Luke 4: 1&2 “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
There are periods of temptation that come into the lives of every Christian. Though not a single day passes in which we won’t meet many temptations yet there will come to all of us rare times, special times of trial as one such came to Christ in the desert. We call this event in his life ‘the temptations in the wilderness.’ Such times come to an individual Christian; they can also come to a family or to a church. After years of green pastures and still waters we can enter into terrible trials which seem to us to be a direct satanic onslaught. Neither young nor old are exempt from them. They come out of nothing and they don’t end quickly. In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray, “lead us not into temptation” and there our Lord is talking about this very matter. We fear that we won’t be able to stand during such a time; we’re afraid we’ll be overcome like David and Noah and Peter were laid low. So we pray earnestly that we shan’t be led into a temptation that’s too great for us, and that we’ll be delivered from the evil one.
WHEN DO TIMES OF TEMPTATION ARISE?
What are the particularly dangerous times when we are most vulnerable, when the devil will not hesitate to seduce us, when it seems that instead of sending a junior demon he has come himself to destroy us?
i] At times of unusual prosperity. Temptation and prosperity are Siamese twins. There is not a prospering congregation which will not also know the temptation of the devil. There is not a wealthy Christian who does not have to battle with times of temptation. An Old Testament believer named Agur prayed against riches, conscious of the temptations they brought, “lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” (Psa. 30:8&9). King David was greatly prospered by the Lord. It was the richest time in the history of Israel and in his prosperity the king said, “I shall never be moved” (Psa. 30:6), but soon the Lord hid his face from him and David was moved. He was a shaken man. David lost his assurance of the Lord’s comforts, and what was all his gold and silver to him then without God’s blessing on him? The monthly statement brought to him by the chancellor of the exchequer meant little to him. What if the vaults were full of gold. It was an hour of temptation and David had entered it; “I was troubled,” David said. A hardness and a confidence alien to trusting in the Lord can come into our lives at such a time when we are comfortable financially. That can be a dangerous time.
ii] At times of spiritual prosperity. That is the theme of many of the New Testament letters. Paul himself became the evangelist church planter of a congregation in Galatia. It prospered so much he could leave it and move on, but he’d not been gone a year when it came into a time of temptation. False teachers, messengers of Satan, were drawn to it and proclaimed to these Christians their need to get circumcised and keep the ceremonial and food laws of the Old Testament. “Isn’t it there in the Bible?” they said, and they could quote Genesis 17 word perfect, and back under the law this congregation drifted. The gospel church was becoming a sect of Judaism following the rabbi Jesus – ‘Jesuit Jews.’ Then we are also told that the vibrant church at Laodicea (which was near the churches of Ephesus and Colosse, and all part of the great gospel spread of the first century), quickly went off the boil and became neither cold nor hot but lukewarm. Again the congregation in Corinth had such vitality, but Satan came along and they experienced an hour of temptation. We are told that their minds were led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (II Cor. 11:3). If a church is prospering and Jesus Christ is being magnified then be sure that it will have troubles. Wherever there is a flock of Christ a pack of wolves will gather in the surrounding darkness to destroy it. Prosperous times are dangerous times.
iii] At times when Christians sleep. Don’t you remember the exhortations Paul brings to the Thessalonians, “Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled” (I Thess. 4:6). Our Lord warned his disciples of Satan’s activity, that he was going to winnow Peter, shaking him about and battering him. “Watch and pray!” Christ told Peter and the others there in the garden, but they soon stopped praying and fell asleep while he agonized alone. Aren’t there people in this congregation evidently asleep? Where is your zeal for God? Where is your compassion for men? Aren’t too many of you asleep? Think of Samson; when he slept he lost his strength, his liberty, his eyesight and ultimately his life. He is a sad picture of some who once were with us, zealous in the cause of the gospel, and we looked at them in admiration and we wondered and we thought what a future lay before them. Yet where are some of them now? They were leaders among the weak, but where are they today? They have been overcome in the hour of temptation. They went to sleep like Samson. Delilah gave them a dainty kiss and off they went to slumberland. The Philistines were not sleeping; the devil was awake; there is no truce in the spiritual warfare; the fiery darts were still flashing through the air. Samson arose and said confidently, “I shall attack my enemies and overthrow them as I’ve always done,” but he had the strength of a kitten, and soon he was bound and blinded.
Our Saviour told a parable about a wheat field and in the night after the wheat was sown an enemy entered the field as the owner slept and the enemy sowed tares – deep-rooted weeds – in the midst of the wheat. In times of temptation Satan is busy sowing error and bitterness and anger and hatred, and he can succeed only because Christians are asleep. They’re not alert to what’s going on. An unwatchful church soon becomes an unholy church. A church which does not guard the truth which is in Christ Jesus will become an unsound church and a degenerate church. It will grieve the Holy Spirit and soon it has to bring in rituals and entertainment and music to draw the crowds.
Or again Jesus told the story of the women who slept when waiting for the bridegroom to arrive and all the oil in their lamps was exhausted. They had nothing with which to greet the bridegroom. I say to you, suppose Christ were to return today . . . suppose you never arrived home today because our Lord had come and all his holy angels with him, to raise the dead and set up the throne of judgment, would you be ready? Would you be expecting him? Would he find you steadfast and immovable, abounding in his work, or would you be asleep? Let us not sleep. Let us not plead that it’s time for the young ones to be active while we older ones take it easy. Take-it-easy-times are spiritual-neglect times. They are times when the enemy of our souls brings great trials into our lives. “Wake up!” said Christ to the church at Sardis. He said, “Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you,” to the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (Jn. 5:14). There is something worse than being in unbelief for 38 years; you can be in hell for ever. So carelessness and neglect is a dangerous spiritual state.
iv] At times of self-confidence. “I will not deny you,” said Peter, “Though all men should deny you there’s one thing you can rely on – me!” He said this on the brink of temptation. Seasons of self-confidence are the worst. We see others falling and we think we are exempt. We see men training for the Christian ministry abandoning faith in the Bible. Those who once preached the gospel of grace are now preaching social action and government involvement. Their hopes are now in Caesar. There are eloquent men with enthusiastic followings in big evangelical conferences who deny the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. What happened? They fell at a time of Satan’s temptations. “Not us,” we think, but the apostle says, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor.10:12). Peter had walked on the sea with Jesus. Peter had had an inward illumination by God the Father whereby he knew and could confess that Jesus was the Christ the Son of the living God. Peter was with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. He had seen the glorified Christ; he had heard the voice of the Father. You would think that a man who had had such experiences would never fall into sin again, that he was exempt, that he was a Spirit-baptized man who could cruise through life, but soon it was Satan’s hour and in a persistent temptation down fell craven Peter. He who said he would never, never, never fall, fell! It was a period of self-confidence, and the one thing Jesus told him to do was neglected, to watch and pray! So those are the particularly dangerous times when temptations come hot and fast into our lives and we are ill prepared to confront them.
WHAT ARE GOD’S GUIDELINES FOR OVERCOMING AT TIMES OF TEMPTATION ?
“Watch and pray,” said the Lord Jesus. It wasn’t difficult for the disciples to understand. Three words of one syllable. Jesus wanted a time of holy prayer. Was another cup possible? It was the night before Golgotha, and so he asked them to watch with him that he could have one distraction less. It was a dangerous time. He was being threatened; men might come to arrest him. How could he give himself one hundred per cent to pray to the Father when he was also looking out of the corner of his eye for the sight of torches, and listening with one ear for men coming through the olive trees, branches breaking, and voices sounding. “I need to give myself to pray and so you three keep watch.” In other words, the Lord is exhorting to alertness. Satan is invisible. He is a spirit, and no creature has ever seen him, and so we have to watch for the signs of his activity. What is the sort of thing we watch out for?
i] Watch your own hearts.
I once spoke to a Christian who told me that he could never cope with living in a city, that there would be far too many temptations for him there, and so he had to live in a small town. He knew his own weakness. Another man will know that alcohol will destroy him; it will impoverish him and lead to other sins; it will undermine his Christianity and so he never drinks. At a pastor’s conference this week a young preacher asked me about confessing the same sins day after day. I told him that I expected to do that throughout my life, that I found nothing in the New Testament to tell me that was surprising or wrong, or that it was a mark of being a hypocrite. Rather it was the mark of a humble man. I never expect to confess drunkenness; I have never been drunk and am never in circumstances where I could get drunk. I have no desire to get drunk. I don’t want to sleep with pigs in a sty. I don’t expect I’ll ever confess to trying to kill the Prime Minister or to being a suicide bomber or forging 20 pound notes or holding up a bank or stealing a car or setting fire to holiday homes or winning the football pools or heroin addiction. I’m not proud of that; in other circumstances I would be into all those sins. Their seeds are deep in my heart – of every sin. There are hundreds of crimes and sins for which I have neither the desire nor the opportunity nor the ability. I never expect to confess them, but the old temptations and the old sins have been powerful enough in Satan’s hands to pull me down again and again, and these will be the ones I will be saying “Sorry” to God for throughout my life. I am talking about prayerlessness, and pride, and thoughtlessness towards those who love me, and failure to memorize Scripture, and cowardice in confronting sins heard and seen around me, and a hard heart, and an unforgiving spirit, and a bitter attitude, and envy, and anger, and laziness, so on. These are the sins that so easily beset me, and if Satan is going to engage me in a time of temptation then those will be the avenues along which he will approach me.
John Owen exhorts us, “Become acquainted with your own spirit, natural temperament, lusts and corruptions, and natural, sinful, or spiritual weaknesses. By finding where your weakness lies you may be better able to keep at a distance from all occasions of sin” (John Owen, Temptation Resisted and Repulsed, Banner of Truth, pb., 2007, p.77). Watch yourself! Jesus once had to say to his disciples that they were ignorant of themselves. They did not know what manner of spirit was in them. So they thought they were displaying zeal when they suggested fire from heaven be called to fall upon a village that had rejected their ministry. They were in fact showing a spirit of revenge, and an ambition to have their own way everywhere. They had to watch for themselves.
Here is a man whose personality is gentle, shy, cooperative, and easily entreated. They are fine graces but such a man will be open to a spirit of peace at any cost. He will want to brush things under the carpet. He will urge the church to ignore false teachers not to confront their error. Another man is naturally aggressive, complaining, not letting anything pass; he will tithe the mint and parsley in his garden; he will spot the merest speck in his brother’s eye, and such a man will be raising issue after issue in a church when there are no deep issues at all. He is always threatening resignation. Another man is gruff and gloomy, a depressive, a melancholic. It is a pleasant surprise to hear his voice singing a hymn with the congregation. That is the sin that easily besets him; he refuses to rejoice in the Lord always. Another is an enthusiast, effusive and zealous but undiscerning. Watch yourself! Be aware of your natural temperament, and watch out for the treachery that it produces.
One person has a Jehu within him that makes him drive furiously; another has a Jonah and he is liable to be a complaining man; another is a David and he makes hasty decisions. You have to watch yourself carefully. You should be thinking as I mention these sinful weaknesses, “Lord, is it I? Am I like that? What is the sin that so easily besets me?” I must become aware of it because that is how the time of temptation will come into my life. One person has a runaway tongue; one person has a miserly spirit; for one person the lusts of the flesh are a temptation; to another it is the lusts of the mind. You have a natural constitution, and through your upbringing and the influence of other forces these things have become rooted in you. You have to uproot sinful heart attitudes by the power of the Spirit and that is painful.
God uses different personalities. David Brainerd was a melancholic; William Carey was a workaholic; Martin Luther was forceful leader; John Calvin was more cerebral organiser; John Wesley was a bit of a legalist; yet God used them all mightily. They were all needed. God gave them different tasks to perform. Martin Luther began the Reformation – Calvin couldn’t have begun it, but he became its theologian and its mighty preacher. I know men who are dreamers; the sin they are beset with is romanticizing plain and ordinary events so that when they describe them they are changed and dramaticised into something remarkable – which they were not. I know men who are not team players, who have to do things their way and no one else’s. They cannot work unless they are in control. They never go to conferences to learn; they only go to speak. Unless we have watched our own hearts they will continually entangle us and ensnare us. Peter was the sort of man who hated to be ignored. When he entered a room he would go on to people and talk to them. He hated to be marginalized; he was drawn to the group around the fireside, and that was his time of temptation. Judas loved the feel of money; he kept the offerings and helped himself from them. He was a thief, but no one would have suspected it. Thirty pieces of silver sounded a lot of money to him for pointing out the Saviour to the chief priests.
Know yourself! What future allies can Satan encounter in your hearts? Where are your corruptions strong? There is this woman, not in this congregation, and she claims to be a Christian but she never owns up to any struggles in her life. No struggles at all. She has no awareness of the lurking power of evil in her heart. Once she did make an admission when she said, “I have one confession to make: I don’t write enough letters.” Get real! Is that why Jesus died? He should have saved his blood if that is all that was wrong with that woman. She is not watching herself and examining herself. Where are your sins powerful? And where is your grace weak? Though it is deep, search it out. Men will stick flattering labels on natural faults. They will call aggression ‘boldness.’ They will call folly ‘enthusiasm.’ They will excuse the evil in their own hearts instead of seeking to destroy those sins. Christians become useless when they refuse to deal with their own weaknesses. You say, “How can I know what is my weakness?” I ask you what do you think about when you’ve got nothing to think of? What does your mind turn to? What themes do you gravitate towards? That will show you what are your weaknesses. If you are always thinking about the man who is your enemy then your personal weakness is resentment and bitterness. If you are turning to a forbidden relationship then your weakness is lust. I urge you to sit under the best ministry you can hear that will show you your heart year after year. Don’t remain under preaching that merely rearranges your own prejudices week by week. Know your heart.
ii] Watch every external situation in which we are open to temptation.
We have now moved from the inward to the outward circumstances in which we live. We are back to my Christian friend who feels he cannot live and work in a town. He moves his family to a small community. Never in his life has he ever done well in a city. He has never escaped the temptations that uniquely come from city life. “I’ve got to move out,” he says. Another man is all alone at an Open University week of lectures at a university campus miles from home; there are no other Christians about; there is nobody at all who knows him, and so this Christian sees the hazard lights flashing. He talks to his wife on his cellphone for an hour every evening. He does not go to the bar. We are watching every occasion, every opportunity, every activity and business that draws us in and stirs us up.
Think of Eve being approached by a talking serpent! This serpent challenges the Lord who has blessed her with all that is best in life even an upright wise handsome husband. Shouldn’t she have said to herself, “I’ve got problems. I’m in danger here,” and run and told her husband, and they shouted to the Lord for help? You see the warning lights.
Think of Jacob seeking reconciliation with his brother after years of alienation, what care he takes over their meeting. There is nothing casual about this at all. He divides up the gifts for Esau into different flocks and herds and puts them under different servants. He tells them exactly what they are to say to Esau when they meet him. He divides his children up with their different mothers. They all go on ahead, and when he approaches Esau he bows before him, and advances a little nearer and prostrates himself again, and then nearer and he falls on his face before his brother. There is nothing casual about any of this. Jacob doesn’t think, “If we are destined to be reconciled we will be – whatever I do.” He thinks and thinks and thinks of everything to make sure that he does nothing to alienate his brother again – after all the times he’s hurt him in the past. He has learned at last to love his brother as himself.
Think of Paul’s advice to believers with many Christian friends who are vegetarians. His concern is that they won’t open them to temptation, because if they cause them to fall into sin they will be overwhelmed with guilt themselves. So Paul is saying such things as these, remember not to look down on them. Don’t judge them. Don’t put any stumbling block in their way. Don’t surprise them by putting a dish in front of them in which some meat is hidden away. Don’t destroy their peace of mind. Bear with the failings of the weak. Don’t please yourself but please your vegetarian brother. Even Christ did not please himself. Accept one another in love. In other words seek to know every situation. See it through someone else’s eyes. Watch!
Again there was Paul’s concern that his fellow countrymen, the Jews, come to believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and he sets out on one journey to work among them with Timothy. Now he is aware that there must be nothing in what he eats, or what he wears, or how he spends the seventh day of the week that will unnecessarily build a barrier between himself and them. He wants them to become followers of the Lamb of God, protected by his blood. So he tries to watch for everything, and then he remembers that Timothy is uncircumcised. He prays about it and he finally says, “Timothy, I’m sorry but we’ve got to remove every obstacle to these people believing in the Lord Jesus. We’ve got to love them like ourselves, and so you need to get . . . circumcised.” Ouch! In every external situation we are making sure that we don’t tempt other people to sin and we don’t fall into temptation ourselves.
Are we thinking like that? If you have any love for your own soul or for the souls of men it is time to awake and deliver yourself. Avoid tempting others, and avoid being put into a situation where they can tempt you. There are circumstances when we are surprised by sin, and we have so little power over our hearts. So let us always be watching our hearts and thinking about our conduct. Becky Pippert once said, “I have a beautiful friend who, in the midst of personal crisis, posed for Playboy magazine. Some time later she made a commitment of faith to Christ. Recently Playboy asked her to do another series and offered her enough money to have bought three or four Rolls Royces. She asked me with great sincerity, ‘Can I pose for Playboy now that I’m a Christian?’ I don’t condemn her. She was genuinely trying to understand what it means to be a Christian. I grieve instead for us – the body of Christ – that our model of godliness has been so shabby and weak that she would even have to ask that question. We desperately need to re-examine what it means to be holy people.” Watch the situation around you.
iii] Watch that you have every legitimate means of defence against times of temptation.
How many pieces of Christian armour are there? More than one. There is a breastplate and a shield and a helmet and a belt and sandals and a sword. You might be aware that you have one and know how to use one. Maybe you think that it is your godly wife and that is a great weapon, but you need more than one. God is the quartermaster who is providing the soldiers in the King’s army with all their weaponry, and he says. “Take this sword, and you’ll need a shield, a breastplate, a belt, and sandals too, and don’t forget this helmet.” You take them all and use them all because they are all needed when you fight against principalities and powers. They are all legitimate means of defence.
Think of an enemy army coming upon a great fortress, its impregnable walls, its well stocked warehouses, its wells and its trained militia. The enemy may well decide to keep going and not bother to lay siege to such a mighty castle. So I am now saying that if Satan comes up to you, and finds you clothed in all the armour of God, with ample provision for holding out, and serious about resisting to death, then we are told something extraordinary by the New Testament. It is this, that when we resist Satan he flees from us. It is not that he drags his feet and passes on, but that he runs away from us. He is afraid of us. It is true also of a resolute Bible congregation. Satan sees the fortress and he keeps going. There came a time at the end of our Saviour’s temptations when we are told, “Satan left him.” In all the occult fiction horror stories we are given the picture of an utterly relentless, implacable devil who never gives up until he has destroyed us. It is never like that in the Bible. Satan left Job. Satan left Peter. Satan left Jesus. When Paul cried to God for relief from the thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, God assured him, “My grace is absolutely sufficient for you.” Satan’s thorns and fiery darts are not going to leave you broken for the rest of your life. You are going to do all I want you to do in your life, and Satan is not going to prevent this happening.
So what is the provision God has made for us in the hour of temptation? There is no secret about this at all. You all know many of the answers to this question. There is no verse hidden away in the book of Revelation or in the prophet Joel or in the writings of Moses which will instantly answer all your problems about resisting temptations and standing in a day of trial and not falling. There is no ‘secret’ to the Christian life. You know how important are such matters as the Lord’s Day, and sitting under a gospel ministry, and taking the Lord’s Supper. There are also personal devotions. There are good works to your brothers and sisters in need all around you. There is to be rapid, earnest, repentance for your constant sins. There is the putting to death of remaining sin. There is prayer with other brothers and sisters. There is the reading of helpful books about the Christian life and the history of the church. There is fellowship with other Christians. Do not neglect any such provisions, because neglect won’t help you stand in the day of temptation, but there is one outstanding provision which God makes, and that provision is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.
You store up in your heart a sense of the love of God in Christ for you. This Saviour, whose life we are considering in the gospel of Luke, was once led by the Spirit into the desert and there he had an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with Satan. You were in him when he was there. You were certainly on his heart; you had been given to him by the Father and he was loving you during his forty days and nights there, and it was also on your behalf that he resisted Satan. But more than that you were united to him, and in his triumph you are more than a conqueror of the devil. You will help cast him into the lake of fire. Jesus proved stronger than Satan and in Christ you are stronger than him too. Now our great High Priest remembers the stinking breath of the devil, and the insidious power of his temptations, and so when you enter into a time of temptation he prays for you. He is sympathetic with your condition. He knows exactly what you are going through. He knows what you need, and how you can overcome. You can never say, “Nobody seems to understand what I am going through,” and feel sorry for yourself – which is just what Satan wants, that you should feel resentful towards other Christians. Satan says, “Let me see if I can put down some roots of bitterness in his heart towards other Christians.” I say that there is someone who understands what you are going through because he has gone through it too and a million times worse. Go to him! Cry mightily to your faithful and sympathetic high priest finding mercy and grace to help you at this time of need.
Christ is the great provision. Go to him and he will give you rest. What is this rest? It is a sense of his love and favour in Jesus Christ. This can keep your heart through all manner of attacks, and that undermines all the workings and insinuations of temptation. Lay up a store of gospel provisions against all the attacks of the evil one.
27th January 2007 GEOFF THOMAS