Facing up to Temptation
Reading LUKE 4:1-15
You've just taken the decision to go on a diet but you've still got to go to the local supermarket for the weekly shop. As you go through the doors you're hit by the lovely aroma of freshly cooked bread – your resolve is being put to the test, you're experiencing temptation. What counts more to you? Will it be getting into clothing a size smaller next summer or will it be instant gratification?
All of us know what it is to be tempted and temptation comes to us in so many different ways – even good things can become a temptation if our desire for them gets out of control. Some temptations (should I have just one more biscuit, for example) are not really all that significant are they? We have even grown used to advertising campaigns encouraging us to give in to temptation and for many of us we no longer see it as a big deal at all.
But we all recognize that some temptations are more serious than that don't we? If I falsify the details of my driving record when applying for a new insurance policy because I want to pay a lower premium, the consequences for me could be very serious. If I give false information I may find my insurance to be invalid the day I have an accident.
The Bible talks to us about temptation and concentrates upon what I will call serious temptation, the temptation to sin. Now sin is anything that does not conform to God and his will. Any temptation that encourages us to step out of line with God is serious and the consequences are hard to exaggerate. Sin pays a wage and that wage is complete, unending separation from God. In this light we must not treat temptation lightly.
Here in Luke ch.4 we see Jesus, filled with the Spirit and led by the Spirit, being tested and tried in the wilderness. The devil came to him and tempted him not to follow God's path but to do things another way. This morning we are going to look at this encounter and try to gain a better understanding of the devil's methods as he attacked Jesus in a variety of different ways. We will also consider how Jesus conducted himself and how he won his victories seeing what we can learn from him along the way.
Three Temptations Highlighted
Jesus was in the wilderness for a period of forty days and he was tempted throughout that period. Luke however concentrates upon just three of the many temptations to which Jesus was exposed.
1. To turn stones into bread v.3
With this first temptation the devil took advantage of the prevailing situation. Jesus had not eaten for some time and hence was hungry. This particular temptation came about as the result of a slow build-up. The devil didn't openly encourage Jesus to prioritize the meeting of his own physical appetite over everything else but he came more subtly with hints and suggestions:
It's a matter of identity. Surely with the status he had Jesus could expect better treatment than this in the wilderness! Didn't he have the power and ability to do something about it? Go on, use it.
Sometimes temptation will come to us in a similar way. Gradually the heat is turned up, the pressure grows – just as Jesus' hunger would have grown over the period – and then we notice that there is an opt-out. We can stop thinking about what is most important, we can stop thinking about pleasing God and trusting him, and we focus only upon our own immediate interests. We don't have miracle working power but we find there is something we can do to gratify ourselves. How easy it is to rationalize and to justify – after all there's nothing wrong in eating bread!
Jesus recognized what the devil was tempting him to do – he saw that the devil wanted to bring imbalance into his life. And it was an imbalance that involved putting the emphasis upon his personal physical needs while minimizing the spiritual.
Many today are giving in to this sort of temptation and living unbalanced and unspiritual lives. What about you?
Jesus knew that the life of a man was not defined by such things as food, drink, clothing etc. and he was determined to do what he would shortly teach his disciples to do – he would not be anxious, but trusting, and he would seek first the Kingdom of God. Later in his ministry life he would declare that in doing his Father's will he had food to eat that others knew nothing about.
And as Jesus trusted God he quoted God's word:
"Man shall not live by bread alone." v.4
2. The second temptation seems to have come about in a totally different manner. Whereas the first temptation was the result of a slow build-up the second came suddenly with no warning that it was on its way. If the first was subtle, the second was more of a full-frontal head-on attack!
The devil came with a special offer – and how we like special offers that are just for us! On the top of a mountain with the kingdoms of the world spread out before them the devil spoke to Jesus and said:
vv.6-7 "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
The devil was offering Jesus what the Father had already planned for his Son but there is a difference: the devil was offering Jesus a pain-free, cross-free route to success. The offer was doubtless attractive but it came with a proviso and that proviso was serious – Jesus had to disobey the most fundamental obligation of the Law of God (though, of course, the devil didn't quite put it that way!)
I've often wondered why the devil should be so brazen in this temptation – didn't he realize that Jesus would easily see through this sort of approach? I don't have an answer to this question but I have seen something else that is of more practical help to me and to you.
If the devil didn't hesitate to tempt Jesus to flagrantly disobey God's law then he is unlikely to have any qualms about testing us in the same kind of way. No, he doesn't need to offer men and women like us what he offered to Jesus because we can be tempted by much less. And how many men in history have ruined their lives by effectively selling their souls to the devil?
No, don't imagine he won't come to you with his inflated promises and special offers and don't be caught out when he comes to you suddenly, out of the blue as it were. This is just another of the wiles of the devil.
There is a Scripture that is relevant for us all to hear and heed:
1Cor.10:12-13 "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
Jesus countered this second temptation that the devil brought to him by quoting from the Word of God – this was Jesus' "way of escape".
3. The third temptation is different again though it did resemble the second in that it came without any indication that it was coming. It was also like the first in that it was linked to Jesus' true identity. Jesus had come into the world on a mission and wouldn't it be a great way to attract attention if he were to throw himself down from the top of the Temple – he'd be alright because God's word said so!
Are you surprised that the devil knows the Word of God and is quite prepared to quote from it when it suits him? But he's sure to misapply it! In this particular temptation the devil is attempting to muddy the waters by pretending a respect for God's Word which he now introduces in order to try to bolster his temptation.
Jesus didn't need the advice of the devil. He knew who he was and what he had come to do and he didn't need to deliberately provoke God into owning him publicly. The devil's suggestion was not a good idea because it was a call, not to trust God, but to put God to the test.
There are sometimes times in our lives when we would dearly love God to do something to "prove" himself to us and we can dream up all kinds of schemes. We can even convince ourselves that what in reality is lack of faith is a manifestation of our faith! We must however not try to force God's hand by misusing and misapplying his Word.
When the devil quotes the Word of God it is not with any desire to see God honoured and glorified – he is not interested in the truth rather he is the Father of lies. So don't imagine that he will fight fair when he comes to tempt you! He tried to lead Jesus astray by using the Bible and he won't fight shy of using it with you if he thinks it'll work. Just because a suggestion comes with some Scripture references attached is no guarantee that the suggestion is in line with God's will – we must learn to rightly handle the Word of Truth.
Jesus saw through all of the enemy's devices and defeated him with Bible truth, again quoting Scripture. If we are to do the same then we must be growing both in our knowledge of the Bible and in our understanding of what it means, of what its true message is.
Further Lessons from these Three Temptations
How did Jesus handle himself?
a). No one-offs.
Jesus was ready for each of the temptations that came his way in the wilderness. Luke has focused our attention upon just three of these temptations and as we have seen these temptations were varied in nature. Jesus, having been victorious over the first, was not caught out by the second nor by the third. He evidently didn't drop his guard imagining that one victory and that would be the end of the matter.
At the end of this testing 40 day period we read that the devil only left him: v.13 "until an opportune time" when he would doubtless try again to cause our Lord to fall into sin.
The fact that Jesus was exposed to multiple temptations is instructive for us. More than one temptation is going to come our way too. So we should not expect that one victory over temptation and that will be it for all time. Another battle will soon be upon us and we shouldn't assume that the next temptation will be identical to the last. It has often been said that generals are always ready to fight the last war but we need to be ready for the next!
b). No surprises.
Jesus showed no surprise at being tempted and it didn't lead him to question his identity or his status even though the devil specifically tried to make him do so. Nor did he allow temptation to crush him as though he was out of God's way for his life.
We too must not be surprised when temptation comes our way. After a "spiritual high" we can (especially when we are young in the faith and not yet used to Satan's devices) be completely thrown by temptation. Awful thoughts come into our minds and we can be absolutely horrified them and yet still draw entirely wrong conclusions from the experience –deducing that we aren't real Christians at all even though the thoughts were not really ours at all!
The mere coming of a thought into the mind is not sin in itself – it all depends upon what we do with those thoughts. If they come unwilled and unwanted we must not beat ourselves up over them – they are a temptation but not sin, and there is a difference, an enormous difference! (Jesus after all was tempted every respect as we are, yet he was completely without personal sin of his own. Cf. Heb.4:15) But if temptation is not sin it will quickly become so if we entertain or welcome it. Playing yo-yo with those unclean thoughts, pushing them away only to tug them back again, is not a mark of innocence. As Martin Luther has said, it may impossible to stop the birds flying over our heads but we can stop them making nests in our hair!
Some Christians with tender consciences have been so surprised by temptation that they have even doubted the reality of their faith. They've held unrealistic expectations assuming that certain thoughts would no longer trouble them if they were genuinely converted. So when such thoughts come (even when unwanted) they collapse. But let me say it again, temptation is no evidence of sin. Indeed temptation may even come with greater force to those who have enjoyed genuine spiritual victories. Just think of the example of Elijah – one moment he is standing alone against 400 prophets of Baal and winning a dramatic victory but the next he is running depressed and scared from Jezebel who wants to destroy him.
c. No negotiations
Have you noticed how briefly Jesus responded to the devil? There is no entering into discussion with Satan to weigh up the pros and cons, no negotiating and not a hint of compromise. Jesus knew what was going on; on each occasion he understood what the issue was; he also how high the stakes were. On account of this his reaction was decisive and on every occasion he rebuffed Satan by quoting the Word of God – the Bible when rightly understood is the last word, what more is there to say?
Unlike Jesus, we are sinners (albeit many of us sinners-saved-by-grace) and we have an old man/an old nature that still wants to run our lives. How foolish it would be for us to enter into a debate or a discussion when the matter is clear! It would serve no good purpose at all. If we were to allow ourselves to be drawn in compromise looms and in this instance compromise means giving in to temptation rather than going on resisting it.
If you often/always find yourself asking just how far you can go before it becomes sin for you I would suggest that you're already on dangerous ground and simply asking the wrong question. The Christian is not to be preoccupied with sailing as close to the wind as possible but on being the most like Jesus that he can be.
Jesus and the Written Word of God
As we think about the temptation episode it is easy to see that each time that Jesus was tempted by the devil he responded in fundamentally the same way – he countered with the Word of God.
But if we look more closely we will see that he didn't seek out verses that dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" of each individual challenge with which he was confronted. If we were to expect that kind of answer from the Bible we would find many situations that would remain without answers. No, Jesus saw what were the real issues at stake and the Scriptures he cited contained principles that could be widely applied.
Just because the Bible doesn't mention certain things explicitly should not be taken to mean that it has nothing at all to say. The Bible does not mention cars or how to drive them but the law does require care and consideration for others (love your neighbour) and in applying Biblical principle we will want to drive safely and in a way that is considerate towards others.
This example is simplistic and sometimes the decisions that confront us are anything but simple. So, as Christians, we must aim with the Spirit's help to develop the skill sets we need to properly use his Word. We will need both discernment to understand the principles that are stake with any particular course of action and knowledge of what the Bible says about those principles.
And so we will need to read the Bible, over and over. We will listen to it. And, of course, we will seek to apply it when we do understand how it addresses our life choices. The Pharisees knew much of what God's word said but they were castigated by Jesus for failing to understand it aright:
Mt.22:29 "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God."
Do you want to avoid a similar verdict being passed on you? Then you must do what you can to grow in your ability to rightly handle God's word of truth.
We should not see this as something odd or unnecessary. In just about every domain of human life we expect proficiency to be gained through effort.
Do you remember Pat who used to play our piano so well? She was still meeting with better musicians than her so that her skills would be sharpened!
And what about the professional athlete? Doesn't he train hard so that certain aspects of his sport become second nature?
In the same way we too must be prepared to put in some effort, getting to know the word of God so that we can wield it as the weapon it is the sword of the Spirit.
Friends, Jesus defeated the devil and has shown us how to do so too.
The NT church of the 1st century was told to "Resist the devil" with the added encouragement that he would indeed flee from them (Cf.Jas.4:7)
These things are important for us too. But these things, important as they are, are not where we are to begin. James preceded his exhortation with instruction that follows the regular pattern of the NT. He wrote:
"Submit yourselves therefore to God"
In other words: You must first become a Christian and you don't do that by trying desperately to tidy up your own life by resisting temptation. It is only when we have been put right with God through faith in Jesus Christ that resisting temptation and the devil has real significance.
May God give us the grace we need.