The writer of Hebrews assures us that in Jesus Christ “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (4:15).1 This statement, which was intended for comfort, often has led to confusion when read in light of the widely held assumption that the mere experience of temptation presupposes sinful desires in the tempted individual. Contributing to this Christological confusion is the apparent tension between James’s teaching that “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13) and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ triumph over temptation (Matt. 4; Mark 1; Luke 4).
These passages lead many to ask: how could Jesus be tempted as we are, and thus sympathetic with our weaknesses, if He is perfectly sinless? Moreover, how was God Incarnate tempted if God cannot be tempted? As the following considerations reveal, the answers to these questions lie in a proper analysis of the relationship between temptation and desire.2
Genuine Temptation. Among the varied attempts to reconcile Jesus’ temptation with His sinlessness, a common suggestion is that when the Bible speaks of Jesus’ temptation, it refers to a purely external “testing” intended solely to confirm His deity and Messianic identity. This response avoids the heresy that Jesus sinned, but fails to address the question of Jesus’ sympathy. Purely external suggestions to do evil that elicit no internal struggle are not tantamount to genuine temptations. My passing by an opportunity to steal a loaf of bread, for example, would not constitute a praiseworthy act of resisting temptation as it might for someone riddled with hunger and unable to buy such a basic necessity.
Had Jesus’ temptations elicited no inner response, it is hard to imagine how we are to be comforted by the thought that He is our sympathetic high priest. Lest we strip Him of His priestly sympathy, we must conclude that as it is for us, so it was for Jesus—genuine temptation always involves some desire for the state of affairs one is tempted to actualize.
How then can we keep our doctrine of the sympathetic Savior from devolving into the heresy of the sinful Son of God? The answer is found in learning to distinguish nonsinful desires, to which temptations sometimes appeal, from sinful desires, which are themselves both sin and sources of further temptation (see James 1:14).
The Temptations and Desires of God Incarnate. God, in the Incarnation, cloaked Himself in human flesh and took on the physical and psychological needs that accompany human bodies and minds. The God‐Man experienced the sting of hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, disrespect, abandonment, betrayal, torture, and even death. Theologian Marguerite Shuster explains that “as a man, [Jesus] was subject to the needs, limitations, and frailties of a human being in this world…He had a body with nerve endings like ours, emotions that tore him as do ours. That is what it means for him to have been fully human.”3
It would be absurd to think that after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus did not intensely desire the relief of hunger that could have been His if only He had given in to the Devil’s temptation to turn stone into bread (Matt. 4:3; Luke 4:3). Would we consider Jesus’ resistance of the Devil morally praiseworthy if the Devil had suggested that He turn the stone into manure and eat that? Certainly not! Jesus’ severe hunger rendered the temptation to turn stone into bread much more than a mere external test; yet, His intimacy with the Father and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that He cultivated through a lifetime of solitude, prayer, and meditation on Scripture enabled Him to resist Satan by reciting and embodying the truth that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3). The satisfaction of hunger is not inherently sinful, but Jesus recognized that giving in to the Devil’s temptation to end His physical suffering in that way would have constituted disobedience to His Father’s will. The Son knew that if He needed bread, He had only to ask His Father and the one who miraculously provided manna for the wandering Israelites would provide bread and not a stone (cf. Matt. 7:9‐11).
Jesus’ desire for food, like His desire to avoid impending torture and death, which He expressed in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, was far from sinful. Indeed, we call those who desire suffering for its own sake masochists, not saints.4
As for Jesus in the wilderness and the garden, so too for us in this sin‐tainted world—in occurs not when we desire to end suffering, but when we will or act to end suffering in the wrong way or at the wrong time.5 Moreover, temptation occurs not only when we indulge sinful desires, but also when we are presented with opportunities to satisfy legitimate (nonsinful) human needs or desires through illegitimate (sinful) means. In this way Jesus could experience the internal pressure of temptation without ever fantasizing about sinfully obtaining the relief from injustice and physical torment He so desperately desired.
This understanding of the relationship between temptation and desire not only demonstrates the compatibility of Jesus’ sympathy and sinlessness, it also reveals how the historical fact of the temptation of God Incarnate can be reconciled with the theological truth that “God cannot be tempted by evil.” Through the miracle of the Incarnation God endured the pain of physical and psychological needs. As the self‐sufficient sovereign of the universe, however, God has no needs. It is thus entirely rational to say that whereas God as man can be tempted, God as God cannot.
The Character and Sympathy of Christ. Some still might object that although Jesus experienced genuine temptation, He had no innate inclination toward sin. Put another way, how could Jesus be “tempted in every way, just as we are” if He had the “unfair” advantage of being born without original sin?
In response it is important to note that being born without sin is no guarantee against temptation. Adam and Eve were created without sin, but nonetheless succumbed to the seduction of the Devil. God’s creation of Adam and Eve without sin demonstrates, further, that our sinful condition is not essential to human nature. It is, therefore, a mistake to think that Jesus was not fully human because He was born without sinful inclinations. Through perfect obedience to His heavenly Father, Jesus exemplified without defect God’s design for humanity. As such, Jesus, the “second Adam,” is even more fully human than you or I and uniquely qualified to raise humanity from the depths of the first Adam’s fall (see Rom. 5:12‐21; 1 Cor. 15:45–49).
Although Jesus was born without sinful inclinations, He is nevertheless morally praiseworthy for maintaining His righteous inclinations. From His youth Jesus exemplified unfailing commitment to the spiritual disciplines we must all exercise in order to rid ourselves of sinful proclivities and incline ourselves toward righteousness. Scripture in no way suggests that Jesus resisted temptation by relying on the prerogatives of deity; rather, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Christ resisted temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His [divine] power.”6 Indeed, Jesus is as praiseworthy for His sinless inclinations, which He maintained through disciplined spiritual growth, as He is for His sinless behavior. As philosopher Roger Trigg has noted, “The morally good man does not just control his passions, but also trains them and habituates himself to certain courses of action so that he grows ‘naturally’ to like what is good and hate what is evil. The saint is not the man who is continually fighting down fierce impulses to murder his fellow human beings. The saint has grown to love them.”7 We who are born guilty of original sin therefore must strive to become more like Jesus by engaging, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in spiritual disciplines that prepare us to resist temptation by reversing our sinful predispositions.8
Finally, while giving in to temptation strengthens our bondage to sin, it also results in at least some temporary physical, psychological, or emotional relief. Only the one who resists temptation to the very end experiences the full weight of temptation. It is thus reasonable to conclude that the weight of Jesus’ temptation was not less but greater than that under which we so often buckle before it has reached its full measure. Underscoring the intensity of Jesus’ struggles, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that “during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (5:7).
In light of these considerations, we should not doubt Jesus’ ability to sympathize with our weaknesses. Instead, looking to Jesus as our sympathetic high priest and sinless moral exemplar, we can learn to stand in the face of temptation comforted by the knowledge that “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
— Adam C. Pelser
When virtue becomes vice, and vice virtue, woe to those who fail to speak out.Help put the brakes on a growing culture of confusion by acting today.