There is a rhythm to life in this world - an ebb and flow between opposites. Mountaintops are followed by valleys. Peaceful moments are disrupted by chaos. Night follows day.
And times of great revelation are followed by times of testing.
One moment we have a mountaintop experience, hearing words of love from God: "Behold, my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased." The next moment we find ourselves in a desert, wondering whether we are loved at all.
This was Jesus' experience. At his baptism, Jesus chose to willingly identify with fallen humanity in order to "fulfill all righteousness." As proof of God's pleasure in Jesus' act, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaimed, "Behold, my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."
This "mountaintop experience" was immediately followed by a lengthy and lonely experience of trials and temptations in the desert. The comforting words, "You are my beloved son" were drowned out by the sinister suggestion, "If you are the beloved Son." In an instant, Jesus moved from a baptism of water to a baptism of fire!
God's remarkable revelation to Jesus and empowering by the Spirit in his baptism is immediately followed by testing in the desert. This is not a random act, but a purposeful event: "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1). In the desert, Jesus fully entered into the human experience of trials and temptations.
Throughout the sacred scripture, God's people are constantly put to the test. And the test always follows a significant revelation upon which faith is initially built. For example:
- Abraham was told that he would father a child of promise in his old age - a seed of blessing for all the nations. Following this revelation and its fulfillment, Abraham was put to the test when God told him, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you" (Genesis 22:2; cf. Hebrews 11:17).
- Joseph was tested when, after receiving a divine revelation that he would rule over his brothers, he then spent fourteen years in an Egyptian prison.
- Job, after years of blessing, was tested when he tragically lost his health and wealth.
- After experiencing God's miraculous liberation from oppressive bondage in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, Moses and Israel were then tested in the wilderness.
Tests are so common that Peter writes to a persecuted church, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:12-13).
It is as sure as night follows days. If you have faith, your faith will be tested.
Test of Faith
What is a test of faith? A test comes through a trial or temptation that challenges our faith and calls into question our identity and testimony as people of faith.
A test proves the genuineness of our faith to us. God knows our heart. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Tests do not prove anything to God, but they do prove something to us. We cannot know the true depth of our faith apart from its being tested through trials and temptations. Faith on the mountaintop - when all is well - is easy. Faith in the desert is much more difficult. However, faith that cannot survive the desert is faith not worth having. Through testing,
- We discover who we truly are - what we value, what we believe, where our true loyalties lie: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? --unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!" (2 Corinthians 13:5)
- Our faith is purified: "you have had to suffer various trials, that the genuineness of your faith--being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire--may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Peter 1:6-7)
- Our faith is strengthened: "My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4). Paul puts it like this: "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Romans 5:3-4).
Faith that is not tested is no faith at all. And the tests occur in the crucible of trials and temptations.
The desert is an appropriate picture for tests of faith. The desert is a dangerous and inhospitable setting. It is barren, desolate, and lonely. It offers no comfort. In the desert, all securities are lost and we are left alone to wrestle with our relationship with God. All of our resources are stripped - even the help and guidance of friends. The sparseness and inhospitality forces us to face our inner demons.
The question the desert places push to the forefront is this: Will we continue to love, trust, and obey God in the wilderness? When we are most vulnerable? When we are tired, lonely, and famished? When we see no green pastures on the horizon?
The desert is not a place where we would choose to be spiritually formed, but God's way is to use the trials and temptations of our deserts to mold us into the image of Christ. Whether we like it or not, faithfulness is forged and proved time and again in the desert places. In this way, God turns our trials into gold by purifying and strengthening our faith.
Like others before him, Jesus was led into a time of testing in the desert by God's Spirit. It is vital to note that Jesus was not tested because he had departed from God's will, or because God loved him any less. No, Jesus was in the desert because he was led there by God's will to prove his faith, and even more, to show his complete identification with us in all our sufferings.
By beginning in the desert, Jesus identifies with our struggle for fidelity. He descends into our darkness in order to lift up our fallen humanity. It was a time of extreme stress, weakness, and hunger, having fasted for forty days (Matthew 4:2). In this vulnerable state, the temptations pressed upon him with increasing intensity - temptations embodied in "evil one."
The Evil One
In the desert Jesus comes face-to-face with the embodiment of evil. A personal agent of evil confronts him by means of worldly values intended to arouse selfish desires in opposition to God's will. The three names used in Matthew's account for this agent of evil are telling. He is the "tempter" (Matthew 4:3), the devil (Matthew 4:1, 5), the Satan (Matthew 4:10). The meaning of the "tempter" is self-evident. The Greek word translated "devil" is diabolos and means accuser or slanderer. The Greek word translated "Satan" is satanus and means the adversary.
The adversary uses temptation as a means to detract Jesus from his mission to "fulfill all righteousness." It is important to note that the tempter does not have the power to make Jesus do anything. "The devil made me do it" is bad theology. The devil does not have this power. Since the adversary cannot force our will, he attempts to change our will to make us want to do something opposed to God's will.
Temptation itself is not sin, but rather, it is part of the process meant to culminate in sin. The scriptures teach that "Jesus was tempted, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). It is for this reason that the adversary's temptations are also God's tests. The same event can be both a test and temptation. While the adversary seeks to destroy our character and our faith, God seeks to strengthen our character and purify our faith.
Temptation works through deceit. Because of this, temptation does not usually involve an obvious evil. Instead, it usually comes disguised as the good or right thing to do, but for all the wrong reasons or at the wrong time. For example, there was nothing implicitly wrong with Jesus turning the stones into bread. What was wrong was the adversary's suggestion that Jesus use his saving power for selfish or self-serving reasons.
It Is Written
The deceit of temptation is countered by the truth of God. Jesus' response to each temptation is prefaced by the words, "It is written." Jesus trusted God's word to guide his life. He took the passages from the Pentateuch at their full face value and proved to be obedient at every point where Israel failed.
- When Israel was hungry in the desert, they grumbled at God's lack of provision (Exodus 16:1-4; Numbers 11:1; 14:1). In contrast, Jesus remains faithful, totally dependent on God, trusting God to sustain his life. He recognizes that remaining true to God's word is more important than anything else: "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).
- When Israel demanded proof that God was among them, they tested God, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7). Jesus refused to put God to the test, trusting in God's faithful presence.
- When Israel broke covenant with God by practicing idolatry they chose to put other gods before God (Exodus 32). Jesus refused to place his ultimate allegiance in anyone other than God, saying, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him'" (Matthew 4:10).
All of Jesus' responses come from Deuteronomy chapters 6-8 (specifically, 8:3, 6:16, 13) which is set in the context of God's testing of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:2, 16). Jesus' faith is in God's revealed word. He will not allow his circumstances, or the devil's deceptions, to steer him away from fidelity to God. By doing this, he proves to be the obedient son that God has sought in Israel. Nothing can veer him from his mission to "fulfill all righteousness." Unlike the generation of Israel that succumbed to temptation in the wilderness in disobedience, Jesus remains faithful.
This faithfulness will be evident throughout his entire ministry. The will of God and his devotion to fulfill it will take precedent over everything else, including his own life (cf. Matthew 16:20-21; 26:36-46). In his final temptation, we hear echoes of the adversary in the cruel words shouted at him while on the cross: "Save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross" (Matthew 27:40). But the obedient son remains obedient to the end. His entire life is characterized by the prayer, "Not my will, but thine be done" (Matthew 26:39). In the end, a Roman centurion will declare, "Truly, this was the Son of God" (Matthew 27:54). Jesus' faithfulness and obedience prove this to be true.
Our Helper in Temptation
Jesus not only recapitulates the story of Moses and Israel, succeeding where Israel failed, living Israel's story as it was meant to be lived, but he also recapitulates the story of fallen humanity. He succeeds where Adam failed and lives the human story as it is meant to be lived. He does it, not in a paradise permeated by God's presence, but in the lonely desert. He represents what it means to be fully human, alive to God. "Jesus is so fully turned toward God and neighbor that there are no shadows in his life, no contradictions between what he says and does, and in this sense, unlike Adam, he lives wholly in the light and not in the shadows and is himself 'the light of the world.'"
We, the baptized ones, share the same tests of faith. Our great spiritual privileges are followed by tests of faith. One moment we hear comforting words of love. The next moment we are fighting for our lives in the desert, wondering whether we're loved at all. And furthermore, like Jesus, the adversary continues to lead us astray. Peter writes, "Be of sober spirit. Be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, standing firm in your faith, knowing that your brothers and sisters in the world are experiencing the same thing" (1 Peter 5:8-9).
And the good news is that there is a connection between Jesus' testing and our own. Having fully identified with our struggles, sorrows, and temptations, the risen Lord Jesus now runs to our aid. The author of Hebrews puts it like this:
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested...
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-15)
It may seem odd that one "without sin" can sympathize with our weaknesses. But to be sinless is not to live apart from temptation or the suffering that accompanies it. Jesus was without sin, but not without temptation. Indeed, he now knows the full weight of temptation - weight greater than we can imagine. In his inimitable style, C. S. Lewis comments on the depths of Jesus' temptations:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.
It was Jesus' sensitivity to human sin that increased his burden beyond anything we can imagine:
Both because Jesus had taken on our fallen condition and thus was vulnerable to the attacks of Satan and because he was filled with the Spirit and thus had clarity and holiness far exceeding our own, temptation confronted him with a sharpness and force we do not experience. Our minds and hearts are anesthetized and dulled by our concupiscence and personal sin. Moreover, because we almost inevitably conspire with the temptation to some degree, teasing it on, we never feel its full impact. Jesus, however, with complete clarity and perception, experienced both the entire allurement of temptation and, because he never conspired with it, endured the undivided assault of Satan's attack.
Unlike anyone else, Jesus knows our weakness, vulnerability, and sufferings firsthand. Jesus knows the weight. He has born it completely. And his triumph is our triumph. He does not scorn us for our failures but sympathizes with us and runs to our aid. And his only desire is that we run to him: "Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).
Testing is the crucible where faith is formed. It is the place where faith meets the challenges of real life and the dark deceptions of sin. God's tests are designed for our good and not our downfall. God's overarching purpose in the trials and temptations of our lives is at complete odds with the evil one's overarching purpose. A verse from the hymn, "How Firm a Foundation" puts it well:
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
The trials and temptations we encounter can be turned to gold if we allow them to purify our faith, strengthen our resolve, and shape our character.
 Like Moses (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 18, 25; 10:10) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) before him. The forty days may also represent Israel's testing in the desert for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2).
 George W. Stroup, Before God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), 69.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 142.
 Thomas G. Weinandy, In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh: An Essay on the Humanity of Christ (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 1993), 99.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010