Test or temptation?

This coming Sunday is the First Sunday in Lent. In today’s post we consider the question posed in the title of the post: is this episode a test or a temptation – and does the answer make a difference when considered from the Biblical perspective?

All three synoptic gospels record an incident of Jesus confronting the devil in the wilderness immediately after his baptismal experience at the Jordan River. Where Matthew notes quite simply: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Matthew and Luke record a three-part dialogue between Jesus and the devil that is recorded traditionally as a “tempting.” Mark simply offers the entire episode in one verse: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:12-13).

It is difficult to know how to translate peirazo (4:1) and the more intensive ekpeirazo (4:7) – “to test” or “to tempt”. (You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.) The word is often used in the LXX of God testing people, e.g., God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gn 22:1).  When God rained bread from heaven, God asked that they gather only enough for that day. “Thus, I will test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not.” (Ex 16:4).

Why does God test people? One reason is given in Dt 13:4: “for the LORD, your God, is testing you to learn whether you really love him with all your heart and with all your soul.” A slightly different reason is given in Dt 8:16: “that he might afflict [humble] you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end.”  God does not test his people so that He would know the answer, what is in our hearts – He already knows.  God tests his people so that we would know what is in our hearts (cf. Dt 8:2).

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (NRSV)

That is the positive side of peirazo and ekpeirazo. They can also have negative connotations: “to tempt” or “to try and cause someone to make a mistake” or “to try and cause someone to sin.” At the same time that God is “testing” so that one self-discovers the depths of one’s faithfulness, the “Tempter” may be “tempting” someone to sin. God’s purpose is to strengthen faith. Satan’s purpose is to weaken trust in God.

One should also be aware that this pericope of conflict with Satan is part of a recurring theme within Matthew of conflict between the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world.  In Matthew’s theology, the devil though defeated (12:28-29) continues to tempt Jesus during his ministry (16:23), at the crucifixion and into the time of the Church (13:19,39).  This pericope also sets the stage for the post-Easter period when the disciples must still confront the devil-inspired resistance to the gospel message (5:37; 6:13; 13:19, 39)


Image credit:The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Rivière (1898) | Public Domain

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