What Does the Bible Mean by Temptation?

Copyright 1990 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
  1. God cannot be tempted (James 1:13).
  2. God can be tempted (or there would be no reason for us to be warned against tempting God -- Deuteronomy 6:16).
  3. If God cannot be tempted (see 1 above), and Jesus is God, then does that mean he cannot be tempted? (James 1:13)
  4. But Jesus was tempted (Hebrews 4:15).
  5. God tempts no one (James 1:13).
  6. God tempted someone (David, to number Israel -- 2 Samuel 24:1).
How are these biblical statements reconciled, both within scripture and consistent with God's character?

The answers to these statements can be categorized in two major ways: vocabulary (what words were used in the original, and what meanings those words have), and context (how the words were used in each passage).

Vocabulary

Temptation has many synonyms (equivalent words) in English. It can mean (among other things) test, proof, experiment, trial, and enticement. The main Greek (New Testament language) words for temptation are formed from peiraz and dokimaz , both words of which also occur in the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The main Hebrew words are n sh, s rap, and b han, and one word which relates primarily to the genuineness of coins, sig. Comparing the Septuagint equivalents to the original Hebrew helps us understand the overall biblical use of the terms.

[Those who wish more information on the Greek or Hebrew should see The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Vol. 3), Colin Brown, ed., Zondervan, 1978, pp. 798-810; or The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Lawrence O. Richards, Zondervan, 1985, pp. 593-594.]

Both peiraz and dokimaz can mean test or proof. In addition, peiraz includes the ideas of temptation or enticement (to sin) and of a trial. Dokimaz also carries the connotation of approval or genuineness.

From this vocabulary study, we see that "temptation" can mean test, proof, or to establish genuineness; not only "enticement to sin."

Context

Armed with our vocabulary study, we can look at the context of each of our six statements.

God Cannot Be Tempted

James 1:13 says, "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone." Looking at the context, we see that the statement is not merely "God cannot be tempted," but "God cannot be tempted by evil." In other words, God cannot be enticed to sin (Greek apeir st s). James 1:13 affirms that God cannot sin, but is completely holy and good.

God Can Be Tempted

When Deuteronomy 6:16 warns us against "tempting God," the context refers on the one hand to testing the Israelites' faithfulness and, on the other hand, to testing God's righteous judgment. Paraphrased, the passage means, "Don't test God's righteous judgment by worship-ping idols unless you are willing to be wiped off the face of the earth" (v. 15).

The reconciliation of the two statements? God cannot be enticed to sin; he is holy and good. God's consistent, holy, good reaction to idolatry is righteous judgment. One should not "test" God's character by sinning, since God will "pass the test" of righteousness and punish the sinner (see also Jeremiah 18:7-10).

Can Jesus Be God and Be Tempted?

Jesus is God and so he cannot be tempted in the sense that he cannot be enticed to sin, but he can be tempted in the sense that he can be tested, even with the evil lures of Satan (Matthew 4), and found to be true to his character. This is the context of Hebrews 4:15, which says, "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted (peiraz ) in all things as we are, yet without sin."

Jesus was tested by Satan's enticements concerning his obedience to the Father and his commitment to his messianic mission, yet he did not succumb to the temptation. (A related issue concerns the dynamics between Christ's human and divine natures, under the subjection of his one divine person. See The Impeccable Christ by W. E. Best, Zondervan, 1971).

Does God Tempt People?

Look again at James 1:13. Just as God cannot be enticed into sinning, so God does not entice anyone else into sinning. That is what is meant by "and He Himself does not tempt anyone." James warns us not to blame our own fall into sin on God. God does not persuade us to sin, we willingly fall to the lure of our own sinful nature (Romans 3:23), the sinfulness in the world (Titus 2:12), and/or the false promises of Satan (Genesis 3:1-5).

When 2 Samuel 24:1 says God provoked or tempted David to number Israel, it means God made use of David's action to manifest David's disobedience to God. The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 27:23-24 credits Satan with provoking David to take the census. Putting the two passages together shows that, while Satan may have enticed David into sin, it was God who tested David and used that occasion to show both David and the Israelites the consequences of David's sin.

God tests us to reveal to ourselves and the world our true characters.

God has always tested each order of rational beings that He has created. This test has consisted of proof of perfect trust and obedience. A test in itself is not a cause of sin. Only the action of the one tested can turn it into an occasion to sin. . . . Adam and Eve faced a test of obedience, and disobeyed and fell. Christ, in order to redeem men, faced testing, and came out victorious (Hebrews 5:7-9) (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, and John Rea, eds., Moody, 1975, p. 1680).

Summary

There are various meanings for the word temptation. Usually it means either an enticement to sin or a test or trial. God never entices anyone to sin, but uses testing to reveal his justice and challenge believers to faithfulness (2 Corinthians 13:5-8).



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The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26