Jesus Fully God, Fully Man
The writer of Hebrews assures us that in Jesus Christ we have a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses, for He has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (4:15). Some people believe that the mere experience of temptation means there are sinful desires in the tempted individual. Contributing to this confusion is the apparent disagreement 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).
How could Jesus be tempted as we are, and thus be sympathetic with our weaknesses, if He is perfectly sinless? Moreover, how was God Incarnate tempted if God cannot be tempted? The answers to these questions lie in a proper understanding of the relationship between temptation and desire.
Genuine Temptation. Purely external suggestions to do evil that cause no internal struggle are not genuine temptations. The opportunity to steal a loaf of bread, for example, would not constitute a praiseworthy act of resisting temptation for me as it might for someone who is hungry and unable to buy food.
Had Jesus’ temptations produced no inner desire, it is hard to imagine how we are to be comforted by the thought that He is our sympathetic high priest. We must conclude that as it is for us, so it was for Jesus—genuine temptation always involves some desire for whatever one is tempted to do or get.
We must learn to distinguish nonsinful desires from sinful desires, which are themselves (sinful desires) both sin and sources of further temptation (see James 1:14).
The Temptations and Desires of God Incarnate. God Incarnate cloaked Himself in human flesh and took on the physical and psychological needs of 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.”
It would be absurd to think that after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus did not intensely desire the relief from hunger that could have been His if only He had given in to the Devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread (Matt. 4:3; Luke 4:3). Jesus’ severe hunger rendered the temptation to turn stones 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 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. As for Jesus in the wilderness and the garden, so too for us in this sin‐tainted world—it 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. Moreover, temptation occurs not only when we indulge sinful desires, but also when we can satisfy legitimate (nonsinful) human needs or desires through illegitimate (sinful) means.
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. 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 yielded to the temptation of the Devil. God’s creation of Adam and Eve without sin demonstrates, further, that our sinful condition is not a requirement of 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 represented 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 tendencies and incline ourselves toward righteousness. Scripture in no way suggests that Jesus resisted temptation by relying on the privileges 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.” 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 to certain courses of action so that he grows to like what is good and hate what is evil. 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.
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 example, 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).
Condensed from Genuine Temptation and the Character of Christ by Adam C. Pelser http://www.equip.org/articles/genuine-temptation-character-christ/