When we encounter the passages presented in the gospel regarding Jesus’ temptations (which can not only be found in Matthew 4:1-11, but also Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13), one of the first questions that probably spring to mind is “could Jesus have even sinned?” He’s God after all. Holy and perfect and incapable of evil or sin. In the sense of His divine nature, no, He could not have sinned. Yet, Jesus is also fully man. So yes, he was fully tempted. His human and divine natures are distinct yet united. (Take a look back at my 4-part Incarnation study for further insight into Jesus’ nature as both God and man.) So in His humanity, Jesus was tempted in every way we are, and in His divinity He was not tempted.
David Platt, in a sermon on temptation, likened it this way. If someone asked you to point out someone you love then posed the question, “could you murder that person?” you would emphatically answer “no!” Morally speaking you could do no such thing. Yet the question really has two meanings. Physically, yes, you can absolutely commit the act. Inasmuch,
“…Jesus, in His deity…could not have sinned. He is morally incapable of such an action. Yet at the same time, Jesus could have sinned in the sense that He was physically capable of eating bread or throwing Himself off a temple or bowing the knee to Satan.”
The temptations we face are nothing new. All temptations are common to man, as 1 Corinthians 10:13 states:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. -1 Corinthians 10:13a
Sure, we’ve devised new ways of surrendering to old temptations. But we will be tempted no differently than Jesus was in the desert in those days because He was tempted in every way that we are. The core to all temptation is the casting off of God as Father. We see this in the methods Satan used against Jesus. And there are three frontiers upon which all temptation falls. And here they are: we are tempted to provide for ourselves, protect ourselves, and exalt ourselves. Let’s look at each of these.
Providing for ourselves has at its inherit temptation, the desire to fulfill our wants apart from God’s will. God is a good Father who satisfies any desires we have. The problem is, Satan is working in those areas of want. So we are going to either trust that Jesus satisfies and is sufficient or we are going to find our own way and not be led into delight, but destruction. Satan presented Jesus with the opportunity to do something about His intense hunger from His 40 days of fasting. I can’t imagine going without food for that long! I get cranky when I go much longer than four hours! But He knew the words of the Father that the bread of demons destroys. The bread that fills the stomach would not last, but the daily bread of God’s Word would endure.
The fact is people turn to substances (legal or illegal), self-help, therapies, entertainments, and all other manner of substitutions, and they will never be satisfied apart from God’s will. In my battle against sin, I finally decided one day that I simply wanted Jesus more than I wanted to fulfill my own desires, however good they made me feel. I had made it so complicated with all my “yah, but God, it’s just that…” justifications and it really came down to simply that. I chose to devote time to the discipline of Bible study and God was faithful to reward me. He showed me His goodness in His Word and I knew I could never want anything else! Jesus Christ is sufficient for me, and while I’ll potentially always struggle to want that which is not in God’s will, I will not choose it over the good that God gives. That is, God may never see fit to free me from my weakness, but I at last believe and trust that He has enabled me to fight it. Just the small taste of His goodness whetted my appetite for more. It’s giving up the mud pies in the slums for the paradise that awaits (paraphrased from C.S. Lewis). Urges may tempt me, but I choose to let them drive me to prayer and Scripture and God Himself.
We are also tempted to protect ourselves. Satan had taken Jesus to the top of the temple. He even used the Word to manipulate Jesus. Satan knows Scripture! So do we! But what’s the difference? It’s hearing vs. doing. (James 2:19) But Jesus was faithful! He knew Satan’s lies because He was that in-tune with the Father. He knew not to put God to the test in such a way. And this is the heart of the temptation. Self-protection is a lack of trust in God. We cause ourselves to question His inherent presence in our lives and what He really says in His Word. Satan was attempting to make Jesus test God’s protection. But Jesus’ faith did not require such a test because He had complete faith and trust in His Father.
The first sin was committed because Satan twisted God’s words to Adam. Be so wary when the question arises “does God really say?”. In our societal pressures of tolerance and universalism, we would do well to remember that Scripture says the way is narrow that leads to life. I believe it is much more narrow than any of us really care to think about. Few walk that road, so when we find ourselves in the popular majority of the world’s opinion, let it be a red flag. We must search the Word, ask the Spirit for wisdom, and let Him do His work, if we are humble enough to lay aside our political and social agendas. We are tempted to question, twist, doubt, ask for signs, and complain, even though God has given us every reason to completely trust Him by sacrificing His Son. When we remain in spiritual infancy, our faith wavers with our circumstances and we develop the attitude of “what has God done for me lately?” But when we understand Jesus because we’ve invested time in the Word for ourselves, we can rest and not worry in His unshakeable, sovereign security.
Exalting ourselves, the third form of temptation, is an issue of pride. Jesus was tempted to receive his reward right then and there, apart from the path the Father had planned for Him. This was probably pretty enticing considering where Jesus was headed, and given the insight we get to the anguish He expressed over it (in the Garden of Gethsemane). He had the choice of receiving His glory by the path of suffering that His Father had before Him, or the easy way Satan offered, if He’d just bow His knee to him. Jesus was presented the choice for right-now gratification in place of eternal glorification. To choose gratification is a dually damning choice. Asserting ourselves means we are taking from God His worship. Lifting ourselves; lowering God. Doubly destructive.
We can take all the accomplishments, pleasures, and possessions now in an instant gratification world, and the Bible is very clear that that will be all we get. Or we can heed Jesus’ words that the first will be last, and the last will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told His followers, as recorded in Luke 9:23:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
In following Jesus Christ, we have willingly abandoned our rights for the better will of God. We are humble because we know we have nothing to bring to the table to make us right. God did it all. So we set a blank check before us to give to Him. Our lives to do as He wills for the spread of the gospel. The exaltation of His name, not our own.
We can triumph over temptation through Him. This was the greatest truth God showed me from this passage. My weaknesses become an asset that I may use to rely on Him and be content in all circumstances.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. -2 Corinthians 12:9-10
We have the hope of Satan’s defeat and the assurance that the Church will be victorious in the war of the Kingdom: the exaltation of God by every tribe, tongue, and nation. Jesus showed his qualification to be King in His victory over Satan. Being tempted in every way common to man, He remained obedient to God and became the sacrifice for all sin. Adam failed; one man’s sin condemned all. Jesus won; one man’s sacrifice made recompense for all sin. Hebrews 2:17-18 tells us why Jesus is not only the example, but the basis of claiming victory in our own lives through Him:
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation of the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
We do not have to be like the cattle being led into the slaughterhouse. The Word does say that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability.
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. -1 Corinthians 10:13
Oh how I wrestled with that verse, not seeing any evidence of its truth in the suffering I endured in the battle. I thought I had no way of escape and if God did not remove it from me, I would not last much longer, but be lost to it forever. But a wise pastor told me to see the difference in my expectation. God said He would open the door, but I have to choose to walk through it.