How To Overcome Temptation

I was driving past a Dunkin Donut store and felt this strong pang of hunger come on, so I prayed “Lord, if you want me to buy some donuts, please send me a sign and provide me with a parking space right outside the shop”. And guess what, The Lord answered my prayer. On my tenth time I drove past the shop, there was my parking space. It was Oscar Wilde who made famous the phrase, “I can resist everything… except temptation.”

I can really relate to that. Sweet cakes do not tempt me. But a bag of chips drenched in salt and vinegar on the other hand… In our Gospel reading today, Matthew has two reasons for recording the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. First, to show, from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus overcame Satan.  Second, to show how we can overcome Satan’s attempts to destroy us also. As we shall see Jesus relied on one thing and one thing only to defeat Satan, His absolute submission to the will of God revealed in the Word of God.

This momentous encounter, may be divided into three parts: We see here the purpose of temptation, the nature of temptation and the means of victory over temptation. 

1. The Purpose of Temptation is Testing (Matthew 4:1-2)

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Matthew 4:1–2)

1.1 Temptation came directly after blessing

Jesus has just been baptized. God the Father had declared, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased!” 

You too will discover that testing often comes after a spiritual high point in your life. 

1.2 Temptation came with physical weakness

Jesus had not eaten in 40 days. Temptations often come when we are a weak physically or emotionally, or when we are tired. 

1.3 Temptation came when Jesus was alone

We are most susceptible to temptation when we are alone. 

That is why friends are so important – why fellowship on a weekly basis whether on Sundays or in a mid-week small group is so essential. 

God’s purpose is to turn Satan’s attempt to weaken us into opportunities to strengthen us. Our “muscles” need exercise to grow stronger. The purpose of temptation is testing.

2. The Nature of Temptation is Personal (Matthew 4:3-10)

Let us consider these three temptations one at a time. 

2.1 The temptation to do it yourself  

 “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” (4:3). Satan is not questioning whether Jesus is the Son of God.  He is saying, “since you are the Son of God.”  The first temptation would be no temptation at all if Jesus were not the Son of God. 

Jjust turn these stones into bread” – what’s the big deal? You are the Son of God – just do it!  Jesus had been without food for nearly six weeks. This temptation was therefore very real. “The power of all temptation is the prospect that it will make me happier.” Jesus Answers: “It is written, ‘People do not live on bread alone.’” (Matthew 4:4). Notice Jesus uses the same phrase in each of his answers, “it is written.”. The answers to all three temptations come from Deuteronomy, the story of how God delivered his people from slavery. Jesus is saying, “I will not take matters into my own hands. I will trust my Father and his word.” We will never be tempted to turn stones into bread because the impossible cannot tempt us. Instead, Satan will try and convince us that if we want something done, we need to do it ourselves. Which is why I believe the two most significant means of temptation used by Satan today are, the internet and the credit card. The temptation to do it yourself.

2.2 The temptation that seeing is believing 

Satan leads Jesus to the high point of the Temple and quotes Psalm 91: 

“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “’He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:5-7)

For Jesus to have followed Satan’s suggestion would have been, in the eyes of many, sure proof he was the Messiah. Sensationalism is always appealing, and many are willing to believe almost anyone or anything as long as the claims are accompanied by the supernatural.  Satan quotes Psalm 91 but conveniently leaves out the context.

“If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the Lord, who is my refuge— then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.  (Psalm 91:1-2) 

Notice the conditional clause? “If… then…”  To ignore the divine command in order to claim the divine promise is presumption not faith. We cannot separate the means from the motive. Signs do not produce faith; they only strengthen the faith of those who already believe. Jesus’ miracles merely hardened the opposition of His enemies to the point where He declared that “an evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign” (Matt. 12:39).  

Jesus Himself was the greatest sign ever given by, yet, as Isaiah had predicted, He “was despised and forsaken” (Isaiah 53:3; Luke 18:31–33). Demanding proof is not evidence of faith but of doubt. Jesus would have no part in Satan’s stunt. “It is also written” he replied, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7).  

Jesus refused for at least two reasons. First, people who want signs are never satisfied. They will want one more sign, one more miracle, one more show. They become addicted. Second, and more significant, no matter how noble we may think our reasons are, to test God is to doubt God. And to doubt God is not to trust Him, and not to trust Him is sin. That, of course, is what Satan wanted Jesus to do.  Jesus refused this shortcut.

There are many subtle ways that we can put God to the test. We may not jump from the top of the church tower – but when we would rather read a newspaper or novel than the Scriptures, we test God. When we think that occasional attendance and not dedicated service will keep us on the right path – we test God. 

When we take risks with clear moral absolutes like truth telling and honesty, we test God.  The temptation to do it yourself. 

The temptation that seeing is believing.  

2.3 The temptation to take the easy way 

“The devil led him up to a very high mountain and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you” he said, “if you bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-10) 

The devil was not lying when he promises Jesus, “this has been given to me, and I give it to anyone I want to.” (Luke 4:6). The devil was offering Jesus a kingdom but without the cross. No suffering, No struggle, No pain. Just switch allegiance and join my team. But a crown without the cross would mean no forgiveness for our sins. So Jesus answers: “Away from me Satan, for it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:10).

We do not have to look for to see the application. We too are tempted to take the easy way, of least resistance. Avoid sacrifice. The only absolute is my right to personal freedom and affluence. Jesus contradicts this when he replies: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only…’ unconditionally, unreservedly, irrespective of the consequences.  Clearly, these temptations were unique to Jesus. 
But Satan knows where we are vulnerable also. The purpose of temptation is testing; The nature of temptation is personal.

3. The Victory over Temptation is Assured

“Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11). 

In Luke’s account he adds, Satan, “…left him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13) When it says that the Devil “left him” the Greek is much more emphatic. It means he “stood off”. You may withstand Satan today but remember he will be back tomorrow. Let me close with three simple steps to help us withstand temptation as Jesus did.

1. Refuse to be Intimidated

The Lord gives His children the power to resist Satan. “Resist the devil,” James assures us, “and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). 

In every temptation, God promises, he “will provide a way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Rick Warren says “In one sense you can consider temptation a compliment. Satan does not have to tempt those who are already doing his will; they are already his. Temptation is a sign that Satan hates you, it is not a sign of weakness… It is not a sin to be tempted… Temptation only becomes a sin when you give in to it.” Martin Luther once said, you cannot stop birds flying over your head but you can stop them nesting in your hair.” Refuse to be intimidated.

2. Recognise your Vulnerability

We are all wired differently. Satan knows exactly what trips you up.

1 Peter 5:8 in the Message says “Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.” (1 Peter 5:8). Ask yourself “When am I most tempted?” “What time of day?” Ask “Where am I most tempted?” At work? At home? Ask “Who am I with when most tempted?” Friends, strangers? And ask “How do I usually feel when I am most tempted?”  If you are like me it is when you are tired or lonely or bored. When you are depressed or under stress. When you have been hurt, or angry or worried. When you are tempted, turn it into an opportunity for growth. Refuse to be intimidated. Recognise your vulnerability.

3. Request God’s help

“Heaven has a 24 hour emergency hot line.”  Jeremiah 33:3, “Call to me and I will answer you…” In Psalm 50, God says, “Call on me in times of trouble. I will rescue you, and you will honour me.” (Psalm 50:15). Rick Warren calls this a “microwave prayer”. When temptation comes, you don’t have time for a long conversational prayer. You simply need to cry out for help. Hebrew 4:15 is such a comfort. Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). Think about it. Jesus is the perfect sinless eternal Son of God, yet he chose to rely solely on the Scriptures to defeat Satan. What makes us think we can do it any other way? 

I strongly recommend you find a Bible Reading Plan and read scripture every day and use it in your prayers. I cannot think of anything more important to help overcome temptation. The purpose of temptation is testing, the nature of temptation is personal, and the victory over temptation is certain.

Jesus’ responses to Satan?  “I will trust my Father; I will not presume on His Word; I will rely on it. I will take my Father’s good gifts from His own hand, in His own way, and in His own time.”  

So when you are tempted, instead of giving in or giving up, like Jesus, look to your Heavenly Father, trust him to help you, and remember the reward that is waiting for you. “God blesses the people who patiently endure testing. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12). 

Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion:

What was Satan’s purpose in tempting Jesus?
How does Satan use the Bible to deceive and destroy?
How did Jesus overcome Satan’s temptations?
What can we learn from Jesus’ example?
When are we most vulnerable to temptation?
What is God’s purpose in testing us?
Can temptation ever be good for us?
How can we use the Bible to expose Satan’s lies and deception?
Which Bible promises do you find helpful in withstanding temptation?

Recommended Resources:

R.T. France, Matthew Tyndale New Testament Commentary (IVP)
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew (IVP)
John MacArthur, MacArthur Commentary on Matthew (Moody)
Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan)
Warren Wiersbe, Be Loyal New Testament Study – Matthew (Victor)

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