According to the writer to the Hebrews, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15). The implications of this statement for Christian theology down through the centuries have been profound. Even today, many a sermon begins by reassuring the congregation that Jesus knows what it is like to undergo temptations as we do because he was like us in every way, sin excepted.
But how are we understand this claim? The Gospels only record temptations that are hard for many of us to relate to: an appeal for Jesus to jump off a building, for instance, or a prayer to avoid the cross. Seemingly absent are the more pedestrian temptations Christians undergo daily, temptations toward cheating, overindulgence, pride, corrupt sexuality, and the like. How should the assurance from Hebrews be of help to Christians today?
The Jesus of the New Testament Gospels was certainly a human being. Human beings are tempted. So he was tempted. That much is like us. Yet Christ is not merely human as we are. For the traditional Christian claim is that he is God incarnate. As Charles Wesley’s Christmas carol puts it, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”
But here is the rub: Scripture also says God cannot be tempted. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). So we have a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus is like us in every way, being tempted as we are yet without sin. On the other hand, God is incapable of being tempted. Yet Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. ...1
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