The Nature of Temptation

by Mike Ratliff

41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”Matthew 26:41 (NASB)

38 Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 14:38 (NASB)

45 When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, 46 and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Luke 22:45-46 (NASB) 

Temptation: Temptation is any thing, state, way or condition that, upon any account whatsoever, has a force or power to seduce, to draw the mind and heart of a man or woman from his or her obedience, which God requires of them, into any sin, in any degree of it whatsoever.

As Jesus agonized in Gethsemane in the hours prior to His trial, torture, and crucifixion, His disciples had a hard time staying awake. He went off by Himself to pray, but asked James, John and Peter to watch and pray. However, each time He came to them, He found them asleep. If we look closely at Mathew 26:41, Mark 14:38, and Luke 22:45-46, we will see the whole of our Lord’s caution to His disciples seems to have been, “Arise, watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.” Our Lord knew that danger was near. He knew that His disciples would be scattered from Him when He was arrested. However, His concern seems to be on these men that they would not enter into temptation. Notice also that it is the flesh that is weak and it is the watching and praying that keeps them lined up with the spirit that they be one in spirit with Him. If they would do that then they would not enter into temptation.

It seems that these men, who knew that Jesus would be betrayed because He had told them earlier in the evening, were more concerned with their comfort, their sleep, than for their Lord. It is as if they had forsaken all of their love toward Jesus in lieu of caring for themselves. They fall fast asleep. On the other hand Jesus knew what was going to happen. He knew that He would go to His death to die to pay the penalty for their sin. Of course, these men were not aware of that yet. They would soon, but before the crucifixion of our Lord, they did not understand. As we see in Gethsemane, however, their flesh controlled them. All men and women, no matter how noble, when left to themselves, will quickly appear to be far less than nothing. All of our strength is weakness, and all our wisdom folly.

35 Peter *said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” All the disciples said the same thing too.
36 Then Jesus *came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and *said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. 38 Then He *said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”
39 And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” 40 And He *came to the disciples and *found them sleeping, and *said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? 41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:35-41 (NASB) 

Peter proclaimed to our Lord that He would never deny Him. However, when Jesus asked, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? He could very easily have added, “Are you he, Peter, who but now boasts of your resolution never to forsake me? Is it likely that you should hold out when you cannot watch with me one hour? Is this your dying for me, to be dead in security, when I am dying for you?” Of course, we know that Peter’s boast was flesh bound and not in any way based on being one in Spirit with our Lord. It was a careless promise. Let us not look too harshly at Peter, however, because this same treachery lives and works in our own hearts. It bears fruit that we see every day. We make great promises to our Lord to obey Him, but quickly find ourselves in a pit of sin.

18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. Romans 7:18 (NASB) 

What is our Saviour’s admonition to avoid this state of spiritual inconsistency? He said, “Arise, watch and pray!” What was the temptation(s) that our Lord was concerned about? One of the major ones would be the scandal of the cross. However, we must read our Lord’s words here as a warning to us as well. There are three things we must glean from this warning so we can also know how to not enter into temptation. The first is that our Lord is warning us about evil. This is real evil, for temptation has as its goal to bring evil to bear on us. The second is the means by which we succumb. That is, we enter into temptation. We don’t fall into it. We don’t accidentally encounter it. We enter into it. The third thing is that our Lord gives us the way of preventing it, to watch and pray.

The word tempt or temptation carries with it the idea of “testing” or “trying.” It may also mean to experiment or prove. God is said sometimes to tempt; and we are commanded as our duty to tempt, or try, or search ourselves, that we may know what is in us. We are then to pray to God that He would search us and try us as well. So in this sense temptation is not the evil form, but a way to know what is inside or the quality of something. However, outside of this context, temptation does denote evil as its special nature. It is considered either actively, as it leads to evil, or passively, as it has evil and suffering within it.

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, James 1:2 (NASB) 

The “trials” in v2 are “temptations” that, in this sense, denote affliction. We can count it all joy when we meet these “temptations,” but do not enter into them.

Temptation denotes in the tempter a design for the bringing about of the purpose of it, which is to lead the one tempted into evil. In that sense we know that God is not the one tempting. (James 1:13) However, God will take His hand away at times to allow our enemy to bring temptation to bear. In that sense, in God’s eyes, it is a trial. Never forget that God allowed a deceiving spirit to cause false prophets to lie to Ahab the King of Israel to tempt him to go to a battle where he would be killed. So, in the sense that God does this we need to learn why He does it and the way whereby He does it.

God allows us to be tempted because it shows us what is within our hearts. It reveals our fallen nature to us in either how God’s grace has worked in us to overcome it or in how corrupt we really are outside of His grace. Both grace and corruption exist and work deep in our hearts. We often deceive ourselves into thinking our fallen nature has been abrogated by our regeneration and our good works. When we are in that state, we are setting ourselves up for a great fall. Also, when we try with our own abilities to be Christlike, corruption appears. On the other hand, when we examine ourselves deeply we often find God’s grace working within us to our amazement. We are kept in uncertainty in that we do fail in our trials. God’s trials, no matter of what nature, consist of Him examining what is deep within our hearts. He will then work things out so that we will be shown what is in us. We will know of what we are made at those moments.

1 Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. 5 Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” 13 Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. 14 Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.”
15 Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Genesis 22:1-18 (NASB) 

God tempted Abraham to show him his faith. Abraham did not know what power and vigor made up his faith until God drew it out through this trial that must have been heartrending for him.

12 He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Genesis 22:12 (NASB) 

When God said, “I know that you fear God,” He made Abraham know it as well.

25 But Hezekiah gave no return for the benefit he received, because his heart was proud; therefore wrath came on him and on Judah and Jerusalem. 26 However, Hezekiah humbled the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come on them in the days of Hezekiah.
27 Now Hezekiah had immense riches and honor; and he made for himself treasuries for silver, gold, precious stones, spices, shields and all kinds of valuable articles, 28 storehouses also for the produce of grain, wine and oil, pens for all kinds of cattle and sheepfolds for the flocks. 29 He made cities for himself and acquired flocks and herds in abundance, for God had given him very great wealth. 30 It was Hezekiah who stopped the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all that he did. 31 Even in the matter of the envoys of the rulers of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that had happened in the land, God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart. 2 Chronicles 32:25-31 (NASB) 

When God left Hezekiah it was that He might see what was in his heart. He tended to be proud and powerful, but when God tested him what came from his heart? It was nothing but pride. When God does this to us it is for our best. When we see what is really in us we should be thankful and humble.

God also tries people to show Himself to them in a way of Preventing Grace. What? We see that it is God alone who keeps us from all sin, not our will power or good intentions. Until we are tempted, we think we are the ones being pure by our own strength. Preventing Grace is a special grace that, when we are not trying to use our will power to not sin, protects us from further sinning. When Peter proclaimed that he would never deny Jesus he was relying on his own will power. When the trial came, and it came quickly, he saw that his preservation from sin was not in himself.

God tries people to show Himself to them in a way of Renewing Grace. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 Paul tells us of a thorn given to him, a messenger of Satan to harass him, to keep him from being too elated or proud. Then Paul pleaded with God to take the thorn away, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then proclaimed that it was right that he be made weak so that the power of Christ might rest upon him. We have no idea the power and strength that our God puts forth on our behalf until we compare the temptation with our own weakness. Then we see it. Rattlesnake anti-venom works, but we really don’t know that until we need it because the viper has attacked and we are full of his poison. Our diseases make the preciousness of medicine known to us. We learn the strength of God’s grace when we see the strength there is in the temptation. We must be tried so that we may know of God’s preserving and renewing work in us.

One of the ways God tempts or tries is by giving us tasks or duties that are too great for us. They are beyond our strength. God calling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is an example of this. It was beyond reason for God to command this. Abraham learned what was in him through this though. The tasks or duties that God gives us to do are not proportional to our strength. However, we are to acknowledge this and plead our case to our Lord for His grace that we may obey. How is God glorified in us if all we do is within our own abilities? When we obey God, fully relying on His grace to enable us to do it then we are in the midst of a trial or a temptation in the yoke of Christ.

Another way God tempts or tries is by allowing great suffering. Read Fox’s Book of Martyrs for example after example of people finding amazing strength to die at a stake, to suffer tortures for Christ! It was definitely a call to a trial for this to come upon them. According to 1 Peter 1:6-7 we learn that we are brought into fiery trials from our temptations that are trials of our faith.

These temptations are trials directly from God. He may indeed use our enemy in this, but God does do this. On the other hand there is the other form of temptation that is an active “drawing” toward sinning. It is evil with the intent of causing evil. How does our enemy tempt us? His temptations may be directly from him, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of the above in any combination we can conceive.

Temptations directly from Satan take the form of an injection attack into our minds of evil and blasphemous thoughts of God. Sometimes he makes use of the world. This is how he tempted our Lord Jesus Christ in the wilderness by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Sometimes he has a willing participant in our temptation in ourselves. Yes, that is right. We are often the source of our own temptation to evil.

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. James 1:14-15 (NASB) 

Judas was tempted this way. (Luke 22:3) Satan entered into him. I’m sure we could come up with innumerable example of all of the ways we can be tempted to do evil. Because of this, we must learn to watch and pray, to be vigilant in not entering into temptation.

Soli Deo Gloria!