In our affluent modern Western context, Christians and non-Christians alike appeal to the example of Jesus in the process of making various moral decisions. Our ethical questions regarding quagmires ranging from finances, to sexuality, to national policy are often met with the refrain “what would Jesus do?” The assumptions underlying this question are twofold: First, Jesus would do something, that is, he would have an answer to our conundrums. Second, that that something he would do is knowable if only we looked to his example in the Gospels.
The question “what would Jesus do?” thus represents a particularly comprehensive way of understanding Jesus’ example. Such a view finds full expression in Hebrews 4:15 where we learn Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are but without sin.” Accordingly, just as Jesus’ experience of temptation is understood to be exhaustive rather than limited, so are the potential applications of his example. Jesus can truly be all things to all people.
Yet this universalizing view of Jesus’ example, despite its ubiquity in our culture, appears to fundamentally misunderstand what his example actually was to the first Christians who knew it and conformed to it. To them, Jesus’ example was constrained by specific historical circumstances, circumstances into which the early churches flew headlong in pursuit of their master. Because of these historical contingencies, Jesus’ example was not immediately flattened out into “do good and not evil” as it often is in our context.
So in this article I want to flesh out a more primitive definition of Jesus’ temptation and tried-and-true example. Such a definition will undoubtedly be far more restrictive (and far more eschatological) than the one in use today.
Conforming to the image and mind of Christ
On many occasions Paul appeals to the “image” and “mind” of Christ in order to both direct his followers behavior and to explain what it means to emulate Jesus. For most readers today, these metaphors are understood in all-encompassing terms: believers are commanded to imitate the example of Jesus in every facet of their lives. According to this reasoning, there is a Christ-like way grow your business, a Christ-like way to engage (or not engage) in war, a Christ-like way to fight injustice, etc. One need only extract the timeless principles encoded in the Gospel records.
Upon closer inspection, however, the “image” and “mind” of Christ in Paul’s thought are more specific than this. They refer to Jesus’ willingness to suffer at the hands of evildoers for the sake of an eschatological hope. I draw this out below.
- In Romans 8:18-38 Christians conform to “the image of [God’s] son” by persevering through the “sufferings of the present time” (8:18) whether “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (8:35). For Paul, all of these afflictions represent the age-ending tribulations subjected to believers by angels, rulers, and powers, all those who resist God by dominating the present order (8:36-39). In Paul’s view, such suffering is as nothing in comparison to the glory that is at hand.
- In a similar passage, Paul says believers are being transformed into the image of the Lord as they are afflicted, persecuted, perplexed, and struck down, as they carry “in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor 3:18-4:11). The image of the Lord is thus Christ’s commitment to his ministry of reconciliation under duress. Through the prophetic Christ-like work of his persecuted messengers (2 Cor 6:1-10), God is reconciling the world to himself so that some among the nations may stand on the day of judgement.
- The mind of Christ to be embraced by believers also fits into Paul’s eschatological narrative about faithful suffering and vindication. The “mind of Christ” is the conviction that through obedient suffering at the hands of perishing pagan powers (cf. 1 Cor 2:6-8) God’s rule will be unexpectedly established over the nations. Having been persecuted and exalted in advance (Philippians 2:5-11), Jesus is the pioneer of this eschatological faith. Paul expects his followers to emulate Christ’s hopeful voluntary self-abasement in their suffering for one another during these difficult times under pagan domination (Romans 15:1-12).
As far as we can tell from Paul’s letters then, Christians conformed to the image and mind of the Christ in as much as they suffered for their eschatological message faithfully at the hands of the current order. It was not centrally the personal temptations of daily life that molded the first Christians into the image of Christ, but rather the socio-political pressures incumbent upon those bearing a subversive prophetic message within a hostile pagan empire.
The temptation of Christ
Along with the passion accounts and Paul’s recapitulation of them in his theology of Christ’s “image” and “mind,” the records of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness undoubtedly edified early Christians in their own periods of temptation. These Temptation passages were preserved precisely because they helped early Christians explain their own experiences in the world. Believers saw their own temptations reflected in Jesus’. We can therefore ask of these passages our central question: In what contexts did early Christians appeal to the example of Jesus?
What we find is that the Temptation accounts assume the historically-contingent eschatological narrative of persecution and vindication evident in Paul. Christ exhibits in the wilderness not a refusal to commit sin in a general sense, but a refusal to submit to the old pagan order.
- The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
- Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
- Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
- The Devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread in order to curb his hunger. By quoting Deuteronomy 8 Jesus invokes the stories in which Israel complains in the desert for food. In both Biblical accounts of the event, Exodus 16 and Numbers 11, the Israelites long to return to Egypt for the sake of their stomachs, and effectively abandon their hope of the Promised Land (Ex 16:2-3, Num 11:4-6).
- The early churches, beset by hunger and want as a result of marginalization, stood in a similar social location. Would they too give up their confession in order fill their bellies and thus end their exile at the margins of pagan society (cf. Hebrews 12:16)? Or would they be satisfied with the promise of impending salvation that comes from the mouth of God?
- The Devil next invites Jesus to put God to the test by jumping off the Temple. Jesus again interprets the Devil’s offer through the lens of Israel’s time in the wilderness. Putting God to the test on account of their thirst, the Israelites had desired to return to Egypt and questioned whether “the Lord is with us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7, Numbers 20:1-13).
- Would the early churches trust God’s eschatological promises despite the hardships that arose on account of their confession? Or in their thirst would they question God’s presence and power? Would they be too destroyed in the wilderness for unbelief like their spiritual forefathers (cf. Hebrews 3)?
- Of the three temptations the last most clearly illuminates the eschatological narrative at work. The Devil, we find, exercises mastery over the kingdoms of the world. Yet he is willing to hand over their administration to Jesus if only Jesus worships Satan instead of God. In response, Jesus invokes the Exodus story for the third and final time by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:10-15. According to this text, Israel’s existence, both in the wilderness and in the Promised Land, was dependent upon the people’s exclusive service of YHWH. If they instead went after other gods and idols, they would be destroyed and removed from their land.
- With this last temptation, it becomes apparent what is going on. Satan, the lord of the pagan nations (cf. Revelation 2:13), is offering Jesus, and Jesus’ churches, immediate painless access to life in the eschatological Promised Land, that is, “authority over the kingdoms.” If only they break their confession and yoke themselves again to the pagan gods like Israel did before them (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-22), they too will have abundance, acceptance, and authority. All that the churches must do to forego their tribulations is reaffirm the indelible power of the pagan social order. All they must do is return to Egypt.
In this way the wilderness temptation accounts reveal the stakes at play not only in Jesus’ trial but in the countless trials of other Christians. Will the churches hold to their eschatological confession about God’s coming judgement of the world even if it means some will die? Or will they become doubtful under the social and political pressure, dissolving back into the idolatrous and sexually immoral power structures that be?
The Temptations of Christ in the wilderness should therefore not be taken as generalized examples of Jesus’ victory over the lures of personal sin. They are rather temptations specific to the early church as she wandered through a hostile unforgiving wilderness on the way to the age to come, an age in which God through Christ rather than “the god of this world” through idolatry would rule the nations. From within their wilderness, that is, their place of social and political disrepute, the churches refused to turn back and abandon their eschatological confession that the idolatrous kingdom would soon give way to God’s reign over the nations.
Tempted in every way?
What happens when we take all of this to bear on Hebrews 4:15? Was Jesus really tempted in all the ways a human being might be? The answer, I think, is No.
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For 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. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The matter at hand in these verses and throughout the letter to the Hebrews I would argue is not sinful behavior in general, but apostasy solicited by an imperial sword, temptation brought upon by suffering (cf. Hebrews 2:18). Christians are to stand firm in their confession about God’s coming judgement and kingdom (cf. Hebrews 12:18-24) because Christ himself endured every opposition from sinners who urged him to deny his confession—his kingship, the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:1-3). He was threatened, maligned, deprived, abused, stripped, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately executed. Under these conditions he committed no sin (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-23, Isaiah 53:7-9). Under these conditions he provides the ultimate example for Christians awaiting the end of the age in a present evil age.