Jesus was like us in being tempted, but unlike us in not sinning (Hebrews 4:15). If we are the measure of what it is to be human and if we apply that measure to Jesus, then the idea of his sinlessness becomes a problem, because sin seems to be fundamental to who we are. Either Jesus is not quite human or the claim that he was sinless is necessarily wrong.
But if we go the other direction, learning about humanness from Jesus, sinlessness becomes, instead, part of a full understanding of humanness, a reminder that sin is not part of the definition of humanness, that, as created, we are “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Jesus’ sinlessness is a picture of what we were created for, of the future of the redeemed, of, that is, our sanctification. God’s project in creating humans was not complete at the beginning. Jesus is “the final measure of the nature and destiny of humankind.” Now we can hardly imagine “what we will be” when that destiny is fulfilled, but we know that we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).
“Sinlessness” can sound like something that has never been challenged and that is complete from the beginning. But a baby, even “the little Lord Jesus,” does not have what it takes to be a grown man, even a sinless grown man. His sinlessness is not the innocence of a perpetual child. At age twelve he was an unusually able or inquisitive yeshiva boy (Luke 2:46-47), but we should not follow the traditional path of making the story told of that into something like what we can read in the apocryphal childhood Gospels, according to which the child Jesus formed clay figurines of birds and brought them to life, miraculously killed other children that aggravated him, raised a fish from death, and taught his teachers. Jesus’ parents were “astonished” when he stayed back in Jerusalem to learn a little more (v. 48), but apparently not so much by his precocity as by his disregard for filial obedience, which he was more attentive to thereafter (v. 51).
The particular temptations that Jesus faced, according to the Gospels, all had to do with how he would carry out his mission: he was tempted to use his position as God’s Son for the popular or spectacular quick fix (Matthew 4:3, 5-6; 27:40, 43; Luke 23:39); he was tempted to self-aggrandizement at the cost of loyalty to his mission (Matthew 4:8-9); and he was tempted to abandon the course that was leading to his crucifixion (Matthew 16:21-23; 26:39; cf. 20:22). It was specifically in holding to that course that he was sinless (1 Peter 2:22-23). The negative terminology of calling Jesus “sinless” can be misleading. It points not to what Jesus didn’t do but to what he did, which was to carry out his mission and accept the way of the cross. In doing so, Jesus was fully human, more human than you and I are. It is where we are said to be of the same origin as our brother Jesus that we hear of him being “completed by suffering” (Hebrews 2:10-11).
It is in doing similarly, by accepting suffering and staying the course of our mission, that we follow Jesus (1 Peter 2:21). Our sanctification is not like polishing a car but like driving a car on a rough road. It is like being nailed to a cross while praying for the crucifiers (Luke 23:33-34). Likewise, where we become “complete as [our] heavenly Father is complete” (Matthew 5:48) is not in some sort of rush-of-light glorification but in loving our enemies like our Father does (vv. 43-47). It presupposes not that we have risen above the possibility of having enemies but that we do have enemies, not that we are no longer tempted but that we are, like Jesus, in the thick of temptation.
- “the final measure of the nature and destiny of humankind”: Carl E. Braaten in Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Christian Dogmatics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 1:525.