Have you seen the advertisement for products that help you quit smoking? There seem to be quite a lot of them lately. I noticed one of them that has a disclaimer at the bottom which says, “to be used with will power.” I thought that was ironic because the problem in the first place is the lack of will power, the powerful temptation to smoke, a temptation so strong that many people can’t overcome it.
Of course, smoking is not the only addiction that people have which needs to be dealt with. Now after Christmas, diet ads, exercise ads all appeal to people’s guilt for eating too much at Christmas.
These things reveal the fundamental problem that people face temptations that are very difficult to overcome. In fact, all of us face temptations that we find very difficult to overcome. A survey of Discipleship Journal readers ranked areas of greatest spiritual challenge - or temptations - to them:
5. (Tie) Anger/Bitterness
5. (Tie) Sexual lust.
How can we win over temptation? We read Luke 4 which is the story of Jesus’ temptations. As we read of His temptations, we can learn about the nature of temptation and also about how we can overcome temptations. We can be encouraged that God understands the struggles we face with our temptations.
It may be hard for us to believe that Jesus faced temptation. Wasn’t He the Son of God? This passage is included in the gospels to remind us that although Jesus was God, he was also fully human and as a human being, he experienced temptation just as we do.
While full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and during that time, the text says that the devil tempted Jesus. Verse 2 indicates that the temptations occurred during the whole time. We don’t know exactly how it happened. Did the temptations repeat themselves? Were they a constant and growing difficulty? In Matthew, it seems that the temptations came at the end of the 40 days.
There were three temptations that Satan threw at Jesus. The first temptation had to do with turning stone into bread. At this point, Jesus was hungry and the enticement of the devil spoke to a need he had.
The second temptation seems to take place in a vision. There is no place that you can go to see all of the earth, but perhaps on a height of land, a vision took place that allowed Jesus to see all the lands. The temptation was to receive all the kingdoms of the earth, by simply bowing down and worshipping Satan.
The third temptation was a temptation for Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. The location of this place is usually used to refer to the royal colonnade of the temple on the south side, which overlooked a deep ravine. It was a temptation to see if the angels would come and help him.
At the end of the temptations, we read that “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. This suggests that these were not the last temptations of Jesus. Jesus continued to be tempted (or tested) by questions from the Jewish leaders (e.g., Mt. 19:3; 22:15–18; Lk. 11:53f), especially by their demands for signs (e.g., Mt. 12:38; 16:1; Lk. 11:16). He was tested also by His brothers (Jn. 7:2–5) and by the crowd that wanted to take Him by force and make Him king (6:15). In the garden He struggled against the temptation to avoid the crucifixion, to the extent that “his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Lk. 22:44), and on the cross He endured His tormentors’ derisive cry, “He saved others; he cannot save himself … let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Mt. 27:42).
Sometimes we might think that because Jesus was God these temptations were simply a formality and were not real temptations. The evidence of the temptations, especially the fact that he “sweat drops of blood,” would suggest otherwise. We might also think that his temptations were not all that real for him because he never yielded to them. But someone has written, “Against the objection that if Jesus was sinless He could not have experienced real temptation, we may doubt the assumption that if a man does not commit certain sins, it must be because he has never felt the appeal of them. The man who yields to a specific temptation’s pull has not felt its full power. He has given way to it while the temptation had yet (so to speak) something in reserve.”
So the temptations which Jesus faced are for our encouragement. He faced them, He understands what it means to be tempted and He understands the full power of temptation. Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” When we face temptations, let us remember that Jesus understands what we are going through and let us look to him for help.
Since Jesus understands our temptations, His experience in Luke 4 can help us as we face them. The first step in overcoming temptation is to understand the nature of temptation.
The first thing we notice about these temptations is that they occurred after Jesus had fasted for 40 days and nights. They came to him at a time of weakness. The temptation to make stones into bread came when Jesus had not eaten for 40 days and nights.
This is often true for us as well. Earlier I mentioned a survey of temptations which people struggle with most. That same survey discovered that “…temptations were more potent when people had neglected their time with God (81 percent) and when they were physically tired (57 percent).” -- Discipleship Journal, 11-12/92. "To Verify," Leadership.
One of the greatest helps in overcoming temptations is to discover when they come. If we would keep a journal, we would soon find out when we are most susceptible to temptation. Is it after we have had a hard week? Is it when we have not had enough sleep? Is it when we have been discouraged? Perhaps after a week of constant meetings and dealing with people, you come home and all you want to do is sit back and watch TV. You feel, perhaps rightly so, “I deserve a break.” As you sit there, you are not discerning and you watch what is not good for you to watch. Temptation has come when you are weak.
One of the first things we can do to gain victory over temptation is to find out when our times of vulnerability occur. Knowing that will then allow us to find ways of compensating for those times of weakness and making sure that we are out of harms way at those times of vulnerability. If, as in the illustration above, we are tired and feel we deserve a break, we need to find other ways of meeting the need for appropriate rest and relaxation. To be forewarned when a time of weakness is upon us, is to be forearmed and allows us to be particularly vigilant in resisting temptation at those times.
Another thing to understand about our temptations is that they appeal to a need in us. We see how this was the case in Jesus’ temptations. There is no doubt that Jesus needed food. It was the life purpose of Jesus to win back the kingdoms of the world and he would live his entire life in confidence of God’s protection and care. These were needs that he had and the temptations of Satan enticed him in the area of those needs.
When Satan tempted Jesus to make bread out of stones, the need that that temptation was to fulfill was pretty obvious - Jesus was hungry. Often our temptations cater to a pretty real need. When a young girl is neglected by parents, it is not surprising that she is promiscuous, she is looking for love.
Often, however, the need we are trying to cover with a particular temptation is not so obvious. Why does a person need 4 or 5 beers? I doubt very much if he is thirsty. Why does a person need to finish a bag of cookies? Hunger is not the obvious need. What are the needs or desires that are being covered…is it a need for excitement, for love, for fulfillment, to cover boredom? The temptation offers a short cut way of fulfilling that deep need.
As we examine our temptations, we need to look deeply at the need we are trying to fulfill and discover better ways of fulfilling those needs.
Of course, it goes deeper than that. At their core, temptations are directed at fulfilling legitimate needs that we have apart from God and his way. R. H. Stewart has observed, “The whole effort-the object of-temptation is to induce us to substitute something else for God. To obscure God.”
The answers which Jesus gave to Satan indicate that this was the direction of his temptations.
The first temptation of Jesus had to do with making stones into bread. What was the direction of the temptation? Jesus’ answer tells us what it was all about. He replied, “man does not live by bread alone.” What was he saying? The essence of the temptation was to desire something more than he desired God. As much as he needed bread, as much as he had to eat, he knew that there was something more important than satisfying his needs and that was being satisfied in God.
Many of our temptations come in this direction. We think we need food, or comfort, or satisfaction of some kind. What we need more than anything else is God and to desire something more than we desire God represents a temptation.
The power of this lesson is seen in the context in which this temptation comes. After 40 days of not eating, the most natural thing that Jesus needed was food. He had a desire for it, he had a need for it and in fact, he had a right to it. The fact that he refused food at this point in favor of desiring God shows the extent to which this truth needs to be taken.
We live in a pampered society and we think that there are all kinds of things that we need and have a right to - we need to eat, we have a right to rest at the proper times and so on. We desire, need and want these things, but more than anything else, we need God. Whenever we desire something more than we desire God, we yield to a temptation that gets us off track.
The second temptation was that Jesus would receive the kingdoms of the earth by simply falling down and worshipping Satan. Once again the true direction of this temptation is seen in Jesus’ response. He says, “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” This temptation enticed Jesus to worship something other than God. Jesus was being invited to give the devil what properly belongs only to God.
How often we face this temptation! There are a lot of ways in which we give other things the attention and love that belong rightfully to God. One way of testing our heart in this is in our use of time. What is it that occupies our time? How does that compare with the time we give to God? If we say that we don’t have time to have devotions, but spend 3 or 4 hours watching TV, what does that say about the place we give to God? If we say we don’t have time to go to do service for God, but we have no problem spending 2 or 3 hours at a hockey game, football game or concert, what does that say about what we truly love.
Satan’s goal has always been to replace God as the object of worship. Many of our temptations, like the one Jesus faced here, was to worship something other than God.
The third temptation is intriguing and a lot of interpretations have been suggested. Some have suggested that what Jesus was tempted to do was fall off the temple and then at the last minute kind of swoop up and not hurt himself, or have angels catch him and allow all the people in the temple area to see him and be impressed with him. I don’t think that that is a very accurate interpretation. Once again, the answer of Jesus to Satan’s temptation shows what was really at issue in this temptation. The issue was putting God to the test. God had indeed promised that he would protect his people, as the devil quoted from Psalm 91:11,12. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was going to have to rely on that protection of God. In the very next section, there is a “falling off the temple” kind of situation. The people of Nazareth were going to push Jesus off a cliff, but Jesus walked right through them to safety. God protected him in a miraculous way. Without this kind of a promise of protection, Jesus would not have made it. But Satan’s suggestion was causing Jesus to face the temptation - would God really help him when needed? If Jesus would have fallen off the temple to see if God would really do it, that would be to test God. It would demonstrate that Jesus did not really trust God.
True faith trusts God and no matter what comes into life, it clings to God. If we foolishly put ourselves into a place where God is forced to come help us and if we think that if He does not, we will not believe in him, that is putting God to the test. Anytime we try to “prove the truth of God’s promise by putting it to the test” we fall into this temptation.
I have had a pretty good life, but when I listen to the news, I wonder about the things that could happen and wonder if God will help me in them. Recently my second cousin who was two years younger than I died of a heart attack. Over the holidays, several young people were killed in accidents. I am not immune to these things and I wonder if God will sustain me when the time comes. If we set up a test to see if God is faithful, we sin by putting God to the test. We show that we need a demonstration of His faithfulness before we really need it. The life of faith is not a life of testing God, but of trusting Him when the need arises.
These are the ways in which Jesus faced temptation and we face similar temptations. Being aware of these temptations and their direction can help us overcome them.
The other thing we need to be aware of is how deceptive Satan can be.
The deception of Satan is seen in his use of Scripture to try to tempt Jesus. How can we ever resist temptation when Satan will even use Scripture to deceive us. The very great danger of the tempter is further seen in II Corinthians 11:14 which says, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”
Donald MacLeod writes, “If Satan dared to use Scripture for the temptation of our Lord, he will not scruple to use it for the delusion of men.”
Recognizing the power of temptation and the deceptiveness of Satan, how can we win that battle? Erwin W. Lutzer says, “Temptation is not a sin; it is a call to battle.” The example of Jesus helps us know how to gain victory.
The most obvious answer is that Jesus used Scripture to answer the temptations. Satan is a liar. The only weapon at his disposal is lies. About 25 years ago there was a country music song, “Heaven’s just a sin away.” That is a lie! When Satan says that you need this now, he is lying. When he tells you to give up because God won’t help, he is lying. When he says that something is better than God, he is lying.
The only way to defeat Satan is to know the truth. Jesus said in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.” By knowing the truth of God, we can overcome the lies of Satan. By using Scripture, Jesus defeated the lies of Satan with the truth of God.
It is worth noting, however, that we cannot simply know verses of the Bible. As good as it is to memorize Scripture, and I affirm that, we must do more. If we only memorize Scripture, we will be in danger of wresting verses out of context. Jesus used verses that fit and that spoke directly to the issue because He was familiar with the tenor of Scripture. At times, there is not a specific verse that speaks to our issue. At times like that, if we are immersed in Scripture, we can answer to the temptation by understanding the way in which God speaks because we will know God.
George Muller said, “It is a common temptation of Satan to make us give up the reading of the Word and prayer when our enjoyment is gone; as if it were of no use to read the scriptures when we do not enjoy them, and as if it were no use to pray when we have no spirit of prayer. The truth is that, in order to enjoy the Word, we ought to continue to read it, and the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying. The less we read the Word of God, the less we desire to read it, and the less we pray, the less we desire to pray.” If we are serious about overcoming temptation, we must know God’s truth well.
It is very interesting that all the verses Jesus used were from Deuteronomy 6 and 8 and come from a time in the history of Israel when they were being tested in the wilderness. In all their testing, they failed because they chose to disobey God.
What is evident is that the heart of Jesus was different. He had a heart to obey.
Have you ever put yourself in the place of temptation? You don’t want to disobey God directly, but you want the temptation. You put yourself in a place of temptation so that you will get to the place where you feel you can’t do anything but yield and then you yield. It is evident with such an attitude that we really don’t want to obey.
Victory over temptation will come when unlike Israel but like Jesus, we desire obedience more than anything else. Jesus did not win over Satan because he had better arguments. He won over the temptations because he desired obedience.
Francois Fenelon helps us when he says, “We are not masters of our own feeling, but we are by God's grace masters of our consent.” Do we desire obedience?
Is there anyone here who does not face temptation? As long as we are on this earth, we will face these struggles - but there is hope.
Jesus knows the power of the temptations we face because He faced them.
There are things we can do - those things we have examined this morning - in order to gain a victory over temptation. Let us study God’s Word, let us discover our own life patterns and let us look to the Holy Spirit to give us victory.
Finally, the message of the gospel is a message of forgiveness. One of the reasons I like a computer is that you can always start with a clean piece of paper. I am not the neatest writer around. When I write on a piece of paper and change my mind, I cross out my mistakes and soon the paper looks pretty messy. With a computer, I just delete the mistake and it is a clean start. The gospel tells us that we don’t have to pile messy cover-up on messy cover-up. Christ forgives and we are always starting with a clean start.
As we begin a new year, let us recognize the clean start we have in Christ and let us make every effort to resist the temptations of Satan and to walk in holiness in Christ.
G. W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001, c1979-1988). Vol. 2, Page 1048.