Could Jesus be tempted? Various New Testament authors affirm that Jesus did not sin:
- “… one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15)
- “Can any of you charge Me with sin?” (Jn 8:46)
- “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin…” (2 Cor 5:21)
- “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth” (1 Pet 2:22)
- “You know that He was revealed to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin” (1 Jn 3:5)
Why was Christ tempted? St. Thomas answers, “Christ wished to be tempted that He might strengthen us against temptations” (3a. 41, 1). Jesus’ Incarnation, by which He entered into our experiences, allowed Jesus to model a God-centered way of being human.
Thomas recalls the words of St. Gregory, “That by His temptations, He might conquer our temptations, just as by His death, He overcame our death” (Gregory, On the Gospel, 16).
Jesus’ example inspires us to resist temptation. According to Thomas, Jesus underwent temptation, “…to give us an example, to teach us how to overcome the temptations of the devil” (3a. 41, 1). Thomas refers to Augustine’s words that Christ “allowed Himself to be tempted that He might be our Mediator in overcoming temptations, not only by helping us, but also by giving us an example” (Augustine, On the Trinity, 4).
The fact that Jesus was tempted alerts us that temptations will be part of our experience, even those who are serious about their relationship with God. Thomas informs us, “That we might be warned, so that none, however holy, may think himself safe and free from temptation” (3a. 41, 1).
In fact, those who seek God are especially prone to temptations. Sirach informs us: “When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (Sir 2:1). Thomas finds it significant that Jesus was tempted after He was baptized. Thomas recalls the words of St. Hilary, “The temptations of the devil assail those principally who are sanctified, for he desires above all to overcome the holy” (Hilary, Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, 3).
The temptations themselves may undermine our resistance if we believe that the temptation itself is already a sin or that the temptations implicate us by disclosing our real desires. Jesus’ resistance to temptation shows us the lie in such thinking. The temptation is not our real self. It is a way that we could be but we can resist.
According to Thomas, Jesus’ temptations “fill us with confidence in His mercy.” He finds this assurance in the Letter to the Hebrews: “We do not have a high priest Who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
Did the devils already know that Jesus was the Son of God who could break their power? They may have been confused because He didn’t react to their advances with a show of power, as they might expect: “Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, not by powerful deeds, but rather by suffering from the devil and his members, so as to conquer the devil by righteousness, not by power” (3a. 41, 1, ad 1).
Jesus wouldn’t have been tempted unless He allowed them. As Thomas affirms, the temptations were “by His own will just as by His own free-will He submitted to be killed” (3a. 41, 2).
According to Thomas, Jesus was confronted in the desert because the devil “assails a man when he is alone” (3a. 41, 2). While temptations come from senses, other people and from our environment, the deeper level of temptations is on an interior level, where our underlying adherence to God is at stake.
Jesus’ struggle was a battle between Jesus and Satan, as Thomas notes: “Jesus went into the desert as to a field of battle” (3a. 41, 2).
Thomas cautions us not to “cause oneself to be near sin by avoiding the occasions of sin” (3a. 41, 2, ad 2). In other words, we should be careful of the situations in which we allow ourselves to be.
When temptations do occur, we should not be intimidated by the devil, “since the help of the Holy Spirit… is more powerful than the assault of the envious devil” (3a. 41, 2. ad 2).
Thomas makes a connection between Jesus’ temptations and His fasting: “Jesus teaches us the need of fasting in order to equip ourselves against temptation” (3a. 41, 3).
We might think that various forms of self-denial or works of charity might make us immune to temptation, but Thomas points out, “The devil tempts even those who fast, as likewise those who are given to other good works” (3a. 41, 3).
Although it is just a conjecture, in the heat of a match, perhaps even the most expert athletes experience the urge to pull back and not give their best.
Thomas’ explanation of Christ’s fasting is instructive:
[Christ] … adopted an extreme form of austere life… [in order to show that] no one should take up the office of preacher unless he be already cleansed and perfect in virtue… Immediately after His baptism, Christ adopted an austere form of life in order to teach us the need of taming the flesh before passing on to the office of preaching (3a. 41, 3, ad 3).
Few preachers may be ready to adopt serious fasting, yet some forms of self-discipline can only enhance ministry. Thomas recalls the words of Paul, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps when I have preached to others, I myself should be lost” (1 Cor 9:27).
Thomas sees the temptations in the desert as a prelude to the greater temptation on the Cross: “At the time of the Cross, he seemed to tempt Christ to dejection and hatred of His neighbor, just as in the desert He tempted Him to gluttonous pleasure and idolatrous contempt for God” (3a. 41, 3, ad 3). Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 describe Jesus as feeling abandoned.
According to Thomas, temptation “comes in the form of a suggestion.” These temptations are personally suited to the individual: “a suggestion cannot be made to everybody in the same way. It must arise from those things towards which each man has an inclination” (3a. 41, 4).
Temptations begin with small steps and grow more serious: “The devil does not straight away tempt the spiritual man to grave sins but begins with lighter sins, so as to gradually lead him to sins of greater magnitude” (3a. 41, 4). For instance, the devil craftily led Adam from the desire for fruit to the desire to be “like God.” Thomas observes that temptations lead from one to another.
The devil begins by tempting Jesus with food. According to Thomas, this temptation is not really about satisfying His hunger but “the vanity of an unnecessary miracle,” when He might use natural solutions, either by finding food in the desert, as John the Baptist did, or by requesting food from people living near the desert” (3a. 41, 4, ad 1).
Thomas observes that the second temptation is for vainglory. The devil wanted Jesus to cast His body down, seeking spiritual glory (3a. 41, 4, ad 2). As an aside, Thomas notes that vainglory is “that matter in which spiritual men are sometimes found wanting, inasmuch as they do certain things for show” (3a. 41, 4).
The third temptation is for riches and fame by worshipping something other than God (3a. 41, 4, ad 2).
Thomas is certain that the accounts of Jesus’ temptations are for our encouragement in our struggles.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, which, in this case is the third part, known in Latin as Tertia Pars, followed by the question, which in this case is the 41st question, and then the article. If Thomas is replying to an objection that he raised at the beginning of the article, he adds “ad” or “in reply to” and gives the number of the objection.