We tend to think of temptation in flaming red colors. Flaming red temptation is a wad of cash dropping from a careless walker just ahead. It’s a beer offered to an alcoholic or a sexual proposition from an attractive person.
Bright red temptations do exist, but Scripture and experience both suggest most temptations are gray—like the temptations touching knowledge.
It’s been said all decisions are made on insufficient evidence. No wonder people like to gather information, to know as much as possible.
What could be wrong with that? you may ask.
History’s first temptation focused on knowledge, when the serpent offered Eve forbidden fruit, and proposed, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). For us, the knowledge-temptation hue is probably gray. We want to know about a forthcoming policy decision, so we press a coworker to share confidential information. We want to know about a budding office romance, so we offer a morsel of gossip, hoping for a return. Perhaps we even entertain the secular thought that couples should know they’re sexually compatible before they marry. These all resemble Eve’s temptation to know—like God does.
Learn from Jesus’s Temptation
Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness is instructive yet baffling. Baffling, first, because we wonder how sin could attract him enough to tempt him. Yet Hebrews 4:15 insists Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are.” It’s baffling, second, because in our experience, temptation is strongest when sin is habitual and follows established pathways. Third, temptation often feels like sin. If we’re tempted by anger or lust, we often feel we’ve committed the sin in the heart, just by considering it.
Yet it’s possible to be tempted without sinning. If we push the temptation away, instead of turning it over and taking perverse pleasure it, we’ve resisted it, and that’s not sinful. It’s possible to have a hateful thought—then reject it and replace it. Again, Hebrews 4:15 says Jesus can “sympathize with our weakness” since he was tempted like us. As a real and truly sympathetic man, Jesus genuinely faced temptation. And as a sinless man, he faced and rejected it without falling.
This means we we can face and reject temptation, too.
Internal vs. External Temptation
Temptation can arrive from outside or from within. Temptations to pride, lust, or envy well up within us because we are depraved. When a friend succeeds, we should rejoice and praise God for their gifts, but our egocentricity tempts us to jealousy.
Since Jesus is sinless, the Gospel accounts feature three external temptations—to turn stones to bread, to leap from the temple, and to worship Satan. After fasting 40 days and nights, he was hungry. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter taunted, “tell these stones to become bread” (Matt. 4:1–3). This is the temptation to possess material things at the wrong time and place. When Jesus didn’t eat or drink, he got thirsty and hungry. He knew he could use his powers to serve himself, but he chose to live in God’s strength.
Satan then invited Jesus to leap from the temple. How wondrous to leap from the height of the temple, far above the multitudes, to accelerate, then drift gently to the ground. How blessed to hold, in memory’s hoard, this proof, this knowledge of the Father’s provision! For us, the desire to seize knowledge that’s not rightly ours is probably a desire to avoid living by faith. For most of us, knowledge also means control. Augustine warns that there is an “empty desire to possess” knowledge, a lust to see something new, to satisfy morbid curiosity. But we should be content to live by faith, not by sight.
Students, teachers, preachers, leaders, and planners are most susceptible to this temptation. At best, we want to be genuine experts and impart information and wisdom, but this can tempt us to pretend we know or to grasp for knowledge that’s not rightly ours. As Moses said, “The secret things belong to God” (Deut. 29:29).
Jesus’s third temptation is confrontational. When Satan offers the kingdoms of the world if Jesus bows to him, he again presents a good goal attained the wrong way. Christ will possess the glory of the kingdoms of the world, but he will attain them by his death and resurrection. In fact, when Jesus said no to Satan, he was saying yes to the cross. He also showed himself to be the one true man, for he resisted the temptations Adam and Eve and everyone after them face: the temptation to know, as God does (Gen. 3:5), the desire to be like God (Gen. 3:5), and the temptation to take what we wish for physical needs or pleasures (Gen. 3:6).
In every case—with Adam and Eve, with Jesus, and with us—Satan offers something that’s good in itself. Food is attractive to a hungry man. Power and knowledge are attractive to everyone. But Satan proposed that they be received the wrong way, at the wrong time.
All temptation looks like this. It offers something good—food, wealth, security, pleasure, authority, or knowledge. Adultery is not a sin because sex is evil but because the adulterer takes another person’s spouse. The evil lies in taking at the expense of another or taking what belongs to another.
How can temptation assail if nothing good is offered? It can’t. We won’t ever be tempted to eat spiders since they hold no appeal, but if eating pizza were a sin, many of us would be tempted to evade the prohibition by changing the recipe and calling it Bozzoli. This must hold even for Jesus in his full humanity. Temptation doesn’t usually involve a devilish voice whispering that we should lie or steal. Most temptations seem attractive or plausible.
He Stood Firm for Us
Jesus’s wilderness temptation offers important lessons. Temptation offers something good that, Satan proposes, can be attained in an easy way. That is how external temptation assails us. We’re running late, so we’re tempted to break traffic laws. We need to make a sale, so we exaggerate a product’s benefits. But unlike Jesus, we also face internal temptations—from bad habits, from patterns of sin that make us more susceptible to sin.
Jesus shows us how to resist temptation—swiftly, immediately rejecting it and drawing on God’s Word to do so. Above all, Jesus’s temptation assures us that he understands our weakness and temptation. He genuinely faced temptation; It appealed to him, and he turned it down. The redeemed can do the same.
We take heart even more in knowing this: Jesus remained perfectly righteous. Because he never sinned, he could offer himself as the one faithful man. He could become our substitute, granting us his righteousness so that we may stand before the holy Lord, dressed in the clean robes he provides, in place of the rags we make for ourselves.