Were Jesus’ Temptations Real If He Couldn’t Sin?

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By Ryan Leasure

Historic Christianity affirms that Jesus Christ, though fully human, is also fully divine. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 22:13) — the eternal creator of all things (Jn. 1:3). The Nicene Creed (AD 325) declares of Jesus that he is:

Were Jesus’ Temptations Real If He Couldn’t Sin

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him, all things were made.1

With Jesus’ deity established, can we honestly say Jesus could experience genuine temptations? After all, James 1:13 declares that “God cannot be tempted by evil.” Doesn’t this present a bit of a dilemma for the biblical Christian? If Jesus was impeccable, that is, he was unable to sin, to what extent can we say that his temptations really affected him?

On the surface, it seems that Christians can’t take much comfort from Hebrews 4:15 which reads, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin.”

Can we really say he was tempted in every way as we are? I experience temptation all the time and give in to those temptations more than I’d like to admit. That wasn’t a problem for Jesus, though. He couldn’t give in to his temptations. Doesn’t this seem like apples and oranges to you?

While I affirm that Jesus was unable to sin due to being fully divine, in the remaining space, I want to demonstrate that he experienced genuine temptations as a human. And I want to show that we can believe both truths simultaneously.

A SPIRIT-FILLED HUMAN

I contend that the reason Jesus could not sin and the reason he did not sin are for different reasons. I believe Jesus could not sin because he is the second person of the Triune God who is incapable of sinning (Js. 1:13). The reason he didn’t sin, however, was because, as a human, he was filled and empowered by the Spirit. That is, Jesus lived his life on earth fundamentally as a human and relied on the Spirit to perfectly obey his Father. Let me give you a few texts of Scripture to support this claim:

And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon [the Messiah], the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isa. 11:2).

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me (the Messiah), because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isa. 61:1).

And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country (Lk. 4:14).

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I (Jesus) cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you (Mt. 12:28).

How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:38).

I believe this small sample size of texts demonstrates that Jesus lived his earthly life fundamentally as a human. If, in the incarnation, Jesus lived primarily as a deity, the filling of the Holy Spirit would have been both redundant and unnecessary for his mission.

JESUS’ SINLESSNESS ILLUSTRATED

A few years back, daredevil Nik Wallenda tightrope across Niagara Falls on national television. As I watched Wallenda make the successful 1,800-foot journey across the falls, I remember feeling nervous for him, but I wasn’t worried he was going to die. Why? Because the television producers forced him to wear a safety harness to ensure he wouldn’t fall to his death while the entire world watched.

Now, could Wallenda have died on his walk across the tightrope? No, the safety harness protected him from falling. But, how did Wallenda make it across the tightrope? He balanced himself and walked across. The harness didn’t help him one bit. You see, the reason he could not ave died and the reason he made it across are for two completely different reasons.

In the same way, Jesus could not have sinned because he was fully divine. This was his safety harness if you will. But Jesus didn’t sin because he perfectly obeyed the Father as a human in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, he experienced genuine temptations but never once did he give into them.

THE EXTENT OF JESUS’ TEMPTATIONS

Some still object and say Jesus’ temptations were of a lesser nature than ours. After all, he didn’t have a sin nature. He didn’t battle the same kind of internal temptations we do. This much is true. But it doesn’t mean his temptations were less severe than ours.

Think about it. Whatever internal temptations Jesus didn’t experience, he more than made for up it by going toe-to-toe with Satan. Satan gave Jesus his best shot. He knew what was at stake during Jesus’ life. If he could get Jesus to sin, he wins. Game over. You and I probably won’t ever get Satan’s full onslaught like Jesus did.

Also, consider the fact that you and I often break in the face of temptation. Whether we’re tempted to lust, lash out in anger, or grow impatient, we typically can only handle so much before we eventually give in. The temptation builds and builds until we can’t withstand any longer and we snap. Jesus, on the other hand, saw temptations all the way through to the very end, and even as the pressure built, he never once sinned. He stood firm in the face of the most intense feelings of temptation — something we often don’t get to because we cave earlier.

Consider, as an illustration, the world’s strongest man. He picks up a twig, holds it by both ends, and snaps it with ease. Next, he picks up an iron bar and attempts to do the same. He bends with every bit of force he can muster for a few minutes, but the bar remains unscathed. As you think about twig and the iron bar, which of the two-faced more intense pressure from the world’s strongest man? The iron bar of course.

Well, we’re like the twig and Jesus is like the bar. We snap before we can feel the full force of the temptation. Jesus, however, experiences the full force of the temptation and never once snaps. It seems naive, therefore, to suggest that we face more difficult temptations than he did.

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

When God the Son took on human flesh — or emptied himself according to Philippians 2 — he set out to live as much like a human as was possible for him to do. This means he couldn’t conjure his divine powers every time he got himself in a quandary. For example, when Satan tempted Jesus to turn the stones into bread, he tempted him to rely on his deity instead of his humanity in that situation.

Think about the problem we’d have if every time Jesus faced a difficult situation he simply performed a miracle to make his life easier. If he healed himself every time he got sick, or if he teleported to Jerusalem instead of taking the long journey just like everyone else, in no real sense could he be one of us and represent us as our high priest before the Father (Heb. 4:15). Jesus, however, can be our faithful high priest because he lived his life on earth fundamentally as a human (Heb. 2:17-18). And as a human, he perfectly obeyed his Father because he was filled completely with the Spirit.

So, could Jesus have sinned? No. He was God. But did he experience genuine temptations as a human? Yes. Both are true at the same time.

 


Ryan Leasure holds an M.A. from Furman University and an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.

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