If God is unable to be tempted (James 1:13), and if Jesus was God (Rom. 9:5; John 1:1, 14), then it follows that Jesus was not truly tempted.
Yet the Gospel writers record Jesus’ temptations (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13; they use the same Greek word as in James 1:13) and the author of Hebrews insists he was tempted “in every way” (Heb. 4:15; see also 2:18). Is there a contradiction here, or are we missing something?
The best way to approach this issue is to start with James 1. “Trial” and “testing” (these two words in the original Greek share the same root) are on James’ mind in the beginning of his letter (1:2-4, 12). In verses 12-13, he’s concerned with the reasoning that assumes a sovereign God is ultimately responsible for human temptations. James says this is ridiculous, and he uses the fact that God is “unable to be tempted” to prove it (1:13).
The language James uses is unique. So unique, in fact, that the word he uses (Greek: apeirastos) only occurs here in the New Testament (this is called a hapax legomenon, which is a fancy way of saying that defining it is difficult). Although commentators debate on the correct translation of the word, most favor the traditional rendering: “unable to be tempted.”
James is trying to get his readers to understand that God is unable to be tempted because he is good (1:16-18). He is unable to desire evil and therefore wants no human to experience it by way of giving in to temptation–this is what James is driving at.
How, then, do we understand Jesus’ temptations? Is he like a parent who lets his child win in an arm wrestling match? Did he feign weakness or his susceptibility to temptation? Perhaps the answer can be found in Philippians 2:6-8, where Paul describes Jesus’ incarnation. The Greek construction of verse 6 is best paraphrased as: “Jesus did not consider his divinity as something to use for his own advantage.” Jesus, in a sense, gave up his divine entitlement.
Verse 7 carries Paul’s description forward in expounding the way Christ humbled himself: he “emptied himself.” It’s easy to assume that Christ “emptying himself” is referring to his divinity (see NLT), but the verb used (Greek: kenosis) is meant to express Jesus’ humility. In other words, Jesus “emptied himself” by giving himself selflessly–he did not “empty himself” in the sense that he abandoned, or lost, his divinity.
How does this apply to Christ’s wilderness temptation? Simply put, Satan wanted Jesus to take hold of his divine abilities and use them outside of his Father’s will. Yet the Christian tradition holds that Jesus passed the test; he did not consider his “equality with God” as a way to satisfy his own will (see Matt. 26:39; John 5:30; 6:38; Rom. 15:3), so he pushed through it (see Heb. 12:2) to accomplish his mission.
If one thinks about it, his “equality with God” was what enabled him to “empty himself.” After all, how would we expect a good God to prove himself in human form? By living a flawlessly selfless life (see John 7:18). No human is truly good (Rom. 3:10-18; see also Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19), but Jesus made the exception because he was divine.
Quite bluntly, only God could be a good human.
Complicated? Of course, but that’s what we should expect from the incarnation. Jesus was the only Person that was ever both human and divine, which, although superficially simple in theory, is exponentially complex as we delve deeper into it. Sometimes, as with any tenet of God, we must settle for rudimentary explanations, but before we do, a familiar verse in John begs to be addressed.
John 1:14 is a profound summary of Christ’s incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Understanding the weight of that sentence should give us all the shivers. John uses “The Word” (Greek: logos) in the opening of his Gospel (1:1) because it was a word (pun unintended) that was relevant to both Greek philosophy and Jewish thought.
Logos is the ancient equivalent of what many postmodern spiritualists today often call “the Universe,” as in: “the Universe guided me to a parking spot” or “I thanked the Universe for protecting me from the fire.”
Ah, don’t we all like a safe way to express belief in God…?
John was redefining the popular understanding of an abstract God (or “ultimate Reason/Wisdom”). He insisted that this abstraction had become “flesh”–a human being–complete with weakness and frailty. Abstraction gained traction in the feet of Jesus.
The phrase, “dwelt among us,” is a distinct and obvious reference to the Israelites in the wilderness, where God dwelt with them in the tabernacle (Exodus 29:45). Just as God dwelt in the wilderness tent, Jesus “tabernacles” with humanity as a human. He is not a distant authority or invisible force but a present face with an approachable form. There is no “most holy place” (Exodus 26:33) with Jesus.
In dwelling with us as a human, then, Jesus faced the same weaknesses that burden us (Heb. 5:2; see also 1 Cor. 10:13). He grew weary (Matt. 8:24), hungry (4:2) and thirsty (John 19:28), and he ultimately struggled with obedience as any human would (Matt. 4:1-11; 26:39; Heb. 5:8).
His divinity also made the proportions of his temptation greater. Like Gandalf being (inadvertently) tempted by Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, Jesus’ power made his temptation more dangerous. It wasn’t like he was tempted to scarf down another donut; he was tempted to cling to his divine entitlement, which, if he gave in, would’ve thrown the world’s salvation to the dogs. Humanity’s destiny hung on his every move. The pressure was on!
We Christians hold it to be true that he endured and succeeded, and because he did, he ensured salvation to all who cling to him in faith (Heb. 5:9).
It was only Jesus. Only a divine human could’ve paved the way for fallen humanity to be redeemed. Only the incarnated Word could’ve loved selflessly. Only God’s Son could’ve endured suffering without demanding justice.
Jesus’ humanity and divinity were two parts of the same person. We cannot assume his divinity negated his humanity any more than his humanity weakened his divinity. Like the way salt and water blend to form saltwater, his two identities formed one essence.
His weaknesses were real, but so was (and is) his divinity. God may not be able to be tempted by evil, but God became human, which is the only way temptation became possible for him. Even so, the content of his temptation was on a whole different level than anything we experience. Jesus may have shared humanity’s ability to be tempted (Heb. 4:15), and he may have felt its cruelty (2:18), but his temptation struck deeper than ours because it beckoned to his divinity (“if you are the Son of God…”), which is something we’ll never understand.
To risk an oversimplification: Satan wanted him to use his divinity in a human way rather than use his humanity in a divine way.
We can conclude, then, that temptation wasn’t “easy” for Jesus “just because he was God.” The eternal Word was forced to deal in space and time and feel the grit of Earth. It was agony for him to be bound by our physical and psychological limits. This is why we thankfully offer him our feeble love, our broken worship and our frail lives.
Carson, D.A. “Matthew.” In Matthew, Mark, Luke The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 3-599. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporations, 1984.
Davids, Peter H. The Epistle of James The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.
Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
McCartney, Dan G. James Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle of James Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985.
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Tasker, R.V.G. John Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1960.