Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.
Therefore the people contended with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water, that we may drink.’ So Moses said to them, ‘Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the LORD?’
Doesn’t the James passage indicate that God cannot be tempted, but then the Exodus passage indicates the opposite? Which is correct?
Additionally, Deuteronomy 6:16 instructs the Israelites to be careful that they do not tempt the Lord, and Malachi 3:15 refers to the wicked who tempt God with their evil lifestyles. Jesus even quoted the Old Testament Scriptures when He warned others not to tempt the Lord (e.g., Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12).
Making Sense of It
Today we use the term “tempt” fairly specifically to mean to “solicit to do evil.” The term has not always been quite so narrowly interpreted, however. In the Bible the term carries that idea at times, but at other times it means to “put to the test.” The context helps to determine how it is being used.
In the James passage, the writer clearly states, “God cannot be tempted by evil…” (emphasis added). That phrase, “by evil,” is important, because it highlights the point that James was trying to make. This clearly indicates that God cannot be enticed to commit evil.
In the other passages above that referred to tempting God, the writers were using the term to mean that we must not put God to the test. Here is the line of reasoning:
- God has said He will judge sin.
- When we sin, we are putting God to the test to see if He will respond to our sin by doing what He has said He will do.
- We must not “test” the extent of God’s grace but must, instead, obey what He has told us to do.
Now, along with this question of whether or not God can be tempted, another potential dilemma arises that is often stated like this:
- James 1:13 tells us that God cannot be tempted by evil.
- According to Luke 4/Matthew 4, Jesus was tempted by evil.
- Jesus was not God. (Or else this is a contradiction.)
There are two keys to understanding this mystery:
Key 1: The Hypostatic Union of the Dual Natures of Christ
That’s a pretty fancy way of saying that Jesus was fully man and fully God at the same time. Jesus had the nature of man, and He had the nature of God. When He was tempted by evil, this was a direct appeal to His human nature but not to His deity.
Key 2: Internal Enticement vs. External Enticement
When Jesus was tempted, His temptation came from an external source: Satan (Luke 4:2; Matthew 4:1). When we are tempted, this comes right from within our own hearts due to our own sinful natures. James 1:14 tells us, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” We have a natural proclivity toward sin. However, Jesus Christ had no sinful nature that could give root to sin (Hebrews 4:15).