C.S. Lewis said that no one knows how bad he is until he tries to be good! That throws out of the window the idea that good people don’t know what temptation is really like. We think it is we, poor, failing, strugglers who know the force of temptations power. We look enviously at people we think never struggle with the issues we struggle with and never battle the temptations we face. But it may be that good people know the power of temptation more than anyone. Bad people give in easily, good people fight – and the harder you fight the stronger you know the battle to be. We don’t know the strength of temptation until we fight it fully.
The writer to the Hebrews was not being cynical when he said of Jesus, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Heb 4.15). We are inclined to think: Are you kidding? Tempted in every way like me? I doubt it! He had resources I don’t have and the difference between His battles and mine are more like contrasts than comparisons. But in fact, the writer says that far from being easy for Jesus, resisting temptation cost Him a high price in suffering, ‘Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted’ (Heb 2:18). We don’t know details of battles He fought through his growing years, except it was ‘in every way, just as we are’. So, we can guess. His temptations therefore weren’t light and casual, to be dismissed with a shrug. In fact, the writer of Hebrews challenges the soft nature of our feeble attempts to battle temptation: ‘In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood’ (Heb 12:4). That is some battle! The ‘blood-letting’ image is graphic if not literal. That tells us battling temptation successfully is not for wimps!
The temptations of Jesus played a crucial role in His development as a man and in His preparation for ministry. We have one specific incident recorded, when He was thirty years of age, just before beginning His ministry. He was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘led by the Spirit’, into the desert for the purpose of being tempted by the devil. Orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, for forty days He was alone, without food and with the devil on his back. But at the end of this time something was different, ‘Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit …’ (Luke 4.14). Now for the first time He performed miracles, engaged with people as the Messiah and preached His message.
Two parties had vested interests in the temptation of Jesus. The Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the situation, and the devil who was there to meet Him. But though it was the same event, it was with completely contrasting purposes. The devil’s intent was to tempt. The Spirit’s intent was to test. (It’s the same word but has a contrasting purpose). The devil’s intent was to disqualify Him from His ministry. The Spirit’s intent was to qualify Him for His ministry. The devil’s intent was to weaken Him. The Spirit’s attempt was to strengthen Him. The event Satan would destroy Him with, was the event the Holy Spirit would equip Him with. This is why temptation, appearing to us as our enemy, could also be a friend in disguise. The thing that would destroy us, may be the thing that will make us. Power corrupts, even spiritual power, so Jesus was tested by His Father before being entrusted with power.
The temptations of Jesus were, like all temptation, instant and selfish. They were to satisfy His physical hunger, (by turning stones into bread), to satisfy greed, (by showing Him all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to Him prematurely), and to pride, (by telling Him to jump off the temple and survive by angels catching Him, garnering publicity and getting Himself well and truly on the map). The very fact they were temptations means they were attractive ideas. Temptation by definition is attractive. I am never tempted to walk in front of a moving truck because it has no attraction to me.
I might be tempted to push someone else in front of a moving bus, depending who it is, as it might be attractive! That is why every sin we commit is because at the time we wanted to do it – let’s not kid ourselves otherwise. We may regret it deeply very quickly, but it met an instant illicit desire within ourselves. We must be careful of blaming the devil for our sin. The New Testament reminds us that, ‘…each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed’ (James 1.14). If the devil were to take a holiday, we would still struggle with temptation, for it comes from within. Jesus said, “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean” (Mark 7.20-23). The question is, why do these things come from inside me? There are no fast track solutions without understanding why the darkness of our own hearts cause us to act the way we do. That is the hard and painful journey we have to make into our own souls.
We have three especially vulnerable areas. ‘For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world’ (1 John 2:16 KJV). The ‘lust of the flesh’ are natural physical appetites that are intrinsically good, but out of control. We probably think of sex as the big one, but in the Bible, food was too! The ‘lust of the eyes’ is immediate gratification, wanting what is not legitimate for us. Advertisers harness the power of the lust of the eyes. The ‘pride of life’ is what it says, pride, the sin through which Lucifer fell.
Jesus was invited to satisfy physical appetite for food at the wrong time (the lust of the flesh). He was taken up a mountain and shown ‘in an instant all the kingdoms of the world’ and offered everything He could see, (the lust of the eyes). He was invited to make Himself known and be publicly recognized (the pride of life). The pattern was the same in the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. ‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (appealing to the lust of the flesh) and pleasing to the eye, (appealing to the lust of the eye) and also desirable for gaining wisdom,(appealing to the pride of life), she took some and ate it.(Gen 3.6). Once all three doors were left open by her, she was beyond hope. Adam joined her in the seduction.
To each temptation in the wilderness, Jesus replied, ‘It is written…’ He didn’t enter into discussion about the merits or demerits of the temptation, nor offer a personal opinion, but said ‘It is written…’, passing His response to a higher external authority. There was no intrinsic power just in quoting Scripture, but the truths He quoted revealed the resources of Jesus. These were not just laws to obey or a plumbline to measure by, but more profoundly, a revelation of the nature and moral character of God. This is the ‘image’ in which humanity was created, and the resources on which we are invited to draw.
Each of Jesus’ answers had to do with something about God. ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’. Then: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only‘. Then: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. Fundamentally, temptation appeals to deficiencies in our own relationship with God. When G.K. Chesterton said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God”, he is expressing that very thing. The Scriptures Jesus quoted expressed areas of His relationship with His Father that met the needs the devil was offering alternatives to.
When I was a young preacher, I once made a list of all the areas of temptation in which I was vulnerable and likely to fall. I then put the rather long list into a short list of key areas and tried to find a verse of scripture which addressed every one of these sins and the needs they expressed. To my surprise, I found one for every sin. I had thought I had probably invented one or two of them and no one was dealing with them like I seemed to be. I kept the list in my Bible until an occasion when I was speaking at a youth weekend and after the Saturday morning session, I left my Bible in the conference hall. Someone found it, was curious to know whose it was, opened it up and found my list. Even more curious, he passed it around, and my list of sins became public! I never kept it there again. To quote a scripture doesn’t make the temptation go away, nor does the devil take flight with his tail between his legs. But it expresses the needs of our own heart to find significance, love, meaning and delight in God. Immediately before his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus had heard the voice of his Father, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. These are three things any child needs to hear from their father: You are mine. I love you. I am pleased with you. Here the deep need of Jesus’ human heart for love, significance and security was met. His temptations invited Him to meet these needs elsewhere. Jesus passed the testing and was entrusted with power.
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By Charles Price
About the author
Charles Price serves as the ‘Minister at large’ at the People’s Church I Toronto, Canada.
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