Digression 1: The Essence Of Temptation
It is easy to conceive of trials as just physical sets of circumstances in our lives which impose discomfort. However, James 1:13-15 defines temptation and testing as fundamentally being in terms of our evil desires being stimulated by these physical circumstances. Thus missing a bus may provoke the same degree of spiritual temptation- e.g. to impatience, lack of faith- as breaking a leg, although they appear physically to be trials of quite different magnitudes. The temptation is not in the missing of the bus, but in the thoughts generated by it.
Bearing in mind James' definition of temptation as a process that occurs within the human heart rather than as a set of physical circumstances, a number of passages can be seen in a different light:
- Rev.3:10: "I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the (ecclesial/ Jewish?) world, to try them that dwell upon the earth" (land of Israel?). It seems unlikely that Sardis was totally preserved from the physical tribulation that came upon the Jewish world- but because of their high spiritual standards, the Lord promised to spiritually keep them from temptation; i.e. to help them to control their evil desires, confirming the freewill effort they were making to do this. Jude 24 speaks in similar vein of God as "Him that is able to keep you from (spiritually) falling".
- 1 Cor.10:13: "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man (e.g. as experienced by the Israelites, in the context)...God...will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it". Escape is not always provided from physical trials- especially in the case of those who were soon to be the Christian martyrs amongst Paul's readership. But when faced with situations which make us feel that we will be spiritually swamped by the power of our innate evil tendencies, then we can take courage that although the physical conditions causing the trial may not be taken away, there will certainly be an opportunity made for us to resist the spiritual temptation. Notice how a way of escape is provided- implying that initially the temptation is truly too heavy for us, and an escape is therefore made for us by God so that He is not in the position of forcing us to sin. Surely all readers of these words know this feeling only too well- sensing that we are in a position where our evil desires are growing stronger and stronger, not wanting to sin, but feeling that humanly, given a few more moments, and it will be inevitable. It is in these moments that we have to desperately cling to this promise- that God will make a way of escape, that he will keep us from falling (Jude 24) by His power of righteousness.
Back in 1 Cor.10, verse 14 continues "wherefore...flee from idolatry"- i.e. from the spiritual temptations.
- Mt.6:13: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one" (RV, NIV)- i.e. the Biblical devil, the source of our temptation. This again indicates that God wishes us to invoke His special help to control our evil heart.
- Heb.11:36: "Others had trial (also translated "temptation") of cruel mockings and scourgings". The real trial was in the temptations provoked by these things in their hearts. They "received a good report through faith"- not because they physically endured it (cp. 1 Cor.13:3), but due to their faith in spiritually being able to endure these tribulations with God's grace to help.
- 1 Pet.4:12,13 equates "the fiery trial which is to try you" with "Christ's sufferings" . His mental agony of spiritual temptation, to the extent of secreting bulbous drops of sweat, was infinitely greater than His physical suffering. The real trial which was to test the believers in AD70 was a spiritual one. Likewise 1 Pet.5:8,9: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren". The fact they could resist and overcome these afflictions makes it difficult to apply them to the physical persecution from the Roman 'devil'; once they are interpretted as spiritual trials brought about by those sufferings, the passage reads more clearly.
- 2 Pet.2:9 comments on God's deliverance of Lot from Sodom as "The Lord (knowing) how to deliver the Godly out of temptations"- to keep Lot from the great spiritual temptation provoked within him by that city, God destroyed it. Similarly God's abhorrence of this present world which Sodom typifies is largely due to the spiritual temptation it so evidently brings upon His people.
- Lk.8:13 describes how those who do not properly have the seed of the word in their heart will fall away "in time of temptation". The word in the heart enables us to overcome the sinful desires of our nature which are lodged there (Ps.119:11). If the word is not there, then there will be an inevitable falling away in time of spiritual temptation.
- The believers' praying for Peter was perhaps for his spiritual strengthening rather than his physical deliverance, hence their disbelief at his physical reappearance- or was that an example of the fickleness of our so-called faith, that even whilst praying for something we cannot accept that the answer will immediately come?
Out of the 50 odd times that the Greek word normally translated "temptation" occurs, there is only one instance where it appears to mean a purely physical trial rather than including some aspect of spiritual temptation within our heart: "Through infirmity of the flesh I preached the Gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an Angel of God" (Gal.4:13,14). Given the overwhelmingly consistent use of "temptation" in a spiritual context, this passage should perhaps also be read in that way. In this case, it would appear that Paul is recognizing that his physically feeble appearance when he first preached to them had been a spiritual temptation to them to disbelieve his message because of the appearance of the preacher. Paul is arguing that they had overcome such temptations initially, but now due to the smear campaign against him by the Judaizers (2 Cor.10:10) they were being swayed against him because of such considerations, and thus were now failing this spiritual trial.