The greatest battle ever waged on earth’s soil took place two thousand years ago in the desert of Palestine. There met the champions of evil and righteousness. Satan, the most intelligent and powerful creature ever made and who’d become the archenemy of God, stood toe-to-toe with the Promised Descendant of Eve, Jesus of Nazareth, the long-awaited Messiah and the Son of God. It was a conflict of cosmic proportions. And the final outcome of his battle determined the destiny of men.
Temptation or Test?
Each of the three synoptic Gospels refer to an event at the beginning of Christ’s ministry that’s commonly known as “the temptation of Christ.” Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted by Satan (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).
Some question whether we should refer to this ordeal as the temptation of Christ. After all, Jesus is fully God. According to James 1:13, God cannot be tempted. Moreover, the Greek verb πειράζω, commonly translated “to tempt,” can signify to examine or reveal the nature or character of something or someone by submitting it to a test. Hence, it is often translated “to test” or “to examine” (e.g.s., Gen 22:1 [LXX]; Exod 20:20 [LXX]; John 6:6; 2 Cor 13:5; Heb 11:17; Rev 2:2).1 Accordingly, scholars like Birger Gerhardsson prefer to view this ordeal as “The Testing of God’s Son.”2
Actually, there is good reason to view the ordeal between Christ and Satan both as a “test” and also as a “temptation.” The two concepts are closely related, but they differ in one important respect—they differ in respect to the purpose or aim of the one who administers it. If the intent is good, we may refer to it as a test. If the intent is evil, we should refer to it as a temptation. For in that case, the term πειράζω carries the idea of an enticement to sin (e.g.s., Gal 6:1; 1 Thess 3:5; James 1:13; Rev 2:10).3
Who was responsible for this ordeal which befell the Lord Jesus? The Gospel writers actually identify two agents. They identify the Spirit of God as the ultimate agent who led, brought, drove4 Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted by Satan (Matt 4:1; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2). And when we view God as the agent of this ordeal, we may speak of it as a test since God is endeavoring to reveal and develop Jesus’ character as a holy man of God.
Yet they also identify Satan or the devil as the more proximate and agent of the temptation (Matt 4:1; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). When we view Satan as the agent of this ordeal, we must speak of it as a temptation. After all, Satan’s purpose is to entice the Lord to sin. And since the devil is the more prominent agent in the narratives, I think it’s appropriate to think of the event described primarily as the temptation of Jesus Christ.
How Can God-the-Son Be Tempted?
- Major premise: Jesus is God
- Minor premise: God cannot be tempted
- Conclusion: Jesus cannot be tempted
Looks logical. Right? Well, not quite. The major premise is incomplete. By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus is not only God the Son, but he is the Second Adam and fully human:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14)
Jesus of Nazareth was fully God and fully human. To be precise, the divine nature and a human nature are united in one Person. As a result, the attributes of each nature are predicated of one-and-the-same Person without any mixture or mutation of the two natures. Theologians refer to this as “the communication of attributes.”5 Thus, the Person of Christ may be described as eternal and omnipresent in the capacity of his deity (Micah 5:2; Matt 18:20), yet temporal and spacial in the capacity of his humanity (John 24:39; 1 John 1:1-3); omniscient (John 2:24-25), yet limited in knowledge and growing in wisdom (Mark 13:32; Luke 2:52); omnipotent (Col 1:16; Heb 1:3), yet weak (2 Cor 13:4; Heb 5:2). We may not comprehend completely how Christ could be fully divine and yet fully human simultaneously. But according to the Scripture, it is so. And this reality of the incarnation explains how Jesus could be genuinely tempted.
So while Satan could not tempt the person of Christ with respect to his divine nature, he could tempt the person of Christ with respect to his human nature. This is why the author of Hebrews can describe the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry as genuinely susceptible to the kinds of temptation as those familiar to his readers:
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. (Heb 4:15)
The writer uses the same Greek term (πειράζω) for “tempted” as employed by the Gospel writers. The fact that he appends the qualifying phrase, “yet without sin,” indicates that what is in view is not merely a test but a solicitation to evil. Of course, the temptations Jesus faced did not arise from inordinate or evil impulses within his heart, as is the case with us (James 1:14-15). Furthermore, the temptations Satan hurled at Christ were unsuccessful. Nonetheless, we may affirm that Jesus faced real temptations.
In conclusion, Jesus was tempted and could be tempted because he was fully human. But this leads to another question. Could Jesus have sinned?
(More to come.)
1 This is the second usage listed in Bauer-Arndt-Gingerich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG).
2 The title of his monograph on Matthew 4:1-11, originally published in 1966 but recently reprinted: The Testing of God’s Son (Wipf & Stock, 2009).
3 This is the fourth usage listed in BDAG.
4 Luke employs the Greek ἄγω, to lead, and Matthew, the slightly stronger ἀνάγω, to bring. But Mark uses an even stronger term, speaking of the Spirit driving, ἐκβάλλω, Jesus into the wilderness.
5 For a brief but helpful discussion, see Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 vols., trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 1:507-09, or Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 477-79.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.