About six years ago, in a conversation about temptation and testing, a family member asked me, “How do you know when something is a temptation and when it is a test?” I responded, “It is a temptation when it wants to turn you away from God and a test when it is to strengthen your faith.” However, my understanding about temptation was sketchy, until a few weeks ago when the Holy Spirit used James 1:12-17 to show me key components of temptation. Additionally, the Holy Spirit showed me how desire and temptation relate to events in the lives of Jesus and Adam and Eve, climaxes on which the fate of every man, woman, and child rested. As I share my understanding, I hope you, too, will gain a better understanding of what a temptation is. Keeping in mind that whether we are experiencing a temptation or a test, our goal is to follow God, so that we will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love Him.
Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (Jas 1:12-17 NKJV; See 1Cor 10:13, 2Pt 2:9).
Temptation, by nature, is evil (Jas 1:13), and we must resist it (Jas 1:12). We are experiencing temptation when our own desires are trying to draw us away and entice us to do whatever it takes to satisfy them (Jas 1:14-15). It is God that our own desires are trying to draw us away from, and we should not be deceived, believing that these desires are coming from God (Jas 1:13, 17), who gives us only good and perfect gifts (Jas 1:17). For God to change and no longer give us good and perfect gifts, someone or something would have to be tempting Him with evil, but God cannot be tempted by evil, and He does not change (Jas 1:13, 17). Who, then, is behind temptation? What role did desire and temptation have in the events in the Garden of Eden. Especially since, James 1:14-15 apply to everyone, but they did not start with you and me, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”
The Bible says Eve was deceived and became a sinner (2Cor. 11:3 NKJV; 1Tim 2:14 NIV). The cunning serpent (Mt 4:1; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2; 1Cor 7:5; 1Thes 3:5; Rev 12:9) had made her believe a lie was truth, and she had eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree in the midst of the Garden (Gen 2:16-17; 3:13). By default, Eve had received the same commandment God had given to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17; 3:2-3). Both Adam and Eve believed God. They had never attempted to eat the forbidden fruit, until the serpent came and told Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5, 22). That caused something to happen to Eve, desire conceived in her to have what she had just heard about. Her own desire, not God’s desire for her, began to take shape, drawing her away, and the forbidden fruit became enticing. As the desire swelled up in her, filling her, she moved farther and farther away from believing God’s command to believing the serpent’s lie that she would not die. She began thinking less and less about her sincere and pure devotion to God (cf. 2Co.11:3), and more and more about herself and the forbidden fruit as a harmless way to satisfy her desire. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat” (Gen 3:6; Jas 1:14-15). Convinced that this was a good thing, she then “gave also unto her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6). To the loss of the entire human race, deceived and tempted, Eve pursued her own desire and became the first person to sin. What was it like for Adam?
Adam was present while Eve had been experiencing deception and temptation (Gen 3:6, Jas 1:14-15), but “Adam was not deceived” (1Tim 2:14). He did not believe the serpent’s lie that Eve would not die if she ate the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6). He still believed God; they would both die if they ate the fruit. He ate it, anyway. Knowing he would die, why, then, did Adam listen to Eve (Gen 3:17) and eat the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6)? He listened, and he ate, because of what he had just learned, too, “God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5, 22). Like Eve, desire conceived in him to have what he had just learned about. Like Eve, he, too, was tempted, "drawn away by his own desires and enticed" (Jas 1: 14). Unlike Eve, however, who believed she could satisfy her desire without dying, Adam, knowing he would die, disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, because he was willing to die to satisfy his own desire.
Ultimately, “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9) was able to draw them away from God because of their own desires, which they wanted to satisfy. God had already made them in the likeness and image of God (Gen 1:26, 27), and given them good gifts (Gen 1). In His wisdom and sovereignty, He had kept back the knowledge of good and evil from them (Gen 2:16-17), particularly, evil, since they were already enjoying good. Still, they desired more, and they got their desire. “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Gen 3:22). Unfortunately, they lost the best things, such as a good relationship with God (Gen 3:7-10, 16-19, 24). In retrospect, Eve and Adam were equally guilty of sin, for though Eve was deceived, yielded to temptation first, and became a sinner, Adam willingly disobeyed a command, yielded to temptation, and became a sinner. Together, they both gave birth to sin and brought death (Jas 1:14-15) into the world. The world now needed a Savior to draw us back to God (2Tim 1:10).
Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man (Mt 9:6; Mk 1:1; 15:39; Lk 1:35; 22:70; Jn 1:24, 49; 10:36; 2Tim 1:10), is described as the last Adam (1Co 15:45). He is the Savior of the world (Jn 1:29; 1Jn 4:14), the only One appointed to bring us back to God (Jn 3:16-17; See Rom 5:12-21; Heb 10:9). Just as the devil instigated the temptation and fall of the first Adam, he also wanted to do the same with Jesus, according to the events recorded in Matthew 4, and other passages. The devil began his first attempt to tempt Jesus when he tried to use Jesus’ natural desire for food against Him. “And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’ Jesus responded, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:2-4; Mk 1:12, 13; Lk 4:1-4). Confronted by the devil, from Jesus’ response, it was clear that He trusted the Word of God to sustain Him. Yet, this event was not about Jesus being hungry; it was about the devil seeking authority over Jesus through His desires. This would happen if, by his suggestion, desire conceived in Jesus, a self-serving desire (Jas 3:16 NIV) to show the devil that He is the Son of God. Then, rejecting the Word of God to sustain Him through everything, Jesus would be enticed by the idea of turning stones into bread, and He would yield to temptation, giving birth to sin, in His life. Contrary to the devil’s expectations, this never happened. Jesus was not tempted! Jesus showed no indication of being “drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas 1:14). Instead, He showed that He was spiritually strong, able to withstand the devil's instigations, in the midst of being physically weak from hunger and having the ability to turn stones into bread.
The next time the devil tried to tempt Jesus, he “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’” (Mt 4:5-7; Luke 4:9–12 NIV). The devil’s intention is the same as before; he was seeking authority over Jesus through Jesus’ desires. He wanted an evil, self-serving desire (Jas 3:16) to conceive in Jesus to show him that He is the Son of God. Then, enticed to believe that God would not let any harm come to Him, Jesus would disobey the command not to test God (De 6:16), and throw Himself off the highest point of the temple. With this irresponsible act, Jesus would give birth to sin in His life. Fortunately, Jesus showed no indication that He was experiencing temptation, being “drawn away by his own desires and enticed (Jas 1:14).” In comparison, whereas, the first Adam had wanted to be like God, Jesus knew He Himself was equal to God, but He had made Himself nothing (Php 2:3-7; Jn 10:30, 36), so that in His humanity, through obedience, He could satisfy the will of God.
The devil made a third attempt to tempt Jesus. “Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ Then the devil left Him” (Mt 4:8-11; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:5–8, 13). This attempt was also unsuccessful, and it shows why the devil wanted authority over Jesus. Driven by his ongoing desire to be like the Most High (Isa 14:14), the devil wanted to be worshiped. Instead, what he received from Jesus was a firm chasing away. Jesus, the Son of man, who had nowhere to lay His head (Mt 8:20) was not tempted by worldly things. He was not “drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas 1:14).
These events in Matthew 4, and other similar passages, are described as the Temptation of Jesus, because “Jesus was led up by the Spirit in the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1 NKJV). From the perspective of James 1:14-15, however, a careful review of these events makes it obvious that what the devil intended and what actually happened to Jesus are different things. Jesus was never tempted, not even for a moment! He showed no signs of being “drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jas 1:14). Notwithstanding, the Scriptures explicitly teach that Jesus was tempted, and He resisted temptation. Exactly where and when did Jesus experience and resist temptation?
Later, in his persistence to reach his goal, the devil had even tried to tempt Jesus through Peter, one of the disciples (Mk 8:33). Again, he was unsuccessful. Clearly, that, too, was not the place and time of Jesus’ temptation referred to in Hebrews, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15; NIV). The only place and time Jesus showed signs of temptation and resistance was in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there” (Mt. 26:36; Mk 14:32; Jn 18:1). In Gethsemane, we hear Him expressing His own desire, in prayer, for His Father to take the cup from Him, “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, 'everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will'” (Mk 14:35-36 NIV). As the hour drew closer and closer for Him to go to the cross, to take the punishment for the sins of the world, He “began to be deeply distressed and troubled." 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death' (Mk 14:33-35 NIV). When He said to His disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk.14:38 NIV), He meant it for Himself, too. He prayed so hard not to give in to temptation, His own desire to have the hour and the cup pass from Him, that Luke says, “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk 22:44 NKJV). In His humanness, the ordeal was losing its appeal, but He meant it when He prayed, “‘Abba, Father’…‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mk 14:36). He had shared some of what He was feeling with His disciples, but they had fallen asleep, instead of supporting Him in prayer, “They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch….’ Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Simon,’ he said to Peter, ‘are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?’” ((Mk 14:32-34, 37, 39, 41 NIV). He stayed in the garden, praying to resist temptation, until the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, and others came to arrest Him, “The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Mk 14: 41-42).
The first Adam did not resist temptation. He was willing to die to satisfy his own desire, so he disobeyed a command and brought sin and death upon everyone. The last Adam, Jesus, resisted temptation. He was willing to die to satisfy His Father’s will to save the world; His obedience brought back fellowship with God and life to the human race (Jn 3:16-17; 17:2-3). Jesus resisted the temptation to yield to the desire of the flesh and walk away from the torment of the cross, even though He was in a body that our fore parents, at the instigation of the tempter, had weakened with sin.
May we all recognize temptation when it comes in our lives, and may we look to Jesus to help us, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18).