by Paul Copan
In the incarnation God comes close to us; He comes alongside us in our weakness, even enduring difficult temptations and struggles: “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
The natural follow-up question to our discussion is, If Jesus was God, how could He be tempted? Because of God’s intrinsic goodness (Jas 1:18), He can’t be led into sin or overpowered by an outside force: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone” (Jas 1:13). But wasn’t the incarnate Christ tempted to depart from His Father’s will, to take the easy way out (Matt 4:1–11)? Doesn’t His temptation mean He can “come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18)? But doesn’t this imply Jesus could have sinned? And if not, then wasn’t His temptation simply playacting? As we’ll see, the Bible portrays Jesus’ temptations as a genuine anguished struggle; there is no playacting involved here. Let’s explore further.
First, the “merely/commonly” versus “fully/essentially” human distinction reminds us that the ability to sin isn’t part of the definition of “human.” The impossibility of humans’ sinning in the new heaven and earth won’t diminish their full humanity. Though common among human beings, the ability to sin isn’t essential to our humanity. For Jesus to be fully human, He didn’t need to have the ability to sin.
Second, for His redemptive mission on earth, the Son of God voluntarily set aside having access to knowing certain things; one such item was the awareness that He couldn’t sin. The Gospels portray Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of people’s thoughts and details about future events. But Jesus is also ignorant of certain things such as the timing of His return (parousia, lit. “presence”): “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matt 24:36). We could also add Jesus’ ignorance about the fig tree (Mark 11:13) and the hemorrhaging woman who touched him (Mark 5:30–33) or His amazement at a Gentile centurion’s faith (Matt 8:10).
Likewise, Jesus’ mission included intentionally surrendering the knowledge that He, being divine, couldn’t ultimately deviate from His Father’s will. In Gethsemane He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt 26:39).Theologian Gerald O’Collins asserts that Jesus’ growth in self-knowledge and self-identity and in struggling in prayer “supports the conclusion that the divine reality was not fully and comprehensively present to the [human] mind of Jesus.”
For temptation to be meaningful, Jesus, unable to sin, must have been unaware that sinning was impossible. Jesus was unaware of the time of His own return so why not of the impossibility of sinning? In His preincarnate state, the Son of God (with Father and Spirit) determined to give up temporary access to being aware of both of these things as part of His mission. He voluntarily limited access to expressing certain divine attributes (in being weak, hungry, and tired)—as well as having access to His divine knowledge (ignorance of His second coming and His invulnerability to sin), though He at any time could have chosen to be aware of them. Jesus thus identifies with us by experiencing real temptations and limitations. If Jesus’ human awareness saw the divine reality in all its clarity, being obedient, struggling in prayer, He could not have experienced true temptation.
The incarnate Son’s temptations were real; acting on them seemed a genuine possibility to Him. Though unique, His situation is conceivable: Imagine entering a room and closing the door behind you. Unbeknownst to you, the door has an automatic two-hour time lock. You consider leaving once or twice, but you freely decide to read for the full two hours, after which you leave the room. Would you have been able to leave earlier? No. But why did you stay in and not try to go out? Because you freely decided to stay. Similarly, Christ freely chose, in submission to the Spirit, to resist temptation even though it was impossible for Him to sin; however, His divine awareness didn’t overwhelm or impose itself on His human awareness. According to O’Collins,
Jesus could be truly tempted and tested, provided that he did not know that he could not sin. If he had known that he could not sin, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of genuine temptations; they would be reduced to make-believe, a performance put on for the edification of others. It was quite a different situation to be incapable of sin and not to know that.
But if Jesus knew He stood in God’s place as the great “I am” (John’s Gospel) or the final judge (Matt 7:23), how could He not know sinning was impossible? The simple answer is that, though standing in God’s place, He, as part of His mission, was ignorant about His return and other matters.
Rather than playacting, Christ suffered real temptation because He gave up temporary access to the knowledge that He couldn’t sin. Through moment-by-moment submission to His Father’s will and His being “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1 HCSB), He also sets an example for us to be “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14). Some Christians think, Of course, Jesus didn’t sin; He was God! Yet His overcoming temptation wasn’t automatic because He was divine but because He steadfastly committed Himself to His Father’s will and relied on the empowering Spirit.
Though an amazing mystery, the doctrine of the incarnation isn’t a contradiction. In this mystery a fully divine, fully human Jesus possesses a certain dual awareness. In one, He is fully knowing; in another He is voluntarily limited in His knowledge so that He could truly endure temptation, identifying with us in every way except without sin.
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