He May Sift

From “The Temptation of Christ” (ca. 1760)

Satan first tempted our first parents to sin, and has ever since been unwearied in tempting their descendants. The tempter, who in an invisible manner had been attacking our blessed Lord all the whole forty days, when he saw him hungering, and in such distressing circumstances, came to Jesus, as it should seem, in a visible shape, and probably transformed into the appearance of an angel of light. And what does he tempt Jesus to? To nothing less, than to doubt his being the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God.” What!… Surely, Satan himself saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit descending; surely, Satan heard the voice that came to Jesus from heaven, immediately after his baptism, saying, “This is my beloved Son:” And Satan now says to him, “If you are the Son of God.” Yes; but Satan knew, and Satan believed Jesus was full well; but Satan wanted to make our Lord to doubt it.

And why? Because he was in such a melancholy situation. As though he had said, “If God was your father, he would never allow you to starve to death in a howling wilderness, among wild beasts. Surely, the voice you lately did hear was only a delusion. If you are the Son of God, especially his beloved Son, in whom he was so pleased, you would be taken more care of by God.”

Thus Satan attacked our first parents, by suggesting to them hard thoughts of their all-bountiful Creator: “Has God said, You shall not eat of every tree in the garden?” “Has he placed you amid such a variety of delicious fruits, only to tease and make you miserable?” And how artfully now does Satan labor to insinuate himself into our Lord’s affections, as he then did to ingratiate himself with our first parents. “If you are the Son of God, says Satan, come, prove it, by commanding these stones (a heap of which, probably, lay very near) to be made bread: this will demonstrate your divinity, and relieve your pressing necessity at the same time.”

Thus, as in all his other temptations, Satan would fain appear to be his very kind friend; but the holy Jesus saw through the disguised enmity of his antagonist; and scorning either to distrust his righteous Father on the one hand, or to work a miracle to please and gratify the devil on the other, although he had the Spirit of God without measure, and might have made use of a thousand other ways, yet Jesus answered Satan with a text of scripture: “It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 8:3, and contains a reason given by the great God, why he chose to feed the Israelites with manna; that they might learn thereby, man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. This our blessed Lord here applies to himself; and his being in the wilderness, made the application of it still more pertinent. Israel was God’s son: out of Egypt was he called to sojourn in the wilderness, where he was miraculously supported. And therefore our Lord, knowing that he was typified by this Israel, and that, like them, he was now in a wilderness, quotes this scripture as a reason why he should not, at Satan’s suggestion, either despair of receiving help from his Father in his present circumstances, or distrust the validity of his late manifestations, or make use of any unwarrantable means for his present relief. For as God was his father, he would, therefore, either in an ordinary way spread a table for him in the wilderness, or support and sustain him, as he did his Israel of old, in some extraordinary way or other without it: “For man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”

Thus is the tempter foiled in the first onset. But Satan has other arrows in his quiver, with which he will farther strive to wound the immaculate Lamb of God. Since he cannot draw him in either to distrust, or to despair, he will not try if he cannot prevail on him to presume. In order to effect this, “He takes the blessed Jesus up into the Holy City,” or Jerusalem, called by our Savior, the city of the Great King, and here called holy, because the holy temple was in it, and, we would hope, many holy people. This was a populous place, and therefore, would greatly befriend the devil’s design. And not only so, but “he set him on a pinnacle,” a battlement or wing, “of the temple,” the top of which was so very high, that, as Josephus observes, it would make a man’s head run giddy to look down from it. And some think this was done at the time of public worship. How the holy Jesus suffered himself to be taken hither; whether he was transported through the air, or whether he followed Satan on foot, is uncertain; but certainly it was an instance of amazing condescension in our Lord, that he would permit so foul a fiend, to carry or lead his holy body about in this manner.

Well! Satan has now gotten him upon the pinnacle of the temple, and still harping upon this old string, “If you are the Son of God, (says he) cast yourself down,” and thereby show to this large worshipping assembly, (who will assuredly then believe) that you are God’s beloved Son, under the special protection of heaven, and are the Messiah, “who was to come into the world.” This was artful, very artful. But he seems to improve in cunning: for he brings his Bible with him, and backs his temptation with a text of scripture: “For it is written, (says Satan) God shall give his angels charge concerning you, and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you dash your foot against a stone.”

But is Saul also among the prophets? Does the devil quote scripture, yes, and seemingly such a very appropriate one too? I suspect some design, without doubt, for herein, Satan mimics our Lord, who, he perceived, intended to fight him with this weapon. And not liking the sharp edge of it, he thought that if he quoted scripture, the Lord Jesus would not employ it against him anymore. “It is written, (therefore said he) he shall give his angels charge concerning you, and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you dash your foot against a stone: and therefore, since you are sure of such protection, you need not fear to cast yourself down.”

This was plausible, and by the length of it, one would be right to imagine, it was a fair quotation. But Satan takes care, not only to misapply, but also to maim it, purposely omitting these important words, “in all your ways.” It is true, God had given charge to his angels, concerning his children in general, and his beloved Son in particular, that they should keep him in all his ways; but, if our Lord had at this time, at the devil’s request, and to gratify pride, thrown himself down from the pinnacle, and thereby unnecessarily presumed on his Father’s protection, he would not have been in God’ s way, and therefore, would have had no right to the promised protection at all. Satan was aware of this, and therefore fitly left out what he knew would not suit his purpose. But is scripture the worse, for being abused or perverted by the devil, or his emissaries? No, in no wise. Our Lord, therefore, lets him know, that he should not throw aside this important weapon upon this account, but puts by this home thrust, with another scripture: “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”

Still our Lord quotes something out of the book of Deuteronomy, and has his eye upon Israel in the wilderness state. Originally these words were directed to the Israelites in general, and accordingly are in the plural number; but here our Lord, as before, makes a particular application of them to himself: Satan bids him cast himself down, assuring him, God had promised in his word, to order his angels to take care of him. Now, says our Lord, “It is written in another part of his word, that the Israelites should not tempt the Lord their God, by distrusting his goodness on the one hand, or presuming on his protection on the other. And, therefore, as I would not command the stones to be made bread, needlessly and distrustfully set up to provide for myself; neither will I now presume unnecessarily upon God’s power, by casting myself down, though placed by thee in such a dangerous situation.

Thus our great Michael comes off conqueror in the second assault. And does not the serpent feel his head bruised enough yet? Not at all. On the contrary, being more and more enraged at such unusual opposition, and want of success, “He again takes him up into an exceeding high mountain, (what mountain is not very material) and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them,” St. Luke adds, “in a moment of time,” which confirms the common conjecture, that Satan did not show our Lord really the kingdoms of the world, (for that must have taken up more time) but only took him up into an exceeding high mountain to humor the thing, and by exerting his utmost art, impressed on our Lord’s imagination all at once, a very strong, and to any but innocence itself, a very striking prospect of the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; not the cares: that would not serve Satan’s turn.

Satan showed our Savior crowns, but never told him those crowns were gilded with thorns… And now, says the devil, “All these things (a mighty all indeed; a mere imaginary bubble!) will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” He would fain have it taken for granted, that he had succeeded in the two preceding temptations: “Come, you see you are not the Son of God, or if you are, you see what an unkind Father he is. You are here in a starving condition; therefore take my advice, disown your relation to him, set up for yourself, call me father, ask of me blessings, and all these will I give you. All that I desire in return, is but a bow, only fall down and worship me.”

Here Satan discovers himself with a witness: this was a desperate parting stroke, indeed. It is not high time for you, O you enemy of souls, to be commanded to depart! Filled with a holy resentment at such hellish treatment, and impatient of the very thought of settling up for himself, or alienating the least part of his heart and affections from his Father, or dividing them between his God and the world; “Then said Jesus to him, Get you hence, Satan, (I know who you are, under all your disguises) get you hence, you grand adversary! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’ This is the great commandment of the law; this is the commandment my Father gave to his Israel of old. And would you have me, who came to fulfill the law and the prophets, thus shamefully be a transgressor of it? Get you hence! I will bear your insolence no longer. Your other temptations were hellish, like yourself, but this intolerably so. Get you therefore hence, Satan! My heavenly Father is the Lord my God, and him only will I serve.”

And now the battle is over; the important combat is ended; Jesus has won the field. Satan is routed and totally put to flight. “Then,” when the devil found that Jesus could withstand even the golden bait, the lust of the eye and pride of life, in the two last, as well as the lust of the flesh in the first temptation, despairing of the least success, and quite stunned with that all-powerful get you hence, Satan, “he leaves him.”

Hell, we may well suppose, like the Philistines of old, was confounded, and gave a horrible groan, when they saw their great Goliath, in whom they had so long trusted, thus shamefully and totally defeated in no less than three pitched battles. The first Adam was attacked but once, and was conquered; but the second Adam, though thus repeatedly assaulted, comes off without the least sin, not only conqueror, but more than conqueror. Do you not think that there was joy, joy unspeakable in heaven, upon this glorious occasion? Do you not think that the angels, those sons of God, and the multitude of the heavenly host, who shouted so loud at our Lord’s birth, did not repeat, if possible, with yet greater ecstasy, that heavenly anthem, “Glory be to God in the highest.” For a while they were only spectators, orders, we may suppose, being issued out, that they should only wait around, but not relieve their praying, fasting, tempted Lord. But now the restraint is removed.

Satan departs, and “behold, angels came and ministered unto him.” They came to administer to his bodily necessities, and to congratulate him upon the glorious and complete victory which he had gained. Some of them, it may be, had done this kind office for Elijah long ago. And with unspeakably greater joy, they repeat it to the Lord of Elijah now. His Father sends him bread from heaven. And by this lets Jesus know, that notwithstanding the horrid temptations with which he had been attacked, he is his own beloved son, in and with whom he was well pleased.

And was there joy in heaven on this happy occasion? What equal, and if possible, what infinitely greater joy ought there to be among the children of God here on earth? For we should do well to remember, that our blessed Lord in this great fight with, and conquest over the dragon, acted as a public person, as a federal head of his mystical body the church, even the common representative of all believers. We may therefore from this blessed passage gather strong consolations. Since by our Lord’s conquest over Satan, we are thereby assured of our own, and in the meanwhile we can apply to him as a compassionate High Priest, who was in all things tempted as we are, that he might in personal experience be enabled to succor us when we are tempted.

Who, after hearing of or reading this, can think themselves hardly used, or utterly cast off by God, because they are tempted to self-murder, blasphemy, or any other horrid and shocking crimes? Who can wonder at wave upon wave, and one trial to follow upon the back of another? Who can admire, that Satan follows them to holy ordinances, and tempts them to doubt of the reality of all their manifestations, and of their being God’s children, even after they have enjoyed the most intimate and delightful communion with their heavenly Father? Was not our Lord treated thus? And “shall the servant be above his Lord, or the disciple above his Master?” No, it is sufficient that the servant be as his Lord, and the disciple as his Master.

But not to dwell on a general improvement, let us see what particular lessons may be learned from this affecting portion of holy writ. First, was our Lord thus violently beset in the wilderness? We may learn that however profitable solitude and retirement may be when used in due season, when carried to an extreme is hurtful, and rather allows than prevents temptation. Woe to him who is thus always alone; for he has not another to lift him up when he falls, or to advise with when he is tempted…

Secondly, did our Lord by prayer, fasting, and temptation, prepare himself for his public ministry? Surely then, all those who profess to be inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon them the office and administration of the church, should be prepared in the same manner. For though the knowledge of books and men are good in their places, yet without a knowledge of Satan’s devices be superadded, a minister will be only like a physician that undertakes to prescribe to sick people without having studied the nature of herbs.

And hence, it is to be feared, many heavy-laden and afflicted souls have been sent by certain ministers, to surgeons, to be blooded in the arm, instead of being directed to apply to the blood of Christ to cleanse their hearts. Hence, conviction is looked upon as a delirium, and violent temptations censured as downright madness. Hence, souls that are truly and earnestly repenting of their sins, and as earnestly seeking after rest in Christ, have been directed to plays, novels, romances, and merry company, to divert them from being righteous over-much. Miserable comforters are such blind guides! Surely, they deserve not better titles than that of murderers of souls! They go not into the kingdom of heaven themselves, and those who are entering in they would by this means hinder.

Go not after them, all you young men who would be able ministers of the New Testament; but on the contrary, if you would be useful in binding up the broken hearted, and pouring the oil of consolation into wounded souls, prepare yourselves for manifold temptations. For as Luther says, “prayer and meditation, reading and temptation, make a minister.” If now exercised with spiritual conflicts, be not disheartened, it is a good sign that our Lord intends to make use of you. Being thus tempted like your brethren, you will be the better enabled to succor and advise those who shall apply to you under their temptations. What says the apostle Paul? “If we are afflicted, it is for your sake.” And if you are afflicted, it is only that you may save your own souls, and help to save the souls of those who shall be committed to your charge. Be strong therefore in the grace which is in Christ Jesus, and learn to endure hardness, like good soldiers, that are hereafter to instruct others how they must fight the good fight of faith.

Thirdly, did the tempter come to Christ when he saw him hungered? Let those of you that are reduced to a low estate from hence learn that an hour of poverty is an hour of temptation, not only to murmuring and doubting of our sonship and the divine favor, but also to help ourselves by unlawful means… Learn, you godly poor, to be upon your guard, and remember that poverty and temptations are no marks of your being cast off by God. Your Lord was hungered; your Lord was tempted on this account to doubt his sonship, before you. Learn of him not to distrust, but rather to trust in your heavenly Father. Angels came and ministered to Christ; and he who is Lord of the angels, will send some kind messenger or another to relieve your wants. Your extremity shall be the redeemer’s opportunity to help you…

And may not such among you, who are exalted, as well as those who are brought low, from Satan’s taking the Lord Jesus, and placing him upon a pinnacle of the temple, learn also a lesson of holy watchfulness and caution. High places are slippery places, and are apt to make even the strongest heads and most devout hearts to turn giddy. How necessary therefore is that excellent petition in our Litany, “in all time of our wealth, (as well as in all time of our tribulation) good Lord deliver us!”… I charge, therefore, all of you, who are rich and high in this world, to watch and pray, lest you fall by Satan’s temptation. Those especially of you that are placed as on the pinnacle of the temple, exalted above your fellows in the church of God, take heed in a special manner to yourselves, lest by spiritual pride, vanity, or any other sin that does most easily beset persons in such eminent stations, you cast yourselves down. This is what Satan aims at. He strives to make us destroyers of ourselves. Arm us, dear Lord Jesus, with your Spirit, and help us under all such circumstances, to learn of you, and say to the tempter, “Get you hence, Satan; for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”

Fourthly, whether beset with this or any other temptation, let all us learn of our Lord to fight the devil with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Though he had the Spirit without measure, yet he always made use of this. We pray say of it, as David did of Goliath’s sword, “none like this,” none like this. And supposing Satan should be permitted to transform himself into an angel of light, and by false impressions, and delusive applications of misquoted texts, attempt to turn this weapon upon us against ourselves; let us not therefore be prevailed on to let go, but by comparing spiritual things with spiritual, as our Lord did, find out God’s mind and our duty. Had Christ’s children and ministers only observed this one lesson, how much strange fire would quickly have been extinguished? How much real enthusiasm been easily stopped? How may imaginary revelations have been detected? How many triumphs of Satan and his emissaries been prevented? And how much more would the comforts of Christ’s people and ministers been continued and increased, not only in this present, but also in every age of the Christian church? But let us not be discouraged or think worse of Christ, his cause, or his word, because through Satan’s subtlety, any of us, or others, may have been drawn in to make some wrong applications of it; others have been thus tempted and mistaken before us. However, let us be humbled before God and man, and be excited by our past ignorance of Satan’s devices, to adhere more closely to the written word, and to pray more earnestly for God’s Holy Spirit to give us direction by it…

Satan may tempt, but cannot force; he may sift, but Christ will pray. He who has helped us already, will help us to the end. He who conquered for us in the wilderness, will ere long make us also more than conquerors over all trials and temptations, inward and outward, and over death and hell itself, through his almighty, everlasting, and never-failing love. We now sow in tears, but in a very little time we shall reap with joy. We may now go on our way weeping, by reason of the enemy oppressing us, but, ere long, angels shall be sent, not to minister to us in this wilderness, but to carry us to a heavenly Canaan, even to Abraham’s bosom. Then shall we see this accuser and tempter of our Lord, of our brethren, and of ourselves, cast out. This wicked one, as well as the wicked world, and wicked heart, will no more be permitted to vex, disturb, or annoy us.

“But woe to you that laugh now; for you shall then lament and weep.” Woe to you who either believer there is no devil, or never felt any of his temptations. Woe to you that are at ease in Zion, and instead of staying to be tempted by the devil, by idleness, self-indulgence, and making continual provision for the flesh, even tempt the devil to tempt you. Woe to you who, not content with sinning yourselves, turn factors for hell, and make a trade of tempting others to sin. Woe to you who either deny divine revelation or never make use of it but to serve a bad turn. Woe to you who sell your consciences and pawn your souls for a little worldly wealth or honor. Woe to you who climb up to high places, when in church or state, by corruption, bribery, extortion, cringing, flattery, or bowing down to and soothing the vices of those by whom you expect to rise. Woe to you! For whether you will own the relation or not, surely you are of your father the devil; for the works of your father you will do; I tremble for you. How can you escape the damnation of hell?

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was an Anglican priest and evangelist, a leader of the first Great Awakening. As a student of Oxford, he was part of John and Charles Wesley’s Holy Club, committing himself to serious discipleship. After his ordination he became an itinerant evangelist, and is estimated to have preached 18,000 sermons to as many as 10 million people in thirty years of ministry in Britain and the American colonies.


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