The Temptation of Christ •
Dr. Dan Hayden •
Was Jesus Christ able not to sin or was He not able to sin? This is a question that is often raised with regard to the temptation of Christ. In theological terms, it goes this way. Was He peccable (He was able to sin but He didn’t) or was He impeccable (He didn’t sin because He wasn’t able to sin)? If He was impeccable, what does that say about the nature of His temptation? If He couldn’t sin, was He really tempted?
Part of the answer to these questions lies in the meaning of the word “tempted” as found in the New Testament. It is the Greek word peirazo which can be used in two senses. Sometimes it is used to refer to temptation with evil or enticement to sin. For instance, in Galatians 6:1 it says, “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted (peirazo).” Here “tempted” (peirazo) is in parallel with “trespass,” which is a reference to sin. This is the way we normally think of the word “tempted.” We are tempted to sin.
But there is another way this word is used in the Scriptures. Sometimes it simply refers to a trial or a test. Sin is not the objective here but rather, an opportunity to prove one’s character or intent. For instance in Hebrews 11:17 it says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested (peirazo), offered up Isaac…” God was not trying to get Abraham to sin. He was giving Abraham on opportunity to prove his unwavering trust in God’s promise to give him a seed. Strictly speaking it was a test, not a temptation.
So how does all of this relate to the temptation of Christ? Well, on that occasion in the wilderness, it appears that there were two things going on. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (peirazo) by the devil.” Both the Spirit of God and the devil were involved in what was going on and each of them had a different purpose with regard to the temptation.
First, the devil was obviously tempting Jesus for the purpose of causing Him to sin—to act contrary to the will of His Father. Satan knew that God couldn’t sin, neither could He be tempted with evil (James 1:13). He had fully known the character of God prior to his own fall. But now God had become a man in the person of Christ, and the devil had already proven that man was peccable. When man was tempted to sin, he had succumbed to the evil. Satan had seen it in the Garden of Eden and he had observed it thousands of times in Adam’s posterity. At this point then, the devil thought God had weakened Himself by the Incarnation – the union of a human nature with the divine nature. So, he tempted Christ with evil. It was the first use of “peirazo.”
This was not the purpose of the Spirit of God, however. When Christ was led by the Spirit into this confrontation with Satan in the wilderness, the Spirit was not watching with fear and trepidation wondering if Christ would come through. It was true that the Son of God had taken upon Himself a human nature, but it was also true that He still retained His divine nature. Furthermore, this union was accomplished in one Person. So, the Spirit knew full well that Jesus, as God, could not sin.
Consider an illustration. Take a thin wire that is easily bent to represent the human nature. It is truly bendable or peccable. But now weld this wire to a large steel rod that is not bendable. It is solid and strong—a fitting representation of the divine nature. Now the fact that they are welded together means they are now one rod (like Jesus is one Person). The wire still retains its identity as a wire, but now it is no longer subject to being bent because it is welded to the rod. A bendable (or peccable) element is welded to a non-bendable (or impeccable) element—and the result is unbendable (or impeccable).
Well, this is the way it was with Christ. A bendable human nature was placed into union with an unbendable divine nature and the result was an unbendable person. Now the Holy Spirit knew this, so His purpose in the wilderness was simply to put Christ to the test as an opportunity for Him to demonstrate His awesome power over Satan’s temptation.
General Motors puts their cars on a test track and videos the results for later advertising. Not to break them down and destroy them, but to demonstrate to the riding public the reliability of their product. Even so, the Spirit of God led Christ into the wilderness, not to potentially destroy Him, but to demonstrate to the riding public that He is perfectly reliable to be their Savior and to see them safely to heaven. It was the second use of “peirazo.”
So, even though Christ felt the full force of Satan’s temptation in His human nature (which is peccable), He did not and could not sin because He was also God (which is impeccable). The temptation was real but the ability to overcome it was infinite. As a Person therefore, He was definitely impeccable. The temptation was not a roll of the dice in the wilderness to see who would win—Satan or Christ. It was a demonstration of Christ’s power as the Son of God to be our adequate Savior. Satan meant it for evil but God meant it for good—the two uses of “peirazo.” ■