The Temptation of Christ
by Tim Haile
January 28, 2001
In our modern language we use the word "tempt" in two entirely different ways. People will often use the word in the sense of desire. They may speak of being tempted to think, say or do a particular thing. What they really mean is that they wanted or desired to do the thing. A person will often use the expression, "I was tempted¼ " to mean "I was inclined¼ " Note that in this usage people actually assign the meaning of the word "lust" (strong desire) to the word tempt.
Some words simply acquire and convey different meanings to different people, and as a result of different applications. Thus, I do not necessarily see any harm in this use of the word in reference to inconsequential matters. For example, one may say, "I was tempted to eat that extra piece of cake," or "I was tempted by that offer." This usually isn't a problem until one tries to assign this use and definition to the word "tempt" as it is used in the Bible. This will always result in problems, for the Bible doesn't use the word tempt in this sense. J.H. Thayer defines the word (peirazo) this way:
"to try whether a thing can be done, to attempt, to endeavor... to solicit to sin" (The Online Bible Thayer's Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon).
By this definition, and according to New Testament usage, it may be said that one was tempted, even when there was no desire or inclination on his part to sin. For example, a person may be well acquainted with the physical and spiritual dangers of alcohol, and therefore be immovably opposed to its use. To such a person many drinks may be offered, and ardent effort may be exhausted to entice him, yet he is unaffected. He is not drawn away from the path of righteousness. Biblically speaking, this man was still tempted. This is true because an attempt was made to persuade him. Someone tried to get him to sin. The Bible calls this temptation, even when lust is absent. W.E. Vine tells us that the words try, attempt, test, assay, and prove" are used to translate the word "tempt." Both, the words themselves and their contextual usage emphasize the notion of an effort made either to do a thing, or to get someone else to do it.
Lexicons are often helpful in defining terms, but Bible passages themselves are also quite helpful. Note the following verses where peirazo is used:
"And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed (tried, peirazo) to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple" (Acts 9:26). (KJV)
"After they were come to Mysia, they assayed (tried, peirazo) to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not" (Acts 16:7). (KJV)
In both verses, the word "assayed" is from the Greek word peirazo; the same word that is translated "tempt." These verses well illustrate the basic meaning of peirazo. The word emphasizes effort put forth to do a thing, an undertaking. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul "tried" or "attempted" to join the church there. In like manner, he "tried" to go into Bithynia, but was not allowed to do so. Thus, the devil tempts us through his efforts to entice. He tries to ensnare us through his offers of rewards and pleasures. He hopes to stimulate our thinking in such a way that will lead to impure thoughts and unlawful desires. He attempts to turn us from our mission to serve God. This is exactly what he tried to do with Christ. He failed miserably.
Identifying "The Tempter"
The Biblical concept of "temptation" is better understood when one can identify the author of that temptation. James 1:13 explicitly states that God does not tempt men with evil. That is, God does not tempt men to do evil. God does tempt men by testing them. The Hebrew writer used the Greek word peirazo (tried, tested) to describe what God did to Abraham in Genesis 22:1 (Heb. 11:17). This was a testing, not an allurement or inducement to sin.
Testing Versus Enticing
The above passages become extremely important when considering the temptation of Christ. Matthew 4:1 tells us that Jesus was "led up by the Spirit to be tempted of the devil." Since the leading was done "by the Spirit (God - Acts 5:3-4)," and since God does not tempt any man "with evil," then we are forced to conclude that the wilderness temptation actually served a divine purpose. God did not "lead" Jesus into the wilderness for the purpose of His spiritual destruction! This does not mean that the Lord's temptations were a sham. His natural desires were absolutely real, and the devil's attempts to seduce were genuine. In all of his challenges against the Christ, Satan worked diligently to convert sinless, inherent desires to inordinate, lustful desires. Of course, Jesus never bridged the gap between those two opposing realms.
The Devil's Miscalculation
The devil's purpose was to crush and destroy Jesus, but he failed. The devil arrogantly refused to see who was in control! The Bible plainly states that it was Jesus who did the crushing and destroying. It was Jesus who crushed Satan's head by His resurrection (Gen. 3:15; cp. Rom. 16:30). It was Jesus who "destroyed him that had the power over death" (Heb. 2:14). And it was Jesus who came to the earth to "destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn. 3:8). The battle was real and Satan's attempts were strenuous, but he lost the battle with Christ. In the temptation of Christ, the Holy Spirit's purpose prevailed, not the devil's purpose! Concerning the devil Jesus could say:
"I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me" (Jn. 14:30).
There was no desire on the part of Christ, to do anything Satan tried to get Him (tempted Him) to do. Please consider R.L. Whiteside's comments on the temptation of Christ:
"Jesus met every attempt of the devil with an indignant rebuff. And there is no proof that he at any time had the least inclination to do the thing the devil suggested. Can any one believe that the devil stirred up any evil desires in the Savior's heart? Is not a desire to do an evil thing wrong in itself? (See Matthew 5:28). Can any one believe that Jesus was contaminated by evil thoughts or desires?" (Annual Lesson Commentary, 1939, Gospel Advocate Co., page 246.)
Whiteside was exactly right! I would add that our Lord's temptations were not for His benefit at all - they were for our benefit! Jesus did not come to the earth to find out what it was like to be a man; He came to the earth to show men how to live like God! He was not on a fact-finding mission, as some brethren would suggest. His purpose was to reveal information about God (Jn. 1:18), not to discover it!
As I mentioned above, the Godhood had its own special reasons for the Lord's temptations. These temptations served two important purposes. God wanted to distinctly demonstrate His power over the devil, and He wanted to provide us with a perfect example of how to resist temptation. (Incidentally, a thing does not have to be fallible or inherently flawed for it to serve as an example.) God's purpose in all of this notwithstanding, the devil arrogantly and methodically, tempted Jesus (Matt. 4:1). Verse 3 therefore refers to the devil as "the tempter." He is called the tempter because he, with the aid of his ministers and children (2 Cor. 11:15; Jn. 8:44), offers the carnal enticements of pleasures and rewards in an attempt to draw men away from God. Consistent with the language of Matthew 4:3, Paul expressed his concern over the Thessalonians, that the "tempter" may have attempted to destroy their faith (1 Thess. 3:5).
How Much Power Does the Tempter Have?
This is an extremely important consideration in view of the popularity of the Calvinistic doctrine of inherent depravity. This doctrine teaches that men are naturally inclined toward evil. Brethren obviously aren't exempt from these misconceptions. By the definition that some have for temptation, we would be forced to conclude that by virtue of the tempter's power to tempt, he also has the power to incite lust, even in the purest of hearts! Think about it! If sinful desire is inherent in temptation, as some say, then all the devil has to do is just present the temptation and his battle is won! He would only have to throw out the bait (present the temptation) and lust would be automatically produced within us! Who can believe it? My friends, rest assured that the devil does not have that kind of control over us. His power to seduce is not greater than our will to resist.
What is "Common" to Man, Temptation or Lust?
Paul told the Corinthians,
"No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (1 Cor. 10:13, NKJV)
I fear that the plain truth of this passage reveals the existence of a Calvinistic concept in the minds of certain brethren. Notice carefully what Paul said; Temptation is common to man. Some brethren believe, and others even teach that sinful desire is common to temptation. That is, they believe that "there is no temptation where there is no desire to do the thing you are tempted to do." Please consider the consequences of this position. If lust is common to temptation, and temptation is common to man, then one must conclude that lust is common to man! This is rank Calvinism - plain and simple. 1 Corinthians 10:13 plainly teaches that God has given us the ability to be entirely unaffected by temptation. Through study and application of God's word we may be able to say, "Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You!" (Ps. 119:11). And in our prayers we may pray, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt. 6:13).
Yes indeed, God is faithful. He has provided a way of escape and the devil is powerless to prevent us from using it. Jesus said this power is ours to exercise. He tells us that "evil thoughts are from within, out of the heart of men," and they are what "defile the man" (Mark 7: 20- 23). The desire to do sinful things is itself wrong. It certainly isn't inherent in temptation itself.
These verses are very important to a proper understanding of temptation, but sadly, they are frequently misunderstood and misapplied by many people. The passage says,
13 "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
14 "But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
15 "Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" (NASB).
Most of the controversy revolves around verse 14. Some argue that since it speaks of "every man" being tempted, then it would have to include Jesus, since He was also man. I do not deny the humanity of Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5; Acts 17:31), but I do deny that Jesus belongs in the category of James 1:14! Neither does it apply every time we are tempted. Not every temptation is answered. Not every temptation conceives lust. Not every temptation leads to sin!
James 1:14 addresses those who are actually "carried away" by their lust. It is a lust that has "conceived." The person in James 1:14 was enticed by the bait. They grabbed hold and they ran with it! Thus, the "temptation" of James 1:14 is a specific kind of temptation: One that is accompanied by "conceived" lust: A subset of the larger category of general "temptation." Think of it this way; sinful lust may not be present every time we are tempted. However, every time sinful lust is present it reflects the fact that we have been tempted.
The Greek word that is translated "conceived" in James 1:15 is translated "caught" or "seized" in Acts 26:21. Paul used this word when he spoke of certain Jews who caught him in the Temple. The lust of James 1:14-15 is a developed lust, fully intent upon fulfilling carnal desires. It is important to note that James 1:14 does not apply in every case of temptation! We are not "drawn away" from God by every temptation! Lust does not "conceive" in every temptation! The doctrine that says it does, is not only dangerous and discouraging, it is entirely unscriptural. As we saw from 1 Corinthians 10:13, inordinate lust is not produced every time we are tempted! People are often tempted to do sinful things that they have no desire to do. By mastering one's desires (lust) one avoids being "drawn away" into sinful conduct, regardless of how hard the devil tries.
Jesus and James 1:14
If one puts Jesus into James 1:14, at what point can he take Him out? As we noted above, the temptation of James 1:14-15 was one that resulted in sin. These verses describe the progression of sin from lust and enticement to sin and spiritual death. How on earth can Jesus fit anywhere into this scenario? As we shall see in a moment, there are many passages that say Jesus was tempted, but James 1:14 is not one of them! When did evil passions and uncontrolled appetites ever accompany His temptations? Who is prepared to say that Jesus was ever carried away by temptation? If so, where is the passage that says it? Will one argue that Jesus allowed lust to conceive (develop) in His mind? If so, where is the proof? Will they argue that Jesus desired to commit sin to the degree that the only thing that prevented Him from actually doing so was that He lacked opportunity? My friend, the pure mind of the Savior is not classified by James 1:14. Let us see why.
A proper understanding of this verse hinges upon a proper understanding of its context. Therefore, we shall examine each of the thoughts in the order in which they are presented in the passage.
The key to verse 14 is found in the previous verses. James says the person who is tempted, is not to think of God as the author of this temptation. But what kind of temptation is this? Does this include every kind of temptation? Obviously not, for as we have already learned from Genesis 22:1 and Hebrews 11:17, and as we see from James 1:2 and 12, God does tempt men in the sense of "testing" them. Thus, the kind of temptation God does not author is the alluring kind, the kind that induces sin. He does not tempt men with evil.
Temptation and God
This distinction is also demonstrated by showing how temptation relates to God Himself. Verse 13 tells us that "God cannot be tempted with evil." This means that no lust can be produced in Him. He never has uncontrolled appetites or evil passions. God is absolutely and intrinsically righteous, and He cannot be drawn away from that quality. He cannot be drawn away from either being or doing what is right. God "cannot deny Himself"(2 Tim. 2:13).
Notice, however, that James did not rule out all temptation as it relates to God. God can be tempted in one particular way. As noted above, this temptation is not the result of evil passions arising from within (Jas. 1:14), but it is the result of a challenge from without (Acts 5:9; 15:10; 1 Cor. 10:9; Heb. 3:9). These passages incorporate all three members of the Godhood, and all of the passages refer to human "effort" to challenge or test God. Please note that the Bible says God was tempted (peirazo), even though there was no possibility of sin on His part! This should put to rest the notion that "temptation always inheres the desire to sin."
When considered in the context of the above truths, James 1:14 becomes much easier to understand. The expression "with evil" plays a vital role in this understanding. As noted above, God can be tempted, but He cannot be tempted with evil. Furthermore, God may tempt men, but He does not tempt them in the manner of James 1:14 (with evil). After telling us that God cannot be tempted with evil, he went on to say, "neither does He Himself tempt any man." To harmonize the above passages and principles we are forced to conclude that the last part of James 1:13 contains an ellipsis. To get the full and accurate meaning of the passage, one must consider that just as God is not tempted with evil," neither does He tempt others with evil. This appears to be the only way to harmonize James 1:13 with everything else the Bible says about God's role in temptation.
The NIV translators must have concluded likewise, for their translation of James 1:14 seems to express the above sentiment. In the NIV, James 1:14 reads,
"but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed."
The lust or desire of James 1:14 is not the natural, sinless desire that we are born with: it is a perversion of that desire. It has undergone a conversion process that changed it from good to bad. In the James 1:14 kind of temptation, wholesome desire has been converted to evil passion. One makes a dangerous mistake in his understanding and application of James 1:14 if he wanders from the immediate context. The verse 13 expression "with evil" is crucial in defining the lust and the temptation of verse 14.
Christ Was Tempted
As we noted before, the protection promised in 1 Corinthians 10:13, must include the prevention of evil desires, as well as any potential sinful actions. Thus we conclude that temptation to sin does not necessarily imply or include any desire or inclination to sin. The greatest example of this is the example of Christ Himself. The Bible repeatedly states that He was "tempted." We often limit these temptations to those discussed in Matthew 4:1-11. However, in Luke 22:28 Jesus said, "Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations" (plural). Along with these passages, and others like Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15, we also see the following:
"The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would show them a sign from heaven" (Matt 16:1) (KJV)
"The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause" (Matt 19:3)? (KJV)
"But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites" (Matt. 22:18)? (KJV)
"Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying," (Matt 22:35). KJV)
"This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not" (Jn.8:6).(KJV)
Though every one of these passages says Jesus was tempted, yet there is not even the slightest hint that He "lusted" in them. The above passages all speak of efforts to get Jesus to contradict the Law of Moses. One must do a tremendous amount of twisting and contorting to make these passages teach that Jesus desired to repudiate the Law of Moses and that He anxiously awaited any opportunity to challenge that Law! No genuine Bible student will assign such godless intent to our Lord. Jesus said the universe would have instantly dissolved had He violated even one minute principle of the Old Law (Lk. 16:17). Yes, Jesus was tempted, per the above passages, but there was not the least desire on His part to do what the Sadducees, Pharisees and Lawyers tried to get Him to do!
Tempted "In All Points, Like as We Are"
The Bible says Jesus was tempted in "all points like as we are, yet without sin." The expression "all points" obviously corresponds to the avenues through which humans are approached with temptation. These areas involve our senses; the mechanisms through which sin may be seen as attractive. Of course, sinless, natural desires must undergo a conversion process before they lead to sinful lust. Jesus was certainly hungry when the devil tried to get Him to turn stones into bread; however, He never bridged the gap between that hunger and the performance of devil's will! Jesus was hungry, but not lustful; there is a big difference between the two! Those who intentionally interchange the terms in order to accommodate their own views of Christ, do so to their own shame.
The Bible generally limits these temptation avenues to things we can feel, see and appreciate. In the temptations of Christ, the devil tried to produce lusts in Jesus by offering Him things that might appeal to His flesh, mind and aspirations (Luke 4:1-13). The devil uses the same areas to approach and appeal to us. And in this way, Jesus was tempted "like we are." Consider these additional thoughts from R.L. Whitside:
"It is true that He was tempted in all points like as we are, but that does not necessarily mean that He felt as we do when tempted, that He had the same impulse to do wrong that we sometimes feel. Offer a bottle of whiskey to a toper and to one who never drinks; the same temptation is presented to both, but certainly it does not affect them the same. Here is one comforting thing about our temptations; 'God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it' (I Corinthians 10:13). If we do not take advantage of the way of escape, the fault is ours."
(Annual Lesson Commentary, 1939, Gospel Advocate Co., page 246.)
"Touched With Our Infirmities"
Please note that the Hebrews 4:15 expression "all points" does not refer to every kind of sin, as some have suggested. The argument often goes something like this, "But if Jesus didn't desire to do all the things that I desire to do, then how can He relate to me in my temptations?" This argument is absolutely denigrating to our holy Lord. It reduces Him to the lowest common denominator of sinners. It makes Him the most lustful being to ever walk the face of the earth. It makes Him as weak as the weakest, as dumb as the dumbest, and as vile as the vilest.
The obvious fallacy of this argument should jump out at the reader. If this reasoning were sound, wouldn't it apply for all, regardless of how perverse and sinful their cravings? And if so, wouldn't this mean that all sinners from alcoholics to murderers, and from homosexuals to pedophiles should be able to make this argument? Those who say Jesus had to share their peculiar desires in order for Him to "relate" to them "in their temptations", must be willing to say that Jesus had to share the pedophile's desires to have sex with little children! And the homosexual's desire to have sex with other men! Leviticus 20:15-16 speaks of other sexual perverts who desire to engage in sexual relations with animals. Such people exist in our society today. How far will people go in their effort to attribute sinful desires to Jesus? Will they argue that Jesus had the same desires as those who practice beastiality? By their argument, wouldn't Jesus have to have these desires in order for Him to "relate to" those who desire such today? It seems shameful to even discuss such views of our holy Lord: much more for one to actually attribute such lusts to Him!
Those who love the Lord will stand firmly against this appalling and fallacious depiction of our Lord. The Bible says Jesus was "holy, harmless, and separate from sinners" (Heb. 7:26).
Worldly Lusts - 1 John 2:15-17
Some place Jesus under the classification of 1 John 2:16 in an effort to demonstrate the avenues of temptation. However, one must be careful not to go too far in his application of this passage to Christ. I realize that one can make a neat appearing presentation by comparing and equating this passage with Genesis 3:1-6 and Matthew 4:1-11, however the likeness only goes so far. John said,
15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
John here speaks of one who loves and lusts after the "things of the world." He sets forth three potential avenues through which these lusts are fulfilled: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Notice that the person who has these worldly lusts is "of the world," and "the love of the Father is not in him."
We can safely conclude that Eve fell into this category, for the Bible so states. However, one cannot say that Jesus had lusts that made Him "of the world" and extinguished His love for the Father! Such a charge against Him would indeed be blasphemous. Jesus plainly stated that He was not of the world (Jn. 17:14). He made the greatest sacrifice possible that men might know of His love for the Father (Jn. 14:31). Those who "lust" after the things of the world do not have the love of the Father in them. Therefore, I emphatically deny that Jesus lusted after the things of the world. I also deny that He belongs in the category of 1 John 2:16.
W.E. Vine says the word "entice" means to "lure by bait" (cp. Jas. 1:14). If you are at least somewhat familiar with fishing you will appreciate the following illustration. We use "bait" to attract and catch fish. Sometimes we use "live" bait and sometimes we use artificial "lures" (plastic worms, jigs, spinners ... etc.). One of the challenges of fishing is, knowing which bait to use at which time. The lure that worked well on one particular day might not work at all on the very next day! (Yes, it is aggravating!) Similarly, a lure that is very effective in catching one type of fish may not even turn another fish's head. Why does this happen? Because the fish did not desire the bait! The lure is still a lure, the fisherman is still a fisherman, and the fisherman was still trying (attempting) to catch the fish. However, due to a lack of desire for the bait, the fish was not "caught."
The same thing occurs with temptation. Just because the bait is cast does not mean we must desire to take it! We should be greatly encouraged by these truths. God allows the devil to tempt us, but He leaves the rest to us. We have the ability to "resist the devil," causing him to "flee" from us (Jas. 4:7). The devil may tempt us by offering rewards and pleasures, but he lacks the ability to actually generate evil lust within us. Just as Jesus demonstrated indignant rebuff against the devil's proposals, so too may we. Let us "strengthen our minds" with a knowledge of God's Word (1 Pet. 1:13). And let us exercise the courage to use that Word in our battle against the "schemes of the devil" (Eph. 6:11,17). And, with the help of God (1 Cor. 10:13), let us follow the example of Jesus in defeating the devil (Matt. 4:1-10).
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