Serious Question: Did Jesus Ever Sin?
Most Christians’ first reaction to this question is to answer with a resounding “Of course not!” After all, he was the Son of God; he had to be blameless in order to be the perfect sacrifice…right?
But what if we consider Jesus crucifixion and resurrection differently? Many today believe Jesus died because of the sins of humanity, but not necessarily as a sacrificial substitute for our sins. But regardless of your beliefs about atonement, what about the fact that Jesus was tempted in the desert after his baptism? And it seems that the Gospels indicate he lived the life fully as any man, with all the same temptations. And then if we consider the text from Matthew 5:28 that says anyone who lusts in their heart has already committed adultery…so how (if at all) is lusting in one’s heart different than being tempted?
I decided to put this question to my panel of expert respondents in book two of my “Banned Questions” series, “Banned Questions About Jesus.”
After Jesus’ baptism, he is tempted in the desert several times. How is this different than when he teaches in Matthew 5:28 that “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”? Aren’t these basically the same thing?
Becky Garrison: In the desert, Satan tried to get Jesus to follow him by appealing to his physical humanity by offering him bread. When that failed, he tried to force Jesus to perform a miracle as though he was some trained devotional doggie who could use the power given to him by God at will. After Jesus blew him off, Satan tried unsuccessfully to lure him in by promising a kingdom here on earth. While these three options must have been mighty tempting, Jesus didn’t let these temptations enter his heart and influence his thinking.
Compare that to a man who might claim he’s not sinning because he’s not doing the dirty deed. But his mind is corrupted because he keeps thinking about doing the dirty deed with another dude’s lady. While someone in a relationship might not be having an actual affair by sending steamy emails, flirting on Facebook and posting titillating tweets to another party, they’ve definitely crossed into that gray area where commandments might not be actually broken, but boundaries were definitely crossed.
Phil Snider: In the highly controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus imagines what life might be like if he chose a path that didn’t lead to the cross but instead to a comfortable family life. This is similar to the temptation that many people still face today. While such temptations aren’t necessarily relegated to the choice of dying on a cross or raising a family, the basic idea still remains; certain risks are involved when one chooses to follow the call that God places on one’s life, and most of us tend to prefer a more comfortable life instead. The temptations that Jesus faced in the desert serve as an overture to Jesus’ entire ministry, for they symbolically emphasize the ways that he – in contrast to most of us – refused a comfortable life in order to be faithful to his calling, no matter the consequence.
This is very different from what takes place in Matthew 5:28. In this passage, Jesus is highlighting the dignity of women, implying that they should be treated as human beings and not mere objects. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 – combined with several of his other teachings – provocatively challenge the customs and laws of the times, so much so that religious and political authorities wanted to take action in order to get rid of him. Yet he refused to give in, no matter the consequence. So you might say that the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert is connected to Matthew 5:28, but not in the way this question implies.
Joan Ball: When tempting Jesus in the desert, Satan went out of his way to create scenarios that would distract and confuse. This was an active and malevolent effort on the part of Satan meant to sideline Jesus and insult the Father. Jesus faced each challenge prayerfully, intelligently and with self-control and, as a result, Satan was foiled.
For the second scenario to be the same this generic woman in Matthew must be cast in the role of malicious “temptress” (aka Satan) and the man’s inability to seek God, engage the Spirit and grow in self-control as Jesus did (i.e. not look at the woman lustfully) must be ignored. I’m not buying it. God is bigger than the male libido.
Lee C. Camp: Though it is often assumed that Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness entailed a period of intense testing with the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eye, and the vain-glorious pride of life,” numerous New Testament scholars these days believe that the temptation in the wilderness was concerned with what sort of Messiah Jesus was going to be.
Nonetheless, it seems a fair and important question to ask the difference between a “temptation” and a “lustful thought”? If a man looks at a woman and thinks a lustful thought, has he as much as committed adultery? But perhaps a more helpful question is to ask this: what is the function or purpose of the Sermon on the Mount? Therein Jesus provides a description of a way of life oriented toward the Kingdom of Heaven. What does it look like to live life in the Kingdom of Heaven that has come among us, that has invaded human history?
The beatitudes announce, for example, that the presence of the kingdom entails comfort to the oppressed and the poor and the persecuted faithful. Then the six “antitheses” (“you have heard it said, but I say…”) announce certain skills or practices that characterize life in the Kingdom: reconciliation with estranged parties, rooting out any form of objectification or lust, chastity and preservation of marriage vows, speaking the truth without obfuscation, overcoming evil with good, and doing good to one’s enemies. These are holistic, lifestyle and community-embraced practices, not merely new legalistic rules.
One last note: as Martin Luther, I think it was, once said with regard to temptation and tempting thoughts: we cannot control what birds fly over our heads. We can only control whether they build nests in our hair.