For the past two weeks we have been looking at temptation, and focusing primarily on the temptation of Jesus. This week we wrap up that investigation by looking at lessons we can learn from how Jesus handled temptation.
Lesson 1 – Satan Has Limitations
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
– Matthew 4:11, ESV
The Bible speaks of principalities, powers, and demons, plural, but only one devil, Satan, singular. There is but one devil, and he is not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. There are limits to what he knows, to what he can do, and to where he can be. Note in the verse above, that the devil came, messed with Jesus, lost the battle, and left. Luke’s account of the temptation says the devil left Jesus “until a more opportune time.”
There are limits to Satan’s abilities, and it is important for the Christ-follower to understand that reality. However, it is equally important to understand that Satan is not a toy for our amusement. He is not a silly cartoon-caricature jokester, twisting dogs’ tails and dipping schoolgirl pigtails into ink wells. Satan wants nothing less than the post-resurrection defeat of Christ through the death of the human soul.
Despite his limitations, Satan is not an impotent opponent to be taken lightly or taunted. It is disturbing to see professing followers after Christ “talking smack” to Satan like an arrogant UFC fighter. “I’m gonna take you down, Satan. I’m gonna bust you up. Come on, boy. Let’s see what you’ve got.” Such arrogant behavior is not only foolish, it is the antithesis of the humility to which God calls us. Jesus, God in the flesh, did not taunt Satan. He did not “bind” him and wrap him in spiritual chains, stick his finger in Satan’s face, and say, “Take that, punk.”
Consider this quotation from Jude 9:
But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
– Jude 1:9, NIV-1978
Any rebuking of Satan needs to be done by the Lord, rather than in my arrogant, puffed-chest boasting.
Lesson 2 – Temptation is Not Sin
We also learn from the temptation of Jesus that it is not sinful, unholy, or unspiritual to be tempted. Temptation is temptation, and sin is sin. The two are not to be equated. Our Lord, Savior, and High Priest was tempted in all points as we are, yet he was without sin. And since God in the flesh was tempted, we see clearly the fallaciousness of the assertion that a truly spiritual man or woman would never be lured by temptation.
Contrary to it being sinful, James says we are blessed to endure temptation because when we do so, we receive a crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
However, it is quite a different matter to flirt with temptation, play with it, and see how close we can get to it without getting burned. Rather than play with temptation, scripture teaches us repeatedly to flee from it, resist the tempter, and provide no foothold for the devil. The devil cannot force us to do anything. Indeed, by resisting him, we exert a spiritual power that overwhelms him and causes him to flee from us. “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you,”1 because “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”2
Lesson 3 – Quoting Scripture is Not the Victory
With each temptation from Satan, Jesus responded “It is written …” One might conclude from this that a primary tool in resisting temptation is to quote scripture. To that end, memorization of scripture is sometimes taught as an effective spiritual discipline for facing down temptation. Numerous books, pamphlets, and websites topically categorize scripture that is considered useful for resisting specific temptations falling into distinct categories.
Memorization of scripture is a wonderful discipline, one I find helpful, and one at which I wish I were more skilled. I believe, however, that Jesus’ triumph over temptation is not found in the quoting of scripture.
It is possible to quote scripture while actively involved in the most heinous of sins. Indeed, it is possible to quote scripture as a justification of sin in which I am actively involved. Thus we see that knowing scripture, and quoting scripture, is not what makes us victorious over temptation. Success in overcoming temptation is found, rather, in living a life that is submitted to and that embodies the scripture we have internalized, that “living and active”3 word of God within us.
Through exposing ourselves to scripture, submitting to it, and internalizing it, God incrementally conforms us to the image of his Son. Recall Jesus’ response to the first temptation – man does not live by bread alone, but by every utterance that flows from the mouth of God.
That word, that ῥήματι (hreimatee) proceeding from the mouth of God becomes a part of who and what we are; thus resisting temptation is a natural outflow of that life we live, and the man or woman we have become. This is the same terminology the apostle Paul used when he said we husbands are to sanctify our wives, and we do this by washing her with the water of the word, the hreimatee. The term used for washing is a deep cleansing, literally a catharsis. As a result of this catharsis, my wife lives holy and blameless.
We know quoting scripture is not offensive or restrictive to the devil, because Satan himself quoted scripture to Jesus in the second temptation. Satan knows the scriptures well enough to quote them, misquote them, and twist them. I suspect if there were some way to quantify this, we would find that Satan has memorized more scripture than you and I combined.
While working in Campus Ministry at Kansas University, I urged the students to periodically pick a passage, or a single scripture that they found meaningful, especially one that spoke to a present need in their walk with Christ, and then to “work that scripture” into their life.
Over time, I would randomly ask one student or another, “What scripture are you working into your life right now?” The responses were often very encouraging. Other times, I needed to be the one encouraging the student who did not have a scripture they were working into their life.
The goal of this exercise is not to memorize scripture, though that will inevitably happen, but rather, the goal is to internalize the scripture in such a way, and to such a degree, that it becomes a part of who I am.
Take, for example, this passage from Luke’s gospel:
But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
– Luke 6:27, NASB
That is a difficult command from Jesus. Take it as a challenge to work that scripture into your life, and in doing so, see how loving your enemies, doing good to those who are hateful toward you, and praying for those who mistreat you, changes the way you view your world. Then select a different passage to work into your life.
This is not a quick exercise. You may find that you work with a single passage for six to eight months before you feel ready to move to a new one. You will also find that this must be a deliberate exercise. It does not happen passively.
Rather than memorizing and quoting a passage, internalize and live the passage – because it is not in quoting scripture that Satan is defeated. It is in living the scripture that he is defeated. It is at that point that we are victorious over temptation, and that victory comes not in our saying, “This is what God says,” but rather our saying, “This is who I am. This is who God has made me.”
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
– Hebrews 4;12, NASB
1. James 4:7
2. 1 John 4:4
3. Hebrews 4:12