Can Temptations Improve Us?
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 4:1a Holman Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit. . .
For Jesus, Heaven opening above was followed by Hell opening beneath (Hutchings in B.I.). At Jesus’ baptism, we enjoyed John the Baptist, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit. Now we will endure the devil.
At the Jordan, Jesus received the blessing of Heaven from the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus received the blessing of Earth from its heretofore-greatest citizen, John. Having been blessed by Heaven and Earth, Jesus now fought an evil one from the third realm of existence, the under-world.
This story will prove to us how despicable Satan is. By trying to derail redemption, he proved he wants us all to go to Hell. Satan heard the Father’s voice in the Jordan. He knew Jesus was God’s beloved Son, yet had the gall to attack Him anyway. Evil always foolishly thinks it can outdo God.
Sinners hear warnings about sin, but convince themselves they can get away with theirs. Thinking they are smarter than others, they brazenly march into sin, only to learn no one sins without punishment. Do not think you will outsmart God on any sin. No one has ever done that. “Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap” (GL 6:7).
Jesus’ Wilderness temptation provides us one of the most intimate looks into the life of Jesus we have. Since He was alone in the Wilderness, only He could have shared the details of His monumental hand-to-hand combat against Satan. This story capsulizes His spiritual autobiography. It is an intense microcosm of His lifelong duel against the king of evil.
After His wonderful coronation at the Jordan, Jesus headed off to do His Father’s work, and had to begin His public ministry with a battle. The first lesson He learned was; spiritual work is a conflict against a real live enemy. To please God, we will have to displease a roaring lion named Satan.
Why did the Father and the Holy Spirit, though knowing in advance the outcome, lead Jesus into agonizing warfare? For at least two reasons.
One, Jesus had to teach us how to live by faith. His struggle here is in essence the same warfare we His followers are all engaged in. His victory points the way to our victory: trust the Father and depend on the Holy Spirit.
Two, Jesus had to take the initiative. Having to attack, Jesus invaded territory that had been usurped by another millennia before. The Spirit that descended like a dove made Jesus bold like a lion. He had to fight a kingdom long entrenched in rebellion. If you think this invasion was not a huge deal to Satan, consider how we would feel if the Mound-dwellers, who lived in North America for 5000 years, invaded us to take our lands from us. This is what Jesus was doing here. He had to win a victory on the offense.
Matt. 4:1b . . .into the wilderness to be tempted. . .
Jesus went to be tempted; some say tried. The root word means both. The result can be good or bad. The crowning lesson for us in this story about Jesus being tempted is; God leads us into situations that, when handled right, improve us. God cannot tempt us to do evil, but He does let us enter places where we will be tempted. Temptation is a fork in the road, forcing us to choose one of two paths, the downward as proposed by Satan, or the upward as offered by God. God’s plan for us is to use these situations for our good.
Till we reach Heaven, we never stop being tempted. God had one Son without sin, but never one without temptation. How could Jesus, who was full of the Holy Spirit, be tempted? Because the Spirit is given to prepare us for conflict, not leisure. Expect temptation, no matter how close to God we are. As pilgrims in an alien land, expect rough bumps on the road to Heaven.
Being baptized believers does not spare us temptation. Jerome said our baptism does not drown the devil. Our frustration is magnified by our never standing on a victor’s stand; we can never pause long enough to receive the medal. When we win a clear victory, other battles rage at the same moment, keeping us from basking in the glow of one victory very long.
Fortunately, there is no sin in temptation. Unfortunately, Christians often feel too ashamed to tell others they are going through temptation.
Our tendency is to cover up our battles with temptation, but this is no time to hide. Solitude makes it worse. Don’t seclude yourself and withdraw. Lambs that are alone are the sheep most vulnerable to the roaring lion.
Share your struggles with others. A good cry, and a frank talk with a fellow believer can work wonders. Relationships matter. God, as a Trinity, has since time immemorial lived in relationship. We are to do the same.
Though we wish otherwise, there is no way to escape never-ending fiery testing from the devil. Jesus did not choose this trial. God put Him in this crucible. We don’t have to go looking for temptation. It will find us.
Don’t try to show how strong you are. Our faith has only one Hero. Alcoholics often return to drink to prove they are strong enough to beat it.
Don’t rebel or chafe under long-term temptations. Let them do God’s intended work. Temptation humbles us. This is why our victories are usually followed by intense battles against temptation. The height of the victory often predicts the depth of the ensuing trough. We need this aggravation. Temptations reveal our weakness to us, and remind us what we are made of. Without trouble after victory, we would find humility harder to come by.
David was anointed king by Samuel, only to be hunted like a partridge by Saul. Israel celebrated surviving the death angel; then Pharaoh pursued them. Hezekiah observed a wonderful Passover; then King Sennacherib attacked. Paul talked about the abundance of his revelations, and about entering third Heaven. He then spoke of his thorn in the flesh (2 C 12:7).
Temptation can make us stronger. As muscles are developed by exercise, even so we are strengthened by learning how much of God’s power is available to us. Temptations overcome prepare for bigger tests. Luther said he always went through a terrible spiritual struggle before every big task he did. This temptation of Jesus was an after and a before. It followed His baptism, and preceded the beginning of His preaching ministry. Don’t quit too soon. The assault may mean we are on the cusp of something great.
Sometimes we are tempted so that we can later help others who face the same temptations. I’m not as good at helping people who doubt their salvation as I am with those battling depression, and working too much.
We are tempted in order to give us trophies of victories. Samuel marked a great victory with “a stone of help”, an Ebenezer. We are meant to have trophies. Overcoming temptations gives us victory markers on the way. Trophies rouse our watchfulness, and remind us to go solely to God for help.
We are tempted in order to prove God is stronger than Satan. The Holy Spirit gains huge glory in our victories. We honor Him when we win.
Now the profound question: Could Jesus have fallen? No. He was God. But He succeeded due not to His deity, but to His 100% dependence on the Holy Spirit, the same power we have at our disposal (see notes at 3:17).
Does His being God mean His temptation was bogus, make-believe, not real, not helpful for us? Is Hebrews 4:15 not true, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin”? We do not know, nor can we conceive, how vicious this Wilderness battle was. Jesus and Satan were not shadow boxing. Yielding is not what makes temptation real.
Jesus’ temptation was much worse than you and I will ever face. Which is harder, temptation yielded to, or temptation resisted? Ask anyone who has ever had delirium tremens, or gone through a drug withdrawal, or tried not to overeat. Ken Ragsdale used to say there were dieting days when he wanted to eat the doorknob. The battle against evil is its worst in the resisting of, not in the yielding to, temptation. When Jesus won this fiery, intense temptation, He proved He was what He claimed to be, God’s Son.