Testing God

by Ron Julian


Is God doing right by me? Most of us will ask ourselves this question sooner or later. Hard times seem to offer strong evidence that God is not on our side. We are tempted to charge God with neglect and even hostility. If God wants me to trust Him, maybe He had better start by improving the way He directs the course of my life.

That we ask such questions is not surprising; in fact, the Bible tells us that our troubles are intended to raise such questions. God has an agenda for His people, and high on the list is His intention that each of us confront the issue of God’s character. Raising the question is part of our learning process. Even Jesus confronted this question when Satan tempted Him three times in the wilderness. We will examine one of those temptations here, to use Jesus’ response as a model for our own.

The Second Temptation of Jesus

Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give His angels charge concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, lest You strike Your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7)

At first glance, the lesson of this temptation may seem to be nothing more than “Don’t try to make God do tricks for you.” Speaking for myself, I am not tempted to throw myself off skyscrapers expecting God to catch me. The issue, however, runs much deeper. To understand the issue as Jesus sees it, we must understand the Scripture He quotes in response to the temptation. In each of His three temptations, Jesus quotes from the same sermon in Deuteronomy. Moses delivered this sermon to Israel after their wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus clearly sees a parallel between the lessons Israel learned in the wilderness and His own experience, between their temptations and His own. To understand the lesson as Jesus sees it, we must find that parallel. In this case, we must ask the question, “Why is jumping off a temple like grumbling about water?”

Israel in the Wilderness

Jesus quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.” What does Moses mean by “putting the Lord to the test?” In order to understand this verse, we must go back and look at what happened at Massah.

Then…the sons of Israel…camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” …And he named the place Massah [which means "test"] and Meribah [which means "quarrel"] because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7)

Israel had seen God do great things in the past. He saved them miraculously out of Egypt; He parted the red sea; He sent them manna to eat. God also had promised to do great things in their future. He promised them all the blessings of Abraham; He promised to take them to a land of peace and abundance. The problem for Israel was the present. They were in the middle of the wilderness, and they had no water.

Israel’s reaction might seem perfectly reasonable. Given the lack of water, anyone’s natural reaction would be to worry. But Israel had much evidence from the past that God was powerful and trustworthy; Israel had great promises that the future would be wonderful. Why was this present situation so worrisome? Because at heart the people did not trust God. They gave no thought to what God had done in the past nor what He promised for the future; they thought only about their lack of water now.

This helps us understand what “putting God to the test” means. Each Israelite looked around at the bleak wilderness and asked, “Why has God brought me here?” God clearly was not to be trusted; look at the scary and dangerous place to which He had brought them. However, if God were to apologize and come through with some water, maybe they would be willing to forgive Him and follow Him again.

Notice how Exodus describes it: “…they tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’” The lack of water caused them to question whether God was really on their side. All that He had done in the past didn’t count; all that He had promised to do in the future didn’t count; what counted was the frightening present. God couldn’t really be there, couldn’t really be powerful and trustworthy, if He would bring them to a barren wilderness.

The question should have been settled already; God is there; He is powerful and loving. Instead, each new difficulty caused Israel to question His power and goodness. They “tested” Him by making Him prove His faithfulness all over again. Years later, Moses looks back on this event and warns the people: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.” This is the verse Jesus quotes when Satan tempts Him in the wilderness.

Jesus in the Wilderness

Some people suggest that Satan was tempting Jesus to put on a show for the crowds, to prove to the crowds that He was the Messiah. This is unlikely, since very few people could have seen what Jesus was doing. We would be wrong to picture Jesus standing on the point of a steeple in the middle of downtown Jerusalem, with multitudes gazing up at him in wonder. The pinnacle of the temple is most likely a corner of the outer wall of the city; it looks down on the desolate Kidron valley. Unless a few travelers were walking by far below, no one would have seen Jesus jump. The text doesn’t mention a crowd; Satan was tempting Jesus to do something for His own sake, not for the crowd’s sake.

Jesus was facing the same situation Israel faced in the wilderness. Like Israel, Jesus could look back on God’s kindness in the past. Only forty days earlier the voice of God had announced from heaven that Jesus was His beloved Son. Like Israel, Jesus had great promises from God concerning the future. As the Son of God, Jesus was promised that He would rule over creation at the right hand of the Father. No human being has ever been promised a more glorious future. But like Israel, Jesus’ present circumstances were difficult. Instead of being carried off to glory, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where He faced great hunger and hardship. Imagine it: God has promised to make you king of the world, and then He takes you into the wilderness to starve. Certainly Jesus faced the very real temptation to question the Father’s goodness. Jesus faced the same question Israel had faced: “Why has God brought me here?”

This temptation was potentially very attractive. On the surface, jumping off the temple seems like such a powerful act of faith. Certainly nobody would jump unless he truly trusted God to catch him. Very few of us would have the faith and courage to do it, but Jesus had such faith and courage. What a powerful demonstration of faith jumping off the temple could have been!

But Jesus knew that jumping off the temple would not demonstrate faith; instead it would be a gross act of unbelief. God hadn’t asked Him to jump off the temple; to jump would not be obedience, but presumption. Why would He want to? Because it would force God’s hand. Because it would make the Father prove that He indeed was on Jesus’ side. Things were looking bleak for Jesus at the moment; how tempting to force the Father to send a legion of angels, to demand that God prove again that Jesus was His beloved Son. Like Israel in the wilderness, Jesus would have been asking the question, “Is God with me or not?”

Jesus didn’t need the answer to that question; He knew already. Yes, the Father had led him into a barren wilderness and afflicted Him with hunger and lack. But Jesus knew that God was with Him; He didn’t need to prove it to Himself, to Satan, or to anyone else. God had proven Himself in the past; God had made great promises for the future; Jesus could look at His difficult present circumstances and say, “The Father has nothing to prove to Me.”

You and I in the Wilderness

Like Israel, like Jesus, you and I are on a journey much like their journey through the wilderness:

  • We can look back at God’s kindness in the past. Each of us has personal ways that God has blessed us in this life. Most importantly, we have the Bible to tell us of God’s great love demonstrated on the cross of Christ. We can’t emphasize this enough. No greater act of love has ever been committed than Jesus’ death on the cross for us. We have every reason to believe in God’s goodness towards us.
  • We have great promises from God about the future. God’s people have been promised an eternal life of righteousness. What is more valuable in the world? The people of God have a great destiny.
  • Today our present circumstances are sometimes difficult. We suffer. We struggle with sin. We let each other down. Life can be painful, difficult, and disappointing. We are often led to ask: “Why has God brought me here?”

Moses tells us–Jesus tells us–that we must not put God to the test. To test God means much more than trying to get Him to do a miracle; to test God is to insist that He prove that He is trustworthy. To test God is to look at today’s difficulties and say, “A loving God would never let me suffer in this way. Maybe if things get better, then I can trust Him.” To test God is to ask, as Israel did, “Is God with us or not?” God has shown us that He is with us; He has nothing to prove to us. If we refuse to see it, we are as blind as Israel was in the wilderness.

Israel and Jesus were not in the wilderness by accident; God led them there. Neither is it an accident when life pushes hard at believers today. We can, if we choose, interpret our troubles as evidence of God’s indifference. We would be wrong. Because God loves us, He uses our troubles to confront us with the spiritual issues we would rather ignore. Our eternal destiny is riding on the choices we are making today: will we trust God in the midst of our troubles, or will we put Him to the test?

Copyright February 1998 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian