Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The Temptations of Jesus
There are several things about this passage that one could mention, but I am going to concentrate on one aspect only. That is the fact that the High Priest from heaven is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He is able to do this because he had been tempted in every way that we are. The most prominent passage on this subject is when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness.
The account goes like this:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
Many people do not believe that this is true. Despite the words written about these temptations, many people do not accept that the temptations could have been real.
Many do not believe that Jesus actually had to endure with the same intensity what we must endure when we are tempted. Many people take the attitude that since Jesus was God, he may have been tempted, but certainly not in the same way as you and I. Their reasoning goes like this:
If Jesus was really God, as we say that he was and as the Bible teaches, then he could not actually be tempted to do evil. He’s God! What temptation is there that could be an enticement to him?
Something that James writes in his book even seems to agree with this. “It cannot happen,” James says.
Here is the quote: “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” (James 1:13 NAS)
So then, if we believe that Jesus was God, even when he lived here among us, how was it that his temptation by Satan in the wilderness had any significance?
This is one of those deep, deep subjects that would require a deep, deep discussion. I am not trying to avoid the question, but a full discussion of it would take some time, and in the end, we could not really reach any satisfactory conclusions anyway, since the incarnation of Christ (that is, the time when Jesus became man), is one of those subjects that we have no capacity to understand.
Eternity becoming temporal? The infinite One being born into the finite? How can we understand that? We have no ability to even wrap our minds around the concept of eternity, much less attempt to explain it.
Added to this rather significant ignorance of ours, then how should we try to explain how the eternal being at one time chose to live with the limitations of the temporal? I do not think that it would be wise to flatter ourselves by thinking that we could begin to be able to do this.
Rather than wade into those waters that are over all of our heads, I will explain only what we can see to a certain degree. I am only going to quote one verse and comment briefly on it. The verse is in Luke 2:52. This portion of the Bible is talking about a time when Jesus was twelve years old. The passage then makes this concluding comment: “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with man.”
From this verse we can see that the boy Jesus, although he was fully divine, he nevertheless went through a normal process of moral and ethical growth and development, as well the normal physical growth. In these regards, he was not unlike any other boy, at least in the manner in which his maturity came about. No doubt he excelled in his comprehension of these things. The teachers in the synagogue were astounded at his understanding. However, it seemed that the manner in which he gained this understanding was not so different than yours or mine.
Jesus was fully divine while here on earth, but he laid his divinity aside, as Paul explains to us in the book of Philippians. Jesus became also fully human and lived under all the physical restrictions that we experience. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Perhaps I will mention one other verse on this subject: Hebrews 5:8. Here the writer is speaking of this mystery of the eternal God who willingly became a man for our sakes. The writer then says this of Jesus, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”
Jesus learned obedience, the text tells us. These things did not just come to him naturally. He had to go through the process, just like you and me. I do not think we can assume that these temptations in the wilderness by Satan were the one and only occasion that he tried to get Jesus to sin. Surely Satan had not let him alone all of those years when Jesus was growing up, and even after the temptations in the wilderness, Luke tells us, “And when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until a more opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
Satan was not finished with him. Remember that in the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus to be crucified, he struggled so much with the thought of what was about to happen that his sweat became great drops of blood.
And do you not think that when Jesus was hanging on the cross and the soldiers were mocking him and calling out to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” – do you not think that Satan had his hand in that temptation? And it was not only the soldiers, but also the chief priests of the Jewish people who taunted him. (Matthew27:41-44; Luke 23:37)
What Satan Thought
We can have all the philosophical and theological discussions that we want to on the subject of the possibility of Jesus to sin, but the plain fact is, Satan believed he could entice him to fail. In fact, Satan was pretty confident that he could. He had quite a successful string of successes, beginning in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.
That was his most prominent temptation, because in that situation he had to entice this couple, who at the time, had no unfulfilled desires in their lives, that they should rebel against the Lordship of God. They lacked nothing.
Nevertheless, Satan was able to cause Adam and Eve to sin by using the same enticement that led to his own rebellion – the desire to be like God.
After that, it was relatively easy for Satan. He had filled his toolbox so full of useful enticements to tempt people into being their own masters that he could pull out any number of temptations. Money, power, sex, popularity, fame; many more. These are simple tools used for small jobs, but they can be used even for more difficult temptations. It was with these that Satan came to Jesus.
What God Thought
Let’s look at this period of temptation when Jesus was in the wilderness. Let us see how the experience of Jesus can perhaps help us in our own battles with temptation.
First of all, we need to ask, who actually initiated the occasion for these temptations? The opening sentence in the account is, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
It was the Spirit of God who really initiated the entire scene. We should never think, when we are tempted, that Satan has full rein over us. He is not controlling the situation. Satan never controls any situation. Again, this opens up large potentials for philosophical and theological questions – questions into which I have put quite a lot of thought in my life. However, at this point, let me just say that when temptations come to us, God allows them to come to us in order to test our mettle and to give us opportunity for growth.
Temptations are allowed by God but they are not designed to make us fail, as Satan believes, but they are designed to make us stronger. And they will make us stronger if we pass the test.
I need to be a little careful here with my words, since I do not want to give the impressions that the temptations themselves come from God. As I mentioned earlier, James tells us, “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” (James 1:13 ESV)
But I want you also to see that James said even before this, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4 ESV).
You will notice that these verses tell us that the “trials” that come our way are given to test our faith and make us stronger. But when it comes to the “temptations” that we face, the text tells us that these do not come from God. The translators of the Greek New Testament have made this distinction between these two words, trials and temptations, to clarify a subtle difference.
Actually however, the two words are the very same word in Greek (peirasmos – Strong’s 3986). By this we can see that the trials (temptations) that come our way may come by way of Satan, but God has allowed them in order to produce endurance in us.
Doing Some Heavy Lifting
What is important for us to see that although the temptations that come to us do not come from God, he allows Satan to test us in certain ways. This does not mean that God relinquishes his control of the situation and Satan then has free rein over us. Not at all. God has allowed the temptations to come to us as a part of our spiritual growth process.
It is not so unlike bodily exercise in this regard. If we begin by bench-pressing one hundred pounds (or maybe a better idea is to start with fifty pounds) and continue with this for a period of weeks, we will see that this weight no longer presents a challenge to us. It now takes a heavier weight to tire us. We have increased our ability to endure.
In much the same way, God allows us to pass through various trials and temptations (we see that the two words are really synonymous in this case), to increase our endurance in the spiritual realm of our lives. That is why James tells us that we should consider these trials with joy. They are meant as a training for us.
The Trials of Job
I think often of the example of Job of the Old Testament. When we speak of trials and temptations, I look upon Job’s example as the gold standard. It is the standard against which all others are measured. Job was a man of great wealth who was called to go through unspeakable trials. In one single day, his entire herd of 11,000 animals were either taken from him by foreign raiders or burned in a great fire.
This great loss came in three separate disasters, and the news was brought to Job in the worst way by three separate messengers. The first one came with news about a raid of the Sabean people on part of this herd of animals, killing all the men who were caring for them. Before Job could even take in and process this loss, and even while the messenger was still speaking, another came telling of the great fire that took more of his herds. Then the third messenger came while the second was still speaking. This one told of another raid, this one by the Chaldeans. They took all that remained of Job’s once vast herds of animals. In these three separate catastrophes, all of Job’s wealth was gone.
But Satan was not yet done with Job. Just as Job had received the horrible news about his herds of animals, yet another messenger came to him and told him that all of his ten grown children and their spouses had been killed.
In a matter of moments, all that was important for Job was taken from him. The news came to Job blow by blow, like a boxer pummeling blows upon his already bloodied and defeated opponent.
But Satan continued to thrash Job with his merciless fists. He next struck Job’s own health. Job’s skin broke out in “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” In the end, Job was left sitting in a pile of ashes, scraping puss off the open sores of his flesh.
Who was it that initiated these trials for Job? Was it that Satan saw an opportunity to bring him down and attempted to do so before God knew what was going on? Certainly, Satan saw this as a great opportunity, but whose idea was it in the first place?
Look at the introduction into the temptations of Job. It was the Lord who said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:8).
God was almost baiting Satan. He was daring him to see if he could get Job to fail.
“Does Job fear God for nothing? Satan responded. “Have You not placed a hedge on every side around him and his household and all that he owns? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and strike all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face.”
At first God gave Satan permission to test Job by taking from him everything that he had, but not to touch his body. When Satan destroyed all of Job’s wealth and still Job did not fail, only then did God allow Satan to go one step further, “He is in your hands, but you must spare his life.”
As we read the book of Job, we see that it may have been Satan who brought the trials to Job, but it was the Lord who gave the devil permission to do so. Satan designed the tests for Job to fail and to bring him down so that the defeated Job would curse the Lord, but God designed the entire experience so that Job would be made yet the stronger for it all.
In the end, that was all of the temptations did. Job’s faith became ever stronger.
One of my favorite verses of the Bible is what Job said. “God knows the way that I take, and when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
The Trials of Trees
I was thinking about all of these things concerning the temptations of Jesus one day many years ago as I was walking through the woods. As I walked, I came upon an area where the trees had been toppled by a strong wind some time during the summer. It was not a large patch of ground, but the whole area had been flattened – well, almost flattened. There were trees lying all around like someone had dropped a handful of huge pick-up sticks there, except for one solitary tree. That tree had many limbs broken, but the tree itself stood straight and tall.
Of all those trees in that area, which of them do you suppose felt the greatest force of the wind? Of course the answer is obvious. As the wind speed increased, the tops of the trees began to sway violently until some of them could no longer resist the force of the gale and began to fall. The ones with some defect or perhaps a poor root system fell first, then other, more healthy trees. Depending upon when they fell during the storm, it was up to that point when they felt the wind’s fury.
But only the solitary tree knew the full fury. It had withstood when all the others had failed. It labored under the strongest squall of the gale. It lost some of its limbs and even most of its leaves, but its massive trunk and firm root system held strong.
Winds that Come to Us
Do you think that you have ever withstood temptation that approached the fury of Satan’s temptation to Jesus? Have you ever wondered why not? If Satan had his way with us, you can be sure that he would unleash his full fury today. But the Bible tells us that “God is faithful, and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to withstand].” And not only that, God will always provide a way for us to escape from any temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).
The truth is, even with this, you and I have been uprooted and broken off a number of times. But Jesus has remained strong. There has been no wind, nor shall there ever be a wind, that can topple him. It is that same strength of character and resolve that is available to help us in our times of temptation.
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His footsteps: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth.”
When they heaped abuse on Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats, but entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23 BSB)
Let us hold fast our confession. We have a high priest who has known every form of temptation that we have, and has held firm. He has felt the strongest of the winds in the storm, and did not fall. What is more, when we experience temptation, we can be assured that God does not allow it so that we will fail, but he is giving it to us so that we can be made stronger.
“Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.”