The Temptations of Jesus
2 – The Sinlessness of Jesus
Why did 3 of the Gospel writers feel a need to tell the story of the temptation of Jesus? Very early on in the records of the New Testament there is an often rephrased litany of words that tell us that Jesus never sinned. Listen to the witnesses that tell the story.
The Sinlessness of Jesus
Paul says in II Cor. 5:21 “For our sakes God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Peter says in I Peter 2:21-23 “Jesus Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example; so that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
John says in I John 3:4-5 “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
But it is the Book Of Hebrews that brings this matter to central importance.
“He had to become like his brothers in every respect, so that he might be a merciful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tempted/tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (no reference yet to his sin-less-ness, but just wait.)
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
“For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he had no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of his people. This he did once for all when he offered up himself.”
Before we look into the details of the temptations of Jesus, one of the questions that often gets raised is; “Could Jesus have fallen?” It is a complex question, with various responses.
1. He did sin.
Some of the earliest responses was that Jesus was not sinless. “To sin is human, to forgive divine.” All humans sin: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” But this response is also complex and needs a bit of clarification.
That was certainly the verdict of the Jewish leadership of his day. They claimed he broke, disregarded and minimized the laws of OT. He spoke blasphemy, claiming to be divine. He made himself greater than Moses & the Law. They had evidence that he was a glutton, and a winebibber, who associated with prostitutes & publicans, was a friend of Gentiles & Samaritans.
There is further evidence in his execution by both Jewish leaders and Roman authority of that day. He was tried and convicted in court after court as a villain, a criminal, a deceiver of simple people, social disrupter, and cult leader. It is treason to even hint at being a king. The presumption in that ancient world was that he would not have been executed if he were not guilty!
And even in our day, when we read the stories about Jesus, even some of our sanctimonious eyebrows are raised. When the Gospels are read in Bible studies or Sunday School classes questions are often raised about some of the details:
- He caused significant distress to his parents at 12 years of age. That wasn’t nice.
- His treatment of his mother raises questions, such as when he addresses his mother at the wedding in Cana when he says to her, “Woman! What is that to me!” and when someone tells him later that his mother is outside, he retorts, “Who is my mother.” That seems to show disrespect. (Matt 12:46-50)
- Towards the close of his life he barges into the Holy Temple and taking a whip drives out people and animals, scattering tables and money every which way. (Mark 11: 15-19 & John 2:12-17)
- A week before his death he curses a fig tree because he was hungry. (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)
- One of his miracles involved the destruction of a herd of swine belonging to a Gentile farmer. (Mark 5:20)
- And his words spoken against the Pharisees certainly sound harsh. (Matthew 23)
Each of these passages is capable of an alternative reading, but none-the-less causes questions to be raised. Some of those that believe Jesus did sin, are quick to say that he was, however, not a criminal, and he was not sin-full in that that is too damning a definition, but neither was he flawless or sinless. To be fully human he had to share in our sin too. Can he be human, yet never have sinned? Some say no!
2. He did not sin.
Of course there is another long standing answer to the question, “Did Jesus ever sin?” It is the assertion of the early church, “He did not sin, either in thought, word or deed!” Here is the testimony of the New Testament.
- I Peter 2:21-24 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wound you have been healed. (see Isa. 53:9)
- I Peter 1:18-19 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.
- I Peter 3:17-18 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.
- Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin
- I John 3:4-5 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
- II Cor. 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
- Jesus never offers any prayers of confession.
- He did challenged others to try to find any sin in him.(John 8:46)
It has been the 2000-year conviction of the church that if he had sinned, he would have failed at the very task he came to do. “Call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sinning.” He would have failed in his essential mission. How could he save us from sin, if he could not defeat it in his own life?
But once we accept that he did not sin, the controversy within the church begins.
- Jesus did not sin, for he could not.
Some within the church remind us that God cannot be tempted. He cannot sin, not merely because he chooses not to, but because he cannot. Sin is alien to his nature. God is “not able to sin” and since Jesus is God, he was “not able to sin.” But the attempts were made! His opponents tested him continually. Satan tempted him to take the low road, but there was nothing in him that found such enticements appealing.
- Jesus could not have sinned, but he did not know it.
There are those who insist that Jesus could not sin, because he was God, but he did not know that he could not sin, therefore the struggle was intense, and psychologically he believed he could sin, but actually he could not, and so did not. Jesus was not omniscient. (see Mark 13:32) He knew things others might not know, because God was with him and told him what he needed to know, but some things he did not know. So insight into the outcome to these testing times may not have been given to him. The Father might have concluded it was on “a need to know basis”. The battle within was as real as it could be, and so he fought it to the very end, and overcame!
- Jesus could have sinned, but he did not.
Other voices from within the church insist that his temptations were as real, or more real than yours or mine. He was tempted in all points as we are: temptations that are common to us; physical, emotional, intellectual temptations to sin. He was tempted by the devil, but also tempted from within by normal appetites and normal psychological needs. He was tempted to avoid the cross, tempted to use miracles for personal gain, and tempted to be a popular messiah. He earned the right to be our saviour because he overcame temptation. His victory was a moral victory. He learned obedience (Heb 2:10). He did not sin, but not because of an innate impossibility, but because of his moral courage. He was “able not to sin” and so chose not to!
This makes him the Second Adam. (I Cor. 15:42-57) who must succeed where the first Adam failed. He did, and so became the reverser of Adam’s failure. He was on probation as Adam was, but succeeded where our first parents failed. He fought the fight as a man, not as a God, and won the issue by the very same divine assistance (The Holy Spirit) who is also fully available to us all.
Conclusion – for the moment
But let us suspend the question for the moment. We need to study the details of his times of temptation and hopefully gain enough insight to either deem the question irrelevant, or find a more nuanced response.