by Dr. Ed Neufeld
Temptation. Eve wanted the fruit; it was a delight to the eyes and desirable, and so she ate it. Raging Cain wanted to kill his brother and, in spite of God’s warning, he did so. The infuriating herders twice took wells that Isaac dug, but instead of quarrelling he moved again and dug a third well.
Young Joseph must have wanted Potiphar’s wife, but ran away. Eve and Cain failed; Isaac and Joseph did well. Either way, these Genesis stories make sense to us. Did Jesus get it in the same way we do? Yes, according to Hebrews.
A Claim That Looks Back
We know that the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry, and we know that in Gethsemane it was a fight for Jesus to obey the Father and go to the cross. The stories assume that he was tempted as we are, that he could have sinned but he didn’t. He was sinless, but that claim always looks back on his life.
If Gospel writers understood Jesus to be tempted differently than the rest of us, would they not have said so? These stories describe normal human temptation, only Jesus kept choosing like Isaac and Joseph, not like Eve and Cain.
Perhaps we don’t want Jesus to experience temptation as we do, because in our minds this threatens his deity and perfect glory. By “in our minds” I mean “devout Christian logic.” But what happens when our devout Christian logic opposes clear biblical teaching? Hebrews 1:1-4 announces the glorious deity of the Son, yet Hebrews also claims that concerning temptation, Jesus was made just like us, tempted like us, and felt weak like us. The Scriptures praise Jesus because he was weak but did not sin, not because he was strong and could not sin.
Near the end of Hebrews 2 we read that in every way Jesus had to be made like his brothers and sisters, so he could be a merciful priest and make atonement for us. He suffered when he was tempted, so he could help others when they are tempted. This is about motivation, about sympathy.
Jesus had to be made like us in all ways, specifically in the matter of temptation, so he would be motivated to be the best possible high priest. This requires Jesus saying to himself something like this: “Temptation is fierce, worse than I thought. I had no idea. No wonder they sin. I’ve got to help them.” Later we’ll read that Jesus’ temptations made him sympathetic to us, which means Jesus had to be feeling and thinking something like this.
A High Priest With Sympathy
Near the end of Hebrews 4 the writer comes back to Jesus’ sympathy. Our high priest can sympathize with our weakness because he has been tempted in every way, just like us, yet did not sin. Three things are crucial. One, he’s been tempted in all ways, as we are tempted. Not only was he made like us in every way, he’s been tempted like us in every way.
Two, he was weak. Mark 1 says Jesus was tempted for 40 days, then angels came to help him. Imagine weak Jesus saying to them, “That was too close. I would not have lasted two more days without sinning.” Three, sympathy for us because he knows about our weakness in temptation.
In Hebrews 5:2 the writer says that every high priest can deal gently with the ignorant and wandering, since the priest himself has weaknesses. A few verses later he deliberately includes Jesus in this. Since Jesus did not sin, we assume strength in the face of temptation, but Hebrews will have none of that. When Joseph fled Potiphar’s wife, did he feel strong? Probably not. Neither did Jesus.
A Brief Theological Detour
What about our sinful nature, our fallen nature? Did Jesus have that? Theologians debate about what fallen nature means exactly, and we will ignore that debate. Humans, left to their own nature, all join in the rebellion against God, and invariably need redemption. Let us leave it at that. I was taught that Jesus was born of a virgin to escape our fallen nature, but the virgin birth stories make no such claim, nor does any other New Testament text.
Following some of the early church fathers, T. F. Torrance holds that Jesus had the same fallen nature we all have—he had to assume it in order to redeem it. This violates my particular church tradition, but lines up nicely with how the NT describes Jesus’ temptations.
If Jesus had a different human nature than we do, then either (1) the writer of Hebrews had no knowledge of this, or (2) he deliberately misled us. Neither explanation is acceptable. Hebrews says Jesus was made like us and tempted like us, period. Yet I affirm, as did the church fathers, that Jesus was sinless.
Could Jesus know weakness if he never sinned? James 3 says we all sin in many ways, and I am decidedly in that camp. But sometimes I do not sin. I have had strong temptations where I was close to sinning, closer to “yes” than “no,” but before I could say “yes” the temptation went away. Afterward I felt not proud or strong, but weak and frightened. “How did I get so close?” If Hebrews is true (and it is), this must also have happened to Jesus.
I have decided to do something that would almost certainly have produced sin, and begun to act, and then circumstances blocked me, my car wouldn’t start or the phone rang. Later I wondered, “What was I thinking? How could I have been so foolish?” Jesus, too?
I have at different times lived with the same temptation almost daily for many weeks and months on end. I was determined not to sin, and did not. But it was tiring and discouraging because this vile thing pulled at me and distracted me every day. What was wrong with me, that I could not just walk away? I wished it would leave, but it didn’t. Jesus, too?
I sin in many ways; I’m just telling you stories where I did not. You each have a collection of such stories. Jesus was made like us in all ways, tempted like us in all ways, yet never sinned. He was weak in these episodes, stretched and desperate, and feels sorry for us. Jesus has many stories like ours.
In Hebrews this results in one clear call: Approach God. Don’t avoid God because of sin. Come boldly to the throne of grace. Draw near, enter, come close, because of Jesus the Priest.
The worst thing we can do is stay away from God. When we stand before him, ignorant and misguided, weak and sinful, the Great Priest stands beside us and says: “Father, I was too close to this myself. Many times. It is a horrible fight. No wonder they sin. Remember my sacrifice. I ask mercy and helping grace for this child.”
The Father, with love for the Son and for us, says to us: “I’m pleased you came. I will help.
Stay awhile, or go in peace with my mercy and grace.”
Dr. Ed Neufeld is a professor of biblical studies at Providence Theological Seminary and pastor of Kleefeld Christian Community, a part of the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada. He is also the speaker at SBC’s Leadership Conference on March 17-18, 2017.