Apparently the two topics you should never discuss at a dinner party are Religion and Politics – they are supposed to be too divisive for polite company. But if I were to add a third subject to that list, it would surely be sin. Mention sin and temptation at a dinner party and you are unlikely to be invited back!
Sin and temptation are not popular topics, even in many Church circles. Who wants to dwell on what’s wrong with ourselves and worst about the world? But by taking a careful look at that topic in Matthew’s Gospel today, I hope we will feel better equipped to recognise it and resist it in our lives – and more grateful to Christ, the one man who resisted every temptation and saved us from sin.
In short, I want us to look first at the nature of temptation, then think about the tools we have to resist temptation, before, thirdly, reflecting on Christ, the conquerer of sin.
The Types of Temptation
Our reading from Matthew chapter 4 this morning describes a battle of wills between Christ and the devil. He tells us about a titanic struggle between Satan and the Son of God.
This titanic tussle takes place out in the wilderness, a remote barren place in which Jesus found himself hungry, alone and vulnerable. Vulnerable not just to wild animals, but vulnerable to the spiritual assaults of Satan. The devil tried three times to divert Jesus from his God-given vocation. Three times the devil attempted to lure Jesus away from wholehearted obedience to his Father and his Word. Three times Satan sought to try and make Jesus selfish rather than servant-hearted.
But its not just Jesus who had to battle against temptation. Its a battle every Christian has to fight, in one form or another. We may not see the devil before our eyes. Our temptation may not even come from the devil at all – it may come from within us or from other people. But wherever it comes from, temptation is a universal feature of human life in this broken, fallen world.
In my experience, temptation seems to take two main forms. Some temptations relate to our desires and appetites, while others appeal to our pride:
• When it comes to physical appetites, I guess we all know what the weak spots are in our own lives – the physical appetites where we are most susceptible to temptation. For some it may be a desire for food, money or possessions, where we are at risk of greed and materialism. For others it may be sexual temptation and the dangers of lust or even adultery. While other people may enjoy a drink or two, but be at risk of alcoholism.
In the case of Jesus, his physical appetite for food was the subject of his first temptation. Verse 2 and 3 today tell us that in the wilderness Jesus ate nothing for days and at the end of them was hungry. He must have been starving, in fact. So Satan tempts Jesus to abuse his power and turn a stone into bread. To perform a self-serving miracle rather than one designed to help others – like healing the sick or raising the dead. Thankfully Christ did not succumb, and answered the devil with those famous words of verse 4: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
• So Satan’s appeal to Jesus physical appetite failed. But perhaps the most insidious temptations we all face are those that appeal to our pride. We are all prone to pride – our desire to being popular, respected, influential and important, and we sin when we pursue these things in the wrong way – too aggressively or selfishly or arrogantly. Our pride means we must always question our motives and resist every temptation to put ourselves ahead of others. We must guard against selfishness and look out for ungodly attitudes towards others.
Satan tried to tempt Jesus with power and glory, offering him all the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship him. A proud man would have succumbed to such an offer, but not Christ. Jesus knew that his path to power and glory would go through the cross. Proud people worship themselves or their idols. But Jesus knew that God alone should be the object of our worship.
Tools to tackle temptation
Oscar Wilde famously said “I can resist everything apart from temptation.” We might admire his honesty, but if we are Christians we know that Wilde’s attitude was not just pessimistic but also untrue. Sin can be conquered!
If we are Christians, with God’s help we can win our daily battles against temptation. With God’s help we are no longer powerless in our fight against the flesh, the world, and the devil. We can experience victory over temptation, just as Jesus did when he faced the devil in the desert. There are God-given tools at our disposal.
For example, if we read and learn our Bibles, we will be well-equipped to fight off temptation. If we spend time with the Bible each day, and learn God’s promises, God’s goodness and God’s commands, then it will help us fight off doubts and temptations. When he was tempted in the wilderness, Jesus repeatedly quoted the Bible to defeat Satan’s temptations (the book of Deuteronomy to be precise). If the Bible is good enough for Jesus, its good enough for us!
In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul actually calls the Bible “the sword of the Spirit”. A sword to help us in daily battles against temptation. In the same passage, Paul briefly mentions two other weapons at our disposal:
• One is prayer. When we pray, we invite God’s Holy Spirit to give us the strength, self-control and courage to be holy and godly ourselves. Tremendous divine resources are at our disposal if we only ask! In verse 1 of our reading today, we’re told that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. It was the Spirit’s power that helped Jesus endure the temptations he faced – and the same power is accessible to us today through prayer.
• Another weapon against sin is the prayers and support of other Christians. We are to share our burdens, weaknesses and temptations with one another, and support one another practically and prayerfully in our different battles against sin. House groups, Sunday services and Christian friendships provide ideal settings for such mutual accountability.
Its also interesting that Jesus’ temptation ends in verse 11 with angels coming to “attend” to him. Even Christ needed companionship and encouragement to survive temptation – and certainly so do we!
The Conqueror of sin
So God’s Word, God’s Spirit and God’s People are all available to help us in our daily battles with temptation. But perhaps the most important and encouraging thing to remember during our skirmishes with sin, is that the war is already won. If we are Christians, following Jesus and trusting in his death for us on the Cross, then sin’s ultimate defeat is assured. Christ has conquered sin for us.
The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world when they succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation. But Jesus held firm whereas they failed. You may remember that the people of Israel sinned seriously during their forty years in the wilderness. But Jesus stayed perfect and pure during his forty days in the wilderness.
And, at the end of his earthly life, when Jesus died on the Cross, he removed the penalty and power of sin from us, today. As the one man who never sinned, even under great temptation, Jesus was qualified to be the perfect sacrifice, the spotless sacrificial lamb, whose death was sufficient to bear our sin and wash away our guilt before God.
Jesus’ death took away the judgment we deserve for all those times when we have yielded to temptation and committed sin. And one day the risen Jesus will give us our own resurrection bodies. Everlasting bodies that will be free from temptation, immune from every kind of sin, forever.
As I finish, I hope that we have been reminded of the nature of temptation, and the tools that are available to help us resist temptation. But most of all, I hope we have all been reminded that sin has been conquered. Because the great news of Christianity is that sin’s penalty has been paid for us by Jesus, our guilt is gone. And one day, in God’s new Creation, even the presence of sin will be banished forever. It’s a forgiveness and future that we can all possess through faith in Christ.
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.