Snake Eyes: The Four Stages of Temptation
June 2, 2002
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The Bible makes no sense unless we understand the first few chapters of Genesis. These chapters answer a very crucial question: Where did we come from and how did we get from where we started to where we are today? The way that question is worded suggests that somewhere along the way, a massive change has occurred in the universe. Genesis 1 tells us that when God finished with creation, he declared it “very good.” On that day there was no crime, no poverty, no sickness, and no death. There were no broken homes, no latchkey children, no abusive husbands, no drug pushers, no murderers, and no child molesters. What God created was pure, perfect, and pristine in its beauty. The whole earth was a place of peace and tranquility. In short, the world as it came from the hand of God was paradise.
Obviously something has gone wrong with that same world because all those things that were not there then are found in abundance today. Now the roses have thorns and we have made bombs powerful enough to kill 10 or 20 million people at a time. What happened to the paradise God created? The Bible answers that question with the little word sin. Sin has happened to the world and nothing has been right or worked ever since.
Studying the Enemy’s Tactics
The Bible does not tell us everything we might like to know about sin. For example, we are not clearly told where sin came from in the beginning. The serpent suddenly shows up in Genesis 3 with no introduction at all. He’s simply there, in the Garden, going about his diabolical work.
As we approach our text, it’s useful to keep two things in mind. First, this is history, not myth or legend or saga or poetry. There really was a serpent that really could talk. There really was a woman named Eve who really ate the fruit and gave some to Adam who also ate. And that is the true account of the first temptation and the first human sin. Second, this story also teaches us an important truth about how the devil tempts us today. Though these events took place thousands of years ago, they have an amazing relevance to the 21st-century. We ought to study this story of the first temptation in the same way that a general studies his enemy. Before committing his force to battle, a good leader studies his opponent carefully. Where does he like to attack? How? When? How often? And under what conditions? If you go into battle armed with that information, your chances of victory are much stronger. With that in mind, let’s look carefully at the story of the first temptation and watch as the various stages unfold before us, one by one.
Stage 1: The Approach is Subtle & Unexpected.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1a).
There are some things we know and some things we don’t know about this story. We know that the serpent is the devil (see Revelation 12:9). But where did the serpent come from? How did the devil gain entry into paradise? What did the serpent look like? Did he look like a snake or did he take some other form? How could a serpent talk? And while we’re on the subject, does that mean all the animals could talk before the Fall? The answer to all those questions is the same: I don’t know. The Bible simply doesn’t give us enough information to answer those questions with certainty. Evidently they don’t matter or God would have told us.
I think it’s clear from what follows that Eve has no idea what is about to happen. Why should she? She’s quite literally in paradise. It’s not as if she got up that day and thought to herself, “I’d better have my Quiet Time today because a talking serpent is going to tempt me to sin and if I give in, I’ll bring heartache, misery, sadness, despair, loneliness, trouble, murder, mayhem, hatred, and every form of evil to billions of people for thousands of years to come.” No, it wasn’t like that at all. She wasn’t expecting to encounter a talking serpent or to be tempted to commit the first sin. She wasn’t looking for the serpent but the serpent was definitely looking for her.
In my mind’s eye I picture her walking along the banks of the river that ran through the Garden of Eden. It’s a sunny day and she enjoys the breeze blowing through her hair and the soft feel of fresh grass beneath her feet. The flowers are in full bloom and she can hear the birds calling to each other from the trees of the forest. It is the sort of day that we all dream about, a perfect day in paradise.
Then she spots the serpent. She doesn’t recoil in fear. Why should she? What is there to fear in paradise? The creature before her is stunningly beautiful. When he speaks, his voice is captivating.
The serpent was truly cunning in his approach. But temptation generally comes when we least expect it. After all, if temptation gave us a warning call, we’d be much better prepared. And the fact that the serpent shows up in paradise leads me to this suggestion: When everything is going well in your life, Beware! You are a prime candidate for satanic attack. Our instincts tell us that temptation tends to come when we are down on our luck, and sometimes it happens that way. But we are just as likely to be tempted when our bills are paid, our job is going well, the boss likes us, our spouse loves us, our children are reasonably well behaved, the folks at church are glad to see us, and the doctor says we are in perfect health. Be warned. When everything is going well, buckle up! You are likely to be attacked because when the good times roll, our guard is down and we are prime candidates for the “fiery darts” of the devil.
Stage 2: The Strategy Involved Conversation & Controversy.
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die”’” (Genesis 3:1b-3).
The serpent’s first move is brilliant. In essence, he challenges Eve to a game of Bible Trivia. What happens next is a three-part conversation in which the serpent speaks, Eve responds, and the serpent speaks again. The whole exchange could have been over in less than a minute. The serpent’s Bible Trivia question is this: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” That’s a clever query. After all, Eve was not present when God spoke to Adam. She had to rely on her husband’s explanation. The question itself turns on the word “really.” One translation even begins with that word: “Really? Did God really say …” The question boils down to this: How well does Eve know the Word of God? As we shall see, she knows it pretty well, but not well enough. Because she has a general idea of what God said but is hazy on the details, the serpent will pounce on her lack of specific knowledge.
In her response Eve makes three mistakes. First, she downplays the permission. God had said they could eat from any tree of the garden (Genesis 2:16). Eve lessens the impact of God’s permission from “any tree” to “the trees,” a subtle but important shift in emphasis. Second, she added to the prohibition. God had forbidden them to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But Eve added the phrase, “you must not touch it.” Finally, she downplayed the judgment for disobedience. God had said, “You will surely die,” while Eve says, “You will die.” Again, this is a subtle difference.
Eve had to get her information from Adam, which means that either Adam incorrectly relayed what God had said or Eve misunderstood it or perhaps she changed it on her own. In a sense, Eve’s “paraphrase” of God’s Word in and of itself is not especially objectionable. To use a common term, she is “in the neighborhood” of the truth. She is quoting God’s Word, sort of. And where did that part about not touching the tree come from? Perhaps Adam suggested it as a logical way to stay out of trouble. If so, he was simply being a wise husband and showing proper care for his wife. But if Adam said, “God said, ‘Don’t touch the tree,’” then Adam was adding to God’s Word. And if Eve interpreted it that way, she was adding to God’s Word. Either way, the net effect is to make God sound more restrictive than he really is.
But there is a greater point that must not be missed. If you are going to talk to the devil, make sure you quote God’s Word accurately. As we shall see, he knows what God really said. When we are tempted, we will never be delivered by a “general” knowledge of the Word. It won’t help us to “sort of” know the truth. We must know and stand upon what God has actually said.
So why did Eve get in trouble? First, she didn’t know the truth of the Word of God. Second, she shouldn’t have been discussing God’s Word with the serpent in the first place. She should have asked Adam to help her in this situation instead of going it alone. Those who think they are an equal match for the devil will soon find out they were sadly mistaken.
So we learn from this that when you are tempted, don’t stop to talk it over. When Potiphar’s wife is pulling you down into the bed, don’t stop to pray with her. Run for your life! Leave your jacket and run for safety. Don’t negotiate with the devil. And don’t talk it over with his representatives. And remember that his representative could be your best friend or a family member, a co-worker or someone else you know very well. The devil sometimes uses those we love in order to lead us astray. Your best defense against temptation will always be an accurate knowledge of the Word. Know it! Read it! Memorize it! Quote it when the devil knocks at your door.
Stage 3: The Conversation Leads to Doubt & Desire.
“‘You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (Genesis 3:4-6a).
At this point the serpent openly denies what God has said. In the Hebrew the expression is very strong. Literally it reads, “Not, you shall surely die.” The serpent took the very phrase God used and put the word “not” in front of it. Which means, by the way, that in this instance the devil knew the Word of God better than Eve did. That’s why you’d better know your Bible before you start arguing with Satan. He’s not only smarter than you, he knows God’s Word through and through. He just doesn’t believe it.
The first doctrine that is denied by the devil is the doctrine of God’s judgment. God said, “You will certainly die.” Satan said, “You will not certainly die.” Why did he deny this doctrine and not something like the existence of God or the deity of Christ or Christ’s resurrection? The answer is simple: If you are convinced that you can get away with sin, sooner or later you’re going to do it. If you think that no one will know, no one will notice, no one will ever call you to account for your actions, you’ll eventually give in. Why not commit adultery if you think you can get away with it? Why not steal or kill or sleep around? If there are no consequences for sin, there is no reason not to indulge your wild desires.
Then the serpent questions God’s goodness. He implies that God is holding back something from Eve that would make her happy. “You will be like God.” What an incentive that is. Why not? Who wouldn’t want to “be like God?” The serpent’s words were designed to cause Eve to feel deprived and cheated by God.
Now the downward spiral has started. First, Eve listened when she shouldn’t have listened. She talked when she shouldn’t have talked. She thought about what the devil said when she should have ignored it. Now she is about to fall right into his trap.
Her response reveals how clever the devil is. He’s got her on three different levels.
1) The Practical Level. The fruit was good to eat. That’s the lust of the flesh.
2) The Emotional Level. It looked beautiful to her. That’s the lust of the eyes.
3) The Spiritual Level. It would make her wise. That’s the pride of life.
The devil has now got her hook, line and sinker. She’s already a goner and she doesn’t even know it. And I’m sure the fruit did look good. She probably took it in her hands, felt it, and even enjoyed the pleasant fragrance. But please remember this: When you start fondling Forbidden Fruit, you’re already in the pit. You’ve committed the sin in your heart long before you take that first bite. If you don’t want to get trapped, don’t stop to inspect the fruit. Don’t spend time thinking about how nice it would be, how good it would feel, or how much you deserve it.
The Danger of Self-Pity
We play this game so many ways. “I know God says adultery is wrong, but I really do love him and God wants me to be happy.” “I know God says he hates divorce, but my marriage is the pits.” “I know God calls me to purity, but I’m single and so lonely.” “I know God says stealing is wrong, but everyone else does it. Why can’t I?” On and on we go, offering one rationalization after another. Mark it down, Christian friend. When you start saying, “I know God says ________but_______________,” you are on the verge of making a terrible mistake.
There are several crucial lessons here:
1) When we doubt God’s goodness, sin won’t seem so sinful.
2) Satan wants you to feel deprived by God!
3) We can always justify disobedience if we try hard enough.
Self-pity is a dangerous emotion that leads to many wrong decisions. A few days ago a friend wrote in an e-mail that she was going through a particularly bad day. The details don’t matter but she realized that she was wallowing in a sea of self-pity and she knew from experience that she had to get out of it quickly. From her days in AA, she knows how dangerous those “pity parties” can be. “This is when drinkers drink. This is when smokers smoke. This is when eaters eat. This is when gamblers gamble.” And I would add, this is when cheaters cheat, liars lie, angry people lose their temper, and adulterers commit adultery. You will never grow spiritually as long as you listen to the devil’s lie that says, “Go ahead. You deserve it. It won’t matter. You’ve been cheated in life and now it’s time to live a little.” If you listen carefully, you can hear the hiss of hell in those evil words.
The downward spiral is almost complete. First, you talk with the devil. Second, you believe the devil. Third, you obey the devil. And fourth, you are conquered by the devil. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. What the serpent did to Eve, he still does today because the strategy still works.
Stage 4: The Result is Collaboration & Catastrophe.
“She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:6b-7).
The end comes very quickly. Notice the verbs in verse 6: saw … took … gave … ate. Evidently she doesn’t hesitate and neither does he. Eve has now joined the serpent’s team. By giving the fruit to Adam, she is doing the serpent’s dirty work for him, and she is dragging her husband down with her. But that’s what happens when we yield to temptation. We never fall alone; others are always hurt by our rebellion and disobedience. We stand together, we fall together, and in the end, we suffer together.
Notice how ordinary the first sin is. It’s just a bite of fruit. Nothing special about it. Like eating a cold peach on a hot summer’s day. Or taking a bite from an apple. Or enjoying a fresh pear or an orange. No big deal. The first sin was not murder or some terrible sexual sin. No, it’s something very ordinary, something we all have done, just a bite of fruit. And I can imagine that when she ate the fruit, Eve said to herself, “This is really good.” And perhaps she said to Adam, “Honey, have a bite. I touched it and nothing happened to me. This is the best fruit I’ve ever had.”
Where Was Adam?!?!?!
And by the way, where was Adam when all this was going down? The text says he was “with her.” That sounds like he was standing right by her side while she was talking to the serpent. What a total doofus! Maybe he was grinning to himself and enjoying the intellectual sparring that took place between the serpent and his wife. Perhaps he thought it was just some cute parlor game. If Adam had been a true spiritual leader, he would have taken a hoe and hacked off the serpent’s head. The world would have been a better place if he had taken leadership. First Timothy 2:14 draws an important conclusion from this verse: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” Eve was tricked by the devil. Perhaps he came to her because he knew he could appeal to her emotions. But Adam was not deceived. He had heard the original command from God and he knew it was wrong to eat the fruit. He wasn’t tricked at all. And as the head of his family (and the “federal head” of the whole human race), he is held morally culpable for the first sin. It wasn’t Eve’s fault. She sinned first but Adam is to blame. That’s why Romans 5 says that sin entered through Adam. He should have known better, he should have exercised leadership to protect his wife, and he should have killed the serpent when he had the chance. But he didn’t. And the rest is history. Men, learn this lesson. When you fail to exercise spiritual leadership, your wife and your children will always pay the price.
Eve never dreamed what would happen next. She truly thought that she would gain enlightenment. But her eyes were opened and she suddenly knew she was naked. And Adam’s eyes were opened and he knew he was naked. Innocence was gone forever. Now the full impact of their disobedience begins to hit home. Now they are ashamed to see each other naked. Quickly they make a pitiful covering of fig leaves. But sinners can never adequately cover up their own sin. The fig leaves keep falling off. And you can never replace them fast enough.
Little Steps in the Wrong Direction
How did Adam and Eve end up like this? It was a series of little steps in the wrong direction. She should never have listened. She had no business stopping to talk with the serpent. She should have known God’s Word accurately. And she should never have spent time thinking about how wonderful the fruit looked and how much fun it would be to have a bite. Finally, she should never have given the fruit to her husband. And he should have intervened to protect her. But all those small steps added up to one huge catastrophe that still haunts the world today.
From the standpoint of thousands of years later, we see Satan’s strategy clearly. He came to Eve in a moment of weakness and he began with an “innocent” question. Little by little, he led her to the place where she was willing to do what she had previously never even dreamed of doing. He even co-opted her onto his team so she was doing his work for him. The devil uses that same strategy today because it still works. And notice his ultimate lie. He said, “God knows … you will know.” He took a truth and twisted it violently. When they sinned, their eyes were opened and they truly did know, only they now know evil on a personal basis. The “wisdom” they sought could never be found through rebellion. The enlightenment they dreamed of turned out to be deep moral darkness. No wonder they were ashamed.
Satan promised liberation through rebellion. What they got was slavery, sin, shame and death. Let us learn one overarching truth from this passage: Every temptation is a lie wrapped in a promise of freedom. Satan is the father of lies. He lies consistently. He lies because it is his nature to lie. He is the first and greater deceiver. All Satan’s apples have worms.
What really happened that day in the Garden of Eden? Theologians call it “the fall.” They mean that Adam and Eve fell from a state of innocence into a state of sin, shame, slavery and death. And what they did has been passed down across the generations so that all of us inherit a nature that causes us to rebel against God. That day in Eden, man declared his independence from God. As a result all of us are born with a clinched fist daring God to tell us what to do. Human nature is now thoroughly corrupt. All are sinners. We are born that way, we live that way, and we will die that way. Sin is now the environment in which we live. Every relationship is corrupted because sin always separates us from each other and from God.
Adam, Come Home
Everything in this sermon so far has been bad news. It is also true news because this passage tells the truth about why the human race is so messed up today. There is a direct connection between what happened in the Garden that day and the pain, sorrow, sadness, despair, hatred, and rampant evil we see all around us, and the sin we see inside us. We are the way we are because of what Adam and Eve did.
I can sum up the rest of the Bible in one paragraph. After the fall, God moved to re-establish a relationship with fallen men and women. Thousands of years later he made the ultimate move when his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, came to earth to die for us. The first sin came from tasting forbidden fruit. The evil of that day would not be overcome until Christ tasted death for all of us on the cross. It took the bloody death of the Son of God to reverse the impact of what happened in Eden.
The good news is that through Christ all our sins can now be forgiven. In a true sense we are all like Adam and Eve. If we had been there, no doubt we would have done exactly as they did. If we think otherwise, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. They failed, we would have failed, and left to ourselves we fail every day. Apart from the grace of God, we are capable of committing all sorts of evil. And through the cross of Christ, even our worst sins can be forgiven. Adam, come home. Eve, come home. God still loves you. He has never stopped loving you and he never will. The lights are on and the door is open in the Father’s house. He is standing at the door waiting for you to come in. Amen.