Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

Temptation: The Hardest Test You Will Ever Take

  • Marvin A. McMickle
  • Updated Feb 22, 2011
Temptation: The Hardest Test You Will Ever Take

Matthew 4:1-11

In almost every area of modern life there comes a moment when you have to take a test, an examination of some sort, and the results of that test determine whether or not you can continue along the path you are following. The challenge of taking tests starts rather early in life. At the 4th, 9th and 12th grades students must pass proficiency exams in school before they can proceed to higher levels of learning. There is an exam in every class you take. There is a test required for any profession or vocation you may want to pursue. Whether you want to be a plumber, a barber, a physician, a lawyer or a preacher there comes a moment when you must take and pass a test before you can proceed any further.

Many people are not doing what they really wanted to do in life because they failed one of these exams. They took the bar exam, but they did not pass. They took the SAT exam, but their grade was not high enough to allow them entry into the school they wanted to attend. They took a typing exam, but they were not fast enough. They wanted a certain job, but they could not pass the reading or writing exams. There are all kinds of exams that we have to take over the course of our lives, and if we do not pass them there are many things we are prevented and even prohibited from doing.

You cannot legally drive a car and get a driver’s license until you pass a written and a road test. You cannot participate in high school or college athletics unless you can pass a physical exam and a skills test. If you want to get a license to teach school, or cut hair, or be an electrician, or fly an airplane or sell stocks and bonds and other financial securities instruments you first have to take a test.

I know by personal experience about having to pass exams before you can proceed with your career goals. I had to pass a knowledge test before I could be ordained to the ministry. I had to pass language exams in Hebrew and Greek before I could receive my Master’s degree. I had to pass two field exams and an oral exam of my dissertation before I was awarded my Ph.D. degree. I even had to pass a kind of an exam when I went to meet Peggy’s parents for the first time; one wrong answer and I would have failed the acceptance exam. It does not matter what you do for a living or what you are aspiring to do some day, it is almost a certainty that there are some exams and tests you will have to pass before you can proceed down that road.

However, it is important to note that there are two different types of tests we will be called upon to pass as we move through this world. One of those tests is to measure the content of your knowledge; that is a head test. The other kind of test measures the content of our character; it is a test of the heart. Sometimes the tests we must face will have to do with knowledge and information, and other times they will have more to do with our character and our moral convictions. To put it another way, some exams are designed to find out what you know, but just as important are those exams that are designed to find out “who you are?”

Here at the church we have a job training and readiness program called Project Respect that assists people in getting ready to hold down a steady job. At the end of the training there is a graduation ceremony, and I have been able to address the group on a few of those occasions. I always talk to them about two words that sound almost alike but that test us in two different areas of life. One of those words is aptitude; which points to knowledge and what a person knows how to do. Aptitude is a skill of the hand or the head; it is a matter of ability.

The other word is attitude; which points, not to what you know, but to who you are as a person. Can you get along with other people? Can you be trusted to do your job without constant supervision? Will you be on time every day? In our program it even means asking them if they will be able to take and pass a random urine test to see if they are using drugs. Anybody who has ever held down a job for more than one-year knows that you are being tested every day in ways that are formal and informal about your aptitude (what you can do) and your attitude (who you are as a person).

I want to take this issue of having to pass a test before you can proceed with your career goal, and this matter of being tested both on your attitude and your aptitude, and apply all of that to Jesus as he is being tested by Satan in Matthew 4:1-11. This story occurs at a critical moment in the life of Jesus, immediately after his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and immediately before he begins his ministry of preaching and healing.

Jesus has just experienced the exultant moment when the voice of God declared, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus had just seen the heavens open and he saw a dove descend from heaven and rest upon him as a sign of his ordination and consecration for ministry. But he did not move from that moment directly into his ministry in Galilee. First he “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan” (Matthew 4:1). It was as if the Holy Spirit was saying to Jesus that even he could not proceed with his career, his calling, his ministry until he took and passed a test of both his aptitude and his attitude, of how much he knew and of what kind of person he really was.

Let me begin by talking about the attitude test that Jesus had to pass, or about Satan’s attempt to find out what kind of person Jesus really was. After having fasted, or gone without food and probably without much water for a period of forty (40) days Satan tests the character of Jesus in three ways. First he tests Jesus with meeting a physical need that was hunger; turn these stones into bread. Second, he tests Jesus with a psychological challenge that involves humility; jump from the temple and make God dispatch angels to catch you before you fall and kill yourself on the rocks below. Finally, Satan tests Jesus over proper religious practice that involved honoring nothing more than you honor God. The very first of the commandments given by God to Moses says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” That was the test Jesus faced when Satan said to him “Bow down and worship me and I will give you all the wealth of the world.”

Consider these three areas of testing in the life of Jesus and recognize that when Satan comes to test you and me, and he surely will, it will occur within one or more of these three areas. You and I will be tested by Satan to find out what kind of people and what kind of Christians we really are. The first test will involve what you and I are willing to do to satisfy some physical need that we experience. Would we be willing to steal, or lie, or cheat or practice some form of discrimination or persecution if we thought it would help us meet some urgent physical need?

One clear test of our character as human beings and especially as followers of Jesus Christ involves the things we will not do no matter how much it might benefit us if we did. Character involves the restraints and the restrictions that we impose on our own behavior as we seek to be faithful to God. We will not steal in order to get ahead, because the Bible says, “You shall not steal.” We will not condone discrimination or bigotry or exploitation of any kind, because the Bible says, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We will not engage in adultery or any other form of illicit sexual activity in order to satisfy some burning, lustful passion within us because the Bible clear speaks against such conduct no matter how “good” it may feel or how “satisfying” it may seem. The devil wants to test us at the level of our hungering for the pleasures of this world, because he wants to find out what kind of people we are. It is an attitude test.

When I was the pastor of a church in New Jersey the usher board president came to me to get my permission to use the church van for an outing. I noticed that she did not say where they wanted to go in the church van, so I asked her what would be their destination. She told me that they wanted to go to Atlantic City. That was just after gambling had once again been legalized in Atlantic City. She assured me that they did not want to go to any of the casinos in Atlantic City; they just wanted to walk along the boardwalk and sit on the beach.

I reminded her that there were at least a dozen other cities along the Jersey shore that had a boardwalk and a beach, and I urged her to go to one of those cities instead. She tried to persuade me that no other city or resort along the Jersey shoreline was as appropriate for this trip as Atlantic City, and if they could not go there in the church van then they would reserve a bus that would take them to Atlantic City. It did not seem to matter to her how much satisfaction the devil would get if somebody who was not a believer could see a church van parked outside of a casino, or how inappropriate it was for a church group to rent a bus to go to a place where they could gamble their money away. The devil is always testing our attitude to see what kind of people we are. The devil is always trying to find out if there is anything we would not do if we thought we could earn some money in the process.

The second test will involve what we are willing to do in order to make God prove Himself to us. In this second test you and I are assigning to God a task or a test that God must pass in order for us to believe that God is really there. If you are God then heal my body before tomorrow morning. If you are God then meet my need for a job or a spouse. We put God to the test by asking God to do whatever it is that we ask God or perhaps even tell God to do in order for us to continue to believe in God. “Lord, I know that you can heal me, so do it!” “Lord, I know you can give me this blessing I desire, so do it!” Lord, I know you can answer this prayer, so do it!”

We need to learn to come before God like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. There was something that Jesus desperately and urgently wanted God to do for Him; “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus knew that unless something happened, He would soon be handed over to His enemies who would condemn Him to death by the cruel process of crucifixion; being nailed to a cross and left to die from exposure, asphyxiation and horrendous physical pain and trauma.

Even in the face of that prospect Jesus did not put God to the test; He did not tell God to do something as a way of proving that God was real. After He told God what He wanted, He ended His prayer by reminding Himself that what He wanted was not the most important thing. He ended His prayer with the ultimate words of humility of one’s self and the ultimate exaltation of God: not my will but your will be done. Whatever it is you may be asking from God, remember that Satan is testing you to find out whether you are willing and able to end that prayer by saying these words of Jesus: “Not my will but your will be done.”

The third test we will surely face some day involves whether there is anything of this world that comes to mean more to us than our relationship and our obedience to God. Satan told Jesus that he would give Him all the wealth of the world if Jesus would only bow down and worship him. Satan will tell us the same thing; you can have everything this world has to offer if you just turn your back on God and worship some politician or some political ideology. You can have it all if you just turn your back on God and model your life after Snoop Doggy Dog, whose musical lyrics debase and degrade women. Or you can model your life after Oprah Winfrey who has been shacking up with Stedman Graham for the last ten years. Or you can worship the value system found on the TV shows Desperate Housewives or Trading Spouses, where marital vows are ridiculed and the gods of popular culture are honored and adored. Never mind trusting and believing that God will provide for your needs; worship the gods of this world and trust them to provide the things you need.

Life is a series of attitude tests designed to find out what kind of persons we are. We will be tested at the level of physical pleasure and desires. We will be tested at the level of placing God’s will above our own. And we will be tested at the level of whether we will ever love and respect anyone or anything more than we love and revere God.

Let me turn from the matter of attitude tests to the matter of aptitude tests, and suggest that Jesus passed that exam as well. In fact, the reason He may have passed the character test of attitude is because He was able to pass the knowledge exam of aptitude. Every time Satan tested the character of Jesus, Satan was met with an answer from scripture.   When Satan tested Jesus on meeting physical needs, Jesus passed that test by saying to Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone.” He passed the test of not giving God an assignment that had to be done to prove to him that God was real. He passed that exam by telling Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Finally He passed the test of not allowing anything of this world to become more important to Him than His relationship and obedience to the teachings of God by declaring to Satan, “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”

Now notice how Jesus used His spiritual aptitude (His knowledge) to demonstrate His attitude (what kind of person He was). Every time Jesus answered Satan — every time He took and passed one of those tests — he did so by quoting a passage of scripture. Jesus was not depending upon His own wits to see Him through. Jesus was not borrowing wisdom from His family or friends. Jesus withstood the devil by confronting Satan with the word of God. Every time Satan said something to Jesus, Jesus responded with “Thus says the Lord.”

The phrase “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” comes from Deuteronomy 8:3. The phrase “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” comes from Deuteronomy 6:16. The phrase “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him” comes from Deuteronomy 6:13. In a moment of physical weakness and exhaustion from a lack of food and water for forty days, Jesus knew the Bible well enough to quote it from memory. Jesus embodied the language of Psalms 119:11 that says, “Your word have I hidden in my heart so I will not sin against you.” This is the test that we need to pass as well, to know the Bible so well that its lessons and teachings will come rushing to our minds every time Satan tries to lead us into temptation.

I like the fact that Jesus did not have to flip through the pages of the Bible so He could read the part that he needed in that moment. He did not need to have the Bible in His hand, because He had the word of God in His head and His heart. He did not have to turn to the index or the content page and find out what page to turn to because He did not know where certain books in the Bible could be found. He had become so familiar with the scriptures and so acquainted with its contents that the word just flowed out of Him like water from a fountain. He could pass the attitude test of character largely because He could pass the aptitude test of knowledge.

One day you and I will have to pass those same tests ourselves. Let me make one point as plainly and as straightforwardly as I can: there is nothing you can do to keep yourself from being tested or tempted by Satan. In one way or another, sooner or later, all of us will have to face and attempt to pass the test of temptation — either in the form of physical passions, or impatience that leads us to make God prove himself to us, or the possibility of being more impressed and obedient to some other person or ideology than we are to God. But when our attitude or our character is tested, it will be our aptitude or our knowledge of and faith in the word of God that will see us through and help us pass that test.

It was important for Jesus to pass these tests of attitude and aptitude. Nothing less than the power of sin was hanging in the balance. Remember that in the Garden of Eden sin crept in and took control of the human family because Adam and Eve failed both of these exams when they were tested by Satan. They failed the attitude test of character when they ate from the one tree in the Garden that God told them to avoid. They failed the aptitude test of knowledge, because it was clear from the story that they knew perfectly well what God had said. However, having the words of God ringing in their ears, those words did not have enough power to restrain their behavior.

Two portions of scripture rush to mind right now. The first is 1 Corinthians 15:22 that says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The sin that first gripped us like a vice came because one man failed his test. That grip was finally broken when another man came along and faced that same test but passed it with flying colors. We can live free from the power of sin and Satan. We cannot avoid being tempted, but we can avoid giving in to those temptations by the power of Christ who will equip us with the right attitude and the right aptitude.

That brings me to the second text and my last point. In Hebrews 4:15 it says, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Every temptation you ever felt, Christ felt also. Every passion that ever burned within you burned within Him also. He knows what it is like to live with the devil on your trail, because that was His experience as well. But here is the one thing that distinguishes us from Christ: He was tempted yet did not sin. He had the power to hold out. He has the strength to stand firm. He had the knowledge to resist. He had the character to overcome the devil. And if we just turn to Him and put our faith and trust in Him, He will help us accomplish the same thing and pass the tests of attitude and aptitude. That is why the hymn writer says:

We are our heavenly father’s children,
And we all know that he loves us one and all.
Yet there are times when we find we answer
Another’s voice and call;
If we are willing, he will teach us,
His voice only to obey no matter where,
And he knows, yes he knows
Just how much we can bear.
Tho’ the load gets heavy,
You’re never left alone to bear it all.
Just ask for strength and keep on toiling,
Although the tear drops fall.
You have the joy of this assurance,
Our heavenly Father will always answer prayer;
And he knows, yes he knows
Just how much you can bear.


Marvin A. McMickle is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.