Thursday, March 8, 2012

Can Jesus be Tempted?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on the temptation of Jesus:

Q:  How could Satan tempt Jesus in the wilderness as described in the Gospels, when in James 1:13 the Bible says that God cannot be tempted with evil?
This question requires much care, because it touches on two of the most foundational doctrines of the Faith (The Trinity, and the Two Natures of Christ), and because these two truths are considered by many to be “mysteries” – that is, teachings that the Bible declares, but leaves an unresolved tension, because understanding them is beyond our natural capabilities. 

To begin with, God is three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but there is one God, not three.  All three persons are equally God and have all the attributes of God, yet there are things we can say about one that we cannot say about the others.  For example, it is proper to say “God died” because Jesus died by crucifixion and Jesus is God the Son.  However, we could not say “God the Father died.” or “The Holy Spirit died,” because only the Son was crucified.  Similarly, only the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove at Jesus’ Baptism, while the Father and the Son did not. 

In a similar way, Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time, yet only one person.  He is not half God and half human or sometimes God and sometimes human, but always completely God and completely human simultaneously.  Because of this, we cannot separate these two natures in Jesus in such a way as to say that only His divine nature did a thing or only His human nature did a thing.  If Jesus did a thing, then both natures did it, and if a thing can be said of one nature (divine or human), then it must be said of the other as well, because it is attributed to His whole person and not only to one nature.

When we look at the events of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, we see the above truths put into action.  Since Jesus is being tempted, Satan is trying to tempt God.  However, it is only the Son whom he is tempting, but not the Father or the Holy Spirit. 

When James says that God cannot be tempted, the word he uses for “God” can sometimes refer to God as a whole (all three persons) and at others refers only to the Father.  Additionally, the words used to reference the temptation differ in the two verses.  When James says that God “cannot be tempted,” the word is actually an adjective and means that God is “un-temptable.”  The word focuses on God’s inability to give in to the temptation, not the inability of anyone to try. 

However, when Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak of Jesus’ “being tempted,” they use a related word that is a verb.  This Greek verb conveys a significant amount of meaning that is not immediately observable in English.  In this case, the verb is passive, meaning that the devil is doing the tempting, and Jesus is the target.  However, this verb does not imply success by Satan, or surrender on the part of Jesus, but only the attempts of Satan to tempt Him.  Therefore, the Gospel-writers are not implying in any way that Jesus was lured by the temptation, but only that the devil was trying to tempt Him into sin.

The book of Hebrews also addresses the temptation of Jesus, saying, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:14-15) 

In these verses, the temptations Jesus faced are described as just as real as those faced by every other person.  As human, the temptations were just as hard to resist as those faced by every other person, but as God it was completely contrary to His nature to give in to them.  As a result, Jesus was truly tempted in every way, but because He is “un-temptable” God, He successfully resisted them without sin—not just during His 40 days in the wilderness, but also during the 30 years prior and the three which would follow—culminating at the crucifixion when He was tempted by onlookers to escape the cross, but remained steadfast, suffering the wrath of God for the sin of the world as our substitute.

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