Uniform 05.04.2014: Testing God

Deuteronomy 6:13-16; Matthew 4:4-11

In this Easter season, the last person on our minds is Santa Claus. But as I read this week’s texts and their mandates not to put “God to the test” (Deut 6:16; Mt 4:7), I am reminded of the way children bargain with Santa when they begin to suspect that he is not real. When my younger brother was in about third grade, he wrote a letter to Santa that said something like, “If you’re real, please write me back.” Eager to protect his belief, my mother encouraged me to conscript a friend of mine to write a letter from “Santa” in a handwriting he wouldn’t recognize. He tested Santa, and, at least for that Christmas, Santa passed.

For other children, Santa’s tests are even more straightforward: “If you bring me the toy I asked for I’ll know you’re real.” For Santa to endure our skepticism, we expect to be compensated in a way that makes our willing suspension of disbelief worthwhile—with things.

A professor of mine once described her frustration with people who confront God with an endless list of trivial, material requests. “God is not Santa Claus,” she said with gusto.

But we often treat God like a jolly benefactor who delights in giving us everything we want. And when we find ourselves lacking something we actually need, we struggle to reconcile this vision of God with our challenging circumstances. Testing God is a common temptation at times like this. In books, movies, and TV shows, these are the moments when the characters say something like, “If you’ll just help me pay the rent this month, I promise I’ll start tithing.” “If you’ll just keep her alive, God, then I’ll go back to church.” “I can be a better person, but first I need you to help me get this job.”

It’s convenient to think that such bargains are only struck by fictional characters and that truly faithful people don’t test God in this way. But Scripture suggests differently. At Massah, the site of the test recalled in Deuteronomy, the same people who had just experienced God’s powerful deliverance began to doubt God’s power when they were confronted with extreme thirst (Ex 17:1-7). Even Jesus was tempted to test God. If Jesus could be genuinely tempted to do so, just imagine how many believers must give in to the temptation of testing God.

Jesus understood that God is bigger than any conditions we might set for belief. When we ask God to match our expectations, we limit God’s love and power to what we need. The Israelites learned that the God who delivered them from Egypt is certainly capable of providing water. Jesus trusted that God was able to answer each of Satan’s tests, but he also knew that God was much more powerful and loving than responding to those tests would show. Jesus refused to limit God to his needs in the desert. Instead, he demonstrated that God is bigger than Satan ever expected.

No, God is not Santa Claus. Santa is only as good as we imagine him to be. God is much better than our imaginations could ever describe.

Discussion

1. Did you ever test Santa Claus as a child? What were the conditions of your belief in Santa?
2. How are we guilty of setting up the same conditions for belief in God that children set for Santa?
3. What bargains with God do you remember from books, movies, or television? How do you identify with the people who make such bargains?
4. Have you ever put God to the test? What were the circumstances that led you to do so? What were the results of your test?
5. When have you been tempted to limit God to your expectations? How has God shown you how small your expectations can be?

Reference Shelf

Jesus’ first response in v. 4 intimates that spiritual food is more important than physical food, and as John 4 intimates, doing God’s will is Jesus’ primary food. The quotations here by Jesus are from Deuteronomy 8:3, 6:16, and 6:13, respectively. Does Jesus see himself as bringing about the renewal of the covenant a la Deuteronomy?

The second temptation in vv. 5-7 takes Jesus in a vision to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. Here the devil is more subtle, quoting the Scripture to buttress his appeal. Presumably this location is picked because of its maximum effectiveness for demonstrating that Jesus was indeed the royal Son of God. What is being tested here is divine providence, just as the previous temptation involved testing divine provision. But what an inappropriate place to put God to the test—in the very symbolical place where God’s presence was most thought to dwell. It was believed by some early Jews, and various orthodox ones today, that messiah would come across the Mount of Olives to annunciate the messianic age. Even today orthodox Jews wish to be buried at the top of that mount in order to be first up in the resurrection to greet messiah when he comes.

Verse 7 has a quote by Jesus that probably does not mean “you” (the devil) should not tempt “me” (Jesus), though that is possible. Rather, the point is that for Jesus to do such a thing would be putting God to the test. In short this may not be a christologically loaded remark, though in Matthew’s Gospel it is possible that it could be. Are we to think in v. 8 of Moses, who was also taken up on a high mountain to survey all that God (not the devil) would give his people? In light of such diverse texts as Luke 4:6; John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4; and 1 John 5:19, this should not be seen as a false offer, for early Christians believed Jesus was indeed to be the world ruler. But Satan here is shrewdly trying to get Jesus to capitulate to his ruler-ship before a shot has even been fired for the Dominion of God. Verse 8 is not dramatic hyperbole if one recognizes that this is seen in a vision. Jesus dismisses Satan with the insistence that he will worship and serve only God himself. It becomes apparent as the story goes on that the devil had not left Jesus for good, but from this juncture on, the character of Jesus’ messiah-ship or royal son-ship has been set, and the way it will be expressed in ministry is set. Jesus has been confirmed by both the word and the Spirit of God and tested on their behalf. He is now ready to express God’s Wisdom to the world in the context of the trials of ministry.

Reference

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 92-94.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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