By: James Michael Castleton, MD | August 30, 2017
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In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis reflects on the ingratitude and ungraciousness expressed by some toward the temptation and sufferings of Christ. These complain that “… if Jesus was God as well as man, then His sufferings and death lose all value … ‘because it must have been so easy for Him’”. Lewis admits that “the perfect submission, the perfect suffering, the perfect death were not only easier to Jesus because He was God, but were possible only because He was God.”
Is this so?
Here I find I must respectfully disagree with one of my intellectual and literary heroes in the faith.
Far from experiencing the absence of temptation, Scripture corroborates that the magnitude of Jesus’ trial was, if anything, excruciating, rather than “easy”. Moreover, it was the fact that Jesus triumphed in the Garden—as a man— which informs how we should approach and surmount temptation.
It is tempting to think that Jesus “breezed” through trial because He brought God-like resources to bear on temptation. Yet this breezy assumption misunderstands several crucial characteristics of His incarnation and the fundamental prerequisites of His post-resurrection heavenly ministry.
In His incarnation, Jesus was God, and He was man, but He was not in a critical sense God in man. He possessed two natures which, though inseparable in His person, remained entirely distinct in their essences. There was no confusion between and therefore no mingling of His divine and human natures.i What this means—and this is crucial to understand if we are to appreciate the ultimate source of His strength—is that when faced with temptation, Jesus’ divine nature could not help His human one. That is, His divinity could not strengthen His humanity.
In taking on flesh Jesus, the man, confronted all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities common to humanity and was like every other person who has ever faced temptation, both in His liabilities and in His resources. The human Jesus was just as weak as we are, which means that we can be just as strong as He was—if we understand how and are willing to follow His example.
To fulfill the prerequisites of His post-resurrection ministry, it was of the utmost importance that Jesus’ confront His temptation as a man, and only as a man. For if Jesus were to become a “high priest” who could “sympathize with our weaknesses”, He must experience all our weaknesses and then do so as we do.
Consequently, it was necessary in His incarnation that Jesus be “made like His brethren in all things” (Hebrews 2:17) so that He would be “tempted in all things as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). Moreover, only if Jesus were Himself “tempted in that which He has suffered” would He be able in mercy, “to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
In other words, Jesus had to share all the attributes we do as human beings, so He could experience all the temptations we do in being human. In addition, Jesus had to experience the suffering of temptation in precisely the same fashion we do if He were to become our faithful and sympathetic high priest. Both reasons entailed His suffering as a man, and not as God.
How, then, did Jesus, the man, overcome temptation?
Before we will take to heart the imperative contained in Jesus’ triumph, we must perceive the true extent of His temptation and accurately grasp the intensity of His trial.
During His temptation and trial in the Garden, Scripture tells us that Jesus was “grieved … to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38). This is the God of truth speaking so we must not think of this description as hyperbole. If it were possible to be annihilated by a trial, we are forced to acknowledge that at the start of this one, Jesus, in His humanity, was on the verge of spiritual exhaustion.
Jesus was painfully aware of the poverty of His human resources. Recognizing the weakness and vulnerability of His humanity, Jesus understood that He could not overcome temptation by means of His human strength alone without risking spiritual failure and catastrophe.
This moment and Jesus obedience was the fulcrum on which the history of all eternity would pivot: the atonement. Without it, there would be none saved.
Could the stakes have been any higher? Could the personal cost to Jesus have been any greater? Could the temptation have been any larger?
So, to borrow a phrase: what did Jesus do to overcome temptation?
We’ll look at this in our next post.
i Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 8.2.
About the Author
James Michael Castleton, MD is an award-winning physician who received his training and education in medicine and behavioral science at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Oxford University. He is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology and National Heart Institute and a master physician and laureate of the American Board of Cardiology. He currently resides and practices in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
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