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Q: #572. What does it mean to "test" ("tempt") God (Mt 4:7)(Lk 4:12)?

     A: First, let’s look at this verse in Matthew, and the two verses preceding it.

(Mt 4:5-7)(NKJV) Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, (6) and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” (7) Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt (“test”) the Lord your God.’ “

     In these verses are found the 2nd of 3 temptations that Satan used to attack Jesus during the 40 days and nights that He was in the wilderness. Recapping these verses, the “devil” (Satan) has taken Jesus to the top of the Temple (in Jerusalem), and tells him to jump off. He then quotes (Ps 91:11-12) (leaving off “To keep you in all your ways”) to say that no harm would come to Jesus if He did, because God would send angels to protect Him. Jesus responds to the devil’s twisting of those verses in the Psalms with another verse in Deuteronomy. 

     The verse that Jesus uses in (verse 7) was taken from (Deut 6:16) “You shall not tempt the Lord your God as you tempted Him in Massah.” This verse is a part of a number of verses in (Deut 6:10-25) where Moses is warning the Israelites about not disobeying God when they enter the Promised Land. In (Deut 6:16), Moses refers back to a specific time in the past when the Israelites “tempted” (or “tested”) God, which is found in (Ex 17:1-7).

     In these verses in Exodus, the Israelites were angry with Moses, and ultimately God, because they had been led out of Egypt, into the wilderness by Moses (and God), and now they were thirsty. Moses replied to them by saying in (Ex 17:2)(NKJV), “Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the Lord?” Moses cried out to the Lord for help, and God responded by telling Moses to strike a rock, and water would come out of it. Afterwards, we are told that the place where this happened was named “Massah,” (“testing”), and “Meribah,” (“contending”) “because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex 17:7).” (Also see: Ps 78:17-20,41,56)

     So, how do these verses in Exodus, where the Israelites are “testing God,” tie into the temptation that Jesus was facing from Satan in Matthew? I believe the key words are “pride and arrogance.” (Remember the phrase: “proudly and arrogantly.”)

     In the verses in Exodus, we see at the end of verse 7 (Ex 17:7), the Israelites saying when they became thirsty, “Is the Lord among us or not?” They knew of the promises that God had made to their forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) to bless and “provide” for them (the Abrahamic Covenant) (repeated by Moses in Ex 6:6-8). However, when the Israelites questioned if God was even among them because He hadn’t provided water for their thirst, they were “proudly and arrogantly” testing God’s “promises of provision.”

***Note: God did “provide” for the Israelites, and gave them water, but it is worth noting that when the Israelites later “tested” God in a similar way in (Num 21:4-9), God (Jesus – 1 Cor 10:9) “sent fiery serpents” upon them which killed “many.”

     Moving forward to our verses in (Mt 4:5-7), I want to take a moment to point out what (1 Jn 2:16) says. In this verse, we are told that temptation of “the world” comes in 1 of 3 ways: #1. – “the lust of the flesh,” #2. – “the lust of the eyes,” and #3. – “the pride of life.” Satan, being the “god / prince of this world” (2 Cor 4:4)(Jn 12:31)(Jn 14:30) continually uses 1 of these 3 things to “tempt” each of us.

     I believe Satan used all three when He tempted Jesus in the wilderness. In the first temptation, Satan used the “lust of the flesh,” in the second, “the pride of life,” and in the third, “the lust of the eyes.”

     In tempting Jesus with “the pride of life” in the second temptation, Satan twisted the verses mentioned in (Mt 4:6), to attempt to get Jesus to “proudly and arrogantly” test God’s “promises of protection” for Him by throwing Himself off of the roof of the Temple.

     In other words, while the Israelites sinned by “proudly and arrogantly” testing God in the area of “provision,” Satan “tempted” Jesus to sin by “proudly and arrogantly” testing God in the area of “protection.”

     We are told in (Num 14:22) that the Israelites “tested” God 10 different times! While much could be said about this, for the sake of time, and since the focus of this study is on the verses in (Mt 4:5-7), let’s look at how we can “test” God in the area of His “promises of protection.”

     Let me begin by quoting from a commentary that I respect regarding the interpretation of (Mt 4:7).

(Barnes Commentary)  “The meaning is, thou shalt not try him; or, thou shalt not, by throwing thyself into voluntary and uncommanded dangers, appeal to God for protection, or trifle with the promises made to those who are thrown into danger by his providence. It is true, indeed, that God aids those of his people who are placed by him in trial or danger; but it is not true that the promise was meant to extend to those who wantonly provoke him and trifle with the promised help.”

     Putting this a different way, there are “two” kinds of “dangers” that Christians can face: “uncommanded dangers,” and “commanded dangers.” “Commanded dangers” are when Christians are “thrown into danger by God’s providence,” or “placed by Him in trial or danger.” In these times, God’s “promises of protection” apply, and can be claimed. On the other hand, we have “uncommanded dangers.” These would be when we “voluntarily” place ourselves into danger when God has not “commanded” it, and then “appeal to God for protection,” or “wantonly provoke Him” to protect us when we do.

     So, what are some examples of these two kinds of “dangers?”

     First, let’s look at “uncommanded dangers.”

     As I was thinking about this, verses in (Mark 16:17-18) came to me. In these verses, Jesus told His disciples that “In His (My) name, they would take up deadly serpents; and if they drink anything deadly (i.e. poison), it will by no means hurt them.” There are churches today where people actually do this as a test of one’s faith. (Of course, if one “fails” the test and dies, they lacked “faith.”)

     Should we handle poisonous snakes, and drink deadly poison today? Of course not… Doing this is foolish. It is an “uncommanded danger,” and it is “proudly and arrogantly” testing God’s “promises of protection.” (Reading closely, you will see that Jesus did not “command” the disciples to do these “dangerous” things, but said they “would happen.” [See (Acts 28:3-6) where Paul “took up” (accidentally) a “deadly serpent,” and was not hurt when it bit him.])

***Note: In most versions of the Bible you will find this note for (Mk 16:9-20): “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have (Mark 16:9-20).” In other words, these verses likely were not inspired by God, nor meant to be in our Bible today.

     Another example of an “uncommanded danger” that I used in a recent blog post, which got a few people upset, was when I suggested that Christians who run around in the midst of a pandemic (like the one we are facing right now as I write this in 2021), taking no precautions, and acting like it doesn’t even exist are “testing God.”

***Note: For a Biblical example of staying separate from those who are sick, check out how people in Bible times separated themselves from lepers. If contagious (the priest determined this), God commanded them to be placed outside the camp (Lev 13:46)(Lev 14:3).

     How many of us have seen those people on the news who refuse to leave their house when a dangerous hurricane is on the way, claiming God’s “promises of protection,” only to later die, or at best need to be rescued? (Living in Florida, I have probably seen this more than most.) How about those who build a house next to an active volcano?

     There are literally hundreds of Christians who “test” God every day by engaging in risky behavior, placing their lives in danger unnecessarily by diving off of cliffs, jumping out of airplanes, driving recklessly, experimenting with drugs, etc….

***Note: In addition, while perhaps not “life-threatening,” I deal with people on a regular basis who fall into addictions, relapse into addictions, have unwanted pregnancies, break vows to God (including marriage), get sexually transmitted diseases, and more because they foolishly “test” God.

     So again, when we do things like the above examples, and claim God’s “promises of protection” as we do so, we are “proudly and arrogantly” testing God by placing our lives in danger that He has not commanded (“uncommanded danger“). This is the same thing that Satan tempted Jesus to do by throwing Himself off of the roof of the Temple.

     Now, let’s look at a few examples of “commanded dangers.” Again, these are when we are “thrown into danger by God.” However, I do not believe this is limited to God Himself placing us in “dangerous” situations, but it also applies to those who are “thrown into danger” by obeying the commands of God. What are these “commands” of God?

     I believe they revolve around the two most important commandments in the Bible, which are repeated over and over again:

(Mt 22:36-40) “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? (37) Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the first and great commandment. (39) And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (40) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
(Also see: Mk 12:28-31, Lk 10:27) (Love God – Deut 6:5, Deut 10:12, Deut 30:6, 2 Kin 23:25) (Love neighbor – Lev 19:18, Mt 5:43, Mt 19:19, Rom 13:8-10, Gal 5:14, James 2:8)

     Therefore, when we place our lives in danger to obey these “two commandments,” this is “commanded danger.”

     First, let’s at some some examples “in the Bible” of those who placed the lives in danger in order to obey the command of God to “love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind.”

     The first one that comes to my mind is found in (Dan Ch. 3). In short, in this chapter, we see 3 men named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego who refused to worship a golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar had made of himself. The king threatened to throw them into a “burning fiery furnace” if they continued to refuse. They responded by claiming God’s “promise of protection,” saying in (Dan 3:17-18), “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king” (18) But if not, let it be known to you that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”

     Therefore, the king became so angry that he had the furnace heated to 7 times the normal heat, and threw them into it. God did protect them, and they were taken out unhurt.

     Our of their desire to obey God’s command to “love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind,” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego placed their lives in danger, and they claimed God’s “promise of protection.” However, in doing so, they were not “proudly and arrogantly” testing God’s “promises of protection,” because this was a “commanded danger.”

     Later, in (Dan Ch. 6), Daniel placed his life in danger by defying the king’s order not to pray to God. In doing so, he was thrown into a den of lions, but God “delivered” Him. In the Gospels, on several occasions, Jesus placed His life in danger as He preached to the Jews (see: Lk 4:28-29, Jn 8:59, Jn 10:31-39), and He was “delivered.” However, in doing so, He was not “testing” God or His “promises of protection,” because He “loved God (the Father),” and His goal on earth was to “do the will of the Father” (Mt 26:39-42)(Jn 5:30)(Jn 6:38)(Jn 15:10). (See Acts Ch. 5 for one more example.)

     Today, many Christians face these same dangers, risking imprisonment, fines, or death for gathering to worship, read their Bibles, or share their faith with others. In doing so, they have every right to claim God’s “promises of protection.” This is a “commanded danger.” They are not “proudly and arrogantly” putting God to a test to do so.

     Finally, let’s look at some examples of placing our lives in “commanded danger” to obey God’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

     The Bible tells Christians to help those in need like orphans / widows (James 1:27), or the poor (Ps 41:1-3), needy (Deut 22:4), hungry (Mt 25:35), sick (Mt 24:36), and weak (1 Th 5:14). In obeying God’s command to “love thy neighbor,” and help these people, Christians have every right to claim God’s “promises of protection.” Doing these things are “commanded dangers.”

     If a house is burning down, and we risk our life to save someone who is in that house, that is a “commanded danger.” If a child is being swept away by a raging river, and we jump in to save that child, that is a “commanded danger.” If a soldier runs into enemy fire to save the life of a wounded comrade, that is a “commanded danger.” When doctors and nurses place their lives at risk to help the sick in a pandemic, that is a “commanded danger.”

     And again, as I said above, when we do these things to obey the second of God’s two greatest commandments, to “love thy neighbor,” we have every right to claim God’s promises of protection. We are not “proudly and arrogantly” putting God to a test to do so.

     Laying our lives down to save the life of another person is the greatest thing a Christian can do for someone (Jn 15:12-13)(1 Jn 3:16). It is following the example of Jesus, who laid down His life for us (Jn 6:51)(Jn 10:11)(Rom 5:6-8).

     So, in summing up, do you notice the BIG difference between “commanded dangers” and “uncommanded dangers?” In commanded dangers, we are placing our lives at risk for OTHERS. We are doing so to: #1. show our love for God, #2. show our love for others.

     In contrast, in “uncommanded dangers,” we are placing our lives in danger for one person: US. It is about doing or getting what “we” want, whenever we want. When we risk our life or health in this way, the primary beneficiary is “us,” and we “may” actually harm others in the process. In contrast to this, “commanded risks” are when we risk our life and health, and the primary beneficiary is “others,” and it “may” actually harm us in the process.

     When we “proudly and arrogantly” test God in a way that is all about “us,” this is the “pride of life,” and it is sin. It is how the Israelites “tested” God in the wilderness, and it is what Satan tempted Jesus to do in (Mt 4:5-7), when he told Him to jump off of the roof of the Temple. Yes, God may indeed “provide” for you, just as He did with the Israelites on several occasions, and He likely would have done with Jesus, but testing God in this way is still sinful.

P.S. I may need to add here that I am “not” saying that it is “proud and arrogant” for individuals to ask for God’s protection as they do different things in their everyday lives. We are not “testing” God to do this. I am speaking in this study solely about those who “test” God by “foolishly” placing their lives at risk.

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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