The author of Hebrews makes the bold and startling statement that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4: 15) In our experience, when we are tempted, we sin sooner or later. We can be greatly encouraged that when we experience temptations, we know that Jesus knows from the inside what we are going through. That Jesus resisted the temptations can give us hope, even as we fail again and again.
The only thing in Hebrews that hints at how Jesus actually experienced temptation is the moving account of how Jesus cried out with tears to his heavenly Abba, the one who could save him from death; a clear allusion to the Garden at Gethsemane. (Heb. 5: 7) Matthew and Luke flesh out Jesus’ temptation a bit more in two similar, compact, narratives at the beginning of each Gospel.
These archetypal narratives are rightly assumed to provide insight into what is fundamental to temptations as we experience them. Taken as a group, they seem comprehensive: sensuality, human relationships, and relationship with God. What is common to all three temptations is manipulation, although each temptation deals with manipulation at a different level. The temptation to manipulate creation gets at the heart of the ongoing ecological crisis we face. Perhaps the crisis and its perceived scarcity sharpens our temptation to grab and hoard what we can before somebody else hogs it all. The temptation to power is straightforward enough but devious when actually dealing with people when fear of vulnerability tempts us to make pre-emptive strikes of power against them. As the author of Hebrews makes clear, Jesus felt this temptation most sharply in Gethsemane when he embraced his vulnerability and commended himself to the will of his heavenly Abba. The temptation to throw himself from the temple is directly manipulating God. Perhaps Matthew chose to put this temptation in the middle to show that this is the heart of all temptation as all manipulation is ultimately manipulation of God.
With each temptation, Jesus responded by referring back to his heavenly Abba. Rather than being absorbed in the need for bread (a legitimate need after forty days of fasting!), Jesus broadened his scope to being fed by the words of his heavenly Abba. As an allusion to the manna in the wilderness, we are reminded of how Yahweh curbed avarice by only providing the amount that was truly needed each day and no more. With the temptation to power, Jesus responded that he would serve his heavenly abba and not his own temptation to manipulate people to his own ends. With the temptation of presumption, Jesus straightened out the distortion in the way Psalm 91 was used by the devil by insisting that trust in his heavenly Abba did not mean testing him in any way. Rather, the verse truly means that we should rely on our heavenly Abba to sustain us when and how He wills.
This recipe for resisting temptation seems simple and, in a way, it is. Jesus’ responses to the temptations invite us to relax in God and let God and God’s angels bear us up in God’s way and in God’s time. But it is difficult when actually dealing with the material world and even more in dealing with other people. Relaxing is the thing we least want to do when we feel threatened by others exerting power against us. This is why we have the season of Lent as a time to focus on the discipline of relaxing into God, seeking to make it more of a habit than it has been up to now, knowing, as Hebrews tells us, that Jesus is the pioneer, the one going before us, in this very discipline. Most important: Jesus commended himself to his heavenly Abba most deeply when he was on the cross and Hebrews tells us that Jesus was raised so as to be the great high priest who intercedes for us.
See also On Living with Temptation