Was it Possible for Jesus to Sin?
August 23, 2012 34 Comments
The comments on the Entitlement post turned into a discussion on whether or not it was possible for Jesus to sin. I thought it would make a good topic to put out there and see what others thought about it. There are four key passages of scripture that I think help inform this discussion.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are —yet was without sin.”
Here is what F.F. Bruce says in his commentary on Hebrews regarding 4:15,
“Christians have in heaven a high priest with an unequaled capacity for sympathizing with them in all dangers and sorrows and trials which come their way in life, because he himself, by virtue of his likeness to them, was exposed to all these experiences. Yet he endured triumphantly every form of testing that mankind could endure, without any weakening of his faith in God or any relaxation of his obedience to him. Such endurance involves more, not less than ordinary human suffering: ‘sympathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the experience of sin but on the experience of the strength of the temptation to sin which only the sinless can know in its full intensity…The phrase ‘free from sin’ does not mean that our Lord experienced every kind of human temptation except temptation to sin; like the Israelites in the Moses’ day, he too had his day of trial in the wilderness, and any compromise with the tempter’s suggestions, any inclination to put God to the test, would have been as certainly sin as his refusal to countenance these suggestions or abate one iota of his confidence in his Father meant spiritual victory–victory for himself and also for his people.” (NICNT, 116)
Bruce connects Hebrews 4 & Matthew 4 and says not only was Jesus tempted to sin but that he had to feel the fullest intensity of temptation that can be felt because he, unlike us, held out in all temptations to victory. Where we fail part way through each temptation we succumb to, Christ continued on through each temptation to victory.
Buchanan, in his Anchor Bible Commentary on Hebrews takes the word for tempted in Hebrews 4:15 (peirazein) and says it has more to do with being put to the test. That is definitely a possibility in translating that word. He believes this verse has more to do with Jesus’ physical suffering on the cross than it has to do with temptation to sin. This might fit the historical context of Hebrews better because we know these guys were being tested for their faith and could face physical punishment and even death for being Christians. Maybe the Hebrew writer is comparing the testing of Christ and the punishments he endured (and subsequent victory over them) with the testing of these Christians in a pagan Roman society that was hostile to their faith. If that is what the Hebrew writer meant, it certainly wouldn’t imply that Jesus couldn’t be tempted to sin…it would just mean this may not be the verse to use to make that point. What do you guys think?
The reservation I have with this interpretation is that Hebrews 4:15 is talking about sin, “yet was without sin” so it is not that we are inserting the sin idea into this text. It is already there. The reason for all the sin talk is because the Hebrew writer is talking about Jesus being our faithful high priest and how his sinlessness gives him eternal access to the Father on our behalf.
Another verse to consider is Hebrews 2:17-18, “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
These two verses also link Jesus being tempted/tested with sin and the forgiveness of sin. It also describes the humanity of Jesus and the necessity of Jesus’ full humanity in order to make atonement for those he had been made like. Can Jesus be fully human without having sin be a possibility? Also, if these writers are talking about “testing” rather than being tempted to sin as Buchanan believes and as was mentioned in the comments of the previous post, what are they being tested for? I would assume the testing is to see if they are going to be obedient to God. If that is the case isn’t sin the result of disobedience?
Matthew 4:1-11 & Deuteronomy 8:2-3
Matthew 4:1-11 is the temptation of Christ. After his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness where he fasts 40 days and is tempted by Satan. Does it make any sense for the devil to tempt Jesus except that Jesus has the option to choose to sin? What is more, the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11 runs parallel to the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews (Deut 8:2-3 specifically). Deut 8:2-3 says this, “2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Notice all the parallels. These passages are connected by Jesus himself. These are the verses Jesus quotes when Satan tempts him to turn a stone into bread. Secondly, there are all kinds of echoes of the exodus wilderness experience. Both Jesus and the Hebrews went through the water to be sent into the desert for a time of testing (40 years & 40 days). Deuteronomy tells us the purpose of the testing was to see what was in their hearts and whether or not they would be obedient. If this really is a parallel scenario of Jesus being representative of Israel coming through the Red Sea into the wilderness only this time it is done perfectly, it would seem to me the purpose of the testing/temptation of Jesus would be the same as the purpose for the Hebrews in the wilderness and Moses tells us explicitly that it was all about seeing if they would obey God’s commandments or if they would sin. Here is the key question – why would God test Jesus’ obedience if Jesus could only choose the righteous option every time and had no ability to sin? That doesn’t make any sense. It turns the whole thing into a game and a mockery.
A third possibility:
Another possibility that some have taken is to differentiate between Jesus natural/human ability to sin based on his fleshly desires and his moral ability to sin. This is the he is able but not able take on this topic. Read more on this view here. His body is able but his will is not. I have a hard time with this one because I don’t see a logical path through having it both ways. If he isn’t able for any reason at all, then he isn’t able.
Have you guys thought much about this? How do you put it all together?