Temptation

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 4:1-11

The experience of temptation is part of what it means to be human. But experiencing temptation is one thing; overcoming it is another.

“Temptation.” What does the word suggest to you? Does it call to mind the sudden spasm of desire you feel when a box of chocolates is passed under your nose? Does it describe the turmoil you go through when your neighbor calls offering you free tickets to the big game for the very day you promised to clean the garage? Those are little everyday sorts of temptation. But there is a far more serious kind, a more dangerous and deadly sort of temptation. Temptation to sin is the chief weapon the devil uses in his attempts to ruin lives. When Satan tempts he’s not trying to spoil your diet or throw your budget out of whack; he’s playing for keeps. He would like nothing more than to destroy your faith and damn your soul if he could. Failing that, he would settle for wrecking your happiness and peace of mind, dashing your hopes for happiness, breaking up your relationship with God, and causing you to lose your assurance of salvation. All those things can be accomplished by enticing you to sin.

WHAT TEMPTATION IS

Temptation is part of the normal human condition. It’s a nearly universal human experience. People like to joke about temptation and make light of it. “I can resist everything – except temptation,” declares a character in one of Oscar Wilde’s plays. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” the playwright himself observed flippantly. But temptation is a serious business. As far as we know, humans are the only creatures who experience genuine temptation. The angels are above temptation. The demons are beneath it.

The experience of facing and overcoming real temptation is the most important of all moral acts. In one sense being tempted is even a sign of spiritual health. Temptation to sin is a consequence of our moral freedom. To be able to experience temptation one must be capable of both good and evil, to know the difference between them, and to have the capacity of choosing the good against the evil. A thoroughly bad person isn’t tempted because they don’t even think about doing good. They simply follow their corrupt inclinations. On the other hand, the saints and angels in heaven do not experience temptation because they no longer have the ability to do wrong. Their constant delight is to do the will of God, whom they worship and enjoy in perfect fellowship.

TEMPTATION INTRUDES

So temptation is a fact of life for us in the present world. In this, as in so much else, Jesus of Nazareth offers us an example of what it means to be human. He too knew what it was to be tempted. In fact, the Bible makes this point explicitly. He “can feel it when we are weak and hurting,” says the letter to the Hebrews, because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are. But he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIrV). Nowhere is this experience of Jesus with temptation more fully described than in the gospel account of his temptation in the wilderness. Both Matthew and Luke describe how Jesus was led out into the desert after his baptism where he confronted the devil himself.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,

and they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Matthew 4:1-10, NIV

THREE TEMPTATIONS

Let’s consider the three temptations with which Jesus was confronted. The first was to turn stones into bread. Satan’s suggestion to make bread out of stones seems plausible at first. After all, the people of Israel had been fed supernaturally in the wilderness during their forty years of wandering there. Why shouldn’t Israel’s greatest Son be likewise fed during his forty days in the wilderness? He was hungry after a lengthy fast. He needed food; there’s nothing wrong with satisfying natural and legitimate human needs. Jesus was a man, and therefore hungry. He was also the Son of God, and therefore able to do something about his hunger. So let him use his divine power to meet his human need. What could be wrong with that?

But the temptation here is for Jesus to put himself first, to use his power for himself instead of using it for others. “Think of yourself,” urged the tempter, “you deserve something. After all, how can you meet others’ needs unless your own are first met?” The same temptation came back at the very end of Jesus’ life when the crowd at Golgotha shouted, “Come down, save yourself, and we will believe! He saved others, himself he cannot save.” Exactly. Nor will Jesus serve himself. Jesus’ answer to Satan’s temptation is simple: “Man does not live by bread alone.” We do live by bread; we can’t get along without food. But not by bread alone. Our spiritual needs have priority. The most significant kind of life is not found in the satisfaction of our physical appetites; it is found in knowing God. For Jesus, that is more important than his own personal comfort.

In the second temptation Satan took Jesus to Jerusalem, perhaps only in his imagination. As he was standing on the highest part of the temple, the devil urged Jesus to throw himself down. It was 450 feet from the top of the Royal Portico of the temple to the bottom of the Kidron Valley, a sheer drop along the outer wall of the temple and the city. The point of Satan’s suggestion was to encourage Jesus to make a spectacular gesture. After all, he wouldn’t be harmed – God would see to it that he was protected. The “leap of faith” suggested by the tempter would serve as a wonderful public relations stunt. The temple was a busy place. There was sure to be a large number of spectators who would be duly amazed by the spectacle of Jesus plunging down from the pinnacle of the temple, then suddenly being borne up on angels’ wings. Satan even quoted to Jesus a Bible verse mentioning God’s promise to bear him up. Think of the effect such a sight would have! Everyone would have to believe that Jesus was the Messiah!

But I think this second temptation was also aimed at Jesus’ own mind. Satan was suggesting that he prove something, not just to the crowd, but to himself. God had made a beautiful promise in the 91st Psalm: “He shall give his angels charge over you to bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a rock.” The devil uses that claim to prompt Jesus to jump off the temple spire. (And please take note: Satan is perfectly capable of arguing from the Bible when it suits his purpose.) “Why don’t you try it out?” he suggests. “Put this promise to a practical test just to show that God really is with you.” The heart of the suggestion is to force God to prove to us both that he is real, and is really with us. Jesus rejects this suggestion with another verse: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” He refuses to test God. Jesus puts his faith in the bare word of God. He will not insult God by demanding some kind of experience to confirm either the truth of God’s promise or the reality of his presence. For Jesus, trusting God’s word is more important even than having a miracle happen in your life or experiencing an amazing deliverance from danger or death.

Then there was the third and final temptation. Here all pretense and subtlety is stripped away. It’s a straightforward deal that Satan offers: trade everything for the possession of the world. The devil took Jesus to a high mountain and showed him all the world’s glory and splendor, promising it all to him if only Jesus would bow down and worship him. One day all the kingdoms of the world would in fact belong to Christ the King. But Satan is suggesting that Jesus take these things now, the easy way. No suffering, no scorn and ridicule, no cross, no death – just worship me, he says, acknowledge me as your master, and I’ll give them all to you.

It’s a lie, of course, a double lie by the father of liars. In the first place, the kingdoms of this world are not the devil’s to give. They belong to God. Though Satan is called the prince of this world, he doesn’t really control it. He is, in Martin Luther’s colorful description, like a wild dog on a chain who thinks he owns the yard. Second, the devil’s promise to give all earthly fame and power and glory to Jesus in exchange for worshiping him is a lie because even if those things were Satan’s to give, he would never have kept his promise. The tempter never keeps any of the promises with which he so entices us. “Go ahead, you’ll enjoy it! It’s fun!” “What, that little thing – it won’t hurt you to do that!” “Why not try it; you deserve some happiness.” But it’s all lies. The world never does deliver to us the happiness and pleasure it seems to offer.

Once again Jesus’ answer is simple and straight from scripture: “Worship God alone!” He would not give to the devil what belonged only to God, not for all the world. You can usually have success in this world, if you’re willing to pay the price. But the price is always the same – to put something else ahead of the one who said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” For Jesus, simple obedience to God was more important than any kind of worldly success.

HOW TO OVERCOME TEMPTATION

Now let’s get personal. What can you do when you are facing temptation? Is there an alternative to simply giving in? Can you find the way to resist temptation? Or do you simply go on rationalizing repeated failures, or turning the whole struggle against sin into a joke? Here are a couple of points to observe about the way in which Jesus successfully resisted temptation and triumphed over Satan. First, he did this as a man. It’s important to stress this because we have a tendency to think that it was somehow easier for him to overcome temptation because he was God in human flesh. But the Bible says that it was as a human being that Jesus overcame temptation (Hebrews 4:15). We should not imagine that his battle with Satan was less strenuous or difficult than ours; if anything, it was harder. The greatest strain is carried by the column that stands, not the one that collapses. So his way of dealing with temptation can also be our way.

Secondly, Jesus triumphed by the power of the word of God, that is, through the knowledge and use of the Bible. Jesus heard a voice that made suggestions to him. How did he know whether or not to listen to it? By testing it against the Bible’s clear teaching. Jesus overcame temptation, though, not just by knowing the Bible, or even quoting from the Bible; he won finally by obeying the Bible. The first and most important step is to be clear what’s at stake here. Don’t rationalize. Don’t temporize but obey. All the passages Jesus quoted came from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy was given as a repetition of God’s law and an incentive to thorough-going obedience. Jesus gave exactly what Deuteronomy called for. Is obedience that important to us? More important than anything else? More important even than success or comfort or reassurance?

Finally, don’t forget that we have a resource for resisting temptation that even Jesus did not have. It is Jesus himself. Because he was tempted like us, says the Bible, he understands and sympathizes with us, and stands ready to help us in our time of need and weakness. You only have to ask him.