Right before Jesus launches His ministry, the Spirit leads Him into the wilderness to be tempted (Luke 4:1). There He fasts 40 days and nights, before the devil comes to tempt Him. Wait a second: Does that sound familiar? Forty in the wilderness? Temptation? Does that bear any resemblance to another story you know?
Temptation can be a character-builder that compels us to raise our banner of faith and look to God for miraculous deliverance.
Jesus’ temptation mirrors ancient Israel’s season in the wilderness, and the scene is an excellent inroad into exploring the nature of temptation in the Bible. The Hebrew word for “temptation” is nissah, a term with the same root as “miracle” or “banner.” (After all, temptation can be a character-builder that compels us to raise our banner of faith and look to God for miraculous deliverance.) The Greek word is peirázō, and Hellenic authors like Homer and Apollonius of Rhodes frequently used it to refer to testing or putting something to the proof. However, it’s important to understand that the term does not apply equally to all. When God tests us, it’s a good thing, but when we test God, the connotation is negative.
A closer look at these words in the Bible reveals something important: God cares about not only our behavior but also the condition of our heart.
Succeeding Where We Failed
Moses explained that God tested the people to reveal their hearts, as an indication of whether they’d keep His commands (Deut. 8:2). Similarly, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness help us see what’s in His heart as our Savior.
Jesus’ first test involves food. Matthew 4:2 says that after fasting 40 days and nights, “He then became hungry.” That’s like saying, “After swimming an hour, he was wet.” Talk about stating the obvious—anyone fasting 40 days would be starving, quite literally. But Jesus’ hunger emphasizes something important: His humanity. He knows our hunger pangs because He experienced them in His own flesh. He truly bears our burdens.
Satan tempts Him by saying, “Command that these stones become bread.” Imagine how hungry Jesus is at this point in the story. If you were in those circumstances, it would be a pretty compelling offer. Yet our Savior responds not by giving in to the flesh but by quoting Scripture: “Man shall not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Jesus is not quoting just any verse here, but Moses’ words to Israel, when the people cried out in hunger against God. In that moment when Israel was starving, the people jumped ship, complaining and wishing they’d stayed in Egypt. God still provided manna, but the failure revealed that, in their hearts, they didn’t trust Him.
Similarly, in the remaining tests, Jesus is tempted with kingdoms of the world and a chance to prove His identity as God’s Son. Yet He also responds to these temptations by quoting Deuteronomy, citing two more major scenes where Israel missed the mark (Deut. 8:3; Deut. 6:13; Deut. 6:16). His quotations are tugging His people’s temptations back into the picture, demonstrating how the Savior gets an A+ on the test they flunked.
Jesus also succeeds where we’ve failed. We all have broken trust with God and fled at the first sign of trouble, like Israel and also like Adam and Eve with the test of the tree in the garden. Jesus succeeds not in order to lecture us or wag a finger in our face but to redeem and deliver us in love.
What’s in Your Heart?
One purpose of testing, then, is to show where we’re at with God. “Test yourselves,” Paul tells us, “to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Testing pulls back the rib cage to expose what’s in our heart.
If you were going to wear something into battle, you had to make sure it fit and allowed you to move. Similarly, God can test us to make us battle-ready for the challenges to come.
It’s a bit like making sure, before going into battle, that you’re ready for the fight. Remember when David refused to use Saul’s armor because he hadn’t tested it (1 Samuel 17:39)? Back in the day, there were no Kevlar vests. Metal armor was the only thing standing between you and the business end of a sword. So if you were going to wear something into battle, you had to make sure it fit right and allowed you to move freely. Similarly, God can test us to make us battle-ready for the challenges to come.
Dokimazo, another Greek word that relates to character, is significant here, as its root speaks to being proven through testing (Rom. 5:4; 1 Corinthians 3:13; James 1:2-3). For example, coins were tested in the ancient world to prove whether they were genuine or counterfeit. Similarly, God uses testing to reveal the sturdiness of our character, and in that way, temptation can reveal our heart’s true condition.
The story of Abraham and Isaac can shed some additional light on this idea of testing. “Now it came about after these things,” we’re told, “that God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). When it says after these things, the “things” in question are significant and must be taken into consideration. Abraham has just failed to trust God in a few key scenes. But now he gets another crack at it: “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). That’s serious. Abraham loves his child, the one through whom God’s promise is to be fulfilled, so there’s a lot on the line here. But Abraham doesn’t flinch; he trusts God with the most valuable thing in his life.
The Refiner’s Fire
God uses testing not only for the purpose of refining His people, but also to expose the wickedness of those who stand opposed to Him. As we read in Daniel 12:10, “Many will be purged, purified and refined, but the wicked will act wickedly; and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand.” That’s why, when we know God is at work, we can “consider it all joy,” for there is a promise held out to those who endure: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:2; James 1:12).
And even when we fail and succumb to temptation, we can come to Jesus. For He is our Great High Priest, who “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” And because of this, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, the Lord can sympathize with our weaknesses. For this reason, we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
Jesus is more than an example to be followed; He’s a Savior to be trusted. Jesus perfectly endured temptation, loving His Father with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength, even to the point of death—passing the test we failed, so that we could be united with Him forever. In the power of His Spirit, He’s now shaping and forming us—even through testing and trial—to become a people who perfectly love and trust God, too.
Illustration by Adam Cruft