Have you ever really considered what the difference is between temptation and trial? We read about both throughout Scripture. We read in the book of James that we are to count it all joy when we encounter trials, that they are the testing of our faith that produces steadfastness. And in the same chapter we read that no one should say when he is tempted, “’I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it is conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Well now, these two things – trials and temptations – appear to be very different things; leading to very different outcomes. Trials produce steadfastness in the faith given to us; the faith by which we are saved from the power of sin and death. Trials lead us to cling steadfastly to this saving faith so we might be sustained here and now by that faith. Temptation on the other hand is the enticement produced by our fallen flesh. This temptation comes not from God and strengthens nothing, but erodes away our defenses until we are left naked in the face of our desires and give in to the power of sin, the power that leads to death. Trial and temptation are two very different things. So I think it might be a good idea for us to tell the difference between them. Don’t you?
So, just where do we start? How about this? Let’s start at the simplest level possible. Let’s start with the words themselves. Understanding the differences between the words, might help us understand the differences between there meanings. So, first listen to the word we translated here in our Gospel text and throughout the New Testament as temptation, peirasmos. Did you get that? Listen again, peirasmos. Say it once with me, peirasmos. Good, now let’s here the word that is translated throughout the New Testament as trials. Ready? Listen carefully, peirasmos. Did you get that? Listen again, peirasmos. Say it with me, peirasmos. Did you hear the difference between these two very different words? No? Well don’t worry, neither did anyone else. The word we translate as temptation is exactly the same word we translate as trial. It’s no wonder we have such are hard time distinguishing between the two, they are in fact the very same word. So, what’s going on here? Is God playing word games with us? Or are our Bible translators messing with our heads? Well of course not. But isn’t it interesting that you cannot – by listening to the sound of the word itself – tell the difference between trial and temptation? They are both peirasmos. But this struggle to know and understand the difference between trial and temptation is essential to our understanding of our Gospel text for this morning.
Just what is happening to Jesus in the wilderness; just what has the Spirit led Him into? Has God the Holy Spirit led Jesus Christ, God the Son Incarnate into temptation? How can this be when James tells us that, “God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one.”? Did the Spirit find a loop-hole, did He hire Satan to do His dirty work for Him? Of course not. This is not temptation. The Spirit does not lead Jesus to be tempted by Satan. The very notion makes no sense. Remember, Jesus is true man, but without sin. He is not fallen as we are fallen. Jesus was not born with the stain of sin, but was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God the Son incarnate, and “God cannot be tempted with evil.” So what just what is happening here? The Spirit is not leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, but to be tried – or tested – by Satan, just as God handed over Job to be tested by Satan; the way He handed over Eve and Adam to be tried.
Why is Jesus being tried here? He is true God after all. What would be the point of testing Him. But remember, He is also true man, just as truly human as Eve and Adam were. They both were tried, only Eve and Adam failed the test. But what about Jesus? Yes, He is true man, but the Spirit conceived Him new and unbroken. Do you know how a sword-smith tests the temper of the blade he has forged? He tries to destroy it. He bends it to see if it will hold true; he smashed with a hammer to see if it will break. If a warrior went into battle with an untested blade, he would be inviting death, for the worst time to find out if your blade will hold strong and true is when your life depends on it. And Jesus – though He is true God – is true man. And our lives, all of our lives depended on whether He would hold strong the true and the way to the cross. Jesus was not tempted, He was tried.
But I think there is a very good reason why we should look at Jesus’ experience here at the hands of Satan in terms of temptation. Because I think it will help us to tell the difference. Satan said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Now remember, Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights. Jesus is now experiencing the severe symptoms of starvation. What can be more enticing at this moment then to just end that horrible, gnawing hunger with a morsel of bread. Feels tempting, doesn’t it? Then Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and he said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against the stone.’” Now Jesus – at this moment – is experiencing organ failure from His forty days and nights of fasting and He is standing on the precipice looking out at His own death and His heart must be pounding terribly. Jesus is at the very edge of heart attack. Who here – in His place – would not want to be rescued; who would not desire to be saved. Feels tempting doesn’t it? Jesus is delivered into the hands of Satan himself, He has been abandoned, lost, alone, and suffering. Perhaps the whole Son of God thing was a delusion. I mean where is God now. And Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of this world and their glory and says, “All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” Be honest with yourself. Who here would not – in that state of total abandonment and suffering – desire that; who here would not be tempted. And here is the point. In the moment, when you are experiencing it, temptation and trial feel exactly the same. We can’t at that moment feel the difference. You can only tell the difference after the fact. But we can look at Jesus’ trial here and we can tell the difference. You see, the difference lay in Satan’s words, “If you are the Son of God.”
Temptation comes from within, it is our fallen nature enticing us in contradiction to God’s law – His loving will for His creation. But that is not a trial. That is temptation; that is sin at work in our hearts. A trial is actually very different. It might feel the same, but its nature and purpose is completely different. In the trial, one is not enticed to reject the law. Rather – as Luther says – “the devil turns the gospel into law.” And this is just what is happening here. Satan takes the definitive statement of the Good News and turns it into an accusation and a challenge. What is that definitive statement? Jesus is the Son of God! But here Satan takes that precious truth and twists it into an accusation and a challenge, If you are the Son of God…
When you hear the accusing word of the law in the face of your own desires, you are in the midst of temptation and you are in peril. When in your wrath and anger, you desire to lash out at your parents, to reject and ignore their guidance, the law’s accusing word comes back to you, Honor your Father and Mother. When in the grip of lust you yearn for self-satisfaction in the embrace of someone other than your spouse, the law’s accusing word comes back to you, Thou shalt not commit adultery. When you desire your own way and you see another as an obstacle to your will and you try to tear him down with lies and disrespectful words whispered into the ears of others, the law’s accusing word comes back to you, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. There is no trial here, but only the temptation of sin that leads to death.
But we are saved from the power of sin that leads to death by the grace of the Father through faith in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the Good News. And for those who have been given this great gift of faith, you have been raised up with Jesus Christ as a new creation. And like the newly tempered blade; like Eve and Adam in the garden; like Jesus Himself, that new creation must be tried and the testing of that trial is their to strengthen your holding of that faith given you so that it might sustain you here and now. And that testing always, always seeks to twist the message of the Good News into an accusation and a challenge. If you have been saved… why do you suffer? If you have been saved… why do you not prosper? If you have been saved… why do you still sin? This is the nature of the trial. It feels like temptation to us. So much so that we cannot tell the difference, but that’s OK. Though the testing comes from without and the temptation comes from within; though the testing is there to strengthen our holding to the gift of faith while temptation leads only to sin and death, we cannot in the moment tell the difference. But don’t worry, for just as the word for both is the same, so the answer to both is the same. The answer is the cross! The law accuses us so that we might see our sin and flee from it and cling to the cross; to the Good News. The answer to temptation and the accusation of the law is to cling to the cross, repent and receive God’s forgiveness for your sins. The trial seeks to twist the Gospel into law, so that we might resist it and stand strong and true against it and cling to the cross; to the Good News. The answer to Satan’s twisting of the Good News in his accusation and challenge of if Jesus is the Son of God is to cling to the truth of the Gospel, Jesus is the Son of God. The answer to Satan’s twisting of the Good News in his accusation and challenge of if you are saved is to cling to the truth of he Gospel, You have been saved!