Did Jesus struggle with the same day to day temptation that we, as Christians, face on a daily basis? If so, in what ways was his experience similar or different? Exploring such a question can be difficult to navigate. As Christians who affirm the Chalcedonian creed (A.D. 451), we believe that Jesus is both truly God and truly man, bound together in the hypostatic union of his person. Scripture also affirms the paradoxical claim that Jesus was “both impeccable and temptable.”
These truths create a number of tensions. On one hand, Jesus is truly God, and thus could not be tempted (James 1:13). On the other hand, Jesus is truly human and so could (and did) suffer temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). How could Jesus, as the God-man, both be immune to temptation but yet have clear evidence that he did endure temptation?
Just as confusing is the claim that Jesus was made like humanity in every respect (Hebrews 2:17) and was tempted in every respect as we are, and yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). How could Jesus, being truly human, have undergone temptation as we do, yet resist it perfectly? Did he reach into his divine nature in resisting temptation? If so, then how can he serve as a model for us to follow when we do not have access to the same thing?
While each of these questions deserves deep exploration, this paper will more narrowly focus on comparing Jesus’ experience of temptation to our own experience. To accomplish this, I will first turn to the major passages of Scriptures which examine Jesus’ experience of temptation. Subsequently, I will look at what Scripture says concerning our own experience of temptation. Lastly, I will compare and contrast Jesus’ experience with our own to synthesize an answer about the similarities and differences between them.
Jesus’ Experience of Temptation
Scripture gives us an understanding of Jesus’ experience of temptation. Insights can be gained from the Gospel accounts of his temptation in the wilderness and Gethsemane, as well as the illumination provided by the author of Hebrews.
1. Temptation in the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13)
There are a few details in these passages that give us direct insight into Jesus’ experience of the temptation. Matthew and Luke both record that Jesus had fasted (Matthew 4:2) and not eaten (Luke 4:2) for forty days, and that “he was hungry” (perhaps a bit of an understatement). Jesus, as the incarnation of the divine Son, was fully human. As such, he experienced all of the weaknesses that having a physical body entailed, which included hunger. Since he had not eaten for forty days, his physical body would have been at its weakest and most vulnerable state, meaning that he could not have relied on physical or human strength to resist temptation. This leaves the possibility that Jesus had to rely on spiritual strength. Yet, if Jesus was relying on spiritual strength, the question then arises as to how that was done. Was he relying on his divinity to resist temptation, or did he solely rely on the strength of the Spirit? To answer this, we will have to look at the nature of the temptations themselves.
In the first temptation, Satan says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). While, on the surface, Satan is tempting Jesus to provide food for himself miraculously, “underneath this surface of the temptation is the enticement to be discontented with what God had provided for Jesus.” Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, responds, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus acknowledges, as a man, his submission and dependence on the Father. Although he could have easily provided himself with bread miraculously, he instead trusts God for provision.
In the second temptation (going by Matthew’s account), Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and says to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone'” (Matthew 4:5-6). Again, appealing to Jesus’ Messianic identity, the devil tempts him to put God to the test by forcing God to save his human life by deliberately imperiling it. Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” A second time, Jesus shows his trust in God by believing the very Scriptures the Devil quoted to him rather than testing to see whether God would really be faithful to fulfil them. As R.T. France says, “The Son of God can live only in a relationship of trust which needs no test.”
Finally, in the last temptation (Matthew 4:8-10, Luke 4:5-8), Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain to show him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He says, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). Here, the devil tempts Jesus with, in some aspects, what was already promised to him by the Father (rule over the world), but without having to endure the cross. Jesus, for a third time, demonstrates his trust and devotion to the Father and his plan by rebuking the Devil, saying, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'” (Matthew 4:10).
Two aspects are worth noting in these accounts about Jesus’ experience in temptation. First, it appears that while these temptations are directed towards Jesus as Messiah,  they are also directed towards Jesus as a “man in relationship to God.” He was tempted to provide materially for himself apart from God, to doubt and test God in what he had said, as well as try to obtain what God had promised him through his own means rather than following God’s plan. These are all things we as Christians can relate to today.
Secondly, since he was being tempted as a man, it was also important that he resisted temptations within his capabilities as a man. Nothing in the text seems to give any indication that he drew from his divine nature in resisting the temptations but, as is common to all man, he seemed to rely on the Spirit by drawing from Scripture. As Luke records, Jesus, being full of the Spirit (4:1), was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (4:1), and returned in the power of the Spirit (4:14). As Bruce Ware puts it, “Jesus did not sin, not because he relied on the supernatural power of his own divine nature or because his divine nature overpowered his human nature keeping him from sinning, but it rather is because he utilized all of the resources given to him in his humanity.” This is further evidenced by the fact that angels came and attended to him after this trial (Matthew 4:11, Mark 1:13). If he were acting within his supernatural capabilities, he would not have needed such assistance.
2. Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46)
The night following the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus takes his disciples to a garden called Gethsemane. It is in the account of Jesus’ prayers here that we get the fullest glimpse into his experience of temptation as a man. Matthew and Mark provide the greatest detail about what transpires, but all three accounts include the same request which Jesus asks of the Father: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42).
These accounts give the clearest insight into Jesus’ emotional and mental state during temptation. Perhaps taking words from the refrain of Psalm 42-43 (“Why are you cast down, O my soul”), Jesus says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34). Luke portrays him as being “in agony” (Luke 22:44). Mark additionally describes him as “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:34) and that “he fell on the ground and prayed,” which, in Jewish prayer, was a sign of great distress and suffering. James Brooks notes that the words used in Mark were meant to convey “the strongest possible anguish.” Jesus even asks for his closest disciples to pray and watch with him during this time of trial (Mark 14:33-34, 37-38).
As we can observe from his prayer, Jesus was reflecting on the upcoming events to take place. He was about to be betrayed, mocked, scorned, scourged, beaten, and then crucified. Not only this, but he was about to experience being forsaken by God to death on the cross, which would undoubtedly be his greatest source of anguish. This is anguish that can only be experienced as a man, since God is impassible and cannot suffer.
Yet, what temptation did he experience during this time? Namely, it was to avoid all of this suffering, albeit at the cost of God’s redemptive plan. As a human, this is understandable. We have a natural instinct to self-preservation and to avoid pain. Jesus also had this desire. The Markan account records Jesus saying, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
When Jesus said, “not what I will,” this did not mean that he had a will that was contrary to the Father’s will or had a desire to disobey the Father. That would compromise Jesus’ impeccability. Rather, Jesus was genuinely wrestling with his human desire to avoid pain and suffering, which is not sinful by nature. In all three accounts, Jesus prays to “let this cup pass from me,” but overcomes the temptation by affirming the Father’s will over his own. In spite of his human weakness, he chose to demonstrate his love for us and his obedience to the Father by dying on the cross.
3. Jesus’ Temptation in the Book of Hebrews (Hebrews 2:17-18, 4:15)
The book of Hebrews offers us some of the greatest theological reflections on the incarnation of Christ and his experience of temptation. In several key passages, we are offered a glimpse into the reasons for Christ’s incarnation and how his experience with temptation gave him the ability to become a faithful high priest that can help us in our own time of need.
First, let us look at Hebrews 2:17-18, which says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” As this passage points out, Jesus becoming like humanity “in every respect” was essential to both our salvation and to Christ’s office as high priest of the new covenant.
Becoming like humanity also included the ability to be tempted. William G.T. Shedd points out that without the incarnation, Jesus would not have been able to be tempted. Prior to the incarnation, he existed as the divine Logos which was not subject to temptation. Since humanity is finite by nature, it is able to be tempted. Thus, “the human nature was the avenue to temptation.”
But then, the author of Hebrews points out that because Jesus “suffered” when tempted, he is able to help us in our temptations today. As McKinley points out, “His incarnation equipped him with the full range of human experiences sufficient to make him merciful towards the people as their priest.” As we observed from the gospel accounts of Gethsemane, when Jesus was tempted, he truly felt it. Although debate may exist as to the actual mechanics of temptation in the incarnate Christ, very few will deny what Hebrews clearly affirms: Jesus experienced genuine temptation.
The second passage to be studied is Hebrews 4:15, which states, “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.” Further developing what was stated in Hebrews 2, this passage not only reemphasizes Christ’s solidarity with us in our humanity but also stresses his solidarity with us in our temptations. One way he does this is to use the same Greek phrase (κατα παντα—”in every respect”) used in chapter two. As Donald Guthrie points out, this phrase “places Jesus in the same category as ourselves when it comes to temptation.” By being tempted in every respect as we are, he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses when we are tempted.
However, this phrase “in every respect” does not mean that Jesus underwent the exact same temptations and experiences that we did, since some temptations have only appeared as technology has increased, such as pornography. Instead, we should understand this as Jesus being tempted in a “full range of experiences that were sufficient for him to empathize with all others who are tempted.”
Secondly, the phrase “yet without sin” provides a distinction between us and Jesus that is central to the author’s point. Although the author is trying to point out the solidarity that we share with Christ, his sinlessness is also key to his ability to make propitiation for our sins as well as function as a faithful high priest. If Jesus had sinned, he would no longer be the perfect sacrifice, nor would he be able to help us in our temptations or serve as a model for us since he would have failed in the same way as we do.
Our Experience of Temptation
Now that we have explored the most prominent accounts of Jesus and his experience of temptation, we can begin to look at with what Scripture says about our own experience of temptation.
James 1:13-15 is one of the fundamental texts when discussing human experience of temptation. It reads,
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. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Drawing upon analogies of fishing (lured and enticed) and childbirth (conceived, gives birth, brings forth), James describes the process by which desires lead to sin and eventually death in an effort to stress personal responsibility for one’s sins.
Commentators are divided on the implications of this passage. Some will assert that desires are not immoral by nature, since sin appears to be distinguished from desires. After all, Jesus was tempted, and yet was without sin. Others believe that desires are not morally neutral. Within the context of James, Denny Burk maintains that “sin” only refers to sinful actions, not a sinful “principle” or “inclination.” Thus, since only fallen desires can give birth to sinful deeds, the desires described in James are not morally neutral.
In keeping with the doctrine of original sin, Scripture affirms the principle that desires are not morally neutral. Mark 7:21-23 says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” All Christians should be able to recognize that we possess such desires that arise from the corruption of our nature. Although these desires may not always arise out of our own volition, they are still desires for which we are morally accountable.
In addition to the desires that arise from the corruption of our human nature, people also experiences temptations that arise from the limitations of our flesh (as Jesus experienced in the wilderness and Gethsemane), from the world (Matthew 18:7, 1 John 2:15-17), and from the Devil (1 Corinthians 7:5, 1 Thessalonians 3:5). All of these sources can work in conjunction with one another to form humanity’s many experiences of temptation.
Comparing Christ’s Experience of Temptation with Ours
Did Jesus experience temptation the same way that we do? The answer is both yes and no. The one major difference between our humanity and Jesus’ humanity is his sinlessness, which Scripture affirms multiple times (Hebrews 4:15, 7:26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). This also means that, unlike us, Jesus did not have original sin or suffer from a corrupted human nature. We are born with original sin (Romans 5:12-21) that has corrupted our human nature (Ephesians 4:22). This causes our passions to be at war within us (Galatians 5:17, James 4:1, 1 Peter 2:11). When we experience temptation, not only do we experience temptation from the devil and the world but also our flesh (Galatians 5:17, 1 Peter 2:11). Thus, we have desires within us that naturally run contrary to God’s desires which Jesus did not have.
Where the greatest tension often arises in this discussion is when we start with our experience of temptation and use that as a template for Jesus and his experience of temptation. However, as Burke rightly cautions, we ought not import our own experience of temptation as a model for what Christ went through.
The question that naturally follows in response to this is whether Jesus truly experienced temptation like we do if he did not have the same sinful desires that we have. Can he be a faithful and sympathetic high priest when he cannot relate to our experience of temptation in this way? Some theologians such as Donald Bloesch have sought to resolve this tension by distinguishing between internal and external temptations. In an effort to protect Christ’s impeccability, they claim that Jesus was only susceptible to external temptations from external sources like the devil, not from internal temptations like a corrupted human nature. However, such a distinction can quickly become unhelpful, even if argued for persuasively.
First, this distinction does not do justice to Scripture’s depiction of Christ’s temptations. Even if the sources of all of Jesus’ temptations were ‘external,’ the locus at which Jesus wrestled with temptation was still internal. If this is not true, then the depictions in the gospels of Jesus being in agony could be misconstrued as theater on Jesus’ part.
Second, framing temptation as external versus internal can put an unnecessary barrier between Jesus and ourselves. In the mind of every believer, temptation is wrestled with on an internal level, regardless of whether the source is the devil, our corrupt natures, or a combination of multiple sources. If Jesus only experienced ‘external’ temptation, then this can cast him in a mold along the lines of a Greek stoic rather than as a savior who can sympathize with our weakness and make intercession on our behalf. While Christians must affirm that Jesus did not inherit a corrupt nature, he still wrestled with temptation internally, regardless of whether the source was external or internal.
McKinley more helpfully frames this dilemma in what he calls “The Person-Variability of Temptation.” Certain people struggle with different forms of temptations more than others. For example, one person may struggle with drug addiction whereas another person may have no desire for drugs. Similarly, Jesus also had an experience of temptation that was unique to him in some ways. While he did not experience the temptations that arise from a corrupted human nature, he was tempted as Messiah in ways that no one else ever was. But no one would say that unless Person A has been tempted in the exact same way as Person B, then Person A doesn’t know what it’s like to experience temptation. Similarly, we should not conclude that Jesus was not tempted to the same extent that we are because he did not experience temptation arising from a corrupted human nature. Leon Morris reminds us that, in fact, it is only the one who has perfectly resisted all temptation who has felt the full weight of that struggle.
McKinley aptly summarizes it this way,
Despite his difference from sinful humanity, Jesus, possessing no corrupt desires at all, was tempted to the same wide extent and dizzying, intense degree as we are by the pull at his sinless desires. Like us though he was sinless, Jesus still had to choose among his sets of antithetical desires—between desires leading to sin and desires leading to obedience. Thus, Jesus’ distinction from common humanity as one who did not share in corrupt desires stemming from the total depravity of Adam does not disqualify him from experiencing and triumphing over temptation relevantly as the sinless, empathetic exemplar for others and in their stead.
We must recall Jesus’ experience at Gethsemane. Though the temptation he was facing was not the result of a corrupted human nature, he agonized and wrestled internally with the choice of obedience to God versus his natural desires to self-preservation (Hebrews 5:7). He was not putting on a façade for our sake. It was a genuine wrestling with temptation that led him to the cross, to the point that he shed his own blood (Hebrews 12:4).
As the Chalcedonian creed affirms, Jesus was truly God and truly man. In his incarnation, he exemplified what it meant to be genuinely tempted. Despite the paradoxes that can arise when trying to uphold both his impeccability with his temptability, faithful Christians must hold both of these propositions to be true of our Lord. It was his sinlessness that allowed him to be the perfect sacrifice and propitiation for our sins, and it was his temptability that allows him to serve as high priest on our behalf before God. Because of his experience, he serves as a model for our faith (1 Peter 2:21-25) and is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and make daily intercession for us (Hebrews 2:17-18, 4:14-16, 5:7-10).
Jesus’ experience of temptation is different from ours insofar as he did not experience temptations arising from a corrupted human nature. In all other ways that we experience sinless desires and temptations, so did he. This does not contradict the account given of him in Hebrews that he was both made like us in every respect and tempted like us in every respect. One does not need to experience every form of temptation to be able to feel the full weight of resisting it. In fact, it is the one who has fully resisted all temptation who has had the greatest experience of wrestling against it. This ought to cause us to worship Christ more than ever as we draw near to his throne of grace in full assurance in order that “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
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