How Does This Work?
This section takes a closer look at the spiritual principles on which we depend for victory over temptation.
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Paul has been explaining that the real problem was not that he had not agreed with God’s standards, or that he didn’t really want to do what God said. At the intellectual and moral levels, he had actually been choosing to go God’s way: but then finding that he didn’t have the power to overcome all the self-centred urgings of his own nature. It is important to grasp this point.
Modern psychologically-oriented thinking (and, indeed, most other ways of thinking) consider that the key issue is one of will-power. That is to say, ‘If you want something badly enough, then you can do it.’ Now there is a lot of truth in that perspective: but determination alone is not enough. For example, when athletes compete, victory normally goes to the one who is most determined to do whatever it takes to win. But, no matter how determined you may be to run a mile in under 3 minutes, physical limitations will let you down.
In the moral arena, such limitations are more subtle and much less obvious. For example, drug addicts find themselves bound to their habit by both physical and mental factors. Often, though not always, it is the mental factor that is harder to break; and, as in most areas of life, those with the strongest will power are the most likely to break free – if they really want to. But the deepest addiction of all is the addiction to self-love that takes the place of the unselfish love that God originally intended for us. This addiction is like a chameleon that constantly shifts from one colour to another. For example, the addict who by sheer will power manages to break their addiction to drugs becomes addicted to their new self-image as the one who is the master of their own destiny, or starts to look down on those weak-willed ones who keep failing to make the grade, or even begins to indulge their old habit again in the belief that they now ‘have it under control.’
The greater the achievement, the greater the temptation to such conceits. A few rare souls seem less inclined than others to such attitudes: but these also tend to be more acutely conscious than others of their own shortcomings. The fact is, that none of us are free of this problem. Ironically, the people with whom Jesus had the most problems – and who ultimately led the conspiracy to have him killed – were the religious leaders of his day; who thought themselves better than everyone else.
For those who say we don’t have the power to live as God intended, then the temptation is to wallow in hopeless and self-destructive condemnation Even self-hatred is really just ‘jilted’ self-love.. But if we claim that we do have the power, then why aren’t we doing it? This may be a deliberate rejection of God’s standards, a delusion, hypocrisy, or a mix of all three. But at the root of them all lies human pride. God’s remedy shatters both pride and hopelessness.
The central teaching of the Christian Gospel is that people can only be set free from sin through a direct intervention by God. We cannot earn God’s forgiveness for our sins by any effort of our own; and no amount of effort on our part can break our addiction to sin. We need a power that is beyond ourselves. We need a miracle. This is why Jesus stepped into human history.
For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did. Sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom 8:3-4)
God’s forgiveness is no mere ‘symbolic’ or hypothetical ‘paper’ transaction, as if our lives were like a computer game and our wrongdoings ‘victimless crimes’ where one only had to press the ‘reset’ button’ or write off our debt with a stroke of a pen. It requires such a radical inward change that Jesus describes it as being ‘born anew.’ Consider this conversation between Jesus and a Jewish spiritual leader:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The same came to him by night, and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Most certainly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he can’t enter into the Kingdom of God! That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and don’t understand these things? Most certainly I tell you, we speak that which we know, and testify of that which we have seen, and you don’t receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended out of heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (Joh 3:1-15)
The literal rendering of ‘born anew’ in the above passage is ‘born from above.’ Jesus is explaining that what is required is a spiritual rebirth, brought about by God’s Spirit. In a natural birth, the mother’s waters break and the baby is brought out of the mother’s womb into the world of normal human existence and relationships. In a spiritual birth, God’s Spirit brings us into a new, spiritual life in which we can have a relationship with God.
Nicodemus struggled to understand this; so Jesus referred him to an incident from the time of Moses, which is described in the book of Numbers, and with which Nicodemus would have been very familiar:
They traveled from Mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. The people spoke against God, and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.” Yahweh sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. The people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you; pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.”
Moses prayed for the people. Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard: and it shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it on the standard: and it happened, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived. (Num 21:4-9)
Usually, the Israelites were forbidden to make images in case they were worshipped as gods.1 So this was a very strange instruction – even more so as the serpent was a symbol of the one who caused Adam to sin. Why was it stuck on a pole; why did looking at it result in a cure and what does this have to do with Jesus and being born again? According to Jesus, it was a prophetic picture foretelling how he would be crucified, taking our place as the target of God’s judgement against the evil that the serpent, Satan, had done in and through our lives.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. (Joh 3:15-17)
Our wrongdoings have real consequences. They harm others and are deeply offensive to God. As the only ultimate source of morality and justice, God always insists that justice must be done – in full – and be seen to be done. Jesus satisfies that justice by taking our place, making undeserved and unconditional forgiveness and healing possible for anyone who simply puts their trust in him.
… who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed. (1Pe 2:24)
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,” that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:13-14)
Grace means ‘undeserved favour.’ God had every reason and right to condemn and destroy us: but God’s forgiveness comes to us as an un-earned and unconditional ‘miracle of grace.’ His love for us is so immense that he chose to suffer the penalty of our sins himself rather than see us destroyed by them. All we have to do is look at Jesus and trust him.
But how do we get the power to conquer temptation? Exactly the same way…
The second part of God’s undeserved miracle of deliverance from the power of sin is even more amazing; God Himself proposes to come and live in and through us!
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my ordinances, and do them. (Eze 36:26-27)
Now, in one sense, God has always been doing that: because God is everywhere. As Paul explained to the philosophers in Athens:
The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. … though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ (Act 17:24-28)
But what God is proposing here is a far closer and more personal relationship than man has ever known before. In the past, we knew God as a being ‘out there,’ telling us how we ought to behave. But now he intends that we should experience Him ‘inside of us’ – learning to feel the way He feels, desire the things He desires and act the way He acts.
Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband to them, says Yahweh. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says Yahweh: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (Jer 31:31-34)
We often make the mistake of trying to fight temptation directly. By doing this, we are focussing our attention on the problem; not the solution. This seldom works; and even if it does we quickly fall into the trap of believing that we have mastered the problem; so conceit sets in. But when we focus our attention on Jesus, then the Holy Spirit (who has come to live within us) reveals him to us in such a way that our desire to be like him is greater than our natural desires; and temptations lose their hold on us. Instead of being a battle to resist temptation, the enjoyment of God’s presence becomes a liberating delight.
But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2Co 3:18)
It’s all about His power – not ours.
- Sadly, that is what eventually happened.
It seems that, after the danger had passed, the snake was still kept to remind the people about this unusual miracle. But, over time, it became an object of worship. Almost 1,000 years later we read that King Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for to those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it ‘Nehushtan’,” (‘a piece of bronze’) (2Ki 18:4)↩