The argument of previous posts (here and here) is that Christ in his person and mission was invincible. However, we understand the vulnerability of Christ in incarnation we must not construe it as moral vulnerability or missional vulnerability. Jesus was never going to fail. He was God’s servant who would not falter or be discouraged (Isa 42).
So what of his temptation? Was it real? Surely temptation is only real if there is the possibility of failure? Surely he is even more worthy of our worship if he was morally vulnerable? Surely, only by being morally vulnerable could he properly identify with us and be sympathetic?
We will consider shortly these pressing questions but once again the main point to stress is that our understanding of Christ must be informed by Scripture. We must allow Scripture, and only Scripture, to shape our theology of the person of Christ. Where Scripture goes we follow and where it stops so must we. The Son in his being is a mystery apart from what is revealed. Only the Father knows the Son and only what he has revealed can be known (Matt 11:27).
What do we find when we read the temptation narrative? Well, we find that although it is narrative, its theological grain is exactly the same as we have elicited from Scripture thus far – Jesus was the Son who would not fail.
Luke 4:1-13 (ESV)
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The temptation narrative in all three gospels is immediately preceded by Jesus’ baptism. In his baptism he receives the Father’s imprimatur, his formal seal of eschatological (age of salvation) sonship (Cf Jn 6:27). God publicly declares Christ as his ‘Son… in whom is all his delight‘ and seals his declaration with the empowering Holy Spirit (Matt 2:16); the Spirit is always the seal of eschatological sonship (Roms 8; Gals 4:6; Ephs 1 ).
A few points should be noted.
- the prelude… Jesus baptism
The declaration ‘You are my son in whom is all my delight‘ is a composite of two OT texts (Ps 2; Isa 42). The first speaks of God’s eschatological Son (this is my son); it is a celebration of his invincibility. The nations (evil) conspire against the Lord and his anointed King (son) but their attempts to defeat are futile and risible. The Son will, we read,
Ps 2:8-9 (ESV)
…break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
The second text (in whom is all my delight) draws from the OT eschatological servant songs (Isa 42) which again celebrates invincibility. God says of Jesus,
Isa 42:1-4 (ESV)
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.
The servant will resolutely accomplish God’s purpose. He will not grow faint or be discouraged.
Thus, both OT texts affirm assured victory. In the former, he is enabled by the Lord, and in the latter, by the Lord and his Spirit. And so, as we approach the temptation that immediately follows, narratively we are not anticipating failure but expecting success. Jesus, it has already been signalled, is the invincible Servant-King through whom God’s purposes are assured.
- the event… Jesus’ temptation
Luke takes care to tell us that ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit‘ is ‘led by the Spirit’ into the wilderness. Here as ‘Son’ he will be tested.
The intended background to Jesus’ temptation is the previous testing of both Israel and Adam. Both were God’s ‘son’. Israel’s sonship led to her being brought into the wilderness (a place of testing, see here). Jesus’ forty days parallel’s Israel’s forty years. Significantly too all Jesus’ answers come from Deuteronomy and the period of Israel’s testing. In Luke (whose target audience is not merely Jewish but international), the temptation is linked also with Adam. Luke signals this by informing us immediately before the temptation that Adam was ‘the son of God’ (Lk 3:38).
Both Adam and Israel were ‘sons’ tested by God. Adam was tested as sinless humanity in an idyllic setting and Israel as sinful humanity in the wilderness yet cared for there by God (Isa 5). Both singularly failed. The message was clear, humanity, by its own resources, unfallen or fallen, could not resist sin and could not bring glory to God. God could say of neither Adam nor Israel, ‘this is my son with whom I am well pleased‘.
Jesus was different. He was not tested in the idyll of a garden. Nor was tested in a wilderness where every need was being met and he was secure in the company of others. He was tested in a wilderness where he was alone, ate and drank nothing for forty days, and was surrounded by wild beasts. Yet he triumphed and his triumph is never in doubt. Immediately the invidious suggestion comes from Satan, he responds with a rebuff from Scripture. The narrative has no trace of prevarication or indecision. There is not the slightest hint that he dallies with the temptation. In each case his response is as immediate as it is unequivocal; it is written… it is written… it is written.
We must allow the narrative to drive our theology. Jesus is the Son who will not fail and the reason is he is a ‘Son’ of a different order. Luke has made it clear this Son is of a different order; he is anointed with the Spirit of God and thus his conquest is sure (not to mention the other aspects of his invincibility we have considered in earlier posts). The point narratively of the testing is not to hold the reader on tenterhooks wondering if he may fail but to demonstrate Christ’s moral strength. Satan cannot defeat him. The temptation is to prove the invincibility of Christ not to probe for possible weaknesses in his armour. Satan is the strong man but Christ is the stronger man who overcomes him. It is not a contest of equals. The narrative ends with Satan, for a time at least, obliged to give up the fight; Jesus’ might is established.
- and more temptation… a man of sorrows
Of course this was not the end of Satan’s attacks. Jesus anticipates a concentrated attack at the cross. It is an ‘hour’ he contemplates with great anguish of soul. He longs that it need not be (let this cup pass… ) but if no other way is possible then so be it (nevertheless not my will… the cup that my father has given me to drink shall I not drink it). Anguish of soul and longing for ‘another way’ is completely understandable (especially as it involves the Holy One being made sin and the One who lived ‘in the bosom of the father’ being forsaken) and is not to be confused with indecision, cowardice, or a fear of failure. Anticipating the cross just hours away, he says to his disciples
John 14:30 (Darby)
I will no longer speak much with you, for the ruler of the world comes, and in me he has nothing
John 14:30 (RSV)
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me
Satan held the world in his grip but Jesus’ knew Satan had no traction on him. Certain that Satan’s attack and that of the hostile nations (Ps 2) was imminent ( it is your hour and the power of darkness, Lk 22:51) he is nonetheless completely confident of victory. Indeed, if his faith is firm, how could he be otherwise? Even on the cross, his soul may be poured out like water, his bones may stick out, and his heart melt like wax but his faith will remain strong; God will, he is sure, deliver him from the horns of the wild oxen (Ps 22:21). Catch the confidence in his voice some time before the cross.
John 8:28-30 (ESV)
So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
Jesus fully expects in death as in life to do only what the Father has authorised and commanded. The Father will be with him as always and he (the Son) will, on the cross, as ever before, do only what pleases the Father, however demanding it may be.
And it is demanding. Jesus is even weaker physically on the cross than in the wilderness and Satan’s wrath is roused to the utmost. He sends blasts of temptation that in many ways echo those of the wilderness, attacking his claim to be the Son of God and calling for proof (Matt 27:32-44; Lk 23:32-44). This time Jesus remains silent… only to ultimately cry with a loud voice, ‘It is finished’. The narrative is instructing us again. It was a cry of strength and victory in the midst of extreme weakness. He then bows his head and dismisses his Spirit; the obedient Son was not conquered by death, he relinquished his life. Even his death is in his own hands; he controls his destiny.
As I say, once again the narrative has driven the theology. There is not a hint in Pilate’s Judgement Hall, in Herod’s Palace, before the Sanhedrin, on the Via Dolorosa, or at Golgotha, that Jesus is about to apostasise. He has set his face as a flint. He will not be rebellious or turn away. He will give his back to those who strike, and his cheeks to those who pull out the beard; he will not hide his face from disgrace and spitting. And will do so in the full confidence of faith that the Lord helps him (Isa 50). He will not, even on the brink of death, falter or be discouraged.
In weakness and defeat He won the meed and crown Trod all his foes beneath his feet By being trodden down
Such then is the biblical account of the trials of Jesus. The paradox of the incarnation and of the Christ is invincibility in vulnerability.
- Surely a test or trial implies the possibility of failure?
Why? A test or trial is not to see if I fail but to demonstrate that I am up to the job. The test shows proficiency to the level tested. Some who sit a test have no possibility of failure so far are their skills above the level being tested. In Christ, the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness (Mk 1:12) was more than able to sustain him. The trial merely tests the ability of the person; it has no knowledge of what that ability is. When God calls upon his people in the OT to test him is failure a possibility (Isa 7:10; Mal 3:10)?
- Surely we admire Jesus more if he is vulnerable?
It depends what we mean by vulnerability. Vulnerability is different from moral susceptibility. Christ was vulnerable to suffering but not to sin. He knew human weakness without being morally susceptible. What makes an admirable hero is not the possibility that he may fail (which film hero do we really expect to fail) but that succeeding costs him dearly. Success cost Jesus the deepest psychological, emotional and physical trauma – unto death. Suffering not susceptibility makes a true hero.
In films we do not expect our heroes to fail but we expect them to be vulnerable. That is why Superman as a hero is hard to identify with or be sympathetic to – he is mainly immune to suffering (physically at least). Other superheroes like Batman will not fail but will suffer physically and in every other way in the process of succeeding. Jesus, we read, ‘suffered being tempted’ (Hebs 2:18). The cost of choosing God’s way, the narrow and hard way, made him ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. It led to disfigurement that made him unrecognisable as human. He was brutalised and bruised, yet without sin. An iron will did not mean an iron body. Yet such was his determined purpose that he endured the cross and despised the shame (Hebs 12). For all of this we admire him.
At every stage accepting the Father’s will involved accepting hardship, rejection, misunderstanding, hostility, betrayal and abandonment by those he loved and chose, and eventually forsakenness by God himself. as he was ‘made sin’. The cumulative effect of this must have been utterly crushing. Naturally his body would cry out against hunger and just as naturally he would be deeply troubled by rejection, hatred, hostility etc. None of these he relished. All of these he would gladly have foregone. His spiritual instincts like ours were ‘lead me not into trial and deliver me from evil’, or in the words of the garden, ‘if possible let this cup pass from me ‘ but alongside this is the resolutely indomitable ‘not my will but yours be done‘.
The ability to fail but not doing so is not the heroic; the heroic is knowingly undertaking a task that will cost everything but undertaking it anyway. The heroic is knowing yet dismissing and scorning every cost (the shame, the suffering, the crying out of frayed nerves, emotional exhaustion, the deep hurt of unrequited love, the engulfing screams of torn flesh and muscle, the blackness of a soul abandoned) because of the joy that lay ahead (Hebs 12).
- Surely if he is invincible then he had no need to trust.
Invincibility we are told obviates the need for faith. But not so. Jesus’ invincibility has faith as its core. He is invincible precisely because he is invincible in faith. His faith is tested and tested to the extreme. At times he finds himself disoriented and without comprehension (read Ps 22) but his faith never wavers. His faith is mocked (he trusted in God let him deliver him… ) but it remains resolute. There is never the slightest suggestion in the gospel narratives that it may (or almost did) weaken or collapse.
Indeed it was this unyielding faith that led him to experience faith at levels beyond any other. When our faith is tested most of us cave as soon as the first glimmer of real cost or suffering appears on the horizon. Not so Jesus. Faith set his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem knowing full well the cost of that journey (Isa 50:7; Lk 9:51; Matt 20:18). Faith that worked itself out in love for the Father constrained him ( Jn 14:31; Gals 5:6). He will not ‘shrink back’ (Hebs 10:38, 39). We may in suffering become bruised reeds and smoking flaxes (images of extreme fragility, ready to break) but he will not be a bruised read or smoking flax (falter or be discouraged), rather, he will sustain the weary and give them strength (Isa 42:4; Matt 11:28). And his faith will stand firm for it depends upon the Spirit and is constantly refreshed and sustained by the Spirit (Isa 11:2, 42: 1,2; Ps 110:7). Faith, though invincibly strong, may be severely tried in suffering (read the Psalms 22, 69 etc).
- Surely to be truly human he must be able to sin?
Why? Why is moral vulnerability necessary for true humanity? We will, none of us, be morally vulnerable, in the consummated Kingdom but we will be human. Christ is ‘not able to sin’ in heaven today and if he were our salvation would be eternally uncertain. New creation humanity does not require ontological peccability. The confusion here is between humanity as such and the ‘state’ of humanity. Adam before and after the fall was human but at each point was in a different state. Humanity in Christ (a new nature, a divine one, sustained by the Spirit) is different in state from unfallen or fallen humanity but it is still humanity. Likewise glorified humanity will be different in state from new creation humanity in weakness but it will no less be humanity.
- Surely Jesus must be able to sin and feel its draw to truly identify with us and sympathise?
This argument falls down at the first hurdle. If Jesus is to truly identify with us in the way the question wishes he must not merely be able to sin but must have actually sinned. After all, to really empathize with us he must know what it is to have sinned. How else could he know the shame of sin and the disintegration of moral failure? Yet thankfully no evangelical is audacious enough to go as far as this (thus far). Irving and Barth (not an evangelical) may have Christ with a fallen nature but even they insist he did not sin (a contradiction). And so there already is discontinuity from the word go.
In any case, we should be aware that Jesus, although tempted in every way that we as human’s are tempted, did not experience every human temptation. He did not know for example the trials of old age. He did not know the trials of being married. Was he ever ill? We are not told. What we are told is that when he came into contact with the sick their illness did not pass to him (in the sense of him becoming ill) but his healing virtue passed to them. He ‘bore our infirmities and carried our diseases’ not by experienceing them but by healing them (Matt 8:17). Let what we know inform what we are not told.
We are told by some who claim to know that he must have been tempted sexually. How this is known, I don’t know. Of course, we are tempted sexually, but then, we are fallen. Yet, even we, fallen people though we are, are not tempted in every way sexually. For example, not everyone is tempted to homosexual sin. Few are tempted to paedophilia or bestiality. There are sexual sins that we are only likely to be tempted by if we are well-travelled down a road of sexual promiscuity or because of some background experience or disposition.
What is more, as we grow as Christians, we find that some temptations that once would have been really powerful become less so. Growth in holiness lessens the grip and temptation of sin at least in certain areas. If this is so with us, then we can grasp that Christ, who had no fallen nature pulling him down and was holy in every part of his being, AT THE VERY LEAST was unlikely to be tempted by gross sin. There is normally a sliding scale in degenerate temptations. When we yield as it were to one level of sin we are then tempted by the next level down and so on.
And so it is no surprise that Satan’s recorded attacks on Christ in the wilderness (and elsewhere) were not by temptation to gross sins, nor, it would appear, even sexual sins. His temptations were largely temptations to doubt his identity as ‘the Son of God’ and to feel the need to assert it and prove it. Satan attacks him at what he deems to be the area of Jesus’ vulnerability, namely, his identity and mission. Indeed, the one trial that Jesus’ is most reluctant to undertake and asks the Father if there is another way is that of the cross. Why? Because there the Holy One would be made sin. There he would know separation from his God. From this his holy soul rightly and properly shrank. His temptation was not to turn away from God’s will to pursue un-holiness but to maintain the fellowship of holiness. Again, and I cannot say this often enough, we need to allow our theology of Jesus’ temptation to be framed by what Scripture reveals and not by (potentially irreverent) speculations based on our notion of what it means to be human.
The question (surely Jesus must be able to sin to truly identify with us and sympathize) is predicated on wrong ideas about Christ’s priesthood. Christ sympathises (enters into and supports us) in our sufferings and our steadfastness but not our sin. This is a big topic and I intend to explore it, God willing, in a post that reflects specifically on Christ’s priesthood, however, for the moment I wish simply to note that neither Christ, nor our heavenly Father, has any sympathy with our sin. In his life on earth, Christ neither taught sympathy with sin nor exhibited sympathy with sin, why should we think he is any different now? He clearly taught,
Matt 5:29-30 (ESV)
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
When Peter tried to persuade him away from the cross his response was as sharp as it was forthright
Matt 16:21-23 (ESV)
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
There is no sympathy here. Sin requires radical surgery. It requires ruthless treatment. What is needed for sin is not a sympathetic priest but a sharp two-edged sword (Cf. Hebs 4). Christ’s sympathy (support and encouragement) is for the Christian as he struggles to live by faith and resist sin. He restores the fallen and sustains the fighter but has no truck with yielding, he never sides with capitulation. He never excuses sin or supports it. The very idea is ridiculous.
Christ’s High Priestly strength is that he has faced our trials and knows how to overcome them. It is this ‘knowledge’ that I want a High Priest to have. I don’t want a Priest who sympathises with my moral failure. I don’t need a priest who knows how to fail, I need a priest who knows how not to fail. I want a priest who has faced trials and resisted to the point of shedding his blood; a priest who has won every battle (Hebs 12). Such a priest (personal trainer!) can aid me in my fight of faith for at every stage he has been there and knows my needs. And so my priest is not Adam who was of the earth and earthy (frail) but the second man who is the Lord from heaven… Christ is the head of a new humanity (1 Cor 15:45-49).
I neither need nor want a morally weak champion. I want and need one who is invincibly strong. One on whom I can depend whatever happens. One who can say to me, ‘follow me… believe in me… trust in me…’ , and I can with utter confidence do so. I want one who when he says to his Father,
Heb 10:5-7 (ESV)
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
I can be utterly sure will do as he promises, for his word is his bond and what he promises he is able to fulfil. I want One, who though crushed, will never waver in his determination to fulfil his commission. I want the Christ of Scripture not theological speculation. For this Christ I can trust, love, worship, and adore.
(For further reflections on our Lord’s temptation see here.)