Joseph’s Temptation
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Joseph’s Temptation

Genesis 39:6–20  (ID: 1853)

In our contemporary, hypersexualized culture, none of us are immune to sexual temptations and sins. These sinful desires and snares are hardly new, though. As Alistair Begg shows us, Joseph was likewise familiar with the subtle dangers of sexual sin. His response to his attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife should prompt us to follow in his footsteps and fight sexual sin without compromise.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Hand of God, Volume 1

Genesis 37:1–41:57 Series ID: 21904

Encore 2019

Series ID: 25910

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, Genesis chapter 39. We continue our series in the life of Joseph, and we find ourselves once again confronted by the fact that the Bible is a powerful book. Some of you may have come this morning as visitors or guests, and to you the Bible is largely a closed book and a mystifying book, and as you take it on your lap or gaze over as someone else holds it, you wonder if it really has anything to say to you at this point in the late twentieth century. And if you were listening at all with care in the verses that we read, it will have become immediately apparent to you that this particular section of the Bible sounds a little bit as though it was taken out of yesterday’s newspaper, that it has an immediate and striking relevance to us in that it deals with issues that confront all of us on virtually a daily basis. And this is because the Bible is God’s Word and it is powerful in its impact and it is very realistic in its affirmations and applications. And so I would encourage you, as I talk and as together we listen, that the prayer of your heart would be, “God, I want you to speak to me through this book in the way that only you can do.”

And we’re dealing this morning with this whole matter of temptation. Temptation is an enticement to evil or to sin. Temptation, in and of itself, is something that is known to everyone, known even to the Lord Jesus himself, and temptation in and of itself is not sin. It is our response to temptation which leads us either in the paths of righteousness or down into the meadows of our disobedience. And this morning as we look again at the life of Joseph, we have probably the classic illustration in the whole of the Old Testament, as to how to deal particularly with the matter of temptation as it expresses itself in this issue of morality and interpersonal relationships and particularly the whole issue of sexuality.

The Peculiar Challenges of Beauty and Charm

Now, I have four points before me in my outline this morning, and I want to work through them with you. The first is almost a passing issue, but I do want simply to address it. First of all, I’d like you to notice how verse 6 concludes with one sentence: “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome.” Notice first of all, would you, the peculiar challenges of beauty and charm—the peculiar challenges of beauty and charm. Joe … Sorry, I’ve begun to refer to Joseph as “Joe” in my own personal relationship with him; that just slipped out ’cause I have him written in front of me here as “Joe.” Forgive the familiarity, but I don’t think he would mind. Anyway, I will refer to him publicly as Joseph; it seems only correct.

Joseph was always someone’s favorite. Even in the few years that have elapsed, in the few chapters we’ve considered, we found that he was the favorite of his father, then we discover him in this section to be the favorite of Potiphar, and now all of a sudden he’s become the favorite of Potiphar’s wife. What is it that makes an individual that kind of person? Well, there are many factors that contribute to it, it would seem, but on a superficial level, one of those is just physical characteristics. And in the context of Egypt it was apparently no different from the context of Cleveland. There was a special door of opportunity which swung open for the beautiful people, and Joseph was a beautiful person. That’s what it says: he was “well-built” and he was “handsome.” And that is something which many of us would love to be able to enjoy and would love to be able to experience.

Lovely features may prove to be a snare both to the person who has them and to the person who looks at them.

I can remember coming here, as I’ve told some of you before, as a twenty-year-old in 1972 and being confronted by all these young American men, who all had haircuts like royal Marines and who had bodies who looked as though they had lived in a weight room since the age of one and a half. I was about 147 pounds totally dripping wet with hair that swung all down my back. And I can remember feeling distinctly unbeautiful and imagining what it would be like to be one of these handsome guys and to be marked by these characteristics. Some of you maybe feel the same way. Even this week you stood at the grocery store and you looked at the magazines, and the magazine were full of the beautiful people. And you said to yourself, “I wonder what it would be like to be one of them, to wear the right dress all the time, to have my hair the right way all the time, to brush my teeth with the right stuff, to squirt behind my ears the right perfume, and simply just to be the indicant package of beauty and of charm. Wouldn’t that be absolutely wonderful?” And our culture suggests that it would be so, and many a person is driven by that. Well, what we discover in human history and in the biblical record is this: that to be handsome and beautiful may and does open many doors of opportunity, but in swinging wide and welcome, we better beware because many of them will close us down into the most perilous of places. Lovely features may prove to be a snare both to the person who has them and to the person who looks at them. And so the idea of being that kind of person as the part of the dream is a dangerous idea and leads to dangerous conclusions.

Consider, for example, in just turning back a couple of pages in Genesis, to Genesis 12:11, what happened to Abram who was the husband of a beautiful wife—verse 10: “there was famine in the land and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt,” we are told in verse 11, “he said to his wife, Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are.’” Now that’s a nice start to the day. That’s good to say, and it must have been encouraging to his wife. She couldn’t have bargained for what was about to follow. “‘I know what a beautiful woman you are,’” he said. “‘When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.”’” So far, so good. But, “‘Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’”[1] I think the song was by Dr. Hook, “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman,” sometime around 1969: when you’re in love with a beautiful woman, everybody wants her, everybody fancies her, everybody wants to steal her from you.[2] And there is a peculiar challenge that is wrapped up in being the possessor of beauty or in being the observer of beauty. Eighteenth century Scottish commentator puts it like this: “Dost thou want beauty? Be content and thankful that you are free from the snares which often attend it.”[3] The peculiar challenges of beauty and charm. This story would not be in the Bible were it not for the fact of the second part of verse 6: “Joseph was well-built and handsome.” The story of Mrs. Robinson, à la Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, was there in Genesis 39 and has continued throughout the whole of human history. Just “a little secret, just the Robinsons’ affair.”[4]

The Particular Elements of Joseph’s Temptation

Secondly, I want us to notice the particular elements in this strong temptation. The peculiar challenges of beauty and charm is almost in passing; now we get to the heart of the matter. Look at the particular elements in this strong temptation. Now, for those of you who are taking notes this morning, I’ll try and be as clear as I can because if you’re not careful, you will be dreadfully lost very quickly. You say, “Well, why would that be different from any other Sunday?” All right, sorry. Sorry. I thought maybe I could have hoped for better. But anyway, I will try and be as clear as I can. The particular elements in this strong temptation—I have four of them to mention to you. Number one (or A, depending on how you like to do it), the approach was subtle—the approach was subtle. “Oh no,” says somebody, “if you look at the text it would appear that the approach was startling.” Well, it was startling, but that’s essentially the second point. Let’s do the first one before we get to the second one. Notice the phrase in verse 7: “after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph.” Now what does that mean? She said, “Oh, there’s Joseph” and “Oh! Oh, there’s Joseph again”? No, the King James Version does us justice. This is what it says in the King James Version: after a while she “cast her eyes upon Joseph.” There came a point—some day, however soon in the event—when she began to notice Joseph in a different way. Initially, Potiphar got a new slave. Initially, there was another fellow in the midst of all the slaves in the house. But suddenly one day along the journey, she looked at him and then she looked back the second time, and now she started to “cast her eyes upon Joseph.” When a girl starts to “cast her eyes upon” a guy, the guy knows. Incidentally, it works both ways, but the story’s about a lady and a guy, so I’m just sticking with the text, okay? The same is true when a man shakes your hand and holds your gaze for that subtle split-second longer than is just normal in a greeting. And “she cast her eyes upon Joseph.” She began in her mind to look at him differently, in a way that does not become someone who wants to walk the straight and narrow, wants to live in purity, wants to maintain the family bed in order. Loved ones, this morning let us notice and notice clearly that the eyes are the gateway into our souls, that the eyes are the path through which many affections come, and the subtlety of her beginning is directly related to what she did with her eyes. We used to sing in Scotland, maybe you did here:

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see,
’Cause your [Father’s] up above
[And He’s] looking down in love,
So be careful little eyes what you see.[5]


Secondly, the approach was striking. It was as striking as it was subtle. Her eyes ensnared her heart, and as a result of that, she completely lost any notion of modesty at all. Did this woman have no shame? Could she proceed to such a barefaced invitation to adultery? How could it ever happen? How is it that it does happen? Where do such propositions emerge from? The answer is that, in Potiphar’s wife, she was clearly feeding lust at the level of her imagination. And when we feed lust at the level of our imagination, or feed desire at the level of our imagination, we take forward the possibility that we may actually suddenly do what we’ve been thinking about. For example, you imagine yourself behind the wheel of a certain kind of automobile, and the advertisements come across with such appeal, you see yourself rather than the actor driving off into the sunset, you see yourself coming ’round the curve, making that big turn, and you’ve already got yourself in your mind’s eye behind the wheel. And suddenly you’re behind the wheel, and suddenly you’re behind in your payments, and suddenly you’re absolutely behind. Now where did it all start? It all started here in your imaginations. “Oh, I think I would look nice in that dress,” said the lady the first time she walked down the street. She went to the other shop, the post office, then said, “I think I’ll just go back and have another little look at that.” She went back and she had a look at it, and there was one of those dummies there, and she looked at it, and she said, “Maybe …” And she imagined herself in the dress, and suddenly she’s in the dress. That’s what was happening here with this lady. First she’s subtle as she casts her eyes, then she’s striking as she makes her approach, because when lust is fed at the level of imagination, it is always ready to break forth in an instant, driven by almost blind and furious and almost irrepressible urges, because we’ve already gone down the road so far that all we need is the occasion, and once the occasion arises, we’re there. And that, you see, was what had happened to this lady.

So, the approach was subtle. Secondly, the approach was striking. Thirdly, the approach was sustained—it was sustained. It would appear from verse 8 and 9 that Joseph’s refusal only served to make him more desirable, and as we see in verse 10, she bugged Joseph “day after day.” Now what did she say to him when she came along? I don’t know, but I can imagine because she had expressed herself very clearly. Joseph was in no doubt as to the proposition. The subtlety of her eyes had given way to the stridency of her approach, and now she gets him day after day. She made occasion to be in his company, she made sure that she was there as he came around the corner, and she would have begun to feed him the standard lines:

“Hey Joseph! You’ve been thinking about me?”

“Joseph—who’s to know?”

“Joseph, God doesn’t want you to live like this.”

“Joseph, how long has it been since you had a girlfriend?”

“Joseph, Potiphar looks really tough on that chariot, but he’s a wimp.”

“Joseph! I’m lookin’ for someone like you, Joseph.”

“Joseph—just once. I’ll never mention it, no one’ll know, and I’ll never bug you again.”

Now, the striking thing about this is that Joseph, in his response to this woman, as we will see, was equally clear, but the lady is neither corrected by time, nor is she restrained by his refusals. Now, what does this tell you? It tells you something about the nature of allowing oneself to be held in the grip of vain and lustful imagination. It is the trap into which people fall concerning pornographic literature. It is the same ensnarement because they allow themselves to be sucked down into the vortex, and they live, then, in that slimy pit. And every occasion becomes an occasion for the fulfillment of that, at least in their imaginings. And time won’t fix it, and the strident concerns of others can’t cure it, and we become enslaved. She was. She clearly was.

And her approach, fourthly, was strategic. It was subtle, it was striking, it was sustained, and it was strategic. Verse 11: “One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside.” Bingo. Perfect opportunity. Did she create it? There’s no one to say. We don’t want to make her worse than she actually is, but she sure would have been glad of the opportunity because after all, she knew his concerns and his scruples, and she perhaps figured to herself, “As long as nobody sees, maybe I can get him, you know, as long as no one sees.” Isn’t it interesting when we sin that we think as long as, you know, our friends don’t see or our parents don’t see or our brother doesn’t see or whoever it is doesn’t see, that we’re okay? That’s not the issue. God sees—God sees. And if the man’s concern was only that whether anyone would know, if he could be suckered on account of that, if secrecy was enough to spill for him his convictions, then in this strategic approach she would have him. But she was to discover that he wouldn’t. And she comes and she grabs him: “She caught him by his cloak.” If you’ve watched the TNT two-part video series on this—on Joseph—they do a masterful job of the approach of Potiphar’s wife. And she surely didn’t just sort of grab him, you know, like a butcher grabbin’ a hunk of ham. She didn’t go, “Hey, Joe! Hey, how you doin’? Ha-ha.” Uh-uh. The subtleties of a seductress are far more keenly honed than that. She came at him in the way that was most desirable, and she laid hold of him in the way that was absolutely compelling, and if he had managed to this point to stay at arm’s length from the woman, he no longer was now. Now he’s within the orb of her perfume. Now he can see her exactly as she is, and she has gone down the road from her eyes to her feet to her hands: first through her eyes she imagines what may happen, then with her feet she puts herself in the position where it’s opportunity, and then with her hands she expresses her longings. Just in case we never get to it, put away in the back of your mind what Jesus said about your eyes and your feet and your hands: if your eye offends you, what did he say to do? “Pluck it out.” If your hand offends you, chop it off. If your feet offend you, remove them.[6] And failure to address the issue in this way leads such an individual further down the path.

The Powerful Example of Joseph’s Resistance

Okay, so we’re noticing the particular elements in this strong temptation. The approach was subtle, the approach was striking, the approached was sustained, and the approach was strategic. Now notice, thirdly, the powerful example of Joseph’s resistance. And this time I have five subpoints. What about Joseph’s resistance? Well, number one, it was decisive. Three words, with which verse 8 begins: “But he refused.” She was very clear about her approach; he was very clear about his response, and we’re going to have to be if we are ever going to be this decisive in dealing with temptation. We’ll have to wait until heaven to find out how accurate this assertion is, but I do firmly believe that Joseph had already settled the issue in his mind. There was a measure of premeditation on Joseph’s part. He had said to himself, “Now look, I’m in Egypt. I’m a long way from my home. I don’t have my father calling me. I don’t have my mother to go home to. I have none of my brothers and sisters around. So what is it going to be like here? What will the challenges be?” And archaeological evidence shows us that Egyptian women were a byword for lewdness and for immorality. The pharaohs had a tremendous time finding a woman who had not been in the custody of four or five other men, and indeed there’s a classic story in the records of a man who tried to find a woman who had been faithful to her husband. And once he’d found the woman who’d been faithful to her husband, he took her from her husband, and he made her his wife—the wife of the king—’cause she was the only one that he could find in his kingdom who wasn’t absolutely out of control.[7]

So, Joseph—now he’s in Egypt. For another guy it’s like, “Hey, spring break! Spring break forever! Fort Lauderdale everywhere. The whole package rolled into one.” He looks back, says, “You know, I was in the pit, but I’m not in the pit any more. This is all right here. And you know what? Since I’ve been doing those weights and everything, I can see the way they’re looking at me.” But no! No, no, no, no. no! He must have, in his mind, settled the matter: “Now if this ever comes my way, what am I going to say?” and the answer is, “I’m going to say, ‘No!’” Now let me tell you something about temptation: that is the only way to deal with temptation. As it is in our minds that we sow the seeds for our demise, so it is that by guarding our minds, we sow the seeds and plant, if you like, the fruit of our ability to say “No.” You cannot make it in the heat of the moment; the only way to deal with it is to plan for it in the cold light of dawn. And Joseph was absolutely decisive in his refusal.

Secondly, he was principled in his response—verse 8 and 9. Look at his explanation there, just allow your eyes to gaze over 8 and 9. He says, “I’m in charge of everything. My master doesn’t deal with anything in the house anymore. The only thing he cares about is his food, and he’s kept nothing back from me except you because you are his wife.” In other words, he says, “There is a rightness about that, and I understand it.”

There is no more powerful force in overcoming temptation than the fear of God.

Now, before we go on to his ace in the hole, notice this: that a lesser individual, someone other than Joseph, might have employed the same circumstances as an occasion for sinning. In other words, the same circumstances present themselves to another person, and he looks at it and he says, “Here’s the deal. I’m in charge. My master doesn’t concern himself with anything in the house.” So far, so good. “He’s entrusted everything to my care.” Beautiful. “He holds nothing back from me, except you—we’ll come to that in a moment—so … This is about as perfect as it gets! The circumstances are just moving me in that direction,” the individual says. No. Circumstances are neutral. Ultimately, it is our response to the circumstances. And what he does is, he introduces principle: “This,” he says, “would not be right. You are his wife, and you must fulfill the obligations of being a wife. I am a single man, and I must never intrude upon the privileges of your marriage.” And notice how unashamed he is in introducing the matter of right and wrong—verse 9. How unlike the nineties, eh? “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” That was the kicker for him. In other words—and notice this carefully—there is no more powerful force in overcoming temptation than the fear of God—than the fear of God. “The fear of [God] is the beginning of wisdom,”[8] and the filial fear of God—not the servile fear of God, which is the fear of a pagan who is concerned lest God would come and get him like “Terminator 4.” That is the pagan’s view of God; that is not a biblical view of God. The filial fear of God of which the Reformers and the Puritans wrote was absolutely clear: not that I am afraid what you will do to me, but I am more afraid of what I, by my actions, will do to you. That’s the kind of fear we want to instill in our children in relationship to their mums and dads: not the fear of our eternal punishment, but the fear of the implications and bringing down of their family name in response to the concerns of parental jurisdiction. And Joseph feared God. We are breeding a generation which, even in the context of church, negates the notion of fearing God. I’m growing old and gray listening to people from pulpits explain that “We don’t believe in the fear of God anymore. Oh, we’re tired of sermons about the fear of God. Oh, we don’t like to think of God in that way. Oh, let us be nice, you know. Oh, let us be comfortable. Oh, let us be endearing.” Yes, fine, let’s go ahead—and adultery and immorality is absolutely rampant in and out of the church, for we’re letting go of the very foundational principle which stands against it: the fear of God. And when that is instilled in the life of a boy, it’ll make a difference no matter how deep he’s buried in Egypt. But until it is, you can’t even trust the kid next door to you. And somehow or another, Joseph had that fashioned into his life, and it made a difference. He didn’t come to the lady and say, you know, “I don’t want to do this; I’d be hurting you. I don’t want to do this; I think it might get out.” No, no. He says, “I’m not going to do this. How could I do this, such a wicked thing, and sin against God?”

Now he’s not addressing the issue of his desires. You know, if you could get Joseph on his own and say to him, you know, “Was she cute?” he’s gonna say, “Cute? Goodness, gracious! I mean … Yeah, she’s Potiphar’s wife!” It’s not like, “You’re ugly, and I don’t fancy it.” It’s … his mouth is waterin’ as he looks at his neighbor’s melon patch. But the issue is, what are you gonna do now, Joseph? “I couldn’t do this,” he said. Listen: sexual sin, no matter what contemporary culture says, sexual sin is not just between two consenting adults; sexual sin is an act of disobedience against God, and that’s why you don’t engage in sexual sin. That’s why. No other reason. Not the pragmatism of it, not what it might do to the children, not what it might get ’round the office, not “it might be an issue here or there.” No. It is a wicked thing; it is against God; therefore, we don’t do it. Even if we feel like it, we don’t do it. Even if every circumstance moves in that direction, we don’t do it.

Now, the pagans even understand this now for pragmatic reasons. Last month’s edition of Men’s Health with a big, beautiful guy on the front, with muscles in places that most of us don’t have places, has got a fantastic article on monogamy. I meant to bring it with me; I forgot to bring it. But the amazing thing is, the guy sets this scene up where you’re on a business trip in Siberia. You are twelve-and-a-half thousand miles from your home, and you are propositioned by the most beautiful goddess that ever walked the face of creation. And he says, “What do you do?” This is secular man writin’ in a secular magazine. He says, “What do you do?” He says, “You get out of there as fast as you possibly can.” Why? “Because you have a wife, and it would be wrong. Because you have commitments, and they are to be fulfilled.”[9] This is secular magazines. I haven’t written to the fellow yet, but I’m about to—say, “What are you doing, reading your Bible?” I don’t know what he’s doing, but Joseph would have been right there. He could have been both on the front of Men’s Health, and he could have been the author of the article. And when a society or a culture fails to acknowledge this, it’s on the way out, and that’s why our society and culture is on the way out. The fall of the Roman Empire, the Greek Empire, and every empire, all has fallen in on itself on the basis of idolatry, immorality, homosexuality, bestiality, and the whole thing, and we’re right there. That’s where we are. So, basically God says, “You don’t do this.” We say, “We know better than God.” Joseph said, “It’s a wicked thing.” We say, “It’s a matter of preference.” And our culture crumbles around us.

His response, then, was decisive, principled, and thirdly it was unyielding—unyielding. Verse 10: “day after day.” It’s one thing to resist temptation in its first attack; it’s quite another to ratify the decision on a daily basis. Some of us manage to muster up enough strength and courage to get past the first one, and then we’re so proud of ourselves that having not done it, that we just go right ahead and do it for the next half an hour. Now let’s just trivialize it: let’s talk in terms of Planters Peanuts—you know the problem I have with Planters Peanuts. So, I can spend the early part of the evening having a royal war in my mind about knowing where that thing is, the attractiveness of the box, the way the plastic lid comes off, then the sound it makes when you pop that metal seal—that sound. I’m sittin’ goin’, “Oh man, I think I could make that sound. I would love to make that sound. No, I mustn’t make that sound. Yeah, oh, go make that sound. No …” So finally, you know, it’s like 9:30 and you fought the battle and you won it. And you’re sitting there and you said, “Man that’s great, you know.” And you say, “In fact, I feel so good, I think I’ll have just a few peanuts to congratulate myself.” You used up all your energy saying “No” once, and you couldn’t put it into practice for the next hour and a half. Do you know how many times I’ve seen young couples do the same thing? “Oh no, pastor, we don’t sleep together. No, no, no. Oh, we were here and we were there and everything, and you know, we’re on the go, pastor, we’ve got it done—yes sir.” Two weeks later, skulking around, hiding from you everywhere, you know: the kid used up all his energy saying “No” once, but he couldn’t put it into practice on a daily basis. He just couldn’t sustain it. If it’s wrong the first time, it’s wrong every time.

And he knew that. He wasn’t about to play mind games. He wasn’t about to do all the stuff of, “Well, maybe, you know, if I just yield on this one occasion, I’ll be in a better position. Maybe I could witness to her, you know.” You may laugh, but I’m sick and tired of hearin’ people walk into adultery on the grounds of personal evangelism. Cut that junk out! If she’s got questions, give her to your wife, or give her to a Christian lady, or give her over to the Lord, but don’t be staying half past six at night supposedly to read the Bible to her. Just cut it out as of today. Trust me. And the same is true in reverse. There is no place for it. If you’re so smart, then you go tell other people how to be smart, but don’t you put yourself in that position. People tell me … In twenty years of pastoral ministry, this is one of the classics: “You know pastor, I really want to do the right thing, and I fully believe that if God wanted me out of it, then he would remove the temptation. He would take away the feelings. He would fix it for me.” And the answer is: “Listen, cloth ears, he has written a whole jolly book on the subject for you, and he is probably ninety-nine percent certainly not gonna remove the temptation.”

We may think we merely respond to outward temptations that are presented to us, but the truth is our evil desires are constantly searching out temptations to satisfy our insatiable lusts.
The enabling of the Spirit of God through the directives of the Word of God is not to call us to some slavish observance of external rules, but it is to empower us from the inside to make the right choices in the right way.

I’ve seen God remove the tempted. I’ve seen a guy go to heaven in a gas explosion, and the only explanation that I’ve got of it to this day is the fact that he was involved in an adulterous affair, and his wife, as a result of a spinal accident, was lying flat on her back in the house, and he was praying for God to take his wife to heaven so that he could get on to his business legitimately. “God, I can’t cope with this anymore. God, I can’t live with this.” The Lord says, “Fine.” He’s eatin’ his breakfast in a restaurant in Aberdeen, and all of a sudden the boilers blow up and he ain’t gonna be dealing with it anymore because in an instant he’s in eternity. That’s what 1 Corinthians is about. He says, “You know what? You’re just clowning around at your communion services. You’re playing fast and loose with this. That’s why some of you have died.”[10] Don’t mess with this. Don’t fool with this. Don’t try and lay the charge at God’s door. Don’t allow our desires to overturn our reason. It is our own evil desires that lead us into temptation. We may think we merely respond to outward temptations that are presented to us, but the truth is our evil desires are constantly searching out temptations to satisfy our insatiable lusts. See, we wage war on three levels: against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world and the devil are external to us, and the flesh is internal. “As long as we live in this body,” says Paul, “we wage war against the flesh.”[11] The Westminster Confession says we live with “a continual and irreconcilable war.”[12] And there is that within us which if we sow to the flesh yields death, and if we sow to the Spirit, it yields spiritual benefit and righteousness;[13] and every day we live our life, we have the choice. And every day we live our life, we either move in the realm of obedience or we move in the realm of disobedience. So there is within us a propensity, even as Christians, to go and seek out that which is most attractive to us. And so the world, represented by Potiphar’s wife, is brought to Joseph by the evil one: “Don’t you fancy this?” And now the issue is, will Joseph sow to his flesh and reap corruption, or will he sow to his spirit and reap eternal life?[14] And for the believer, let us not be in any doubt here: The enabling of the Spirit of God through the directives of the Word of God is not to call us to some slavish observance of external rules, but it is to empower us from the inside to make the right choices in the right way.

In other words—and this is our fourth point—not only was Joseph decisive and principled and unyielding, but he was also practical—he was practical. The end of verse 10: “he refused to go to bed with her”—now notice the next phrase—“or even [to] be with her.” Even to be with her. He wasn’t gonna risk the possibility of allowing for a change in his own heart. See, that was the danger: he didn’t know that, because he’d been successful on Friday, he could be successful on Saturday. He wasn’t going to be so silly as to say, “I’ve got this licked. It won’t be a matter to me.” That’s what people tell me all the time. They say, “Well, you live with your own little problems, Alistair, and you’ve got that problem. I understand that you’re a weak Christian, but for me, don’t you worry about me. I’ve got it taken care of.” Beware, beware. There’s a verse in the Bible, you know about the guy who’s standing or thinks he is.[15] Now let’s just be absolutely practical and realistic. The [Welsh] proverb says, “He who would not enter the room of sin must not sit at the door of temptation—” “He who would not enter the room of sin must not sit at the door of temptation.”[16] Straightforward. I always tell the guys on the pastoral team—I tell myself first, then I tell them—“Listen, you got a lady coming to see you, and you’re looking forward to it? Have someone else see her, unless the lady’s your wife, your daughter, your mother, or your Aunt Fanny from Wisconsin. But beyond that, have someone else see her. You’re lookin’ forward to the girl coming, not because of the spiritual thing she’s about to tell you or whatever it is; somehow or another you’ve become captivated by her beauty, you’ve been interested in her, you see her eyes, she appeals to you, whatever else it is. You don’t have the meeting!” “Well, she might think that I’m cold and heartless.” Hey, that’s alright—that’s alright. Better to go through your life having women think you’re cold and heartless than to go down into the depth of the pit as a result of them thinking you’re warm and cozy.

And fifthly, he was absolutely ruthless in his response. That’s why in verse 12 he “ran out of the house.” Split! Better to lose his cloak than his character. It’d take you twenty or thirty years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it. That’s why when Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:22, “Here’s what I want you to do in relationship to these evil desires of youth,” he says, “I want you to flee.”[17] Run! Split! 1 Corinthians 6:18: “Flee … immorality.”[18] You don’t hang around. You don’t play with it. You run away. That’s why the book of Proverbs, especially in the opening sections, has so much to say regarding this. Let me just give it to you as your homework: You read the first seven chapters of Proverbs, that’ll be enough—that’ll be enough. And just underline the clarity of the words of Solomon. He says, “Listen, in relationship to adultery, don’t go down that road,”[19] he says, “’cause I’ll tell you why. This is how you’ll end your life,” he says to his son,

At the end of your life you will groan,
 when your flesh and your body are spent.
You’ll say, “How I hated discipline!
 How my heart spurned correction!
I would not obey my teachers … 
 listen to my instructors.
I have come to the brink of utter ruin
 in the midst of the whole assembly.”[20]

So, you want to end your days like that? You want to end your days separated from your wife, separated from your kids, livin’ over in some lousy apartment somewhere? “Don’t do it,” he says, “Let me tell you how to avoid it”:

Drink water from your own cistern,
 running water from your own well.
Should your springs overflow in the streets,
 your streams of water in the public squares?[21]
You gonna run around the neighborhood like a dog? No.
Let them be yours alone,
 never to be shared with strangers.
May your fountain be blessed,
 and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
[May she be to you like] a loving doe, a graceful deer—
 may her breasts satisfy you always,
 may you ever be captivated by her love.
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress?
 Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife?[22]

Roger McGough, the poet in the sixties in England, puts it graphically and almost unspeakably when he says,

The Act of Love lies [O6] somewhere
Between the belly and the mind
I lost the love sometime ago
Now I’ve only the act to grind …
High on bedroom darkness
We endure the pantomime
Ships that go bang in the night
Run aground on the sands of time.
And then in the morning
It’s cornflakes and good-bye
It’s another notch on the headboard
It’s another day wondering why.
Because the Act of Love lies somewhere
Between the belly and the mind
And I lost the love sometime ago.
And I’ve only the act to grind.[23]

And that is the picture of Proverbs 5: lost, rotted, captivated, and destroyed. Now, he says, “Don’t put yourself there.” And it is an act of the will.

Our Experience of Dealing with Temptation

God is never and cannot be the source of temptation, so we can’t lay the problem at God’s feet.

Now let me finish up by turning you to James 1. This is your New Testament homework. Old Testament homework: the first seven chapters of Proverbs; New Testament homework: read this section in James. James chapter 1, begins at verse 13, and he talks about temptation. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’” That’s the first thing: God is never and cannot be the source of temptation, so we can’t lay the problem at God’s feet. Incidentally, you will notice—and we’ll come to this next time perhaps—but when Potiphar’s wife gets spurned by Joseph, and she starts to tell the servants, and particularly her husband, do you notice the allegation that’s contained in it? “This Hebrew slave [that] you brought …”[24] Your slave, Potiphar. See, the insinuation is, “You shouldn’t have brought him in here. It’s your fault, Potiphar. If you hadn’t brought the guy in here, then this wouldn’t have happened to me, so you’re culpable in this, Potiphar.” He was no more culpable than fly in the air, but as soon as we find ourselves under the gun like that, we’ll reach for anything, and we may even try to lay the blame at the door of God. God is unsusceptible to evil and cannot tempt to evil. “Well, why does it say,” says somebody, “‘Lead us not into temptation’?”[25] We should read “test” for “temptation,” but even leaving “temptation,” let me explain it to you. The temptations are testings which God sets up—are tests which he sets up for his students to pass. The temptations of the devil are set up for his students to fail. And the temptations or testings of God are there for us to be fashioned and to be formed and to be disciplined and to be structured and to be moved on. The evil one’s temptations are to bring us down to the grave. So notice that God is never the author of temptation.[26]

Secondly, temptation begins with our individual desires—verse 14: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he’s dragged away and enticed. [And] then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”[27] The picture that’s always in my mind here is the picture of fishing; I don’t know why. Because presumably—I mean this is ridiculous, but just go down the ridiculous road with me for a moment—presumably the mother fish, or whatever, says to the kids in the morning, “Now look, I’m gonna let you go out for the first time on your own. You’re gonna get to go to the mall, you’re gonna go there and back by yourself, you go to the fish mall, and then you come home. Now, let me tell you, while you’re out [there’s] gonna be a lot of stuff. It’s gonna be, like, dangling in front of you, and it’s gonna look like, ‘Ooo, I gotta eat that. Ooo, I gotta have that. Ooo, I fancy that.’ Now,” she says, “now, look me in the eyes and listen to what I’m telling you: don’t, whatever you do, bite that stuff, ’cause if you bite that stuff, you ain’t gonna be coming home for supper—you’re gonna be supper.” Freddie the fish goes out, goes to the mall; so far, so good. Comin’ back, sees one, hears his mother’s voice, says, “My mother’s nuts, man. You know, these older fish, they’re losing it. They don’t understand what the fish, you know, the contemporary fish are into. You know, let her think what she wants. I’ll have a try at this.” He thinks he grabs it; it grabs him. He has a big hook right up through his nose, and suddenly he’s a member of the historical society. Now, that’s exactly the picture here. Desire “conceived … gives birth to sin”; sin grows, and it leads to death. Imagination plus application.

So therefore, we need to learn to deal with temptation. We need to learn how to nip it in the bud. How do you do it? There are four final words for you; I’ll just give you the words. If we’re gonna deal with temptation, we have to deal with it immediately—when it’s just a little stream, not when it becomes a big river. The big river will sweep us away. When it’s just a spot of rust on the trunk lid, before the whole car becomes a rust bucket; then you can only trash it. In other words, when I become conscious of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance, I deal with it then. How am I gonna deal with it? Immediately. How am I gonna deal with it? Realistically—Genesis 4:7: “Sin is crouching at your door; and it desires to have you.” Sin is crouching at your door and it desires to have you, so we better be realistic about it. Jesus says to his disciples, “Watch and pray so that you [don’t enter] into temptation.”[28] Murray M’Cheyne, who died at twenty-nine, the Presbyterian minister in Dundee, Scotland, before the age of twenty-nine said to his congregation, “I have discovered that the seed to every known sin dwells within my heart.”[29] So we’ll never deal with temptation unless we deal with it immediately, unless we deal with it realistically, unless we deal with it ruthlessly. Matthew 5:29 and following: pluck your eye out, chop your hand off; [30] chop your feet off.[31] Metaphors, but graphic metaphors. Also, that we would deal with it consistently—consistently. Establishing patterns. You remember the story I told you before of the chaplain down on the south coast of England? And the sailor said to him, “Chaplain, you don’t understand. I mean, I know you’re telling us to toe the line and walk the path and everything, but you don’t realize the things that are influencing us, the way we’re blown and tossed and moved. You know, you live in your own little kind of pastoral world, but if you ever came over here with us in the real world, you’d understand. We just can’t be blamed for what happens to us. We’re just cast up on the seas.” And the chaplain said, “Come on, now,” and he said, “let’s look here.” And they look out over the coast there at Portsmouth, and there’s little vessels going one way or another, and their sails are flapping in the breeze, and one is going to the east and one is going to the west, and the chaplain says, “One boat goes east, one boat goes west, by the self-same wind that blows. It’s the set of the sails and not the gales that determines which way it goes.”[32] You got your sails set, young guy? You set your sails up in relationship to this stuff? Even though the whole world goes nuts, even everybody else is into it? I’ll tell you what, I’m going with Joseph. I’m Joseph’s man. He’s my example. He was well-built, he could pump iron, he could run a hundred yards faster than most, he was popular—and he was pure. And he did it with God’s help and grittin’ his teeth, so I’m gonna do it too. I’m gonna respond to temptation in this way.

Can you imagine getting on a plane? You get into 13F there—your usual spot somewhere around 13 or 14 where the jolly seat won’t go back ’cause you’re sittin’ by the emergency thing—and the pilot comes on, and he says, “Good morning. This is flight 482 to Phoenix and I want you to know that it has been, ever since I began flying, my express desire not to crash very much.” Very much? What’s this “very much”? How much is “very much”? I mean, is once “very much”? Once would be too much for me; wouldn’t it for you? “I have decided not to crash … very much.” You know, I discovered somethin’ about myself this week in relationship to sin. That’s kind of the way I approach sin: “Lord, I want you to know that I have decided not to sin … very much.” Well, how much is it gonna take to ruin your life? To mar your testimony? To make you another sorry statistic? Forty-three years to build a reputation, and five minutes to flush it down the toilet.

And the last word is we’re gonna deal with sin not only immediately and realistically and ruthlessly and consistently, but we’re gonna deal with sin confidently—confidently. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is my last verse: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” You know the old westerns, these great old movies, and everybody’s trapped in the canyons, and the Indians are all around, and it’s all gonna be a carnage, you know, and we’re just stuck. And then the guy—you know, with the butt-end cigar and the stubble on his face—and just when you’d forgotten he was even in the movie, he shows up. “Hey, follow me. I found the secret passage.” And off they go. Five minutes before it looked like it was oblivion and curtains, but here he came with the way out. Let me tell you something. Did you ever sin in the full face of temptation because there wasn’t an escape hatch? Now, don’t lie about it. The answer is, you never did. Because as a believer, God has pledged an escape route every single time. The reason that you and I both succumb: ’cause we closed our eyes to the opportunity of exit, because we allowed our desire to overwhelm our reason, and that’s a bad plan.

Genesis 39—enough food for a month of sermons. “Yes,” you say, “so why did you try and do it all in one Sunday?” Answer: ’cause I’m just learning how to do this, and hopefully next week will be a little better than this.

I have one final word before I let you go. Actually, there’s a wonderful song that will conclude our worship, but here’s the word. Some of you this morning listened to this message, and it’s a real bittersweet experience for you because the insinuations of the evil one in your mind are such that you don’t know whether you can be encouraged enough by the challenge to lay down a new fixed point and move forward, for account of the fact that the accusations of the evil one are taking you back lower and lower and lower into the sense of emptiness that you feel because of mistakes that you’ve made in your past. Let me tell you something: As Martin Luther said, “Our Lord speaks with sweet reasonableness.”[33] And do not allow the evil one to give you this kind of trip: “Listen, you are so spiritually overweight and messed up that there is no point in you getting on that treadmill and doing anything. You may as well just chuck it where you are, give up, and that’ll be fine.” And the Word of God comes to you and says, “Listen, your sins and your iniquities I will remember no more.[34] I will drown them in the sea of my forgetfulness.[35] I will respond to you in the way that Jesus responded to the woman taken in adultery in John chapter 8, when all the Pharisees got on their high horse and were gathering up stones ready for the eventual demise of the woman, and Jesus looked around and says, “Okay buddy, you go first. You without sin—you go first.” Then he turned to the lady and he said, “So where are your accusers?” And she said, “I don’t see any.” And Jesus says, “And I’m not one. Now you go and leave your life of sin,”[36] and in the command is the enabling because we stand in grace. If you think that this morning’s message is a strident call to pull up your socks, break a sweat, and try and dig yourself out of the morass of your own impoverishment, you haven’t heard a word I just said, because it is all by the enabling of the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, that we are able to live the life of God.


[1] Genesis 12:10–13 (NIV 1984).

[2] Even Stevens, “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman” (1979) (paraphrased).

[3] George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 32.

[4] Paul Simon, “Mrs. Robinson” (1968).

[5] Author unknown.

[6] Mark 9:43–45 (paraphrased).

[7] Herodotus, The Histories, 2.111.1-4.

[8] Proverbs 9:10 (NIV 1984).

[9] Hugh O’Neill and Greg Gutfeld, “Your Honey or Your Wife,” Men’s Health, January 1996, 72.

[10] 1 Corinthians 11:17–30 (paraphrased).

[11] Romans 7:14–23.

[12] Westminster Confession 13.2.

[13] Galatians 6:8 (paraphrased).

[14] Ibid.

[15] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).

[16] See John Owen, “Notices of the Rev. Thomas Jones” The Christian Miscellany and Family Visitor, October 1851, p. 291.

[17] 2 Timothy 2:22 (paraphrased).

[18] 1 Corinthians 6:18 (NIV 1984).

[19] Proverbs 5:8 (paraphrased).

[20] Proverbs 5:11–14 (NIV 1984).

[21] Proverbs 5:15–16 (NIV 1984).

[22] Proverbs 5:17–20 (NIV 1984).

[23] Roger McGough, “The Act of Love” in Collected Poems (London: Penguin, 2004), 33.

[24] Genesis 39:17 (NIV 1984).

[25] Matthew 6:13 (NIV 1984).

[26] James 1:13 (paraphrased).

[27] James 1:14–15 (NIV 1984).

[28] Matthew 26:41 (NIV 1984).

[29] Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Dundee: William Middleton, 1848), 154.

[30] Matthew 5:29–30 (paraphrased).

[31] Mark 9:45 (paraphrased).

[32] Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “The Winds of Fate,” in World Voices (New York: Hearst’s International Library Company, 1916), 51 (paraphrased).

[33] Source unavailable.

[34] Jeremiah 31:34 (paraphrased).

[35] Micah 7:19 (paraphrased).

[36] John 8:3–11 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.