Recent emphasis on the sinless nature of Christ has provoked a question in people's minds regarding how Christ really could have been tempted as we are. Such statements as the following from the Spirit of Prophesy have raised this question.
Be careful, exceedingly careful as to how you dwell upon the human nature of Christ. Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin. He is the second Adam. The first Adam was created a pure, sinless being, without a taint of sin upon him: he was in the image of God. He could fall, and he did fall through transgressing. . . . But Jesus Christ was the only begotten Son of God. He took upon Himself human nature, and was tempted in all points as human nature is tempted. He could have sinned; He could have fallen, but not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity. He was assailed with temptations in the wilderness, as Adam was assailed with temptations in Eden.1
The question that is asked is: If Christ did not have inherent sinful propensities such as you and I have, who are the descendants of Adam, how can we say that He was tempted in all points like as we are, as is stated in Hebrews 4:15? Was His temptation really like ours? If not, can He sympathize with our temptations and help us when He has never gone through them?
Before we answer these questions, let us look at Christ's relationship to temptation.
First: It was impossible for Christ to be tempted with every temptation that comes to man.
He was only one man, and therefore He could not be tempted in terms of what He was not. For instance, if He was born in poverty He would not have the temptations that come to the rich. If He was born rich He would not have the temptations that come to the poor. If He was a carpenter He would not have the exact type of temptations that would come to a fisherman. If He was a fisherman He would not be tempted with the temptations peculiar to a carpenter. It was impossible, being one, for Him to be tempted with temptations peculiar to every type or class of people.
Again, the very fact that He was born would indicate that He must be born of a certain person. If His mother was a righteous woman He would not have the experience of one whose mother was an outcast or other low character, and vice versa.
Also, the fact that He was born at a certain place would make it impossible for Him to be tempted with temptations that may be peculiar to certain climates and environments.
Again, the fact that He was born at a certain time would make it impossible for Him to be tempted with the temptations that are peculiar to certain periods in world history. For example, He was never tempted to spend too much time with television.
Second: It was useless for Jesus to be tempted with every temptation that comes to every single person.
Temptation is meaningful only if it fits the particular individual. One thing may be a temptation to me that would not be a temptation to another. A particular temptation does not tempt everyone, and the devil knows that better than anyone else. He is too wise to tempt us, in our day, to make stones into bread or to jump off high places. He was too wise to tempt Christ with some of the temptations that tempt us, for they would not be any temptation at all to Him. The devil will tempt us only where we are vulnerable. In order for the devil's enticements to be temptations for Jesus they had to be suited to His particular case. So it was absolutely useless and even impossible for Christ to be tempted with every specific temptation that comes to us.
Third: It was unnecessary for Jesus to be tempted with every temptation that comes to every single person.
Christ came to the earth, taking humanity and standing as man's representative, to show in the controversy with Satan that man, as God created him, connected with the Father and the Son, could obey every divine requirement.2
It was only necessary to succeed where Adam failed. Christ did not need to be born of a moral outcast and have a drunkard for a father. He did not need to have even the sinful propensities with which we are born. He needed to succeed only where Adam failed. The devil's charge is not directed against sinful men keeping God's law. His charge is that Adam and Eve before they sinned could not keep the law. Christ needed to show that they could. So He came not as just another descendant of Adam, but as the second Adam, as we find implied in Romans 5:12-21, and as is clearly indicated in 1 Corinthians 15:45, 47, R.S.V.: "Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit." "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven."
In fact, if Christ had come in the line of Adam's descendants merely and had received the same effects, He would simply be one of us and there would be no plan of salvation at all. The succession had to be broken if anyone would be our Saviour. And so Christ comes not as a descendant of Adam, but as one in the place of Adam, as the second Adam.
Although it was not necessary for Him to come in our actual sinful nature, yet He faced temptations under greater disadvantages than Adam.
1. The first temptation took place in a garden. Everything was beautiful and pleasant. But Christ's temptation was in the wilderness among the wild beasts.
2. There was no fasting on the part of Adam and Eve. They had plenty and were satisfied. There were no pangs of hunger such as the Son of man suffered in the wilderness. There was absolutely no physical excuse for Adam and Eve to eat of the tree.
3. Adam and Eve stood in the full strength and perfection of sinless beings. There were no marks of the effects of sin upon their minds or their bodies. But Christ had taken the form and the likeness of sinful flesh. Although He did not possess the sinful human nature that all are born with, He did possess the effects of sin. He did not have the perfect body of Adam. He did not have Adam's stature or his symmetry. His form, His shape, was that of a man of His own time. These were Christ's disadvantages. In the light of the failure of Adam and Eve and the victory of Christ how inexcusable it makes man!
So we see that it was neither possible, useful, nor necessary for Christ to be tempted with every temptation that comes to men. The question then arises, If Christ was not tempted "in all points . . . like as we are," what does the text mean? We have seen that without qualification He did not know temptation that comes from a sinful tendency—this is the one difference. He was tempted in all points, except in this one regard—that He had no sin in Him. James speaks of this type of temptation in James 1:14, R.S.V., "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire." A. B. Bruce,3 says concerning this that though we may have a certain temptation arising from our sinful nature, the same temptation could come to the Lord from an external cause. In other words, temptations may arise from various causes. The absence of a particular cause in any given case does not necessarily imply exemption from the temptation. The fact that we are tempted with a temptation arising from our sinful nature does not mean that Jesus was not tempted with that same temptation arising from another cause. Both cowards and brave men may be tempted to shrink from a fight—one from weakness of spirit and ignoble love of life; the other from involuntary sensitiveness of nature or from generous concern for family. Two men may be tempted to forsake their true calling and avenues of service but from opposite motives. One may be misled by vanity and ambition to choose another way, while the other may be tempted to forsake the better way, by a clear perception that it will be rough, thorny, and steep. The same temptation —to forsake the true way of His life—assailed Christ, and yet it derived not from superficial vanity and ambition but from a true evaluation of the tremendous difficulties that beset that way. Therefore, although Jesus may not have had any temptation arising from an inherent sinful nature, He may have had that temptation arising from some other cause. The appeal of the devil's temptation may be to baser motives and to the evil inclination of our nature, but the same temptation could have been directed to the nobler motives of Jesus.
In view of the above, it would seem that we can understand Hebrews 4:15 only if we take it to refer not to every particular temptation with which we are tempted, but to every class, every type of temptation. Being holy and sinless, Christ could not be tempted with all the temptations that tempt us. Ricciotti indicates how Christ's temptations were slanted toward His Messiahship:
All three temptations bear a marked relationship to the messianic mission of Jesus, against which they are directed. The first tries to sidetrack Him to a convenient and comfortable mes-sianism; the second to a messianism entrusted to empty wonder-working exhibitions; the third to a messianism spending itself in political glory.4
As we look at the temptations that came to Jesus in the wilderness we see that they are of the same type and the same class as those that come to us. It is true that we are not tempted to make stones into bread, or to jump off high places, or to take the kingdoms of the world. But He was tempted in all the types of temptations of which we are tempted.
Take the first temptation. In essence what was this temptation? On the surface it was to make stones into bread, but the basic principle at stake was whether He would obey God or disobey Him by working independently of Him. Would He live, as man must, in complete dependence upon God, or disregard God's will and assert His divine power in a time of need? It was legitimate for Him to satisfy His hunger; but He must not use illegitimate means to do this, and for Him it was illegitimate at this time to use His miraculous power, because God wanted Him to live as man must live. This temptation comes to us in lesser and in various forms. It comes to us whenever the attainment of any object, the satisfaction of any desire, the achievement of any enterprise, is sought by going counter to God's will and commandments. Man shall not live by bread alone— that is, the satisfaction of his needs—but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; that is, in harmony with God's will and commandments. The highest object for man is not that his needs be satisfied even though they are legitimate needs, but rather that God's will be fulfilled. It is never proper to satisfy even our legitimate needs if the achievement of them comes by going against God's commandments. This temptation comes when a man is tempted to deny God in order to save his life, to break the Sabbath to gain an education, to marry an unbeliever to create a home, to cheat to pass an examination. This type of temptation Jesus faced.
In contrast to the first, which was a temptation to independence, the second is a temptation to overdependence, to expect God to do for us what He has not promised. It is especially directed toward those who have a trustful dependence upon God. Today, it is not a temptation to us to jump off a high building, but this same temptation comes in other forms. It comes to us when we are tempted to place ourselves in dangerous situations unnecessarily even for the sake of a worthy cause, when we refuse to take necessary medical precautions, especially in the mission field, when we expect God to bless us in our schoolwork even though we have not put forth any effort, when we pray without working, or when we do good works to be seen of men and expect God to bless us. "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" by putting His Word to the test and expecting Him to do for you what He has not promised.
The third temptation raises the least question in the modern mind, for we can see how that temptation has relevancy to us. But again, the temptation that Christ faced is not our own. We are not offered the kingdoms of the whole world. That was a temptation peculiarly suited to Jesus.
The devil knew that we would be satisfied with far less than that. This temptation comes to us whenever we are tempted to shift our loyalty to something or someone else than God for some present pleasure, enjoyment, honor, position, or kingdom. The devil's offers range all the way from a mess of pottage to Esau to the throne of the greatest kingdom, Egypt, to Moses.
Thus we can see how Jesus was tempted in every manner as we. Hence He can sympathize with us in our temptations because they are no different from His in essence, although they may be different in form.
Not only has He been tempted in every manner, but in two ways He has exceeded us.
First: Christ never yielded to a single temptation. This means that He has tasted the full force of every temptation with which Satan tempted Him. We, on the other hand, have yielded before Satan has let loose the full force of his temptation. Like weak trees we have not borne the full brunt of the force of the wind because we have been broken before the full force was spent. Jesus therefore suffered a keener sense of temptation than we have ever felt.
Second, Paul says:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.5
God will not allow us to be tempted above that we are able. He permits only temptations that are common to man. He places limits and boundaries about us. But Jesus Christ had temptations that were not common to man. He faced temptations that were suited to a unique second Adam. Satan came to Christ with what would be to us overpowering temptations. In Christ's weakened physical condition God allowed Satan to come as an angel of light. It would have been too much for us. The tempter offers Him all the kingdoms of this world. He allowed Satan to heap every manner of indignity upon Him during His trial and crucifixion and even permitted him to crucify Him upon the most ignominious symbol of ancient times. To suffer these things as men would be well-nigh impossible, but to suffer them with the knowledge that He was the Creator of the very men who ill-treated Him was a trial that we will never be called to face.
But from the battlefield of temptation Jesus came forth a conqueror. He says, "I have overcome the world." Now He can help us, "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted" (Heb. 2:18, R.S.V.). We overcome, then, not as He overcame, but because He overcame and by His Spirit lives His victorious life within us. And that is our only hope of victory. Paul says, "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). And this point cannot be too strongly urged. The messenger of the Lord says:
The plan of salvation is not understood to be that through which divine power is brought to man in order that his human effort may be wholly successful.6
If that were so, we would have something for which to boast. Then continuing she says:
Without the transforming process which can come alone through divine power [the indwelling power of the Spirit], the original propensities to sin are left in the heart in all their strength, to forge new chains, to impose a slavery that can never be broken by human power.7
The help Christ gives to the tempted ones is through His indwelling Spirit. "In the world ye shall have tribulation:" said Jesus, "but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). The fact that He overcame when He was in the flesh means little to us unless He overcomes again in our flesh by the power of His Spirit. "Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ" (2 Cor. 2:14):
1 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on John 14:30, p. 1128.
2 The Signs of the Times, June 9, 1898.
3 A. B. Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ, pp. 263. 264.
4 Giuseppe Ricciotti, The Life of Christ, pp. 276. 277.
5 Corinthians 10:13, R.S.V.
6 Evangelism, p. 192.