The Lord’s Temptations
A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)
The Lord’s last week on earth in the human was the culmination and focus of all the preparations, all the teaching, healing, and miracles, that had gone before. He entered Jerusalem, the Holy city, as a king on what has come to be known as Palm Sunday. He went into the temple and threw out the money changers who had made His house into a den of thieves. He then spent each day teaching in the city, retiring to the mount of Olives each night with His disciples to rest. This unrelenting pressure on the scribes and pharisees in Jerusalem, the very center of their own power, was more than they could bear. He wasn’t such a threat to them while He was teaching out in the country, but now He was teaching to large crowds in the capital every day. They had to meet this direct challenge to their authority.
The Lord, knowing that the situation was about to reach the breaking point, secluded Himself in the garden of Gethsemane with Peter, James, and John to prepare Himself for the final battle. At stake was nothing less than the eternal lives of every living soul who had ever been born in the earth, or who might ever have been born. On the one side was the Lord in His as yet infirm Human. On the other side was arrayed the Jewish Church, the whole of Hell, and even the whole of the angelic heavens.
And so, He prayed. We’re told that prayer is speech with God, a time when thought is directed towards internal, eternal things. When we genuinely pray, we draw our minds away from things of this world, and into the sphere of the spiritual world. The result is that we can actually leave the light and thought of this world and come more and more into the light and thought of the spiritual world as we open ourselves up to the life of the spirit. It is not of order that we should actually become conscious in the spiritual world as the result of prayer, but we can in fact borrow something of the sphere of that world which brings a sphere of peace and consolation into our life in this world. This is why the Lord prayed. He did not pray to the Father as another distinct person, but rather He turned to prayer as a way of lifting Himself above the finite, material limitations of His human body and mind so that He could more clearly perceive His inner Divine Soul. He was lifting Himself up out of the uncertainties and confusions of this world and receiving the strength He needed from perceiving His own Infinite love of the universal Human race. This restored Him. This strength of pure love prepared Him for the final battle.
At this time of year, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the joy of Easter morning, we are necessarily drawn to consider the terrible events that preceded His resurrection. Sometimes we are filled with depression and guilt as we wonder how we ourselves would have reacted to the Lord had we lived in Jerusalem in those days. We wonder if we would have had the courage and insight to be a disciple, or if we would have shouted “Crucify Him!” with the mob. We wonder why the Lord, if He was truly the all-powerful God, allowed this to happen. Why couldn’t He have worked out some other, less painful way? Why couldn’t He have simply sent an army of angels to do battle with the devils and drive them back into hell where they belonged?
Human beings are born into the natural world for a very important reason: so that evils from the hereditary nature can show themselves, be recognized as evils and shunned. By this exercise of our freedom of choice in spiritual things we make for ourselves a character that is stored in the organics of the brain and forms a vessel for eternal, spiritual life.
The Lord had to come into the world and submit to the attacks of the hells for a similar reason: While He remained above the heavens, He was unapproachable, and the evils remained hidden, subtle, able to take away men’s freedom of choice in spiritual things, destroying men like a cancer deeply hidden in the body. The Lord took on a human in the world to make Himself approachable, to draw the hells out where they could be seen for what they truly were, where men could understand what they were and freely choose to turn away from them. Unless the Lord had sustained temptations, the whole human race from the time of the Most Ancient church would have perished in eternal death. (See AC 1676)
The Lord had to undergo temptation, real, painful temptation, the same kind of temptations that we ourselves go through during our life. The Lord’s temptations were very similar to our own in many ways, and yet they were also very different in some ways. One of the first and most important differences is that the Lord fought against the hells from His own power, while when we fight, it is actually the Lord who fights for us — our part is to choose to fight as of ourselves. The Lord fights the actual battles and changes our loves for us. All we have to do is hold true to the truth which we know.
Another important difference is that the Lord was never tempted as to His loves, but only as to His wisdom. The Lord is frequently referred to in the New Testament as the “Son of God,” and also the “Son of man.” The internal sense of the Word tells us that whenever there is reference to the “Son of God” it has to do with the Divine Love, and reference to the “Son of man” has to do with the Divine truth. Whenever He is teaching, healing, or doing miracles, the reference is to the “Son of God.” Whenever the text speaks of suffering or temptation, it refers to the “Son of man.” We know that the Lord alternated between two states while He was in the world, the states of Glorification and humiliation. The “Son of God” is another name for the state of Glorification, and the “Son of man” is another name for the state of humiliation.
The “Son of God” could not be tempted, because it represents the Divine Love. The reason for this becomes clear if we ask ourselves what the Divine Love is, what the Lord’s ruling love is. The Lord’s ruling love is that there should be a heaven from the human race. This is the pure love which is the power behind the creation of the universe. This is too high, too fundamental a love to ever be approached or challenged by any lust from hell. The Lord’s loves, being pure, cannot be tempted. Ours can, and frequently are. (See AC 2813)
But the “Son of man” could be tempted, for it stands for an aspect of the Divine truth. The Writings tell us that it was not the Divine Truth itself that was tempted, for that, like the Divine Love itself, is above all temptation. What was tempted was “rational truth, such as the angels have, consisting in the appearances of truth” (AC 2814). The Heavenly Doctrines frequently point out that men in the world seldom possess real, rational, truth, for there are too many confusing elements in the natural world. Rather, what we have in the natural world is the appearance of truth — how truth appears in our minds. The Doctrines frequently speak of dawn as an example of an appearance of truth. We say that the sun “rises” in the morning, even though we know it is an appearance that is the result of the earth’s rotation. It is an appearance of truth that is firmly rooted in our minds, an example of a falsity that everyone accepts as truth, even though the truth is known.
The Lord, while in the human, must then have experienced appearances of truth, and He was tempted to accept them as truth. He may have thought that He should use His power to miraculously come down off the cross, thus convincing everyone that He was the Messiah. He may have been tempted to think that men would be better off after all if they did not have freedom and were all saved by pure grace. He may have been tempted in ten thousand ways that are above our understanding to do something other than bear the humiliation of the cross. We will never know the millionth part of it.
But we do know that He was tempted so severely that he sweated blood while He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. And we also know that He accepted the temptation because it was necessary, and it was in accord with the Divine Will that there be a heaven from the human race, a heaven of men who had freely chosen to be there.
One of the most difficult things for people to think about when considering the Lord’s temptations, is the idea that the Lord doubted His own ability to conquer in temptations. It seems to be a paradox that the All-Knowing God would not know the outcome of His own trials.
The clear teaching of the Heavenly Doctrines is that “every temptation is attended with some kind of despair (otherwise it is not a temptation) … He who is sure of victory is not in anxiety, and therefore is not in temptation. The Lord also … could not but be driven into states of despair” (AC 1787). These were the states of His humiliation, where He was drawn into the perceptions and feelings of the infirm human that was not yet completely glorified. The more closely His thought was focused on the things of this world, the more distant seemed Divine things, and so they became relatively clouded to Him. While in the depths of temptation, while fully in the state of the Son of man, He despaired, He doubted, He wondered if He was doing the right thing. He was never tempted as to whether He would order the heavens, establish a new spiritual church, and save men, for this was His ruling love. He only wondered what the best way to accomplish this end was. Even so, His temptations were more difficult than we can ever imagine, for temptations are as the loves are. The higher and more deeply held the love, the more difficult and painful the temptation. The Lord’s love was the salvation of the whole human race, and it was the sum of the affection of good and truth in its highest degree. Against these all the hells raged. But still the Lord conquered them by His own power. (See AC 1820:5)
He fought against the hells throughout His whole life on earth. Each time He fought, He won. The evil spirits find their greatest delight in destroying what is good, which is why they attack, tempt, and torment men. But when they perceive that a man is of such a character that he can resist them, then they flee away for the lusts of their lives are threatened. (See AC 1820:5)
Thus, by victory in temptation, the Lord achieved a strength, a confidence that He would continue to win. There was consolation in temptation as promised in the Word. Each of us can feel that consolation when we resist temptation and the hells flee away. This is why hell flees from the angels — because they have learned how to resist their temptations.
So, while in His state of humiliation, the Divine within seemed distant and weak to the Lord, and He was in doubt as to how best to save the human race. But as He continually faced these temptations in increasingly greater degrees, He was also in continual victory! These victories then gave Him an inmost confidence and faith that because He was fighting for the salvation of the whole human race from pure love, He could not but conquer.
Was the Lord the Lord really in doubt? Yes and no. With the Son of man, while fully in the state of humiliation, there was an appearance of distance from the Divine that brought anxiety and despair over the best way to save the human race. His continual victories in temptation brought an inner strength, a confidence that He would continue to win as long has He fought. At the same time, the Son of God, the Lord in His state of glorification was one with the Divine and did not entertain any doubts at all but simply went forward with the task at hand with the power of pure love.
A temptation is an attack on a love. The severity of the temptation is directly related to the quality of the love that is being attacked. Therefore, we can form some idea of the severity of the Lord’s temptations by comparing our ruling love with His. By the same token, we can have some idea of the power with which He fought against hell for the sake of our eternal lives by comparing our love of the human race with His.
Actually, there is no ratio between the infinite and the finite, so there can be no real comparison, but it can serve to illustrate how great is His love for us, and the power that He can bring to bear on hell for the sake of our eternal lives. He conquered death and hell so that we no longer need be afraid of death. He did it by His own Divine and Infinite power, and He has offered to use His power to all those who simply ask for it by living a life according to His commandments and resisting the temptation to do what is evil. Every victory against hell allows the Lord to implant new loves in our new will, and draws us closer to Him. Every victory gives us new confidence to face the next fight. In the depths of temptation, if we turn to the Lord for strength, we will find consolation and hope, just as He prayed for strength in Gethsemane and then went forward with confidence and strength to the final battle. AMEN
Lessons: Gen. 22:1-15, Mat. 26:36-46, AC 2813-14