100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#95: Can Jesus truly identify with our temptations?

In Hebrews 4 it reads:

For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Jesus can sympathize with our struggles; even our struggles with sin. And because of that, (the verse implies), Jesus has compassion on us and helps us “in time of need”. But how can Jesus really identify with us? He is God, and God doesn’t struggle as we do. How can He?

In Luke 4, Jesus is in the wilderness without food for 40 days. Here the Devil tries to tempt Jesus to sin. The way he does it is very cunning. The first temptation to turn stones into bread is as if to say, “Prove that you are divine.” We would think there should be nothing wrong with this; Jesus took many opportunities to prove His divinity through such signs. But Jesus replies, quoting Scripture, that “Man shall not live by bread alone,” which is an allusion to Deuteronomy 8. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses is explaining the reason why God has put Israel through this trial of wandering in the wilderness. It was so that Israel might learn to rely on God. Jesus is answering the Devil that during His life on Earth, He is relying on God alone. Jesus is not going to use His divine attributes apart from the will of God the Father, but take His entire direction from God the Father. The sense in which it would have been sinful for Jesus to turn the stones into bread is that He would have done it apart from the will and purpose of God the Father. In John 5, Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).

The second temptation was that the Devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, if He would only worship him, the Devil. Jesus replies, again quoting Scripture, that man should worship God alone. Again, Jesus puts Himself in the position, or perspective, of man. As God, all the kingdoms of the world ultimately belong to Him anyway. But it’s at some future time, the Bible teaches, we will see the Kingdom of God in its fullness. What the Devil is offering falls short of that. There is a temptation here for Jesus to settle for less by doing things "the easy way". That is, by avoiding the suffering of the cross. If Jesus had sinned, He could not have atoned for our sins on the cross, and we would all be condemned. Later in Luke, the night before He is crucified, we see just how tempting this must have been have been for Jesus. In the garden of Gesthemene, Jesus was in mental anguish and prayed "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." (Luke 22:42). While He was praying, the Bible says that He sweat drops of blood. This is how distressed Jesus was over what was about to happen to Him. We are offered an “inheritance” in the kingdom of God if we remain faithful to God. Like Jesus, we need to obtain that inheritance the “legitimate” way, or “God’s way”.

Finally, the Devil tempts Jesus by telling Him to throw Himself off the temple, and to “trust God” to save His life. But Jesus quoted the Scripture “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” This Scripture citation is from Deuteronomy 6:16, which also alludes to Exodus 17. There it speaks of a time when Israel tested God by saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” We saw how Jesus was distressed about going to the cross, and how He prayed that He would nevertheless do it because it was the Father’s will. At the cross, many called out (according to Luke 23:35) “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” These people are essentially saying also, “Is the Lord among us or not?” But Jesus did the Father’s will rather than ask for deliverance from painful death.

So if we stand back and consider the temptations of Christ, we learn that Jesus’ life was all about doing God’s will above all else, even when it means suffering, or forsaking certain opportunities, or perhaps going hungry. He is our example. He was tempted to satisfy His biological needs (His need for bread) outside of God’s will. When He was offered the kingdoms of the world, we might say that He was tempted to satisfy all manner of human desires for power and wealth, outside of God’s will. But there was also a spiritual need that all people have, which He could have satisfied in worshiping the Devil. But this too was outside of God’s will. And He could have satisfied that need for “self-preservation” outside of God’s will. So when Hebrews says that Jesus was tempted “in every respect”, we can begin to see how this was so. It’s not merely temptation to sin, but it’s ultimately about going through the trials of life... going hungry, suffering pain, suffering the conflict of our desires. The Bible says that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). What really counts is that Jesus knows what it’s like to be human, and to have this conflict between God’s will and our own will. This conflict between wills is really what is behind all of our trials and temptations.

Perhaps it’s not so easy to understand, but Jesus could not have become something other than a man to die for us. He became a man so that He could die; but it had to be a man so that He could be the perfect man that we are not; doing God’s will in spite of our humanity. The fact that Jesus could not have failed at this is a point that we might make too much of. It’s not really the point at all. To borrow from C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, Lewis says “If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) "No, it's not fair! You have an advantage! You're keeping one foot on the bank"? That advantage—call it "unfair" if you like—is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” Looking back to that Hebrews passage, this is really the very point of it...

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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

He was tempted, but was “yet without sin”. Like the man with the foot on the bank of the river, He is of help to us precisely because He did not fail and give in to temptation.

Until tomorrow...

Then I said, Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book. (Hebrews 10:7)

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