Christ’s Temptation—How and When?
Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil — Mat_4:1
Jesus, as a Man, Was Tempted in Order to Show That No One Can Escape Temptation
If our blessed Savior had to be the very Son of Man, it was, of course, inevitable that He should be tempted, because that is the one experience nobody ever escapes; it is the touch of nature—one of the touches of nature—that makes us all akin. A man may escape great calamity, a man may escape overpowering illness, a man may escape the perils of being very poor and the perils of being very rich; but there is one thing that nobody escapes, from the king on his throne to the beggar on the highway, that is, the experience of being tempted. And therefore, if our Lord was to be the perfect Son of Man, it was quite inevitable He should be tempted. The man who is never tempted has either sunk to the level of the beast, or risen to the level of angels. Is there anybody who is never tempted, just because evil has already gotten complete control of him—anybody who can do things with unconcern that twenty years ago would have made him halt a moment? I don’t think there is any prayer for such a man except just, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Of course, if we were all tempted on our worst side, our blessed Savior could never have been tempted, because His nature was that of heaven—while yours and mine has much of hell in it. But I think you will see how, in our common life, we are very often tempted not on the side of what is bad, but just on the side of what is good. Here is a mother, and how she loves her son; it is the finest thing about her. She used to be a careless girl, and now she is a self-sacrificing woman. How often mothers are just tempted not on the side of what is bad, but just in that beautiful love for their children. Or here is a man very, very fond of his wife and children—someone once said that whenever the devil tempts an Englishman he always does it in the guise of wife and children—here is a man very fond of his wife and children; it is the most beautiful thing about him; in business he has got rather a shady character, but he is almost perfect in his home. How often a man is tempted, perhaps, just to do things that conscience does not agree to because of his dear care for wife and children. You see, you and I are very often tempted not on the side of what is bad, but on the side of what is good; and if you follow out that thought a little, don’t you come to see it was possible that our Lord was tempted, even though His nature was pure? I think sometimes we are very apt to misconceive the sinlessness of Christ, as if it was a garment given to Him by God, and He could not put it off even if He tried. It was not a garment, it was a victory. It was not an endowment, it was an achievement. Every hour the Lord was tempted, and every hour He put it from Him, until at last His sinlessness was final, and He cried, “It is finished.” And if you regard that as the sinlessness of Jesus, wrought out every moment, every moment tempted, every moment obedient to God until the end, you begin to see He was tempted just as you and I are.
His Temptation Makes Us Consider Him Our Brother
The thought I wanted to follow out was this. I wanted to ask, Along what lines did the tempter come to Christ? Because if we discover that, then we begin to understand that He was tempted just as we are. You know it is very difficult to feel that Christ is really our Brother. There is so much in Him that is different—His power, His nature is so unlike yours and mine, that it is a kind of relief to discover a touch of brotherhood. That is why we love to hear that He was weary—perhaps some of you are weary now; that is why we love to hear that He was hungry—there are people that have known hunger; that is why we love to hear that He was tempted—it draws Him near us. And if we discover the tempter came to Him very much as he comes to you and me, you have got a brother born for adversity. There is nothing in life like that.
Three Times When Temptation Strikes
I want you to note, first, how the tempter came to Him at the very beginning of His task, before He had wrought a single miracle, before He had said a single word. I suppose that in these forty days in the wilderness our Lord was meditating on the future. I don’t think there was a single incident that ever came to Him that our Lord had not anticipated in these forty days. He was looking forward to all that was coming, and it was just then the devil tempted Him.
I think there are three times in every great task when one is peculiarly liable to be tempted. The first is the start, when things are looming up before him. The second is when he is halfway through, the arrow that flieth at midday, when he has lost the glow and glory of the morning. The third is at the end, when he is tempted to think it has all been just a failure: like Lord Kelvin: near the end of his career he said he could only describe his life as a failure. I think it would be easy to show that our Lord was tempted at these times—right in the middle when the first enthusiasm had died away, right at the end when He had to turn to Peter and say, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” and here, just at the beginning. There is a curious correspondence in many details at the end of His life with the details of the start, and I sometimes think that out in the desert here there had been something of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” It was going to be an awful cup, awful, bitter as gall. And then, just in an instant, “Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.”
Tempted at the Start of His Ministry
Just at the start our blessed Lord was tempted. There may be someone who is starting a new task, perhaps in the Church, perhaps in the city, called to it by your duty. Well, if you are a lightweight, one of these jaunty people, of course it won’t trouble you. My experience is that these kind of jaunty people never get there. But if you are deep and serious, and take life earnestly, when the thing looms up before you, then you are tempted to despair. I remember an eminent man in this city, called to a great task, telling me how the first thing he did (he was not commonly afraid) was to bow his head down in his hands and say to a friend, “It can’t be me.” Whenever you have these temptations, is not it a great thing that you are sure the Lord knows it? He has been there. He understands; you can get His fellowship even in that. A young writer once wrote to Sir Walter Scott, and he said, “Sir, I don’t know how it is, but just when I am beginning a new book my heart sinks, formless fears surge up.” And Scott, that gallant heart, wrote back, “My dear fellow, I feel it just as much as you do.” You have got to think how that young writer was encouraged by the sympathy of that great soul, and you and I have got the sympathy of Someone infinitely greater.
Or again, there may be somebody who is starting a far more difficult task, and that is the task of taking up your cross, the task of bearing a great sorrow. By and by it will get a little easier. Time is a great healer; time rubs the edges off the boldest granite on the Arran hills. Men picture time with a scythe; I picture time with a vial of balm that it just pours into your gaping wounds. But at the very outset, is it not difficult? A few weeks ago, a month ago, you lost somebody very dear; now you are called to a task that is going to last through life; that is, bearing your cross of sorrow. At the very beginning are you not tempted, tempted to wonder if God is love, tempted to wonder if God cares, tempted to be dull and heartless when other lives are dependent on your brightness? It is a great thing to think that in an hour of that kind you have the sympathy, the understanding of the Lord Jesus. His task was not to manage a business. His task was to bear a cross: “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” And at the very start, to Him, just as to you, comes the devil, tempting you to doubt the Father, and to wonder if there is any love in heaven. “In every pang that rends the heart, the Man of Sorrows had a part.”
Tempted in the Hour of Reaction
Again, I think it must occur to you that our Lord was tempted in the hour of reaction. I suppose you all know what reaction is? It is the recoil after a time of stress and excitement. Our Lord was subtly tempted in the hour of reaction. Well now, consider. I suppose the hour of the baptism of Christ, which just preceded, was an hour of the most terrific strain. You have got to try and picture it. It lies there quietly upon the Gospel page, but when you get to its meaning what an hour of strain it was—the old now gone, the quiet and beauty of Nazareth, the love of His mother. “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” was just coming, and then all the future of blood and sorrow, and all that; the cleavage of it, the baptism, and then identified with sinful man, and then equipped by the Holy Ghost for all His ministry, and then heaven opening and a voice speaking to Him—try and think of the tremendous strain of it. Mark tells us that He was driven to the wilderness. I wonder no great painter has ever painted that. The Lord, bowed and driven by what was uncontrollable to get alone to think it all out, and then for forty clays so wrapped in it that He quite forgot to eat. And then, suddenly, spent in every power, and wearied to His fingertips, then the devil comes—is not he subtle? Then the devil comes, in the very hour of reaction. Not when the candle of God is shining on His head, not when all the lights are burning, not when He is strong and quivering with life, but in that awful hour of weakness and reaction. Brother, sister, is it not so still? The devil leaves us when we are happy, and comes back when the tide is at the ebb. I want you to remember in these hours when there is no music, when all the lights are burning dim, when you are so weary you can hardly face your task, when after some time of spiritual intensity you are tempted, that the Lord knows it. He was just so tempted; He has just come through it. He holds out His hand and calls you brother.
Tempted along the Line of His Desires
There is only one thing more I want to say, and it is this. I want you to notice how our Lord was tempted along the line of His desires, along the line of His ambitions (if I might venture to use that somewhat degraded word). You have that in every one of the temptations; you have it specially in the third. He would go out and preach about the Kingdom—no man worth anything preaches on what he has not given his intense thought to when you were busy at your business—and the Lord had been thinking of the Kingdom in these forty days when He was all alone, I suppose, saying to Himself, “My mother thought the Kingdom was for the Jews; and God, My Father, is showing Me that it is not. The Kingdom is going to include every kingdom in the world.” And just then the devil comes to Him, and what does he do? Contradict Him? Never! The devil comes and says, “Sir, that is a most laudable ambition; accept my help; just let me give you a hand and all the kingdoms of the world will become yours.” And our Lord said, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Do you see the tactics he uses? That is exactly what happens today. Take for instance, a preacher who is on fire to preach the Gospel; but what is the use of preaching when the church is empty? Of course, his deep desire, though he does not say it to you, is to have his church full. And just then the devil comes to him and—contradicts him? Never. Says, That is a poor kind of ambition? Nothing of the kind. The devil says, “Now I want you to let me help you. Don’t preach on such and such things; be modern, just avoid the Cross; sometimes take a risky subject about the eternal triangle; advertise flaming, flashing titles, just have a touch of the music hall about your service, and it will all come right.” And the Lord says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
Take a man whose great ambition is to advance in his field. Men who are content to be failures are not in God’s line. Here is a man determined to advance, wanting to progress—and he is perfectly right, and the more of you who get ahead the better. And then Satan comes to him. Does he contradict him? Does he say to him, “Friend, you ought to have higher motives than that”? He says, “Won’t you just allow me to help you a little?” The man is tempted to do something that he knows is wrong. The man is tempted to give bribes; to say, Of course everybody gives them, and I have my wife and children to look after. And the Lord was tempted just like that, and the Lord said, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” The point is, are you a follower of His? It all comes to that. If you are not, you can do what you like. But what right have you to call yourself a disciple of Christ if in such hours you accept such help as that? None, no more than I would have as a preacher if I advertised flashy titles and had Scotch ditties sung here on my platform. Here is a man who is given to writing books, as so many people have an itch to do. Suppose he wants to be famous, and that is perfectly right. “Fame is the last infirmity of noble minds,” says Milton. Mark you, of noble minds. Then the devil comes to him, never contradicts, says, “Friend, I want to help you to have your name on every lip,” and tells him the sort of hook to write, so what if some of the Commandments are broken! But the point is that the Lord says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” The singular thing is this, that when the Lord took the long, slow, bloody way, there came into His heart a joy and peace that the world could never give, and has never taken away. And there is coming to Him a triumph ten thousand times greater than if He accepted the advice of Satan:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run.