The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness lays a foundation for later affirmations in the New Testament. It validates Jesus’ righteousness. It certifies His worthiness to undertake the mission set before Him. It demonstrates His moral perfection, validating His suitability to die for the sins of others, as His death could not come about because of His own sins, the temptation attesting that He had none.
A more immediately practical significance of Jesus’ temptation, however, is found in Hebrews 2:17-18: Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
Was Jesus Tempted to Sexual Sin?
That aid is further elaborated in Hebrews 4:15-16: For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
So, we are encouraged to seek grace from God our Father in time of temptation because Jesus, our High Priest was tempted in all points as we are, and yet resisted. So, we count on Him to intercede with His Father for our sakes, when we need divine grace to overcome temptation to sin.
But, wait! What about temptation to sexual sin? From the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see Jesus facing no explicit temptation to sexual sin. In an age where temptations to sexual sin are thicker than sea-coast fog, (and the First Century was far worse), what do we think of this absence of sexual overture in Satan’s temptation of the Lord?
Yes, He was tempted. Sort of, that is.
From Hebrews 4 (“in all points tempted as we are”) and Mark’s summary statement (1:13 – “He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan …”) we might infer that sexual temptation was included in the range of temptations focused on Jesus by Satan. Luke’s comment – “Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” – suggests that the three temptations recorded were only a representative sample, that the whole gamut of temptations (“every temptation”) was trained on Jesus. Or, that a temptation to sexual sin came later (at an “opportune time”) .
This latter possibility provided the premise for Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ . In book and film, Jesus faces myriad temptations, including sexual enticements, throughout His adult life. And, whatever flaws of history or fantasy the novel and film exhibit, their aim is the same as that of ordinary Bible students who speculate that Jesus faced sexual temptations, which temptations are not expressly recorded by the gospel writers.
Sex to the Power of Ten
Jesus said that the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And, though Jesus’ was speaking of the machinations of an unjust steward, His comments sometimes apply just as well to the insights by the sons of this world into how that world works in other areas. Such as sex. Just such an insight from a popular son of this world provides a clue to Jesus’ sexual temptation.
The actor Charlton Heston wrote an autobiography in 1995 (In the Arena, An Autobiography) in which he recounts, among other things, the events and personalities that attended the filming of El Cid. In the passage quoted below, he describes the filming of El Cid’s taking of Valencia. “Babieca” is a reference to the horse Heston rode in the film.
[p.255] We had most of the major interior scenes in the can by this time, leaving us largely focused on several varieties and sizes of outside scenes, principally the Cid’s conquest of Valencia and his subsequent defense against the invading Moors.
We filmed his entry into Valencia as bloodless, following Menendez Pidal’s account. The citizens welcomed him in preference to the weak King Alfonso, as the abler soldier they needed against the Moors, offering him the crown of Valencia. The Cid, stubbornly unwilling to displace the king who had exiled him and imprisoned his wife and children, refused the crown, surely one of the outstanding examples of loyalty in history.
It was also a key moment in the movie; I thought a lot about how to play it. As sometimes happens in film, that wasn’t necessary. It played itself. I led a mounted troup to the gates of the city, real iron gates set in the real stone walls of a medieval city. The sun and the sea were as they’d been a thousand years ago. The gates swung open, two thousand people screamed welcome. I rode through, [p. 256] Babieca dancing under my hand, both of us aroused by the roar “Cid! Cid! CID!” I swung off the horse, down into the welling sound, and climbed the steep time-worn stone steps set in the wall. At the top, I turned, the sea behind me, the city and the people lying below, reaching, entreating, warm and open as a woman. “Cid! Cid! CID!”
You don’t have to act that. You can’t act it. I was there. It happened to me. I know, in my bones and blood, what it is to take a city. Yes, of course, it’s like sex. It is sex – to the power of ten.
As you read this passage from Heston’s autobiography, was there any passage from the Gospels that came to mind? I don’t know about you, but I immediately thought of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Matt. 4:8-9).
If Heston is right – that such glory as the Devil offered to Jesus is an offer of sex to the power of ten – then Heston has presented us an intriguing validation of the statement made by the author of Hebrews that Christ was tempted in all ways, just as we are; specifically, that when the Devil offered Him the glory of the nations, Jesus encountered a temptation aimed at his human, masculine sexuality, a temptation which cut far deeper than a comparably trivial inducement to “mere” coitus.
Sex to the Power of Ten in the Bible?
We need, I think, to reconsider what is going on in those prophetic passages which describe the kings of the earth committing fornication with a city (Rev. 14:8; 18:3, 9; Ezek. 16; Hosea). Ordinary hanky-panky of the carnal sort is exactly NOT what the Prophets are talking about. Nor are the prophets scoring a cheap rhetorical point by salaciously comparing a city’s allurement to a hooker’s come-on. Great Kings (and those who suppose themselves to be such) fall prey to a fundamentally sexual enticement when basking in the glory of their cities or its citizens. Think, for example, of Herod’s deadly error in Acts 12:21ff, or Nebuchadnezzar’s similar folly in Daniel 4. At its heart, Herod’s basking in the adulation of those from Tyre and Sidon, and Nebuchadnezzar’s pride in the glories of Babylon are no different from Ahasuerus’ pride in Vashti (Ruth 1). Indeed, Ahasuerus’ display of Vashti’s glory and all the glories of his empire are all of one piece. Heston’s term for this is “sex to the power of ten.” But, there are no naked bodies. There is no “sex” in the merely animal sense of that word.
We must also not confuse what is “greater” with what is “lesser” when comparing sex-to-the-power-of-ten with sex to what is ordinarily conceived by the term “sex.” Modern notions of sex are almost comically truncated. One might just as well collapse the meaning of “good diet” to the eating of green beans. Eating green beans is only one, tiny feature of a good diet. And, those who understand what a good diet encompasses also understand that a good diet might actually omit green beans altogether.
So also something like masculinity or femininity. Among the truly masculine or feminine are those who never (or, who no longer) experience sex as sexual congress with the opposite sex. A ten-year old boy is often overtly masculine, though he is sexually a virgin. Some of the paragons of femininity in all history have been virgins. And, a widow or widower do not lose their overt or their intrinsic sexuality merely because they cease for the remainder of their lives to experience sex as they knew it with their departed spouses.
So, Heston is not the first to understand that sex and all its wonder are driven by powers that easily transcend narrow animal aspects of sex. Before Heston spoke of such a thing, the Prophets of the Old Testament, and the Apostle John after them, spoke to the same point, using the same terms. Israel’s worship of other gods was harlotry and adultery.
Christians, regrettably, often suppose Jesus was beyond all this. The pale, slightly fruity-looking Jesus that peers at us from so many treacley portraits in Sunday School assembly rooms looks utterly deaf to a sexual Siren’s song.
But, if bread is a temptation to a starving man, what is the offer of the glory of the nations to the One by Whom, for Whom, and In Whom are all things, Who is at the time of the offer surrounded by dust and rocks and geckos? And what is it to decline such an offer of such a glory, when that glory is rightfully Yours in the first place? What kind of choice is it to follow, instead, a path leading to abasement and a humiliating death, because Your Father requires this of You? What shall we conclude about someone who made exactly that choice, in the face of exactly that temptation to chose otherwise?
We conclude, as the author of Hebrews puts it, that “Because He himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” And that most certainly includes being tempted by sex to the power of ten.