He calls me crying for the third time in a week. “I don’t understand,” he says, “Why do I continue to give into temptation every time?” Despite repeated uses of filters, accountability, and rigorous Bible study, my friend continues to run to his computer late at night looking for pornography. I can tell by the sound in his voice that he feels helpless and alone . . . and utterly confused.
Your besetting sin may or may not be Internet porn, but the fact remains that we all face temptations. For some, these temptations come over us like waves of evil, pulling at every unrighteous impulse in our being. Some temptations aren’t even detectable until we have given in. And many temptations might go completely unnoticed altogether.
For everyone intent on becoming more like Jesus, how we handle temptation is a subject of utmost importance. To learn how we do this, we must look to our Master as our model.
The Temptation Drama
Jesus emerges from the shallow river, water dripping from his face. Standing next to Him is His cousin, John, looking at Him intently. John feels unworthy to baptize Jesus, but he does it anyway, at Jesus’ insistence. The crowds standing on the shore are unusually attentive as they watch Jesus leave the water. As He reaches the shore, He begins to pray, head raised, looking into the sky.
Centuries before, Isaiah prayed, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (64:1), and this day, on the edge of the Jordan, this is just what happens: Jesus sees the heavens ripped open before His eyes, and He stares into the face of His Father’s majestic glory. Suddenly the air above Jesus begins to shiver, and the crowd watches as a dove flies over the river and lights over Jesus. God has visited the Jordan.
Then they all hear it, the rolling sound of echoing tones. Have you ever heard the way thunder comes from a great distance, skipping across the clouds like a playful giant until it is right upon you? Have you ever felt a storm literally shake something in the core of your being? This is what the crowds hear, but it is not thunder but rather a voice: “You are my dearly loved Son, and I am so pleased with You.”
This is the moment John has been waiting for his entire life. At this very moment he knows for certain: Jesus is the Promised One, the Lamb who will take away our sins and pour out God’s Spirit of renewal on the world. His heart aches to see it happen.
Jesus climbs the shore, dripping with the Spirit’s fresh presence, hearing the echo of His Father’s voice in his mind. Suddenly He feels the compelling tug of God’s whisper. To the east is the bleak wilderness. He knows the Spirit is driving Him to go there. He walks further and further away from the noise of the river and the crowds. As the sun begins to set, the first chill of the evening desert wind blows around Him. The jackals howl in the rocky hills. Soon Jesus is all alone.
While growing up, Jesus heard that the desert was a place haunted by restless demons. This is no friendly place. The beating sun, the blowing sand, and each distant howl is a reminder to any desert nomad that he is at the mercy of the wilderness.
Finally, after more than five weeks of solitude, Jesus hears another voice calling to Him, but it is not the voice of His Father. No, this is not that kind of voice. Jesus knows He is not alone. Someone has been watching Him. Someone has been peering from behind the rocks, waiting for the perfect moment to speak. Perhaps, at first, the voice sounds only like His own thoughts, flitting about in His mind. Or perhaps He hears the voice clearly. We do not know. What we do know is that a pivotal hour of testing has come. The Prince of Demons has arrived.
When the dust finally settles, Jesus emerges victorious over the wiles of the Devil, but not without a steep cost to Jesus’ personal strength. At the conclusion of Satan’s seductions, angels from heaven surround Jesus and minister to Him. Meanwhile, the Tempter looks on, waiting for another opportunity to entice the Son of God.
Jesus: The One Who Sympathizes
If Jesus came to merely show us what it would look like if God put on flesh, then we would have no compulsion to follow Him. If he was a sort of superhuman or a demigod, then how could we even try to mimic Him? But Jesus did not merely come as God clothed in human skin; He came as a real man, a man perfectly submitted to God, a man empowered by (and dependent on) the Father—the perfect man. This compels us to follow Him.
This is one of the heart-stopping teachings of the book of Hebrews. The author starts in chapter 1, demonstrating how Jesus is divine, the very “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature” (1:3), changeless, eternal, worshiped by angels, and the One who laid the very foundations of the earth. Then the same author spends all of chapter 2 demonstrating how fitting it is that Jesus became human, entering a Jewish bloodline, and subjecting Himself to suffering, pain, and even death. In this, the God-Man identifies with us so much that He doesn’t merely call us creations or subjects, but He calls us “brothers” (2:11).
Imagine it: Sitting at the right hand of the Father right now is a human being: One who got tired, hungry, and thirsty, felt discomfort, perspired real sweat, bled real blood, and experienced the heights and depths of human emotion. Jesus was not merely human, but He was not less than human either. He was in some ways the most human human being ever—the perfect man.
Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted. Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him (Hebrews 2:17-3:2a).
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
As we walk in a world surrounded by temptations, we must remember:
1. Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are.
It might be easy to believe that Jesus must have hung on to some privilege of deity that gave Him an edge over temptation, some hidden strength. But instead, Jesus divested Himself of His royal position and entered our dirty, fallen world as one of us.
Imagine this: Jesus’ temptations may have been even worse than ours. We give in to temptation again and again, and when we give in, the temptation has completed its task. But Jesus, the one who never gave in, felt the full weight of temptations in a way that we never experience it. He knows something of temptation’s reach that we can never know. Jesus knows what it is to face the ultimate test of trust and love for God, for He faced and fought the Devil’s wiles all the way to the bitter end.
2. Jesus was perfectly faithful to God.
At no point did Jesus ever grieve His Father’s heart by what He thought or said or did. At no point did Jesus fail to love God with all of His being, and He never failed to express that love in utmost trust and obedience.
Now, to be sure, there is a difference between immaturity and sinlessness. Like all of us, Jesus needed to grow in knowledge and understanding. His mind and body developed. He was not born with a fully developed understanding of how to trust and love God. But from the womb, His Father was fully pleased with Him.
3. We are meant to experience Jesus’ deep sympathy.
The word “sympathy” means to be affected by the feelings of another, to feel another’s pain. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses.” This is a remarkable quality of the Son of God. Consider what this means . . .
Every time we feel any physical or emotional weakness, Jesus’ heart moves with compassion. Each time you feel your feeble flesh come up against a seemingly impossible temptation, Jesus gets it. Each time your heart struggles to trust God, Jesus knows that feeling. Each time you come face to face with a hard choice, Jesus remembers what it was like. In this dark world full of forces beyond our control, our weak human frame buckles under the pressures that lead us away from wholehearted devotion to God. And the Son of God understands intimately what we are going through (every step of the way) even though He Himself never displeased His Father with a sinful attitude or deed.
His sympathy is what makes Jesus the “merciful” high priest. For this reason we are told that we should draw near to the throne of grace to receive the mercy we need. We do not approach a cold, detached, austere Savior, but one who has uniquely entered our fallen world and knows its pressures. We are told to draw near with “complete confidence” in Jesus’ sympathy, to draw close to Him with “a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22).
If we are to habitually approach this gracious throne, we must learn to expect human weakness and frailty in ourselves. Real growth in the Christian life is not the progressive loss of all weaknesses, but a progressive recognition of just how much we need the Father in our weakness. Andrew Comiskey writes, “I have discovered that God does not free me from all my weaknesses. Rather, he frees me to cry out to him as I struggle to do what is right. Then he is faithful to release his power again and again and again.”
Thoughts for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Read Colossians 3:1-17. Make a list of the sinful attitudes and then a list of the godly dispositions in that passage. Reflecting on these lists, what temptation easily grips you? It may be a temptation to “commit” a certain sin. It may also be a temptation that leads you to “omit” a godly quality from your life.
2. Is it easy or difficult for you to envision Jesus as authentically human, as one of us? Why?
3. Can you remember a time when you took great comfort from the fact that Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses?
4. What do you think it means to “draw near to the throne of grace” with confidence in Jesus’ sympathy? How can doing this help us overcome temptation? How can you do this the next time you encounter a temptation?