The basic meaning of temptation (peirasmos) is simply to test or prove, and has no negative connotation. Whether it becomes a proof of righteousness or an inducement to evil depends on our response. If we resist it in God’s power, it is a test that proves our faithfulness. If we do not resist, it becomes a solicitation to sin. The Bible uses the term in both ways, and I believe that Paul has both meanings in mind here.
When “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1) it is clear that both God and Satan participated in the testing. God intended the test to prove His Son’s righteousness, but Satan intended it to induce Jesus to misuse His divine powers and to give His allegiance to Satan. Job was tested in much the same way. God allowed Job to be afflicted in order to prove His servant was an “upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:8). Satan’s purpose was the opposite: to prove that Job was faithful only because of the blessings and prosperity the Lord had given him and that, if those things were taken away, Job would would “surely curse Thee to Thy face” (v. 11).
God’s tests are never a solicitation to evil, and James strongly corrects those who suggest such a thing. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13). “By evil” is the key to the difference between the two types of temptation. In the wilderness God tested Jesus by righteousness, whereas Satan tested Him by evil. A temptation becomes an inducement to evil only when a person “is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:14–15).
Earlier in his letter James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (1:2). The nouns trials (see also verse 12) and testing (v. 3) are from the same Greek root as the verb tempted in verses 13–14. The context indicates which sense is meant.
God often brings circumstances into our lives to test us. Like Job we usually do not at the time recognize them as tests, certainly not from God. But our response to them proves our faithfulness or unfaithfulness. How we react to financial difficulty, school problems, health trouble, or business setbacks will always test our faith, our reliance on our heavenly Father. If we do not turn to Him, however, the same circumstances can make us bitter, resentful, and angry. Rather than thanking God for the test, as James advises, we may even accuse Him. An opportunity to cheat on our income tax or take unfair advantage in a business deal will either prove our righteousness or prove our weakness. The circumstance or the opportunity is only a test, neither good nor evil in itself. Whether it results in good or evil, spiritual growth or spiritual decline, depends entirely on our response.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus says that we should ask God not to “lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). “Evil” is better translated “the evil one,” referring to Satan. In other words we should pray that God will not allow tests to become temptations, in the sense of inducement to evil. The idea is, “Lord, stop us before Satan can turn your test into his temptation.”
Common to man is one word (anthrōpinos) in Greek and simply means “that which is human, characteristic of or belonging to mankind.” In other words, Paul says there is no such thing as a superhuman or supernatural temptation. Temptations are human experiences. The term also carries the idea of usual or typical, as indicated by common. Temptations are never unique experiences to us. We can never have a temptation that has not been experienced by millions of other people. Circumstances differ but basic temptations do not. Even the Son of God was “tempted in all things as we are” (Heb. 4:15), and because of that “He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (2:18). And because temptations are common to us all we are able to “confess [our] sins to one another” (James 5:16) and to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). We are all in the same boat.
Not only are temptations common to men but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able. No believer can claim that he was overwhelmed by temptation or that “the devil made me do it.” No one, not even Satan, can make us sin. He cannot even make an unbeliever sin. No temptation is inherently stronger than our spiritual resources. People sin because they willingly sin.
The Christian, however, has his heavenly Father’s help in resisting temptation. God is faithful. He remains true to His own. “From six troubles He will deliver you, even in seven evil will not touch you” (Job 5:19). When our faithfulness is tested we have God’s own faithfulness as our resource. We can be absolutely certain that He will not allow [us] to be tempted beyond what [we] are able. That is God’s response when we pray, “do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). He will not let us experience any test we are not able to meet.
When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asked them twice whom they had come for, who was designated on their arrest order. After they answered for the second time, “Jesus the Nazarene,” He said, “If therefore you seek Me, let these go their way” (John 18:4–9). John explains that Jesus prevented the disciples from being arrested with Him in order “that the word might be fulfilled which He spoke, ‘Of those whom Thou hast given Me I lost not one’ ” (v. 9). The disciples were not yet ready for such a test. Had they been arrested, they would have been devastated, and Jesus would not permit it. As best we know from church history, most of those eleven disciples died a martyr’s death. The other, John, was exiled for life on the island of Patmos. All of them went through persecution, imprisonment, and countless hardships for the sake of the gospel. But they did not go though those things until they were ready to handle them.
But with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it. The phrase the way is formed by the definite article and a singular noun. In other words, there is only one way. The way of escape from every temptation, no matter what it is, is the same: it is through. Whether we have a test by God to prove our righteousness or a test by Satan to induce to sin, there is only one way we can pass the test. We escape temptation not by getting out of it but by passing through it. God does not take us out; He sees us through by making us able to endure it.
God’s own Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. It was the Father’s will that the Son be there, and Jesus did not leave until all three temptations were over. He met the temptations head–on. He “escaped” the temptations by enduring them in His Father’s power.
God provides three ways for us to endure temptation: prayer, trust, and focusing on Jesus Christ.
“Keep watching and praying, that you may not come into temptation,” Jesus told His disciples (Mark 14:38). If we do not pray, we can be sure a test will turn into temptation. Our first defense in a test or a trial is to pray, to turn to our heavenly Father and put the matter in His hands.
Second, we must trust. When we pray we must pray believing that the Lord will answer and help us. We also trust that, whatever the origin of the trial, God has allowed it to come for our good, to prove our faithfulness. God has a purpose for everything that comes to His children, and when we are tested or tempted we should gladly endure it in His power—for the sake of His glory and of our spiritual growth.
Third, we should focus on our Lord Jesus Christ. “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (Heb. 12:3–4). Christ endured more than we could ever be called on to endure. He understands our trials and He is able to take us through them.
In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Christian and Hopeful fall asleep in a field belonging to giant Despair. The giant finds them and takes them into Doubting Castle, where he puts them in a dark and stinking dungeon, without food or water. On his wife’s advice, the giant first beats them mercilessly and then suggests they commit suicide. After the giant leaves, the two companions discuss what they should do. Finally Christian remembers the key in his pocket. “I have a key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle.” Sure enough, it opened all the doors in the castle and even the gate. “Then they went on, and came to the King’s highway again.”
MacArthur New Testament Commentary