A study group I’ve been meeting with has been asked to memorize Hebrews 4:14-16, and it’s dug up an old, nagging irritation for me. The writer of Hebrews states that our High Priest, Jesus, “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” I’ll come right to the point: at least as that sentence reads in English, I cannot accept it as true (please read to the end of this post before freaking!).
I accept the teaching of scripture that Jesus lived a sinless life. There are many witnesses to back up this claim, and frankly no serious evidence to challenge it. But I am unable to reconcile the notion of a sinless life with the Hebrew writer’s claim that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are. There are too many ways in which “missing the mark” (ἁμαρτία, “hamartia”) in one area is simply not a temptation unless one has well and truly screwed it up in a related way already. No one can be tempted to theft, who is not already guilty of covetousness. No one is tempted to adultery or sexual misconduct, who is not already guilty of lust.
One might attempt to parse the desire from the deed, and say that only the latter is sin. To do so would be downright comforting, and frankly, to some extent I think most of us believe it (and those who don’t, are likely burdened with massive guilt or depression). Unfortunately, Jesus himself demolished this particular rationale pretty decisively in Matt. 5:27-28. And if looking lustfully at a woman not one’s wife is adultery, then the vast majority of straight men I’ve ever known, are adulterers (I do not therefore suggest we should just give up and do the deed). And if, by his own definition, Jesus wasn’t guilty of mental adultery, than he certainly wasn’t tempted in all respects as we ordinary males are.
OK, so what do we do with this apparent contradiction? I see three possibilities:
1) The writer of Hebrews may be wrong. The notion of Jesus’ sinlessness is indispensable to a substionary atonement doctrine, but it’s also pretty important in any understanding of the incarnation. But the idea that he was tempted just as we, though it could be a comfort, is not so central. Maybe in his quest for an appropriate simile the Hebrew author went overboard and misrepresented Jesus’ earthly experience.
2) The Hebrew writer could be right, with the proviso that he was talking about Jesus’ actions, not what might have gone on in his head–that is, for example, Jesus may have gotten an eyeful of a pretty girl as much as any guy, but never given in to that temptation by making an advance (or worse) on her. This is more palatable, for sure, but in order to swallow this interpretation, we are then stuck with Jesus’ own statements referenced above. Although Jesus’ standard is the harder one to handle, it IS the words of Jesus over against those of the author of Hebrews, and if I have to choose which to accept, Jesus’ own words have to take precedence.
Either of these two options slam squarely into the notion of Biblical inspiration. Readers of this blog already know I do not accept a flat-book dogma of verbal inspiration, but many Christians hold this teaching dear. Is this one of those cases where God deliberately put a paradox in place to test whether we’d trust him over the brains he gave us? (for the record, I don’t believe God plays this sort of “belief trick,” but some folks seem to give the idea credence–think young-earth creation vs. the fossil record).
3) There is, of course, a third option. We could take a look at what “temptation” actually means. The usual working definition of “enticement or desire to sin” may be our real problem here, and actually, I think this is the case. According to Young’s Analytical Concordance, the original word here (πειράζω, peirazw) occurs in some form about 38 times in the New Testament. Twenty-eight of those times it’s translated “tempt” or “temptation” in the King James version (I don’t have statistics for other versions), but in several others it’s translated something like “test” or “prove.” It’s actually easier to understand if we think of the old English metallurgist’s concept of “trying” an ore; that is, applying heat to it in order to see how much gold comes out. This idea of “trying” can be described as applying difficulty in order to reveal the content, or character, or purity of a substance. It’s no leap of logic to go from assaying an ore (“assay” is another way peirazw can be translated), to assaying human character, and in fact that’s what is often meant.
For example, the same word peirazw is used in John 6:6, where Jesus suggested to Phillip that he procure bread to feed the five thousand. John tells us he did this to “try” Phillip…Jesus already knew what he intended to do. 2 Corinthians 13:5 is another example, where Paul exhorts believers to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” The word translated “examine” is the same word as the one in Hebrews 4! I hope no one thinks Paul is suggesting that it’s healthy to put ourselves in a position where we could be induced to sin, just to see how strong our faith is!
To wrap it up, then, the Hebrew writer is not suggesting that Jesus had the same problems of temptation humans wrestle with to varying degrees. What he is saying is that Jesus understands the tests and discouragements of life, because he went through them too. This is why the first half of the same verse states that we “…do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (NRSV).” Change “without sin” to “without failing the test” and we’re probably closer to the actual meaning of the text. Or as my Mom put it last year, “he didn’t flunk!”
This, of course, fits nicely with Philippians 2:5-11. It was because Jesus remained faithful–obedient–to death, that God has highly exalted him. The glory follows the passing of the test…and that’s why he’s now our High Priest. This, I have no trouble believing.