2John would soon testify about this when he declared Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” See: John 1:31-34.

3This “lose of life” is often misunderstood because we see Adam still living after the sin in the garden; even though, God promised that in the day he rebelled he would “surely die” (Gen 2.17). The “lose of life” was a judicial sentence against Adam. It was an ethical judgment. Physical death would come, but the Lord God had other plans for Adam and his offspring after him, before he would be laid to rest (cf. Gen 5.5)

4There are several passages that attest to this. At His birth (Matt 2.1-2), on the day of His death (cf. John 18.33-38; 19.10-18), and after He had arisen to the Father’s right hand (1Tim 6.13-16).

5This seems to me to be an aspect of the curse of sweat as described in Genesis 3, “Cursed is the ground [i.e., earth] because of you; with hard labor you shall eat from it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread…” (vv., 17, 19). The hard labor and sweating brow is a reminder of our lowly estate. God in the cursing of mankind has brought them (us) low in order for us to be reminded that we are finite creatures that will return to the ground from which we come (v. 19b). Humility is a recognition of our true estate, and then a crying out to our Maker in desperate need to alleviate our suffering. Something He eagerly does when we turn to Him in humility (cf. Matt 11.28-30).

6Adam and Eve’s realization that they were naked was ethical. They sought to cover their nakedness just a little while before they were unashamed of (Gen 2.24). This clues the reader to the idea that they were at least symbolically clothed with God’s righteousness, for it was the entrance of rebellion (sin) that opened their eyes to their nakedness before their Maker. Thus, being ashamed they sought to make coverings for themselves, and realizing that this was insufficient they hid from Him when they heard His approach in the garden (Gen 3.8).

7I use the two terms synonymously in this work. My justification for doing so is rather simple. Ethics deals with right and wrong; good and evil. They deal with choices based upon teachings that determine whether or not a particular practice (word, thought or deed) is right or wrong, good or evil. Religion is the upholding of a particular set of beliefs that are deemed good and right, contrary to what is wrong and evil. And so, in this sense I see the two as one.


  1. Excellent analysis! What many in the mainstrean fail to see it that in many cases it is the religious practice itself that is unethical. It’s called the doctrines and tradiions of man. I see your presentation as like a fundamental law in physics. For every action, there is a reaction. This holds true in ethics and life in general. For every choice there is a consequence. The scriptures are full of choices and conquences. All of scripture boils down to two conquences, eternal life or eternal death. The choice is which ethic do we chose to practice religiously. Really enjoyed the essay. LOLGB+

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