The Temptation of Christ

Jesus was tempted, as it is written, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” — Matthew 4:1

What exactly does it means to say that Jesus was tempted? Did he want the thing that was offered while he denied himself of his desire? What (if anything) does his temptation mean for the orthodox teaching of Jesus having two natures (being the heart of a long discussion now codified in some of the early creeds of Christianity)?

Doctrine Check
I need to make sure I am not being unclear: Jesus is Fully Human and Fully God (we might call these two natures, if you will). His natures are not mixed (Eutychianism), nor do they combine so that his humanity is indistinguishable from his divinity (Monophysitism); being God and being human is not to say he is therefore two persons or two essences (Nestoriansism).

Sometimes theologians will use the episode of the temptation of Jesus to discuss the distinction between his two natures. However, I will suggest that Christ being tempted may not primarily relate to that subject. Instead, I want to look at the episode of his temptation, and propose that its ramification for theology is ironically related to the doctrine of what God is like.

The temptation of Jesus has ramification for our understanding of the deity of God. The temptation of Jesus reveals something profound about the nature of God himself.

Again, I completely affirm that Jesus is Fully Human and Fully Divine (he is the God-Man). At the same time, I believe there is a way to mistakenly get the wrong verses to speak to the distinctions (rather like getting the right doctrine from the wrong text!). If we wrongly categorize Matthew 4:1, we may miss how that verse plays into God showing himself to be Christlike.

A Starting Point
God is Christlike and in him there is no un-Christlikeness at all (paraphrasising John Taylor from his book, The Christlike God). I am working from the conviction that Jesus reveals the Father. When was he revealing the Father? At specific times? Always? In what way? Was he revealing the Father when Satan was tempting him in the wilderness?

My response to these questions depends, in part, on English grammar and our use of active and passive verbs — especially as we look at the Temptation account. Before I jump straight to any conclusions about the meaning of Matthew 4:1, I want to explore some ideas about the English verb “tempted.” Then I will try to demonstrate how the corresponding Greek verb works. I know this sounds painful, but I will try to be as whimsical as I can. I will relate the grammatical facts to the temptation of Jesus, and then suggest how all of this can improve our discussion about the two natures of Christ.


I. Distinctions from English Grammar (Active and Passive Verbs)

There are two ways to read the phrase, “Jesus was tempted.” One way is to understand tempted as an active verb, the other is to take it as as a passive verb. I suppose there really is a third way, which is to take it as both active and passive (something of a middle voice ), but I won’t deal with that here.

A. Active

“Was tempted”, as here read in the English, either functions as a passive or an active verb. If “was tempted” is understood as active, it means that Jesus was the doer who was active in the action called tempted. “Was tempted,” in this case, would describe him and his state of being tempted. Actively being tempted might describe his attraction, or it may say something of his assignment of value to the offer or object placed before him (and that would speak to his attending desire — what he values he desires?). When we read “was tempted” as active, then we are saying something about the internal response of Jesus to the offer placed before him.

B. Passive

However, if “was tempted” is understood as describing a passive action, it means that Jesus is not the active subject of the verb, but the one who suffers the action. An outside force was asserted upon him. For example, “I hit the ball”, is said with an active verb — I (the subject) did the action (hit). In contrast, if I am passive with respect to the verb, I would say, “I was hit by the ball”. In the passive construction, I am not the doer. Notice that the passive idea, “I was hit by the ball”, says nothing about my reaction. If the ball was a small fluffy ball thrown by my daughter, I may not even know I was hit. If the ball was shot from a cannon, it may have killed me. Either way, the sentence, “I was hit by the ball,” does not give enough information to talk about me, my thoughts or reply. I am passive with respect to the verb.

In English, “Jesus was tempted” is vague because we don’t know if Jesus was active or passive. It could go either way.

II. Distinctions from the Greek New Testament (Tempted is a Passive Verb)

Thankfully, the Greek of the New Testament is more specific than the English. In the English, we have to decide how to understand, “He was tempted”. The problem goes away in the Greek (the language of the New Testament). The Greek reveals the kind of verb being used to describe Jesus and the temptation.

In the Greek, if the author wanted to say that Jesus was actively tempted by the temptation promulgated, he would put a tag on the word that indicated it was that way. However, the temptation of Jesus is explicitly in the passive. Not only in Matthew 4:1, but also in the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 2:18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted [passive], He is able to aid those who are tempted.

Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted (πεπειρασμενοω) as we are, yet without sin.

Tempted is a passive verbal form. Jesus is the one to whom the temptation was presented. The Bible does not use the word Tempted with an active voice so as to teach that Jesus was internally drawn (tempted within himself because of a desire). Because there is a distinction between the active and passive meaning of Tempted, we could say that any being can be presented with an offer (a temptation). Devils, peoples, angels, Jesus, and God can all be pressed with arguments that they passively endure. Such arguments do not change the nature of the one being pressed (tempted). Let me give an example that may explain.

An Example from Life

If a salesman came to my door and said, “Steve, please buy this amazing vacuum cleaner.” His actions can be described by an outside observer with the word “tempted”. He is tempting me to buy, and I am passive in the event (I opened the door, and there he was ready to press his case). If you knew a little bit about me, you would know that at the same time that he is trying to get me to buy, I am not tempted (active use of the verb). I don’t want it — not in the least. He is tempting me with all that he has available to him, but I am not in the least interested. I am not, of my own desires, tempted by his offer, even though he is presenting the temptation. He is tempting me, I am not tempted. His temptations do not work on me. He is tempting people to buy vacuum cleaners, and such a description is not void because someone is not responsive. The description of the seller is dependent upon the verb having its own valid meaning in the active voice (as opposed to passive voice).

III. The Theological Point

Theologians like to point to the Humanity of Christ in Matthew 4:1 or Hebrews 4:15. Since God cannot be tempted (James 1:13), the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1 must point to his humanity (the argument goes). If we understand, however, that Jesus was presented with an offer (and the word we use to describe that is “tempted” in the passive) and we don’t imagine that he was internally drawn by the offer, then we don’t need to save God’s Divinity from a contradiction. Namely, Jesus being fully tempted is about the external presentation and not his internal desire. He was passive in the temptation. Back to our example: if the ball hit me, I would say I was hit by the ball, not that I hit the ball — I am passive in the event and I pay attention to the proper distinction between passive and active verbs.

Satan, The Cosmic Salesman

Jesus was tempted, yet was without sin. He did not desire the things for which he had no desire. Presented to him were the cheap wares of this world. The offer was made, the products were placed before him, but God was not looking for what was being sold. It is no impediment to Deity that God would submit himself to Satan’s swap-meet, with Satan working like a kind of cosmic vacuum-cleaner salesman. The temptation placed before Jesus is not a pointer to his humanity, but a statement that God was not purchasing that day. He was passing through the bazaar not because he came to buy, but because he came to reveal himself. “Jesus was tempted” tells us about the priorities and affections of God. We learn about God when we find out that Jesus was tempted and did not buy.

In the Temptation of Christ we learn that it was God who was present at the auctioning-off of Satan’s cheap goods. I am impervious to wanting the wares of the vacuum-cleaner salesman. How much more is God impervious to wanting anything Satan has to offer?! So, you see, being impervious to an offer is not necessarily a statement about the distinction between Humanity and Divinity. It did not damage Divinity to answer the door when Satan came selling his stuff. He hears the offer and has no impulse to buy. We are learning about God when we see Jesus.

IV. What about the Book of James and Other Related Verses?

God cannot be tempted — James 1:13. The relevant word for saying God is not tempted is the adjectival apeirastos (the a on the front of the word is a negating particle, a-peirastos). Our discussion of active and passive verbs won’t help when we are talking about an adjective. Regardless, James is telling us that God cannot be the actor (the active one) when it comes to desiring the corrupted stuff of men. He is not drawn to our shinny trinkets. He is not driven by evil desires like ours. James 1:13 is a statement about the attractions which function within the inner-life of the Trinity. And where did James learn this? I am not sure, but in Jesus he has his proof. God cannot be drawn into the perishing and fallen stuff of men (he cannot be tempted). If he needed evidence then he had Exhibit A: Jesus. Jesus was the revelation that God cannot be tempted. James knew this. James knew that God let Satan parade his cheap junk before his face — Satan tempted Jesus — but God was not tempted. Jesus proved it: God cannot be pulled into our realm of petty desires. Jesus was tempted, but he was not tempted. Which is to say, he was tempted by men and Satan, but he was not tempted internally and drawn to the offer.

After reading all that I have written, I suppose a question may occur. Namely: If the Greek describes a temptation as passive, can such a temptation yet be driven from within by an internal desire (and if so, how would that be indicated)? The answer to that question is Yes. James 1:14 talks about us being tempted (again, a passive verb), but the temptation is from ourselves — by our own desires:

But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.

In this verse, the internal desires and the enticements are the occasion for the temptation that comes to us. The temptation of Jesus is not of such a kind. He was not tempted from his own internal desires — the offer came from outside of him (from men and Satan). God, likewise, is not tempted from within by a well of sinful passions. His internal desires are not the kind that entice him to rebel against his own nature. In this way James can write that God cannot be tempted.

James’ teaching in verses 1:13-14 is not in contraction to Acts 15:10 where the same word for us being tempted (πειραδζω) is used to describe what was done to God because of human sin. God, in Acts 15:10 was not tempted by internal desires to overthrow his own ideals. Something else was happening, and the source was from the people who were sinning. Likewise, in Hebrews 3:9, we read that God was confronted with the rebellion of Israel, and the word to describe what was done to Him is our same word, πειραδζω. Sin, in this case, is the vacuum salesman knocking on the door of God and pitching a scandalous product. The transaction to follow will not be a favorable one. For when God is moved to act because of sin, human death ensues.

Related examples are found in 1 Cor 10:9 and Acts 5:9. In Acts 5:9 the Holy Spirit is confronted with sin, and the active form or our word is in play (πειρασαι). In 1 Cor 10:9 we have the risen and glorified Christ put to the test in what could be humorously called the Last Temptation of Christ. Note that the Greek must be consulted to follow through with the arguments I present in this article. Other noteworthy verses to study are 1 Thess 3:5 and Rev 2:2.

V. Other English Words That Work Like Tempted

Tempted is a flexible verb. If it has the passive voice, it is describing an outward reality. If it is active voice, it is describing an internal response. Other words work this way in English. Two come to mind (if you think of more, let me know): Encouraged and Insulted. These words function with the same kind of ambiguity as the word Tempted. The ambiguity comes when we have to decide if the verb is active or passive. By looking at how these words work, perhaps my English argument about Tempted will gain clarity.

A. Insulted

If Charlie hurled foul words at the deaf man, Sam, we might say, “Charlie insulted Sam.” However, since our deaf man was unable to hear the insults, we might also say, “Sam was not insulted.” That makes for a paradox-like combination: Charlie insulted Sam, but Sam was not insulted.

If a stranger launched a barrage of mean words against me, such insults may not actually be an insult to me. Insulting me is the active behavior of the stranger. Taking the insult, and being insulted by the words, would require an active behavior on my part. However, if I remained passive and did not actively accept the insult, I could say, “He insulted me, but I was not insulted.” Likewise, being tempted is an act of the will. I have control over myself and my own internal reactions.

B. Encouraged

Another example is Encouraged. I might say, “My father encouraged me, but I was not encouraged.” When I say he encouraged me, I am describing his active attempts. He encouraged me to look beyond my circumstances, but because of my sorry condition, I was unwilling to be encouraged. His encouragement was not enocouragement to me. He encouraged me, but I was not encouraged. The stranger insulted me, but I was not insulted. Jesus was tempted, but he was not tempted. This is not double-speak, this is the ability of English to be ambiguous about active and passive verbs. In the Greek, the ambiguity goes away.

Encouraged and Insulted are like the word Tempted. They can be leave the reader uncertain with respect to who is the actor and who is the object. These phrases, “He was tempted”, “He was encouraged”, “He was insulted”, can erase precision of speech. The phrase, “Jesus was tempted” has suffered from an imprecision of language. But not in the Greek. By going back to the original language of the New Testament, and observing the passive use of Tempted, we can take a fresh look at who God is in Christ.

VI. God is Like This: Jesus was Tempted

In the Temptation of Christ we are discovering God. To use this event (this fact) as an opportunity to speak of Jesus’ two natures, and especially his Humanity, is not wrong, but we don’t want to miss what God is saying about God. In Jesus we discover The Humanity of God (of which, see Barth’s book with the same title), as it were, and that is as equally important as the two natures of Christ.

God is like this: Jesus was tempted. Jesus reveals God and God is revealed in Jesus. When we look upon him, we look upon God’s affections, values and desires; we see his exact representation and revelation. Jesus is the incarnated God.

A. A Warning:

We may inadvertently quarantine God off from Jesus if we rely upon the right categories at the wrong time. Jesus is Fully God and Fully Man (those are the right categories). We may mistakenly force the wrong verses into the service of those two categories. One suggestions in all of this is that we reevaluate how and why we use these categories. What drives us to variously categorize Jesus’ actions into God-actions vs. Human-actions? Instead of doing that, the temptation of Jesus may be a chance for us to ask riskier question: What does the temptation of Jesus say about God? We may be startled and surprised to find out that Satan’s offers are not an impediment to deity. What God values is not what Satan values.

B. An Invitation:

The Temptation of Christ is an invitation for us to observe the unthinkable Humanity of God. God incorporated Humanity into the essential life of Divinity without diminishing or damaging the Trinity. Full Humanity is united with the one God. In the temptation of Jesus, God may be revealing himself in a way different than but equally as profound as the two natures of Christ. If we are protecting our own understnanding of deity from God’s scandalous self-revelation, we may want to remember this: Jesus is the revelation God. God is Like This: Jesus was Tempted.

VII. Jesus Tempted to Bypass the Cross

It is not my intention to unpack everything that the temptation of Jesus means. It means much more than I have written about here. However, it is worth a brief detour to go back to Genesis and review the story of Satan.

Satan’s temptation in the Garden worked on Adam. Adam was ready to buy. That earlier story prepares us for what happens to Jesus in the wilderness temptation of Matthew 4:1. Jesus, had come from the Father to secure the Kingdom of God. For Jesus, that meant the way of death and the cross. Satan offered Jesus a rival kingdom, one that had no cross. The temptation before Jesus was to obtain a kingdom without a cross and thus abandon his quest to image God in the World. Peter also encouraged Jesus to bypass the cross, and at that time, Jesus called Peter Satan. The temptation before Jesus was a crossless-kingdom obtained through disobedience. In that temptation we discover something about God’s passion for his own glory. Jesus would rather die than fail to image the Father. Jesus was not like the first man, and the luster of Satan’s trinkets did not match Jesus’ passion for God’s Glory. Jesus was tempted, but death was more appealing to him than anything Satan had to offer. Jesus was tempted by Satan, but he would rather die. In this way, what is true of God in James 1:13 is true of Jesus: Jesus was not tempted.

VIII. Related Articles

You may notice that I tagged this article under, “Christlike-God.” I have written other articles on this subject, and together, a larger case is being made about the nature of God. Most accessible and relevant are these two articles: Death is not an Impediment to Deity and God is Like This: Jesus Washed Feet.

Steve Rives
Eastside Church of the Cross

This article was published under Christlike-God, Gospel of Matthew, Temptation, Two Natures.

2 Responses to The Temptation of Christ

  1. mike says:

    steve,

    this is a good post; i wonder if taylor read much k. barth. barth wrote extensively about Christ being the revelation of who God is. every theological issue or discussion starts with Christ. just a curious thought

  2. admin says:

    Mike,

    I have read Barth’s collection of essays in the, “The Humanity of God” (which I mis-shelved so I can’t find my copy right now). There was one article in there that sums up the subject quite nicely. I was introduced to this line of thinking by Dr. Mark DeVine and a single comment he made one day in class. At nearly the same time, I was reading something by N. T. Wright who said (roughly), “scrap your thoughts on god, look at Jesus, and think afresh the word ‘God.'” From there, I stumbled across Bauckham’s book, “God Crucified.” Then came the Princeton theologian, Jenson and his first volume Systematic Theology. He challenges systematic theologies which starts with the abstract ideas of God before ever even getting to Jesus. Also relevant is, “Christ the Center” by G. A. Knight.

    Anyway, to your question abut Taylor and Barth: Taylor only once makes a passing reference to Barth. However, like Schleiermacher (but not referencing him), he takes the reader through the ground of knowledge: How do we *know* God (or whatever it is we that G o d is)? He argues that we learn from 1) Authority figures, 2) experience, 3) Hearsay, and 4) Reflection. He turns his attention to Revelation and the acts of God (especially the Exodus and “I AM” — a name Jesus takes).

    I wondered if Taylor was consciously or unconsciously operating with reference to Barth and Schleiermacher. He never says. Better, he goes way back to before either of them and dips into to the early fathers; some of his best support comes from the ancients. It’s great! But I do wish (not a big wish, but a small one) that he would have given us some direction regarding overlap with Barth.

    Before Barth there was Wesley who wrote, “Amazing Love, how can it be, that Thou my God should die for me?” Wesley sounds Barthian! But that has it backwards! I have started to conclude that the theme of Christus Victor — and these discussions about knowing God through Christ — were readily available to the early church, but are partially ignored in a lot of the modern books I read (ignored in favor of Reformational concerns). This may reflect more on my reading than anything.

    I would be curious to hear someone like you — someone with recent studies of Barth at hand — compare John V. Taylor to Barth. Let me know if you ever get a chance to read him.

    Steve