Was Jesus Really Tempted?

TemptationIn the last post Graham began a series on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew. In it, he claimed that “Jesus was truly tempted, because the task set before him was overwhelmingly daunting.” But the fact that Jesus was tempted is a point worth further investigation. We quickly affirm Jesus’ perfection and his holiness but if those things are true was the temptation Jesus was faced with anything like our own temptation? If not was he really tempted? Or more, was he really human?

Jesus Didn’t sin

Let’s begin by reasserting Jesus’ perfection. In 2009 the American research company Barna ran a poll that concluded that 22% of Americans strongly agree that “Jesus probably sinned” and another 17% “agree somewhat”. In other words, 40% of those who would describe themselves as Christians (2 out of every group of 5!) would be okay with the idea that Jesus sinned. Or even, they think it’s unlikely that he didn’t.

Jesus’ moral perfection is something that is often questioned and doubted. It is also, however, something that is absoultely critical. We see this 1 Peter 2:22. Peter quotes Isaiah 53 with reference to Jesus and the punchline is that “He committed no sin”. The thing is, Peter is encouraging Christians to endure through suffering. How are they supposed to do that? Look to Jesus as their example. That logic doesn’t really work if Jesus sinned. Peter also doesn’t stop there; in verse 24 we see that the point of Jesus’ sinless death is that we could die to sin. Peter wouldn’t care about dying to sin though unless Jesus were our sinless example.

Jesus Couldn’t Sin

Okay so we all believe Jesus didn’t sin but we may wonder, “Could Jesus have sinned? Was Jesus actually able to sin?” After all, if Jesus was not able to sin, was he really human – isn’t it human nature to sin?

Think back to the Garden of Eden though and we will quickly remember that God made everything good. Adam and Eve were perfectly human and perfectly sinless the way God made them. Sin, ironically, is precisely not human nature. So Jesus could be human without ever sinning (and for that matter, he didn’t even need to be tempted to sin in order to qualify as a real human).

I think we can go one step further though and say that Jesus could not have sinned because not only was he 100% flesh and blood human, he was also 100% real McCoy God. Now something we often forget is that morality is not this arbitrary set of rules out there that God is just really good at keeping. If that were true, there would be something in authority over God. Instead, morality is rooted in God himself, in his nature and character. Quite simply, Jesus couldn’t have sinned because by definition he is the source of morality. To suggest Jesus could have sinned is kind of like suggesting that tree could plant itself.

Morality comes from Jesus and so what he does defines it. That doesn’t mean morality twists and turns and changes all the time, by the way, because something else we need to remember about God is that he is consistent and doesn’t change like shadows as the day wears on. Instead, we see God outlining a moral code and then we see him acting consistently with it through all of Scripture.

Jesus Wouldn’t Sin

If Jesus couldn’t sin though, then it stands to reason that he also couldn’t be tempted – at least in any real or significant way. I mean what’s the worry of temptation if I am don’t even have to worry about resisting it, because of who I am I’ll never be able to be immoral.

It’s helpful to realise that there are two types of temptation. Internal, like the kind James 1:14 refers to when James says we are tempted “when [we are] lured and enticed by [our] own evil desires.” and External, like the kind that Adam and Eve faced from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus was not tempted internally because, unlike you are I, Jesus was not part of fallen humanity. However, it’s also clear that Jesus was tempted externally. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all report Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Satan tries three times to have Jesus follow the rest of humanity in sin and three times Jesus resists, consistently turning to Scripture (a poingant lesson to 21st century Christians who are known for our “snuggle” with sin).

The gospel accounts use Jesus’ victory against temptation to set him up as the true Israel and the second Adam through whom the Fall will be overturned. There is, however, one other particularly significant passage we should take note of; Hebrews 4:15

we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

Here we see the importance of Jesus’ temptation to us as frail sinners. Jesus is not someone who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses. He was tempted in all things! In fact, if I were Satan I would have maxed out my efforts on getting Jesus to sin. “Yet,” Hebrews tells us, Jesus was without sin. This is an encouragement to us when we fall into sin to turn once more to Jesus. More than that, the author of Hebrews knows that Jesus sinlessness means that even when we sin, there is forgiveness because Jesus was not only our great high priest but our perfect atoning sacrifice.

James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.