I read once that temptation is a hook baited with a lie. I find that an apt way of phrasing it. Once we swallow that lie/bait and the hook is set, the chances are very good that we are going to get reeled in, because it is difficult and painful to pull out the hook, and the fishing line is often too strong to break.
It was Oscar Wilde’s character, Lord Darlington, who said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Current-generation society has no shortage of books, blog posts, and advice columns on how to conquer temptation, whether that temptation comes as the enticing, after-dinner bowl of Fudgy-Wudgy ice cream, or an overnight fling with the neighbor’s spouse. One quick internet search on overcoming temptation will yield a near-overwhelming return of helpful, non-helpful, and often conflicting advice on how to be the victor over what tempts.
I have been told that a truly spiritual man would not be subject to temptation. Such a man is so spiritually-minded that worldly concerns are completely foreign to him. If true, that does not speak well of Jesus. We can only laugh at the absurdity of such arrogant folly, and pray for clarity in the mind of one so deceived. Being spared temptation was not an option for Jesus, and neither is it an option for his followers.
In contrast to the fatuity above, the apostle Paul is keenly aware of the constant barrage of enticements the world throws at believers, and in that knowledge Paul is consistent in his exhortation to deny temptation, telling us to make no provision for the flesh,1 to flee sexual immorality,2 to flee from idolatry,3 to flee youthful lusts.4 Paul admonished his protégé, Timothy, not to be tempted by an abundance of wealth, noting that the love of money is a snare, a root of all manner of evil that has drawn many away from the faith.5 Note that scripture does not direct us to fight against temptation, to wage war against temptation, but rather to flee from it.
For the next two or three weeks, we will be looking at temptation and the Christ-follower’s response to it, beginning this week with the tempter himself, and then looking at Jesus’ temptation.
There are only three places in all of scripture where we find Satan actually speaking. The first is in Genesis where Satan is speaking to Eve. The second is in Job, where Satan is speaking to God. The third is in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, where Satan is speaking to Jesus.
I heard it said once that in the Genesis account Satan is accusing God to man. “God is holding out on you, Eve.” In the Job account, Satan is accusing man to God. “Of course Job obeys you. You have built a wall of protection around him.” Now, in the gospels, Satan is dealing with the God-Man and he does not know who or how to accuse.
Satan is indeed the accuser, the liar, the expert tempter.
The Bible has much to say about temptation, particularly the New Testament, and there, instruction comes primarily from the apostle Paul. But I want to look specifically at the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, in order to learn from the Master how he triumphed over temptation.
The Temptation of Jesus
Contrary to the counsel of Paul to flee temptation, Jesus seemed to walk straight into it, or rather, he allowed the Spirit to lead him to it, and yet it was Jesus himself who taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”6 He was not led by his own lusts, and neither was he led by the devil. Jesus was led into this environment of temptation by the Spirit of God (Mark’s gospel said he was “driven” there), and Jesus seemed okay with that.
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
– Mark 1:12-13, ESV
While the leading came from the Spirit, the temptation Jesus endured was from the devil himself, rather than from some minimum-wage demon in Satan’s army. You may recall that Satan won the first battle with humanity he ever fought. Clearly, he has some skill in this arena of enticement and temptation.
Mark’s and Luke’s gospels indicate that Jesus was tempted for the full forty days he was in the wilderness, while in Matthew’s gospel, it seems that he fasted for forty days, and it was then that the tempter came to him. I am not certain what impact either reading of the temptation has on our lives or our theology. Jesus was tempted by the master tempter. That much is clear. And this temptation episode does strike me as an unpleasant way for Jesus to launch his public ministry.
Some speculate that Jesus was led into the temptation to fully understand what it means to endure temptation as a human being. I am not wholly rejecting that idea, but I do wrestle with such speculation because it impugns the omniscience of God. The suggestion is that there is something God does not understand, and that very idea denies God’s omniscience.
Rather than suggest that God does not understand human suffering without going through it as a human being, I propose that there is nothing God does not understand, but the public suffering of Jesus was for my benefit, that I might know beyond the slightest hint of doubt that Jesus identifies with me in my suffering and I with him (to a much lesser degree) in his.
The writer of Hebrews presents the idea that there was a learning process connected with the sufferings of Jesus, saying, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”7
Scholars are all over the map regarding exactly what that means, some suggesting that the divinity of Jesus was always fully obedient, while the humanity of Jesus needed to be brought into perfect unison with the will of God, through which process Jesus became our perfected High Priest.8 Though I am not entirely comfortable with that idea either, it is not out of step with what the apostle Paul said in Philippians 2:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
– Philippians 2:5-8, NASB
However we decide to look at the humanity and divinity of Jesus, his sufferings, and his temptations, one thing is brilliantly clear – that Jesus endured temptation and overcame it. For me to live as a Christ-follower, I need to know how he did that. We will dive into that next week.
Until then . . .
1. Romans 13:14
2. 1 Corinthians 6:18
3. 1 Corinthians 10:14
4. 2 Timothy 2:22
5. 1 Timothy 6:6-10
6. Matthew 6:13
7. Hebrews 5:8
8. Hebrews 2:17, 4:14-16, 5:6, 7:26-27