Since temptation is something that Christians face and struggle against every day, it is necessary that we understand how it presents itself in our lives. We can gain much insight in the nature of temptation from the first temptation in Genesis 3:1–6, when the serpent comes to Eve in the garden in Eden:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So 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 to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
If we are going to understand temptation, we must first know the tempter. The text of Genesis identifies the tempter as “the serpent” (Genesis 3:1), a creature whom Adam and Eve should have exercised dominion over (Genesis 1:28). The serpent is compared to the other beasts of the field yet characterized as “crafty” (arum). This word is used positively elsewhere in the Bible (“prudent” in Proverbs 12:16, 14:8) but it is also used in a negative sense, (Job 5:12, 15:5) such as the case in this narrative. The serpent is not only described as being crafty or cunning; Scripture also tells us that this creature spoke. The Bible later identifies this particular serpent as Satan (see Revelation 12:9, 20:2; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:3, 14). As Christians, we need to be aware of Satan’s devices so that we are not outwitted by him (2 Corinthians 2:11), for his nature is that of being a liar (John 8:44).
Satan’s temptation of Eve in Genesis 3 gives us several insights into the nature of temptation that Christians should be alert to.
As Adam and Eve found out, there are only tragic consequences when we reject God’s Word as the sole authority for our lives.
Temptation almost always begins by distorting authority. This was the approach Satan used when he came to Eve in the garden, taking God’s command and reshaping it, saying, “Did God actually say?” (Genesis 3:1). Satan’s words, which were designed to get Eve to debate God’s command, entertained the possibility that God did not know what was best. While God had commanded Adam not to eat from one tree, Satan told Eve it was “any tree in the garden.” In other words, Satan presents God as the cosmic killjoy, someone who comes along and likes saying no to everything and everyone. In his temptation, Satan did not just point to the tree and say, “Go on—eat it,” but he described reality in a way that is false. Satan’s first step in deceiving Eve was having her question the truthfulness of God’s word. As Adam and Eve found out, there are only tragic consequences when we reject God’s Word as the sole authority for our lives.
Eve’s response to Satan’s temptation, which is often like ours, was initially appropriate: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 3:2–3). So far, Eve is telling the truth. But her mistake was to set her sights on what God had commanded not to do rather than on what God had blessed them with (i.e., all the other trees in the garden). This often happens to us when we are tempted: we focus on what God has commanded us not to do rather than on all that he has already bestowed upon us as his children (cf. Ephesians 1:3).
So, Eve exaggerates what God had forbidden: “Neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (see Genesis 2:17, 3:3). Yet, knowing enough of what God was like, Eve should have responded, “This is Eden. God made it, and it’s very good. It’s unthinkable that we should even challenge him. If he says not to do something, then it is for our good. Get out of here!”
Eve’s response, however, entertained the possibility of standing in judgment over God, which leads Satan to challenge what God had said by telling her, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). Now, as a result of the deception, Eve has doubt in her mind and has fallen into unbelief.
For temptation to be appealing, it usually contains some degree of truth.
For temptation to be appealing, it usually contains some degree of truth. What Satan promised Eve was partly true, but its ultimate end was a lie. The truth was that by succumbing to this temptation, her “eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5), and according to God, they were (see Genesis 3:22). On the other hand, it was a total misrepresentation of what God had said. Satan’s lie was that “you will not surely die.” Adam and Eve’s mistake was to believe the lie of Satan over the truth of God and to think that they could determine truth for themselves. For us to try to determine truth apart from God is in fact saying, “I won’t accept God’s rules. I’ll make my own.” This determination is the beginning of idolatry. When God becomes too uncomfortable for us, we make our own rules. We fashion other gods, more domesticated gods, which are idols (Romans 1:22–23).
When temptation comes, the first thing we usually do is deny or convince ourselves that there will be no consequences. The first denial of God’s words in Scripture was to deny God’s judgment. Often when Satan begins a fresh attack on biblical revelation, we first doubt whether there is judgement or not. For example, because of the idea of inherent human goodness in Western society, today people often say, “God surely wouldn’t send innocent people to Hell, would he?”1 Once you get rid of the idea of judgement as a consequence of our disobedience toward God’s commands, then you can entertain anything (racism, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” gender neutrality, covetousness), because people believe there are no consequences to their actions (see Judges 17:6, 21:25), particularly if it’s arbitrarily assumed someone’s good deeds can outweigh their bad (which Scripture makes clear is impossible; see Isaiah 64:6 and Romans 3:28).
There are always consequences when we give into temptation, as Adam and Eve found out (Genesis 3:13–19). Although once naked and without shame, after they disobeyed God, Adam and Eve realized they were naked and became ashamed. In that shame, they were alienated from God (Genesis 3:7). Eve gave in because she saw that the tree was (1) good for food, (2) pleasing to the eye, and (3) desirable for gaining wisdom (Genesis 3:6). These temptations correspond to John’s description of the things of this world: “The desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). This is a pattern of sin that runs through Scripture: (1) start listening to the creature instead of the Creator; (2) follow our own impressions instead of God’s instructions; (3) make self-fulfillment the goal. The prospect of these things seems good to life when in fact it leads to death. If you rebel against the God who gives life, what else is there but death?
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12). In light of Satan’s temptation of Eve, the Puritan Richard Sibbes exhorted believers, “In all temptations let us consider not what he offers, but what we shall lose.”2
The temptation of Jesus by Satan (Luke 4:1–13) is counterpart to that of Adam and Eve and gives us insight in how to respond to temptation. Just as Jesus was tempted, so temptation will also come to those who follow him (Matthew 18:7). And the way we overcome temptation is by looking to the one who has already overcome the world (John 16:33).
Just as Jesus was tempted, so temptation will also come to those who follow him (Matthew 18:7).
After Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he was filled with the Holy Spirit when he returned (Luke 4:1, 14). The way Jesus overcame Satan’s temptation was not by denying God’s Word but by relying on it to defeat Satan in his temptations (Luke 4:4, 8, 12). Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations by quoting Scripture, saying to him, “It is written,” which has the force of or is equivalent to “that settles it.” Jesus understood that the Word of God was sufficient for this. Jesus also faced temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed about his impending crucifixion, “Let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39). Nevertheless, he overcame it by committing himself to the Father’s will during the same prayer (Luke 22:42–44).
The good news is that Christians don’t face temptation alone, for we have a Savior whom we can go to and who has fought and struggled with temptation yet was always victorious (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15–16). Jesus’ life of obedience and faithfulness is an example to us when we face temptation since we have the same resources that he relied on to fulfill his ministry: the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer (Ephesians 5:18, 6:17–18).