The temptation of Jesus

By David A. Liapis

Thoughts on Matthew 4:1-11

The first thing that jumps out in this chapter is the fact the Holy Spirit led, or “drove” (according to Mark), Jesus into the wilderness. But it says more than just that Jesus was led into the wilderness, Matthew points out that Jesus was driven into the wilderness for a reason – to be tempted. While the Matthew and Luke accounts can make it seem like Jesus was only tempted in three ways by Satan and then left alone, Mark seems to indicate that Satan was battering Jesus with temptations for the entire 40 days. Contrast this with the prayer Jesus will teach the Disciples not long after – “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Also think of the contrast with James 1:13 which says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” It must be noted that Jesus came to accomplish specific tasks, some of which are hard to understand, and yet are only understandable, in light of His uniqueness as fully God and fully man (as we saw with His baptism and now His very deliberate temptation). As such, there are different “rules” that apply to Him. Matthew asserts that the reason for His time in fasting in the wilderness was to be tempted by the devil. If Jesus were any other man, this would present a problem when we look at James chapter one. However, since Jesus is who He is, instead of a problem we see this event explained by Hebrews 4:15 wherein it says, “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.”

Left here without further consideration, this answer seems satisfactory. But … then James asserts that God does not tempt us to sin nor can He be tempted, but rather identifies the root of our temptations as the desires arising from our evil hearts. This raises some questions that have been asked, and to which various answers have been provided, from the time of Thomas Aquinas to the present day.

Since Jesus was not of the seed of Adam (the importance of being born of a virgin) and therefore had no fallen, sin nature, did He not have an internal desire to sin? If yes, then it must be that the temptation he endured in the wilderness came from purely an external impetus, namely, Satan or “the tempter,” and not from evil desires in His heart. If this is the case, then what does this do to the fact the author of Hebrews says Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize in every way with our weaknesses? If Jesus had no real desire to sin because He is God, then what hope does this give us since we are not even close to being God? Having a fallen, sin nature seems to be the chief of our weaknesses.

Some have proposed that Jesus didn’t rely on or “lean into” His deity while on earth, but rather demonstrated a life lived in perfect obedience to God and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. This seems to satisfy the problem about temptation while not taking away from the full deity of Jesus. It also allows for Jesus’ miracles and other supernatural acts since the Apostles, through the power of the Holy Spirit, did the same things. This is but one option.

Other options include the idea that Jesus was not really tempted, that He was tempted and had evil desires like us, and that the temptations were real but meaningless in light of Jesus’ deity. Some of the options are heresy, while others don’t fully answer the question of how Jesus can really be a sympathetic high priest because of His divine nature. I’m not actually going to give a “final” answer of what I think here since, honestly, I am not quite settled on how to reconcile Hebrews and James. I will provide this link to an article I found helpful and hope you will take time to dig into this yourself.

I think it’s also important here to mention Hebrews 5:8-9 which reads, “Although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” This passage at first glance can present some difficulty, especially if you’re being confronted by people (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) who teach that Jesus was a mere man, or a divine creation, and not God. “How could God, if He is omniscient, learn anything? And, if God is perfect, how could Jesus have been God if he was ‘made perfect’?” Here’s the key – Jesus was never disobedient, and therefore never sinned. He “learned” obedience through suffering in that He endured the suffering without sin and in full obedience, proving that He could do what was possible for only Him to do. He was “made perfect” in that He completed all that He was sent and called to do, including enduring and rejecting temptation as a man for us perfectly and proved Himself as the only sufficient and perfect sacrifice for sin – “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He cried, “It is finished!” as He died on the cross after becoming sin and absorbing all the wrath of God in the place of all sinners who believe, bringing the process of atonement to completion. He never lacked anything, but only proved to everyone that He was perfectly obedient, even unto death.

In summary, the temptation of Jesus was a necessary part of Him doing all that needed to be done in order to be a fitting and final substitute, mediator and savior for mankind. He had to become a man, fulfill perfectly the law of God (all righteousness) on our behalf, become sin, be punished in our place, defeat the power of death and intercede for us as He is doing right now at the right hand of the Father. While there remains, at least for me, some mystery to how all that works, I remain confident that God has revealed to us all that is necessary to know Him and come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” – Romans 10:17

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