We received a little box-shaped package as a seasonal gift from friends before we went out to church. We could not tell exactly what was in the package. However, our dog, with her greater sense of smell, certainly could! As an inveterate opportunist, after we had left her alone to go to the service she could not resist it. She ripped open the package and wolfed the contents! We came back in to find the discarded packaging of what had been a box of chocolates. Ironically, they were named Temptations.
A trivial event, but a good illustration of the nature of temptation. We often use the word temptation loosely. We might speak of being ‘tempted’ to eat a box of chocolates, and actually ‘yield’ to that ‘temptation’. But that is not a sin. We have to distinguish this from temptation to sin. Obviously the latter is serious temptation. Such temptation has been in the world since the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), when man first fell into sin through the temptation of the serpent (the devil in disguise, see Revelation 12:9, 20:2). Since then there has been a universal proneness of people to fall prey to the temptation to sin.
Mankind universally has a proneness to fall into sin, to yield to inducements to break God’s holy law(s). Our minds and hearts are the arena of temptation. All sin, says the Bible, is to be mortified, or killed off. This is the language of warfare, and resisting temptation is important if Christians are to live as they ought for the Lord.
There are positive temptations to sin, which involve the transgression of God’s Word by breaking direct commands; for example, temptations to disobey parents, steal, lie, commit adultery, act violently, and so on. In such matters, the devil encourages us to excuse ourselves. For example, we may try to justify disrespect for parents: ‘Why should they tell me how to live my life?’; or stealing: ‘they’ll not miss it’; or adultery: ‘It’s love!’; or violence (physical or verbal): ‘They deserve it!’
Then there are negative things, sins of omission, concerning which we are tempted. I do not keep the Christian Sabbath by simply observing ‘rest’. Am I actively worshipping God? Am I loving my neighbour as I should? Am I carrying out the great commission as I am commanded? Temptations, then, come from all angles.
Tests and trials
We have to understand that the words for ‘temptation’ in Hebrew and Greek also embrace the ideas of test and trial. So, overcoming temptation is akin to ‘passing the test’ and ‘surviving the trial’. A temptation should not just be thought of as an inducement to sin, but also as an opportunity to pass a test or endure in a trial. Temptation may indeed involve a test to see if we will obey the Lord when the going is hard. This testing may come from God (see Genesis 22: 1, of Abraham in relation to the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac), or from Satan (as in the case of Job, chapters 1 and 2). Let it be said for our encouragement, however, that in the experience of Christians, ‘No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it’(1 Corinthians 10:13). Of course, at the same time, we are to ‘take heed’ lest we fall, even when we are confident that we are standing (v.12).
Besides this, one of the consequences of Jesus having suffered, being tempted, is that ‘he is able to aid those who are tempted’(Hebrews 2:18). In looking at the temptations of the Lord we shall deal first of all with his temptations in general terms, and then in relation to the specific temptations in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry, as mentioned in Matthew 4 and Luke 4.
Christ; tempted but without sin
One of the consequences of Christ’s incarnation and humiliation — of his coming in the likeness of men and being found in appearance as a man (Philippians 2:7-8) — is that he experienced the reality of temptation as a man. There has been some debate as to whether or not it was possible for Jesus to fall into sin. We must assume that he could not sin, because he had a divine nature as well as a human nature. Does not this, then, nullify the reality of temptation in his case? We have to answer, No! to that question, because he did, after all, possess a human nature. He definitely experienced intense temptations, trials and testings throughout his earthly mission.
Often when we think of the temptations of Christ, we turn to Matthew 4 and Luke 4, where we find accounts of his temptations in the wilderness. Clearly, these were extremely important incidents, occurring as they did at the outset of his ministry, and we shall come to these later. The commencement of his teaching ministry clearly brought the full force of the powers of darkness and hell against God’s Anointed. But, of course, temptation or testing stalked Jesus throughout his earthly life. We think, for example, of the young Jesus in the temple about his Father’s business; His parents raised questions about what he was doing. ‘Do not try to deflect me’, Jesus has to say to them (see Luke 2:41-50).
The Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4, gives us a most important overview of the reality and place of temptation in the life of Jesus. Believers have a great High Priest who has passed ‘through the heavens’; that is, Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places (Mark 16:19-20; Acts 1:9-11; Philippians 2:9). He sympathises with us in our weaknesses. How? In that ‘he was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin’. Like us —- yet without sin (see 1 John 3:5). This is the most powerful comment imaginable in relation to Christ’s conquest of temptation.
As we come to reflect on the temptations of Jesus, it is important for us to appreciate (a) that he was temptable; and (b) that he remained completely sinless. He was tempted but he never yielded to temptation. Some may say: ‘Ah, but could he really have a fellow-feeling with us if he did not sin? After all, he never entered in to our experience of sinning’. But the reality is the exact opposite of this. When you think of it, it does not take much to make us yield to temptation. Imagine, though, what it must be for a person who will not sin! Think of the degree and intensity of temptation he could and must endure. If the devil does not really have to try so hard with us, because we are so fallible, think of the degree and intensity of his attack upon one who is infallible.
A perfect life
This means that Christ is far better placed to sympathise with our weaknesses than any fallible person (which means anyone else!). Jesus overcame all temptations —all the devil and human experiences could throw at him. Perhaps the greatest example of this was in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:12-42; Luke 22:39-46). There, on the very eve of Calvary, he is put under intense pressure. He desires, if it is possible, the removal of the ‘cup’. He foresees the suffering to be endured and shrinks from it. Might there not be some other way? No: ‘Nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done’!
To summarise, then, we have to appreciate that there were temptations throughout Jesus’ life and from all quarters. He was tempted by Satan. There was testing from disciples, Pharisees, and others alike. His experience of possessing so little of the common comforts of this life must have given rise to many diverse trials. But, of course, he came through all of these tests and temptations triumphantly, in the accomplishment of a perfect life and the fulfilment of a perfect righteousness. Furthermore, his experience in doing so means that now, and always, he is ‘able to aid those who are tempted’. What comfort and encouragement these words impart!