Was Jesus Tempted the Way We Are Tempted?
By Tiffany Wismer
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those Bible stories that I always hear but, if I’m honest, do not fully understand. I know and believe what Hebrews 2:18 says… that because Jesus suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted. I know and believe what Hebrews 4:15 says… that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”. The concepts make sense. Where I run into trouble is when I compare Jesus’ temptations to my own. When I feel the weakness of my flesh, and the pull of sin, I just can’t believe that Jesus , the sinless lamb of God, could ever understand what I’m going through.
But He did. And He does. So maybe I’m just thinking wrong about temptation. What is temptation, anyway? It is defined as “a desire to do something, esp. something wrong or unwise.” Why would anyone want to do something wrong or unwise? Well, we all know the answer: there’s some sort of payoff. The human body and mind are susceptible to various pressures and desires, and although those pressures and desires may not be wrong in themselves, fulfilling them is sometimes contrary to the morally right thing to do. Ergo, Satan uses those pressures and desires (and the physical pangs they cause in us) to tempt. It’s always a tension between, as Gandalf said, “what is right and what is easy”.
The devil wants us to give in, to choose the easy path over the right path. And there are all kinds of reasons in his bag of tricks. Here are just a few:
a. There is no right and wrong, so you might as well give in.
b. Nobody will be hurt by what you do, so you might as well give in.
c. Nobody will ever find out, so you might as well give in.
d. God doesn’t exist, there’s nobody to see you, so you might as well give in.
e. The (excellent) payoff is worth the (brief) pain of doing what’s wrong, so give in already!!
That last one, by the way, is often the best argument even though it is the most illogical. We all know it to be a lie. The payoff is never worth the pain, guilt, etc. of doing what you know to be wrong. But we still buy it. We’re so foolish! Could Jesus have possibly been tempted like we are? It seems impossible.
In the desert, the Lord was given three different temptations. Let’s see if we can find the promised payoff for Jesus in each.
The temptation to eat bread when hungry. This one is pretty easy. If you haven’t eaten for 40 days, you are hungry. Really, really hungry. The body can be very insistent about getting its way, even to the point of bullying the mind, causing painful cramps, hallucinations, fears of death, etc. Jesus was undergoing serious, crippling hunger. In short, it hurt. The payoff was the end of pain. But it would have been wrong to end his determined fast before its time, especially at Satan’s suggestion. So, he used the Scripture to reassure Himself that God’s words would sustain Him in the absence of bread. When He said “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” He was exhibiting trust that following God would be better than giving into the demands of the flesh. And we can be sure (because of Hebrews 4:15) that it was just as hard for Him to ignore the demands of His body as it is for us to ignore the demands of ours.
In all three of these temptations we see Jesus trust in God’s plan, and in His word. He trusts that God’s way is best. He uses God’s words to fend off temptation. He felt the pull of temptation just like we do. And we can respond just like He did, if we trust God and hold onto His words. Because when we see clearly what is right, we’re less likely to fall for Satan’s lies about what is easy.
The temptation to test God. Now, this one is a little harder. Why would it be tempting for Jesus to test God? That doesn’t seem to make much sense. What was the payoff here? The answer lies in Satan’s taunt: “If you are the Son of God…” Satan was challenging Jesus’ identity as God’s son. This is much more subtle than the temptation of bread to a hungry stomach. I believe the temptation here is to pride. Jesus had a good and natural desire to prove Himself right and prove Satan wrong – that is the payoff. But to get that payoff in a vain, self-serving way is the spiritual wrong. (It’s kind of like becoming an apologist in order to stump atheists because you want to prove them wrong. You aren’t concerned with saving the atheists - you just want to win the debate. So your efforts are vain, because you are arguing for your pride rather than as God's ambassador.) But Jesus avoided this temptation too, by saying “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” What he is essentially saying to Satan is “I don’t have any reason to accept your challenge. I know Who I Am and soon you will too, but on God’s terms, not on yours.”
The temptation to worship Satan. How could this possibly be a temptation for Jesus? Worshipping Satan? Well, yes, because consider the payoff of this last and greatest temptation. Jesus is facing the cross. His plan for the salvation of humanity is His own horrific death and separation from the Father. He was not looking forward to it. He even asked God, at the 11th hour, to take the cup from Him, if possible. And now here is Satan, presenting an alternative. He is saying “Hey, you don’t have to go to the cross. Just worship me, and I’ll give you all these people and these kingdoms and all their glory.” You can see how this would be a temptation. The payoff is huge – no suffering, no death, and the chance to rule and reign in His rightful place as King. But worship Satan to get it? No way. So Jesus says “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’”.