The Biblical narrative describes only two temptation stories: the temptation of the first man, Adam, and the temptation of Christ. The first temptation led to the fall of humankind, and the second temptation led to the fall of Satan.
Accordingly, all other episodes of temptation throughout history have been related to these two temptations—either we are tempted in Adam, and we fall, or we are tempted in Christ, and Satan falls. In order to properly understand temptation, then, we look to Adam to clarify what we ought not to do and to discover the tactics the enemy uses. We look to Christ in order to clarify what we should do and to discover the strategies He used to overcome, leading us into victory. The idea always precedes the product, so if we don’t start with the right idea about temptation, then we can never expect to develop a righteous product.
So, what is temptation?
The word nasa in Hebrew can be translated tempt, test, try, or prove, as in God “tempted” Abraham (Genesis 22:1).
The word temptation in Greek comes from peirasmos, which means putting to proof by experiment (of good) or experience (of evil). By implication, this word can mean adversity. It can also indicate a trial in which the lure to sin is either by outward circumstances or by internal enticement by the devil. Tempted comes from peirazo, which means to test objectively, entice, discipline, examine, scrutinize, or prove.
If, then, temptation is a trial, we no longer need to perceive the situation as a burden or something bothersome. And the “temptation” need not be dressed up how we would normally expect. It doesn’t have to be a woman in a low cut red dress or an open safe with exposed bills at our job. It could be a direct command from The Lord. Accordingly, how we ought to perceive temptation is as a means to an end permitted by God in order to make us more perfect. The Lord is the author of our faith. It is not the devil versus us. It is God allowing certain situations to happen in order to make us better. Yes, the devil is a liar who comes to destroy (John 8:44), but as Job 1:12 teaches us, nothing can happen that God does not permit, and “God is faithful, who will not allow [us] to be tempted beyond what [we] are able” (I Corinthians 10:13). And temptation itself is not sin, because we specifically know that Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted.
Why temptation? James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Where does temptation come from? James 1:13-15 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (italics mine).
Temptation is, therefore, personal and unique to the person. Everyone has individual lusts that focus on some thing. Your personal lust consequently focuses on and becomes intimate with the object of your lust, and that union conceives sin. When that sin grows up, it always and irrefutably brings death.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:1-6).
The word temptation is never used in the narrative in Genesis. In fact, the serpent (established as the devil in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2) performs an action in Genesis by talking. He doesn’t curse or swear, but actually talks about God. He is referred to as more “crafty” than any other beast of the field—this comes from arum in Hebrew, which means, “subtle, shrewd, sly, or sensible.” Sensibility, of course, often finds support and validation in majority opinion. It need not matter if that opinion is grounded in Biblical truth.
You and I know that the serpent is the devil, but did Eve?
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (II Corinthians 11:3, NIV; italics mine).
The serpent is a creature that God made. He approaches Eve in God’s garden, talking about God to a godly woman. His question is about the Word of God, and he asks the question on the Sabbath, a day meant to honor The Lord. The serpent was in the right place, saying the right stuff, and pretending to be the right thing—for God. And he executes this craftiness so well because he is subtle, and that subtlety puts us in jeopardy because our defenses go down. If a demon were to crash through the floor with horns, a pointy tail, and breathing fire, we would all immediately say, “No way.” Instead, demons dress up in the name of Jesus, and things become a bit more complicated.
In its subtlety, the serpent invited Eve to recognize an unknown understanding in which she would now be in the position to judge God’s Word. The serpent offers a very sly insinuation that perhaps humankind has misunderstood: “Did God really say?” or “Could He have really meant it that way?” The serpent doesn’t go on the attack but merely sets Eve up and then invites her to come on in. As a result, Eve comes to a conclusion herself, and this deduction assumes no foreign influence. There is nothing more powerful than an idea that I think is all mine. Hence, this is why Genesis 3:6 says, “When the woman saw.”
The serpent attacks Christians under the guise of godliness. In this attack, we are shown a bigger, stronger, better, gentler, more inclusive God than what we already have. The temptation is the question asked; the evil is in any answer at all, because such an answer can only be produced if one finds themselves worthy enough to judge God. The question is permitted because it is “for God.” An answer is produced because it is “for God.” Yet, in this diabolical dynamic, one fails to realize that standing “for God” in reality means turning away from Him.
It is also important to note when this all happened: in Genesis chapter 3. God created the whole universe in chapter 1. The Bible hasn’t even gotten through two chapters before the temptation begins, because the deceiver knows if he can plant a perverse seed in the beginning, every other product in your Christian life is now the result of a bad idea, and that bad idea is so difficult to break because all of its fruits are executed in a “pure and sincere” devotion to The Lord.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has brilliantly written in Creation and Fall: Temptation, the serpent only has power when it claims to be from God, and thus it only has power as a religious serpent. And of course, the serpent has to be religious because the deceiver has come to steal and destroy. He needn’t waste his effort on those who are already lost and living in sin, because they will pay the penalty for their iniquity. He only seeks to steal that which is not already taken. The obvious lesson, of course, is that the serpent is not merely lurking around “out there” where “all the sinners live.” He is lurking around right here, right next to me, wherever there is innocence or presumed virtue.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal