The temptations of Jesus as presented in Matthew were critical accounts to my recent liberation from a long-time sin in my life. (I recently shared with my church this story, and invite you to watch it, if you have not, in my “But God…” post.) I feel like I should lead with the summary statement right up front. Jesus Christ was tempted in every way that man is tempted and was victorious, so He provides the basis from which I can be victorious in resisting temptation.
Never has there been more evidence in my life that there is a battle going on on a spiritual level between good and evil. In those days of intense anguish, wanting so much to not do the thing I wanted to do, I could literally feel the crushing weight of combat. With tears of frustration, I would cry aloud to God the Father to help me in that moment to resist the evil one.
Spiritual warfare is not something to consider lightly, especially to those who seek to live obediently in the global command of making disciples. There is very much a spiritual world and we are involved in the war. As I faced my battle I came to a clear determination in my mind that the devil is not omnipresent as God is. Satan is created; God is Creator. Satan is subordinate; God is sovereign. I also realized that when I face temptation, it is Satan’s attack on the Kingdom of God, not just me. That’s why temptation doesn’t end when we receive Jesus’ grace. If anything, the intensity of battle has been ratcheted up a few notches. Satan lost us, and he is going to make dang sure we don’t multiply disciples according to the Word of God. That’s why it is so intense! It’s about more than just ourselves! It’s an assault on the Kingdom!
The spiritual war has high stakes. Eternity hangs in the balance, and the battle is being waged wherever the gospel has the opportunity to be preached. Which means, every tribe, tongue, and nation are subject to the war. And you and I are involved personally as soldiers for the gospel. For me, it came down to the fact that Satan was distracting me from being on the front lines of being a formidable force for the gospel. The greatest scheme of the devil is to lure away followers of Christ from gospel effectiveness without us even realizing it. In his book “Tempted and Tried,” Russell Moore likened it to cattle being led into a slaughterhouse. Here’s an excerpt from his book:
In this system the cows aren’t prodded off the truck but are led, in silence, onto a ramp. They go through a “squeeze chute,” a gentle pressure device that mimics a mother’s nuzzling touch. The cattle continue down the ramp onto a smoothly curving path. There are no sudden turns. The cows experience the sensation of going home, the same kind of way they’ve traveled so many times before.
As they mosey along the path, they don’t even notice when their hooves are no longer touching the ground. A conveyor belt slowly lifts them gently upward, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, a blunt instrument levels the surgical strike right between their eyes. They’re transitioned from livestock to meat and they’re never aware enough to be alarmed by any of it.
I knew I had to examine my life hard and take on a level of vigilance against the devil’s schemes I had never maintained. But how can I know I’m being led astray if I’m not aware that I am? A clear gospel description of the life being lived in obedience of faith unfolded itself to me as I studied the Word. It is the opposite of what the world, and regrettably many teachings in the church, say. Jesus told His followers that the more they looked like Him and obeyed Him, the more the world would stand against them. So that’s a measure. What kind of hardships do I face for my faith? Persecution is little known here in America, but there are ways in which we can and will suffer for the gospel. We don’t go looking for suffering, but we should be expecting it.
It also became clear to me that I was subconsciously using religious activities to somehow balance my sin, as if I were justifying them. That’s not too different from the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They honorably thought they were pleasing God by following a strict set of man-imposed rules (which they elevated to the same level as God’s Law). But Jesus condemned them. The scribes knew about the prophecies of the coming Messiah, yet they ignored who Jesus was while He was with them. Was I fooled into thinking practices like going to church on Sundays or attending Bible studies or giving or serving in a prescribed ministry role earned me favor with God? I never said that in so many words, but oh how deceived I was to acknowledge Christ but live my life the way I wanted. But James implores followers of Jesus:
But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)
This is the subtle battleground where Satan wages his war. And it’s a pattern that we must recognize and understand if we are to avoid. So I’d like to recount some of the teachings I learned during my time dealing with the sin in my life. The path of temptation always starts with the question of identity. Whether you think too highly of yourself or too lowly, as long as you are focused on your present circumstances instead of the eternal picture, he will have his entryway. This is why people are able to agree with one thing but do another. (For example, “I believe sexual immorality is wrong. But I will watch movies with openly sexual graphics. Or I think it’s okay to have sex with my girlfriend now because we are going to be married.”) Paul, in Romans, outlines the process. First we practice a thing even though we know that those who do deserve to die. Then we begin to give approval to those who practice them. We have to remember who we are in Christ. A very simple and powerful question I ask before a choice I am battling with is this: will I honor Christ with this choice or am I crucifying Him again?
With our identity in a state of flux, our desires then become conflicted. James says we are enticed by our own evil desires. So make no mistake about it: God does not tempt you. Tempting has as its goal evil work. God only accomplishes good. God allows for testing to come in our lives to build our character to look more like Jesus and give glory to Himself when we make the right choice. This is the purpose to which all things work together, in the well-known Romans 8:28 verse. God intends for good what Satan intends for evil. God, the Sovereign One, allows Satan, the subordinate one, to tempt us as a matter of testing us. Desires build up slow and steady, driven by each of our unique personalities. But God is able to change our desires to His desires if we live in obedient faith to His Word. That’s why it is so important for us to all individually invest time and effort into studying this Word for ourselves!
Temptation progresses into a concealment of the future. We are so easily able to put consequences out of our mind, whether temporal or eternal. Not only are the evil spiritual forces willing to point us to what we desire, but they help us cover it up, fueling our repetition. All the while, our relationship with the entirety of the Triune God is damaged. The conscious choice of sin destroys our connection with the Father (Isaiah 59:2), it re-crucifies Jesus (Hebrews 10:26), and it grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). Our gospel effectiveness is destroyed and the kingdom of God is stifled through us.
…but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. -Isaiah 59:2
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins… -Hebrews 10:26
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. -Ephesians 4:30
[For further insight into how I believe our choices of entertainment are among the most deceptive in killing our God-given purposes, read my former post “A Recipe for Frog Soup”.]
Temptation is an assault on our claim as children of God. When we commit sin, we reject Him as God the Father, who only wants what is best for us and detests that which destroys us. The suffering we endure as followers of Jesus aligns us to be conformed to His image (Romans 8:17) because it is suffering that He endured. But there’s hope in Him as we face being led to the slaughter like sheep. For we are made to be “more than conquerers through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:36-37) And we should expect no less than what Jesus endured and was yet victorious over.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. -1 Peter 2:21-22
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. -1 Peter 4:12-14
In the next post, I’ll explore what God made alive to me in the account of Jesus facing temptations.