Was Jesus Tempted To Commit Murder?
We should start with an exegetical point, which is that there is another occasion in Hebrews in which the phrase “in every way” is used, and it can help us make sense of this one. Jesus was tempted kata panta (4:15); he was made like his brothers kata panta (2:17). The point the writer is making is that Jesus is fully able to understand our predicament, and therefore fully able to represent us as a priest and mediator; he is not saying that Jesus is identical with us (height, weight, appearance, ethnicity, parentage, sinfulness), or that he has experienced identical temptations to every one of us. If we were to press the language in chapter 4 to mean that his temptations were identical to ours, we would by the same token have to press the language in chapter 2 to mean that his resemblance was identical to ours. Since we don’t (rightly), we are already admitting that there is some difference here.
But what is the nature of that difference? At least three possible explanations exist, and it is worth thinking about which one is (or which ones are) correct.
Intuitively, many of us default to thinking that Jesus is tempted in the exact ways we are, but not in the ways that other, more obviously depraved, people are. Jesus was tempted to pride, lust, anger, envy and greed, because we are; he was not tempted towards child abuse, murder, rape, incest and genocide, because we are not. I imagine that few of us would try and defend this logically, for the obvious reason that it takes our personal experience (which is not shared by all Christians by any stretch of the imagination) as the basis for our Christology. But I also imagine that many of us operate with something rather like it when we reflect on this particular text. If we wrestle with X, we are inclined to think that Jesus did too. If we don’t, we assume that he didn’t. This, I suggest, cannot be the distinction that Hebrews had in mind, or the one that we should use in understanding him.
A different way of thinking about it is to distinguish between temptations which arise from within the person, and temptations which arise from without. Temptations which arise from within are a result of original sin, and this cannot be said of Jesus, since he was tempted “yet without sin.” However, temptations which arise from without, from external causes or agents (most obviously the devil in Matthew 4), clearly were experienced—and successfully resisted!—by Jesus in his humanity. This is the distinction proposed by John Owen, to take one example: “Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” Herman Bavinck puts it more pithily: “Real temptation could not come to Jesus from within, but only from without.”
A third way, which overlaps with the second but is framed differently, focuses on the distinction between creational appetites and fallen appetites. Jesus’s temptation to turn stones into bread, for example, is based on a creational appetite, and a desire which is fundamentally good for human beings, namely the desire for food. So is the desire for dominion in the third temptation (see Gen 1:27), and (more controversially) the sexual desire to be fruitful and multiply. But many temptations are not based on human goods at all. They do not result from creation, but from the fall. So a fallen appetite, we could say, is the desire for something which nobody would ever have wanted before sin entered the world: the desire to kill another person, molest a child, or whatever. These sorts of temptations, we may say with confidence, were not experienced by Jesus.
I am deliberately avoiding the specific controversy that sparked these thoughts, because I think there has been misunderstanding on all sides, and because the debate quickly becomes about something else. (If you know, you know.) But as I see it, we can be helped by both the second and third ways of differentiating between the temptations Jesus experienced and the temptations he didn’t—and we should be careful to avoid the first way. May we continue to be strengthened in the fight against sin by our fully human and fully divine, tempted-as-we-are yet utterly sinless, Saviour Jesus Christ. (For more on the pastoral implications here, this brief Q&A with John Piper is excellent.)