VICTORY OVER SIN AND TEMPTATION
Chapter 4: What is Temptation?
The purpose of this chapter is to present a concrete and specific explanation of temptation. This is important because temptation is a companion to the idea of sin. Our understanding of and success in dealing with sin requires that we understand and successfully deal with temptation as well.
The word “temptation” is so familiar to people that they often assume they know what it means, even though they might struggle to give a clear and precise definition or explanation of it. However, the word “temptation,” has been greatly misunderstood, even by people who claim to be or who even may be believers. A sloppy and vague understanding of temptation, as in all other things, leads to errors of doctrine and eventually practice. The blessing is that the Bible provides a precise and clear understanding of temptation. That understanding equips us to correctly answer some important questions about God’s salvation plan. And that understanding guides us, as we struggle with sin and attempt to live a life which results in praise to God.
1. The Bible’s idea of temptation
Sometimes we use the word “temptation” to refer to some object. We say, “that piece of pie is a great temptation.” But the Bible does not use the word that way. Or we sometimes use the word “temptation” as a synonym for the word “attraction.” We say “I hope I can resist that temptation.” But the Bible does not use the phrase, “we resist temptation.” These are confusing ways to think of temptation, that is, confusing if we are trying to understand what the Bible means by temptation.
James 1:2-3 tells us that temptation is a “trying” of our faith. James 1:12 repeats the notion that temptation is an event in which we are “tried.” The word that we find translated “temptation” means a test, or an examination. I Timothy 6:9 tells us that temptations are what people fall “into.” Also, II Peter 2:9 teaches that God delivers the godly “out of” temptations. Taking all this information together, we can say that temptation refers, not to an object or its allure, but to a test into which a person enters, even though the object may play a role in the test.
We can get a picture of the Bible’s idea of temptation if we think of a schoolroom in which a student sits in a chair with a math test in front of him. Is he prepared to pass the test? A student and the test paper together make up a situation which he enters “into,” that in time will reveal if he is able to solve math problems or not. We call that situation an examination. That situation of a student and a test paper together is an accurate picture of the idea behind the word “temptation.”
Another illustration of the Bible’s idea of temptation is a mineral assay. For example, the old California ‘49ers brought their rock samples to someone who knew enough chemistry to test them for their gold content. Did their rocks contain gold? The chemicals applied to the samples showed if the yellow pieces were gold or iron pyrite, fool’s gold. The assay or analysis was a test “into” which the samples were put, in order to reveal their true composition. Or, if you will, the assay was a “temptation.”
Still one more illustration of the Bible’s idea of temptation is magnetism. We must simplify the idea of magnetism for the sake of this comparison, but we can still make a few correct observations that will help us. A magnet always has a magnetic field in the space around it that causes an attractive force on iron, cobalt, nickel or similar metal. We may wonder if an object in our hand contains any of these kinds of elements. But all doubt will be removed if it is attracted to or not attracted to magnet. The piece of metal in the presence of a magnet is a test. Both parts together are needed to make the test. In a technical sense, for the sake of clarifying the message of the Bible, we can call this situation a “temptation.” This magnetic illustration gives a more complete picture of the word “temptation” because it includes the idea that there is an attraction between the magnet and the metal.
These three illustrations help us correctly understand what the Bible says about the temptations we face every day of our lives. However, at this time we should say something that will help simplify our analysis. This is important because it will help us to avoid confusion and help us be accurate and clear in what we think about temptations.
People are attracted to many things. Some things to which people are attracted are good. God has created them that way. It is part of God’s design for people to desire some things. For example, people are attracted to food when they are hungry. Similarly, clothes, shelter and companionship attract people, all for legitimate reasons. The Bible acknowledges that kind of attraction indirectly. However, those sorts of attractions are not the primary focus of the Bible’s discussion about temptation.
People are also attracted to bad things. People are attracted to revenge, gossip, lust and many other things that are wicked. They are attracted to these things because they are fallen creatures, with bodies of flesh that are full of sinful tendencies. People also are attracted to good things but try to fulfill their hunger in a sinful way or at a wrong time. The attraction to do bad things or to fulfill the desire for good things in a bad way is part of the Bible’s message of temptation because the Bible is concerned about the problem of sin. This is the attraction that is the focus of our discussion.
Incidentally, we can distinguish a bad attraction from a good one if we compare the situation with what the Bible says. Our consciences are only a limited guide. They first must be trained by the Bible to be reliable.
Remember, a temptation has two parts. One is a person and the other is something that attracts the person in some way. Both together comprise a situation that is called a temptation. The temptation is not the thing that attracts him. A temptation is not the attraction the thing has for a person. According to the Bible, a temptation is just a situation that is contrived, or deliberately set-up, to reveal the true nature of something. It is a test, an examination, an assay. It is as if a temptation were a drama in which there is an actor on a stage with one prop. The story line is that the actor is placed in the presence of a prop that he is told to reject. What he then does, in a certain way, reveals what kind of person he is. That is how the test works. Will the person embrace the object or will he ignore it? In time, he will reveal his heart’s desire. He will either pass or fail the test. He will either pass or fail the temptation, depending upon what kind of person he is. As the Bible explains, the temptation is nothing more than a test.
At this point, it is important to clarify an important concept about temptation, in order to avoid a common but dangerous misunderstanding. As we have emphasized, a temptation is a test in the sense that it is a revealer. A temptation can be compared to a magnifying glass which is used to get a good look at what is there, but which in no way alters or improves what is examined. That is, a temptation is only a revealer and nothing more. A temptation cannot be compared to a ladder by which people ascend through their own efforts to a higher level of wisdom, strength or virtue. It is not as if a temptation is presented to people as an occasion for them to exercise their innate abilities so that they may gain victory over it and thereby acquire a strength of character they did not have before. People are what they are, and their response to a temptation is like an open window into their soul, revealing its true nature. For example, an unsaved person eventually will fail to obey in the face of a temptation and so reveal both his evil nature and his impotence to control its desires. However, a saved person eventually will triumphantly obey His Lord in the face of a temptation and so reveal his new nature wrought of God, who gives him the holy desire and spiritual strength that he displays in his victory.
This brings us to another important observation about how God uses temptations in Christians’ lives. Christians’ successful completion of a temptation is followed by ..... another temptation! So, after they pass a test, they can expect another test, sometimes a harder test, or a continuation of the same test. For example, Abram received the promise of a son when he was 75 years old (Gen. 12:1-4), a promise that was repeated more than once (Gen. 13:16, 15:4, 17:6-8). His test was that he had to wait for the fulfillment of the promise until he was 100 years old (Gen. 21:1-5). His test continued for 25 years. As we see, tests are part of Christians’ life-long experiences. There are many reasons for this. The most important one is that temptations “worketh” virtues in the lives of God’s people (James 1:3-4), and the grace that they demonstrate, as a consequence of passing the tests God sends their way, He wants all to see (Matt. 5:16). After Christians successfully face more and more demanding tests, the light within them shines brighter. That is, Jesus works in His people to do His will (Phil. 2:13). He is the light that men see as His people successfully deal with temptations (John 8:12). Therefore, in order that Jesus receive the glory, He brings his people into temptation to show what He has done and continues to do in their lives, as they reveal a dependence and trust in Him, in the midst of a difficult test (Gen. 15:6).
2. Some questions about temptation
Now we are prepared to answer some questions that are sometimes asked about temptation. We will not answer all possible questions, but we will look at some important ones.
One question comes to us when we wonder about the temptation of Jesus found in Matthew 4. Matthew says that Jesus was tempted of the devil. It also says that Jesus was hungry. Did Jesus sin? First of all, we must remember that a temptation is a morally neutral situation. It is neither good nor bad. It is simply a set-up used as a test, an examination, an assay, for the purpose of revealing the nature of what is tested. A person may fail a test. But the test itself is not sin. Instead, sin comes from the person who fails the test. So temptation is not sin.
Secondly, the Bible explicitly states in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus was tempted but without sin. Jesus’ temptation was not sin and neither are our temptations sin. It is true that Jesus had an appetite after 40 days without food. We have appetites, too. But the stones that Jesus could have turned into bread were not sin and the hunger Jesus had for bread was not sin. A temptation can be a situation that encourages our appetite, but the appetite is not necessarily a sin. We hunger for many different things. We can think of a temptation as an offer to fill that hunger. It is a sin to fill that hunger in a way that is against God’s will. The issue is, what will we do in the face of a temptation? Will we be obedient to God or not?
Another question is “Does God tempt us?” Yes, God does tempt us. The Bible states that ultimately all temptations come to us from God. In fact, every test in life is from the hand of God, either directly or as He allows others to execute it. The support for this claim can be found in many places of the Bible. A few of them are Exodus 20:20, Psalm 11:4, Proverbs 17:3, Ecclesiastes 1:13, 3:10, Jeremiah 17:10 and Hebrews 4:12-13.
The answer to the question above helps us answer another question. “Does Satan tempt us?” The answer is yes (Matt. 4:3, I Thess. 3:5). He and all unbelievers do, but only as God allows them to set up a test. We must keep in mind that Satan is only a tool in God’s hand. Always, God is in control of the nature and extent of the test (Job 1:12, 2:6). Christians are never tested beyond the ability of God to keep them secure in His love. Therefore, every object and event we encounter is a test, no matter whom God uses to administer it. All of life is a test, that is, a temptation.
At this point we must clarify God’s and Satan’s role in temptation. The words “with evil” in James 1:13 are the key. To properly understand this verse we can read it as, “Let no man say when he is tempted (with evil), I am tempted (to do evil) of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man (with evil).” God does tempt us, but it is not with the purpose to cause us to fall into evil sin. We cannot blame God for our fall into sin. The attraction for something evil comes from within us (James 1:14-15). If we are not restrained, we will fall. But that is not God’s fault. On the other hand, it is always Satan’s goal to cause people to sin. God may allow Satan and unsaved people to tempt us. Satan and unsaved people may desire our fall. But God is simply giving us a test to reveal what is in our hearts.
If we are prone to fall and many times do, is it wrong for God to tempt us? No. Again, temptation is just a test. It is not as if God is trying to discover what is in our hearts. He knows all men (John 2:24,25). The tests are meant to reveal or confirm our true spiritual condition to ourselves (II Cor. 13:5) and sometimes to others (Matt. 5:16, I Peter 3:16). If a test confirms that we are saved, then we will not continue with unfounded apprehensions about our salvation. If through a test, we discover that we are not saved, then by God’s grace we will not continue to live in the fantasy that we are saved, but seek God’s salvation instead.
If God tempts us, then why do we read in Matthew 6:13 that we should pray, “lead us not into temptation”? Also, why did Jesus say to His disciples in Matthew 26:41, “pray that ye enter not into temptation”? The answer is found in the context of Matthew 26. Jesus is being weighed in the balance. He was in the middle of the greatest test of all, the test before God’s Judgment Throne. Laden with the sins of His people, He was found guilty and condemned (Matt. 26:38,39). Therefore, in Matthew 26:41, Jesus is saying, “pray that you don’t face the Judgment of God alone, as I now must. Pray that you will be saved from the trial that all unsaved people must face on their own at the end of time.” That is the message of Matthew 6:13 as well.
3. Two reactions to temptation.
Having discussed the meaning of temptation and having answered a few questions about temptation, now let us consider how people deal with temptations, in failure and in success. In other words, we shall try to understand how unbelievers deal with temptations, and we shall try to understand the role temptations play in the lives of true believers. Actually we will be trying to answer the question, “Why do people fall or not fall into temptation?” and the related question, “How can they successfully deal with temptation?”
First of all, we must restate a principle. The principle is this: every object and every event in life is part of a temptation for everybody. The principle is another way of saying that every object and every event in life is part of a test for us. Life is really one big test. And this planet is one big testing arena. We have already shown from the Bible that this is so.
For example, the fact that we are born with certain abilities or lack of abilities is a test. Do we boast? Do we really give thanks for what we have? Are we impatient with others who do not have similar abilities? Do we murmur and complain that we do not have certain abilities? Are we resentful and jealous of others who have abilities we lack? In another example, the fact that we are born into a family order is a test. Are we an older child with younger brothers or sisters? Are we irritated that we are called to be responsible and an example to others or annoyed that our privacy is invaded by younger ones? Are we a younger child with older brothers and sisters? Do we complain that we do not get the same privileges our older siblings get? The fact that we are an only child is a test too. Are we self-centered, selfish and spoiled? There are many examples. Our work, our school and our recreation - all are tests.
From the point of view that a temptation is a test, the principle that we are tempted by everything may be acceptable to most people. If we think about it for a moment, we react in one way or another to everything around us. For example, some evil things attract us into doing something sinful, other evil things we ignore. But in one way or another, we react to the things around us. And how we react tells something about ourselves. It tells what we like and dislike. It tells what kind of a heart we have and whether we have the desire and power to refrain from indulging in things we ought to avoid. With all of this in mind, people can agree that every object and event tests us.
On the other hand, from the point of view that all the objects around us attract us to do evil, this principle is not acceptable to most people. In fact, it is offensive. After all, we are quick to point out that some things may be a problem for us, but other sinful things do not attract us at all. A typical reaction would be, “How dare you claim that I would lie, or cheat, or steal, or .....:” It is true that some sinful actions are not a problem for us to the extent that they may be for someone else. But we are all sinners; and we all share the tendency to do every kind of sinful thing that is possible. The object or event that is part of the test reveals that tendency. Our personalities may be different from someone else’s and may cause us to sin more or less easily in one area than another. But everyone without exception has a bodily desire for pride, for revenge, for gossip, for lust and so forth. It may be, at the moment in our lives when we are tested, we are not as easily attracted to one particular sort of evil, but our sinful human nature is attracted to all sins, any of which we would commit under the right circumstances. For example, a mother or a father who walks the streets of a bombed-out city during a war in search of bread for their starving daughter may lie, steal and kill to keep their little girl alive. If we argue against the fact that we are capable of any kind of evil, then we have a quarrel with verses such as Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 3:12.
Let us remember that a temptation is a test that requires two things: a person and an object or action which attracts the person to do evil. The question is, “What will a person do in the presence of something that attracts him to do evil?” If we recall our illustration of a magnet, a piece of iron will always jump to the magnet, unless it is restrained. Similarly, a person will jump to the object that he sees unless he is restrained in some way. The test then becomes a way to answer the question, “Is there some restraint in that person’s life?”
What we mean by restraint is an inner restraint. God restrains all sinners to some degree, otherwise society would completely collapse (Gen. 20:6, 31:7, Rom. 13:3, II Thess. 2:6-7). He arranges restraints that are based upon outer circumstances. However, in our discussion of temptation, we mean the inner restraint of a saved heart.
Let us examine the two possible reactions to a temptation. Let us begin by asking a variety of questions. If we look at fifty people neatly dressed and quietly standing at a bus stop, they all seem nice. There seems to be no difference among them. But what happens when they are put to the test? What happens if they are handed a tract and thus face a gospel test, that is, a test to see if they trust God and want to do things His way? Or consider the situation of two people, one who gives in to his desires as he faces a temptation and another who does not give in to his own desires in the face of the same temptation. Why does one person fail and another person pass? Furthermore, if it is true that the temptation itself is not a sin because it is just a test, then at what point does his sin enter into the picture?
People sin in their minds, even when they are not in the presence of an object that might stimulate that sin. For example, since people are sinful, they think about revenge, even when the person they hate is not around. They think about something juicy about which to gossip, even when there is no one else around with whom to talk. In other words, people set themselves up to sin, they are self-prepared to fail the test and sin. The test just reveals that. So a temptation is a situation composed of two parts. One is a person who is prepared to sin. Another is an object that functions as a catalyst to evoke his sinful desire and action. The temptation is just a test to reveal what is already in the heart of a person.
The Bible is full of examples of such failure in the face of temptation. Consider King Saul. He was told to wait seven days for the prophet Samuel to show up before fighting the Philistines. Samuel did not show up at the appointed time, so Saul made an unauthorized sacrifice to God in preparation for the battle (I Sam. 13:5-13). Samuel’s delay was the test. In the face of that test, Saul failed. But he was ready to fail because he had already failed the bigger test, namely, in his heart he did not trust God but trusted himself instead. His pride and self-focus led him to do what came naturally, to make excuses, justifications, alibis and rationalizations in the face of Samuel’s accusations. Saul was right in his own eyes, no matter what. Without a restraint, King Saul sinned.
Now let us trace the steps a believer takes in the face of temptation. Let us consider Joseph’s situation, of which we read in Genesis. All that Joseph did was based upon a deep trust in God, despite the abuse of his brothers and his subsequent enslavement in Egypt (Gen. 45:5,7; 50:20). When faced with the temptation to lie in bed with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph knew that he should run from her rather than think about the physical pleasure and temporary advantage staying with her would give him (Gen. 39:9-12). Like Jesus in the wilderness, Joseph immediately rejected the object of attraction. Matthew 5 says we must be quick and ruthless with any situation that might cause us to sin, removing anything that would be a problem for us. As we read, it is better to go to Heaven with one eye than into Hell with two.
The question comes, “But don’t people who claim to be believers fail tests?” Yes, many times. True believers are honest and can recall many of their failures. Believers fail for many different reasons. Sometimes believers try to analyze the temptation, but that only makes it so big in their minds they eventually feel they have to give in. Sometimes they forget their dependence upon God and foolishly think that they might be able to handle it correctly on their own. Sometimes, believers are surprised by a temptation and fail as a quick knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes they are not prepared because of their neglect of prayer and lack of time spent in the Bible.
However, a believer’s failure produces an immediate response of godly sorrow. He agrees with God’s word that accuses him. A believer does not focus only upon self and personal embarrassment. He focuses upon how his sin dishonored God’s name. He also is smitten by the possibility that his sin may have hurt others in the sense that it contributed to their spiritual delinquency. That was the reaction David had when the prophet Nathan faced him with his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah (II Sam. 12:7-14). A believer’s failure does not lead him to despair or surprise but reinforces a recognition that he is a sinner saved by grace and is in constant need of the care of his Savior. A believer’s failure motivates him to be a more faithful witness from that point on (II Cor. 7:9-13). A believer’s failure not only reminds him of the source of his strength, it also refreshes his love for his Savior who is always ready to forgive His children. That is, having been saved, a believer continues to live by faith in the promises of the Gospel.
We also must recognize that though believers do fail tests, they pass many times. In fact, as time goes by, they pass tests more and more frequently, even though they will continue to fail until the end of their lives on earth. That was the experience of Peter. He who once denied Jesus when challenged by a harmless servant girl (Matt. 14:66-72), later spoke boldly about Jesus in the face of hostile persecution (Acts 4:8-13, 19-20). That is the confidence and joy Christians receive as benefits of passing a test. Their confidence and joy are based on the fact they see the value of being schooled by God through their tests. Their confidence and joy are based upon the fact they see the reality of God’s power to help them pass those tests.
This brings us to another important truth that must be stated before we continue. Successfully obeying God in the face of a temptation is not equal to salvation. Salvation is not equal to a plan we can entitle “how to achieve victory over sin and temptation in two easy steps.” In other words, if we want to properly understand the difference in the reactions to temptation between an unbeliever and a believer, we must understand the total picture. The foundation of understanding a person’s reaction to temptation is a proper understanding of salvation.
In the first place, obedience or disobedience in the short term does not tell the whole story of a person’s heart. The difference is in the long term. The difference between an unbeliever’s and a believer’s reaction to temptation is based upon the prior work of God’s grace in a person’s heart, something that is not necessarily evident immediately, but is revealed over time.
In the second place, only believers obey in the face of a temptation for the right reason. Remember, a temptation is only a test to see what is there. A temptation does not create something that is not there already. Therefore, salvation is not equal to victory over sin. Instead, victory over sin is an expectation whenever a believer is tested because it reveals God’s prior work of salvation in his heart (Rom. 2:29, Heb. 10:16,22). The questions we must always ask amid temptation or when evaluating our performance in a past temptation are, “Do I reveal God’s work in me? Am I saved?”
4. Understanding Genesis 3:1-6: the anatomy of temptation
This passage provides a clear and important example of temptation. The lessons it contains are especially important for us as we seek to answer the question, “How do I successfully deal with temptation?” Let us examine some of the details.
Genesis 3:1, “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”
While it is easy to focus upon the serpent as an agent of evil, as the Bible seems to do (II Cor. 11:3), we must keep in mind that the talking serpent was a beast that God had made as part of His “very good” created universe. Also, the Hebrew word translated “subtil” is a word for “prudent” (or wise), as we read in Proverbs 22:3. There is no animal to which we can compare it today, but it is enough to recognize that Eve was not surprised by its ability to speak and in fact carefully listened to it. There was no reason for her to fear it or be suspicious. It is not that the serpent was an evil creature itself. It was that Satan used the serpent for his dark and evil spiritual purpose.
However, Satan is not mentioned, either here or in the New Testament’s account of this story (II Cor. 11:3, I Tim. 2:14 ). Why? The answer can be found in a similar contest found in the book of Job. At the end of the book, God discusses with Job many things but never once mentions Satan’s wager and challenge that led to Job’s suffering. Again we ask, “Why?” Besides the fact that God does not owe Job an explanation for anything that He does (Job 33:13), God does not talk about Satan because Satan’s challenge was not the real reason Job suffered. God had things in mind that He wanted to accomplish in Job’s life and He simply used Satan as a supporting actor in the fulfillment of His purposes, one of which was that Job would know and trust God in a far deeper way than he had before he suffered. Job had heard of God, but now He had a first-hand experience of who God really is (Job. 42:5).
Similarly, Satan is not mentioned in Genesis 3 because the temptation in the garden of Eden was really God’s doing, not Satan’s. God created the forbidden tree and He put both Adam and Eve in the same garden with it. In allowing Satan to encourage Eve to eat of the tree, God simply used Satan to move His Gospel drama along, a role that Satan was eager to play. God had set up the testing arena He wanted in order to accomplish more than one purpose. As we shall see, through the test given to Adam and Eve, God teaches much about human nature and about His amazing love.
Genesis 3:2,3, “And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
Notice that according to the observation of Eve, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree which was such a problem for her and Adam, was located “in the midst of the garden.” Why didn’t God put it in a remote corner of the garden, maybe in a place that was hard to find? Does it seem fair to put it where they couldn’t possibly miss it and in a way dominated the landscape? For one thing, it didn’t really matter where it was because eventually they would have faced the temptation. But more significantly, its location reminds us of the fact that the test was a deliberate set-up by God, designed to reveal something about the nature of mankind. The tree’s prominence in the garden highlighted the fact that God was forcing the issue because the whole episode was designed and administered by God Himself to test the two people He had made.
How we understand Eve’s words, “neither shall ye touch it,” depends upon an assumption we make about Genesis 2:16-17. One assumption is that what we read in Genesis 2:16-17 is all that God said about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, because Eve’s words, “neither shall ye touch it,” in Genesis 3:3, do not appear in Genesis 2:16-17, it is commonly taught that Eve was adding to the God’s Word. If Genesis 2:16-17 is all that God said about the matter, then that is a valid point of view. It agrees with other verses in the Bible (Deut. 4:2, Prov. 30:6, Rev. 22:18). And it reminds us of the value of being faithful to God’s Word when dealing with temptation.
However, there is another possible way to look at Eve’s words. It is based upon the assumption that what we read in Genesis 2:16-17 is not all that God said about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We should notice that a short, unknown amount of time passed between the Creation of Adam and Eve and the temptation. During that time, Adam and Eve experienced the fellowship of God, whose custom was to walk in the Garden (Gen. 3:8). Conversation with God would have resulted in more words than that which is recorded in the few verses in Genesis. Remember that accounts of the same conversations in Matthew, Mark and Luke differ because none give the full dialogue between Jesus and His disciples. Similarly, we know that Paul is not adding to God’s word when he said in Acts 20:35, “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive,” even though we cannot read the words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” anywhere in the four Gospels. With this in mind we could say that Eve’s words in Genesis 3:3 were additional words God gave at another time.
Support for this view of Eve’s words is based upon the fact that to add to God’s Word is a sin. It is lying, saying something about God’s Word that is not true. The Bible states, in Genesis 3:11-13, that God condemned her for eating the fruit, as recorded in Genesis 3:6. God did not condemn her for adding to His Word, as recorded in Genesis 3:3. God never said, “You lied,” even though Eve’s words were spoken before she ate, and would have been her first transgression. According to the data found in the Bible, Eve did not disobey God until verse 6. That is the basis for the conclusion that the words, “neither shall ye touch it,” are not a sinful addition but further instruction from God.
It is true that an outward act of sin is usually preceded by sinful thoughts and intentions. That is why some people look at Eve’s words as evidence that she was already sinning in her mind. But that does not seem to apply in this case. The Bible does not say that she sinned before she ate the fruit. As we shall discuss below, we cannot pinpoint the exact second sin began. However, if we base our conclusions upon what we read in the Bible, we cannot claim that Eve must have sinned when she said, “neither shall ye touch it.” From the information we have, both points of view are possible.
The value of the second view of understanding the words, “neither shall ye touch it,” especially as we face temptation, is that it emphasizes we must not get near a situation that would lead us into sin. The counsel is we must flee sin. The wisdom of the words is obvious and repeated in other parts of the Bible. That was the tactic Joseph used (Gen. 39:12) and the counsel that Jesus gave (Matt. 5:28,29, cf. Rom. 13:14). Clearly she was as well prepared as any human could have been when she faced the temptation.
Incidentally, the wise counsel to “get as far away from sin as you can” does not mean that we can totally escape the influence of sin. We would have to leave the universe to do that (I Cor. 5:9,19). A monastic life is no solution because the people who hide away in monasteries carry the propensity to sin within themselves. Nor can we pound a sign into the lawn in front of our house that says “Neighborhood watch. Sin-free zone,” because the hand that holds the hammer is part of a body full of corruption. Besides that, we do not need to physically remove ourselves from all influences that would attract us to sin. With the Bible as our guide, we can recognize the dangers along our pilgrimage and avoid any unnecessary and obviously sinful entanglements. We find that we don’t have to jump into a garbage can to know that it stinks. The perils soon become clear and, by means of God’s power, avoidable.
Genesis 3:4,5, “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
The words, “ye shall not surely die,” direct contradictions of God’s words, were red flags that should have warned Eve she was heading into trouble. At that moment righteous Eve was being watched by Satan to slay her (Psalm 37:32) and tested by God to reveal something fundamental about her (Psalm 11:4).
A temptation is tailored to fit a person’s apparently most vulnerable spot. For example, after Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, Satan’s offer to Jesus was, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9). Jesus came to earth to be the King of all the nations, and it appeared that here was a way to achieve that goal without going through the agony of the Cross. The appeal in Eve’s case was to be more like Him in whose image she was created. That is a proper goal of anyone who loves God. However, Eve was already “as God” in all things that were important (Gen. 1:26,27). It is true that there was much she did not know. She knew good but she did not know evil. But she did not need to know everything to obey God. She knew enough to submit to all God had said and trust Him for all He did not .
The words "for God doth know" imply Satan’s objective was to encourage Eve to think God was knowingly or deliberately depriving her of something she ought to have, that God was cheating her. Satan knew that discontentment, not valuing what God has provided but wanting something more or different instead, is the parent to failure in the face of a temptation. But the evil of Satan’s words was far deeper than that. Satan was encouraging Eve to believe the lie, "God doesn’t really care about you." And yet, Eve had good reason to thank God for all His wonderful works, that were a blessing to her in the past and that she enjoyed in the present. Eve was obligated to trust God for all that was to come, and His rules were an expression of the fact that He wanted the very best for her. She never should have doubted His loving care for her.
At this point in the drama, it was just Eve and Satan in the garden. That is, she was flying solo. But God was only a prayer away. Did perfect Eve, perfectly educated Eve, think that she had what it took to take on the temptation alone, or did she recognize her need for God’s help? That is the real question in this story.
Genesis 3:6, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.”
How did she know, when she saw the tree, “that the tree was good for food”? Maybe she guessed. But in the picture of how a temptation works, it made sense to eat the fruit from a human point of view. There were lots of apparently good physical, human reasons to eat. For one thing, it was a familiar tree. Eve probably saw it everyday. In fact, there could have been many other trees just like it in the garden. We do not know. The only unique thing about the tree we know for sure is that it was forbidden. For another thing, the fruit of the tree clearly was a source of food because it was not physically poisoning. The idea is that if people rely upon themselves and not upon God, they can always find an excuse or logical reason to convince themselves it is smart to give in to the temptation. It makes human sense to do it, especially if the object has an appeal that makes them interested in trying it out.
The moment Eve focused upon the tree her thoughts were no longer upon God but on herself. It was as if she had said, “I have a better idea than what God says.” Maybe it was good food, inasmuch as it was part of God’s good creation. However, that was not a deciding factor. It was an irrelevant point, even a fact she must ignore. The fruit was a temptation, not a source of nourishment.
Then we read, “it was pleasant to the eyes.” That is part of the deception. If something looks good, can it be bad? If somebody is charming or nice, especially nice to you, can they be bad? If the show on TV (movie, magazine, book) is fun and slick (well made), but has only a few bad things, can it be a sin to watch, (read)? Can sin be nice? Can it come from nice people? Yes! Actually these are bad questions, questions that we should not ask. A wrong question to ask when faced with something attractive is, “What is so bad about it?” Instead, the right questions to ask, the questions we should ask are, “What is good about it? Will it help me be more faithful, a better witness? Does it glorify God?”
We are faced with good things all the time in life. Food is good. Friendships are good. So how do we know when something is really bad, no matter what it appears to be or what others say about it? One thing is for sure. We must not trust our own ideas. We must trust the Bible no matter what else seems to makes sense. The statement, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” found in Jeremiah 10:23 is not just a comment upon the foolishness of sinful men; it is a accurate assessment of the design of human nature, whether sinful or perfect. We must never go it alone in life, especially when faced with a possibility to fall into sin.
Next we read, “a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Eve showed wisdom in verse 3. Also she was made in God’s image and on that basis she had a lot of natural wisdom. She was as wise as God had made her, and He had made her “very good.” She was as wise as God had planned her to be at that time. But she saw an opportunity to be wiser. Today sinners cry, “I need to figure things out for myself. God doesn’t know as much about my personal situation as I do. He doesn’t know this modern world in which I must survive or understand my weaknesses and my desires. He doesn’t realize how hard it is to turn from the object of my affection.” Sin creates doubts about God and His Word, the Bible, in an attempt to reduce the Bible’s credibility and therefore its relevance and authority. Simultaneously, sin elevates human wisdom.
When “she took,” Eve did what she knew she should not do. The result of her close proximity and eventual contact with the object that allured her was that God went out of her mind. When a person gets deep enough into the clutches of the thing that attracts him, he gives in to the demands of his desires. In Eve’s case, she thought “I might as well eat it now.” Sin is never a surprise. There is always a time of preparation. The closer a person gets to sin the bigger sin gets in his mind. Familiarity with a sin, little by little, reduces a person’s resistance to it. How often has a person said, “I didn’t mean for things to get this far. Things just got out of control so fast!” Humans are too weak to get close to what leads them into sin and to continue to resist it alone. It is not wisdom, rather it is foolishness and sinful pride to say, “I can handle it.” There is no virtue in relying upon ourselves. It is a conceited delusion that we are wise and strong enough to deal with sin alone.
Finally, she “did eat.” At last we come to the deliberate act. No one forced Eve to eat. Actually at this point it was too late. The sin began the moment she desired it for food. The act was only the bitter flower of the seed that was planted before (I John 2:15-17).
Genesis 3:6 continues with the words," and (Eve) gave also unto her husband (Adam) with her; and he did eat.” A person who sins wants fellowship in order to gain credibility in his own eyes and the eyes of others. Companionship in sin supports a sinner’s a sense of righteousness or justification. The rationale is, “if everybody is doing it, maybe it isn’t so bad, or I won’t be punished, or the punishment won’t be so bad, or I’ll be overlooked in the crowd.”
Eve would have been victorious if she had cried out to God, if she had depended upon Him for the wisdom and strength to obey His Word (Rom. 8:37, I Cor 15:57, II Cor. 2:14). A perfect Eve needed God. That was the way she was designed and put together. Adam’s sin highlights that conclusion. I Timothy 2:14 is a great indictment of Adam in contrast to Eve. He sinned when he “was not deceived.” Adam was tempted with the example of Eve’s failure before him. Adam’s eyes were wide open, so to speak. As a perfect man facing his wife in great peril, he should have fulfilled his role as a loving self-sacrificing husband. He should have cried out to the Lord on her behalf and offered his life as a sacrifice for hers (John 15:13, Eph. 5:25). Adam’s sacrifice would not have been sufficient, because the payment for sin is eternal death. But he should have tried to help. Instead he forsook his advantage and selfishly joined her. Again, God is allowing the events of this drama to come to its tragic conclusion to reveal the fact that man cannot live independently from Him.
We see what happens when men try to do it themselves. The results are failure, shame, fear and condemnation. We learn that no man, even a perfect man, is a source of help. The drama reveals the amazing fact that what the first Adam would not do, the second Adam did do, as advertised on the Cross.
5. The value of temptations
We learned that temptations come from God. But why does God cause us to face temptations? What value do they have? Is there any reason to rejoice that we are tempted?
The Bible explains in James 1:2-4 and I Peter 1:6-7 that a temptation is a test with a purpose. The purpose is to reveal the work of God within a believer’s heart to the end that God would be praised. A test is hard, but the Bible says in James 1:12-14 that God never tests someone in order to cause him to sin. We can never blame God for our failure. Failure is a testimony to the fact we are sinners and have no power or desire within ourselves to resist. I Corinthians 10:13 states that God gives us help through the power of the Gospel, and James 1:5 teaches that God gives help through His wisdom, which comes from His Word.
It is not too much to say that temptations are wonderful gifts of God for believers. First of all, temptations reveal to believers their weaknesses. As time goes by, believers learn what their weaknesses are. They are often surprised by the weaknesses they did not realize they had. Secondly, temptations remind believers of the patience and kindness of God. He gently puts up with all their past foolishness, and guides them through their present struggles with their sins. God pictures Himself as a Father who is always willing to receive and help His wayward children. Thirdly, temptations train believers, preparing them to face all the sin problems that God brings to their attention in the future. God knows they can successfully battle only a few sins at a time. God also knows that with each victory His children are more ready to deal with the next sin. Therefore, in God’s agenda for their lives, He sets up a temptation as a controlled situation in which He guides them towards victory over a particular sin. In that way, when eventually they are victorious over a particular sin, they will be ready to face the next sin God brings to their attention. By means of the temptation, they will have gained experience in how dangerous sins can be, and in how dependent upon God’s faithfulness they are. God causes His people to realize the truth expressed in Romans 13:14, that believers must be prepared ahead of time to deal with their sins.
Maybe the best way to think of a temptation is as an opportunity given to us by God. On one hand, if we are unbelievers, a temptation is an opportunity to do our own will no matter what, thereby revealing our wicked hearts. On the other hand, if we are believers, a temptation is an opportunity to do God’s will no matter what, thereby revealing His holy heart through our behavior (Heb. 8:10).
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