And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:9-13)
When I was a young girl, I remember saying to my sister that I had started to not look both ways when crossing the street because I figured that if God wanted me to live, I’d live; and if he wanted me to die, I’d die. My life was entirely in His hands. Unfortunately, what I had thought was a mark of deep and mature trust in the Lord, was quickly rebuked as not being faith at all, but putting the Lord to the test, which was sin.
I was left somewhat puzzled by the experience because I didn’t feel that I had been putting the Lord to the test; I thought I had just been taking him at his word. But it set in motion what has been a long-enduring struggle to understand the difference between living in faith of God’s promises and putting him to the test. It is something I wrestle with even now, because the more I explore it in the light of Scripture, the more I am convinced that is far more complex a dynamic than we typically assume, one that ultimately goes to the heart of what it means to live out our lives as Sons and Daughters of God.
Looking at the passage above, there seems to be a clear connection between the situation with my sister and the third temptation posed by Satan to Jesus, and in fact there is, but it is not simply in the fact that both situations seem to put God’s promises to the test by recklessly risking one’s life. The connection is much deeper than this, which becomes clear when we look closely at the temptation itself as well as what lies behind it, including the passage Jesus cites in his rebuke of Satan.
First off, it is significant that once again we see Satan preface his proposal with the ominous words, “If you are the Son of God…” The implication is that there is far more at stake here than simply saving or risking his life. It is a demand for proof of a relationship. More importantly it is a demand for proof of God’s faithfulness to his promises within that relationship. Is God really who He says He is? And are you, Son of God, really who He says you are?
The importance of this cannot be overstated, because to a certain extent it is this dynamic which is at stake in nearly every struggle or crisis of faith we go through—Is God really who he says he is? And am I who he says I am?—and it is also at stake in the passage Jesus cites in his response to Satan, “You shall put the Lord your God to the test”, he says, which in its original context ends with the words “…as you did at Massah” (Deut 6:16).
So what happened at Massah?
Exodus 17 tells the story of the Israelites coming to the wilderness of Sin (later named Massah, which means “To Test”) after having experienced a series of miraculous acts by God on their behalf. He had led them through the Red Sea on dry ground as the Egyptians pursued them (and then conquered their pursuers by releasing those same waters upon them); he had made bitter water sweet in wilderness of Shur when they cried out to him in their thirst, promising to be their healer if they would follow his commands (and then led them to a place with its 12 springs of water 70 palm trees, where they encamped for a while); and, perhaps most memorably for the majority of people, he had already begun to provide manna for their daily consumption, which he would continue for 40 years.
In all of these situations, the Lord had demonstrated not only his power, but also his faithfulness: he had protected them against their enemies and provided miraculously for them in their hunger and thirst. And yet, when they came to Sin and found no water, they cried out against him and Moses saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (17:3)
Of course it is not surprising that they struggled or cried out; the truth is we probably all would if we suddenly found ourselves in a place with absolutely no water. What is surprising, however, is how quickly they had not only forgotten, but also refused to recognize all that the Lord had done to show his faithfulness and trustworthiness up to that point (and even quite recently). The words of the people reveal not a struggle to believe, but an unwillingness do so. They tested God in that they held him up against his own promises and actions up to that point, and found him lacking.
The connection between this testing and the temptation Satan poses to Jesus is difficult to see at first, but profound. At the root of both is the temptation, in essence, to demand that God prove himself and his faithfulness—even to judge for ourselves whether or not he is faithful—in light of one’s own perception of the circumstances. It is, in essence, to place oneself in the position of judge and ultimately Lord of God, for it implicitly demands that God dance to our own tunes, rather following him in love and trust.
Consequently, this is why this temptation ultimately strikes at the nature Jesus’ Sonship, as well as our own, because as we’ve studied over the last couple of weeks, at the heart of our sonship (and daughtership) in Christ is a surrender to God’s sovereignty, His provision and ultimately to His unfailing love, trusting that He is not simply some distant or indifferent deity, but a Good Father.
As such, it is important to note that this type of testing is not at all the same thing as struggling to trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of darkness or difficulty. The Bible (particularly the psalms) is full of examples of faithful people crying out to the Lord as they try to reconcile their pain or suffering with what they’ve been told about God’s character (my personal favorite is in Lamentations 3). The difference is that, in doing so, they do not judge him a liar or unfaithful, though they may struggle with fears that this is true at times; rather they struggle to hold on, reminding themselves of his promises and calling to mind his past acts of faithfulness in their lives so that these might be a buoy of hope in the midst of the storm. Far from a lack of faith or testing to God, they ultimately witness to a depth of faith that is both exemplary and beautiful.
And in so doing, following the example of Christ whom they serve, they reveal what it means for all of us to live more fully and abundantly our lives as sons and daughters of God.