The most subtle sin in my life is my lack of God-centeredness. It shows up in a thousand ugly ways. I walk through much of my day, not in a dialog with the Father, but listening to the sound of my own thoughts. I make plans to rise, eat, walk, read, talk, and sleep with little thought of what good works the Father might be planning for me.
I most clearly see this underlying sin when my plans are interrupted. Sometimes it is something minor—a traffic jam that makes me late—and at other times it is something more important, such as a great loss of money, or a significant relationship. I notice that my reaction in those times is not one of unshakable trust in the sovereignty of God, but rather anger, impatience, and anxiety. Instead of being in a prayerful mindset at all times, making my plans with God or trusting Him as my plans change, I walk through much of my life as if it is still mine to control.
It’s in sobering times like this that I need to remember the second temptation of Jesus.
The sun is rising across the desert once more. It hasn’t been many days since they left the beautiful land of Elim with its springs of water and palm trees. There is no such oasis in sight in Rephidim. This is a waterless place.
Here Moses stands in the midst of a wandering nation surrounded by a million empty bellies. A murmur has been rumbling throughout the camp. Before he knows it, the murmuring turns to complaining, and the complaining turns to arguing. The people begin crying out to Moses, “Give us water!” Moses slowly glances up at the glowing cloud of God’s presence which overshadows them. He knows that their grumbling will provoke God’s wrath, so he shouts back, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”
The people shout back even louder with their own question, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Some begin to pick up large stones, and with wild expressions in their eyes, they begin to threaten Moses loudly.
Moses can’t believe what he is hearing: This rabble had seen how day after day God provides manna for them. And they know the mighty acts of deliverance in Egypt: They watched the Red Sea part before their very eyes; they saw the Egyptian army destroyed. Do they really think that God brought them this far just to let them die of thirst?
Moses turns his face back to the heavens, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
And with this, God speaks to Moses: “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”
Moses calls the elders to him and walks before the angry mob. He can see their faces becoming pacified as they wonder what is about to happen. Moses knows this area well—he had pastured flocks here for nearly forty years. So he heads over to the notable rock, that recognizable landmark near the mountain. The luminous cloud of God’s presence moves ahead of Moses and rests upon the large stone. Moses stands there with the whole company of men and women watching him. He then takes his rod and strikes the rock with great force—the way a hunter might slay an animal. With this blow water suddenly gushes from the rock with great force.
This day the congregation receives its water, and Moses names the place “Massah,” meaning “testing.” From that point forward this was remembered as the shameful place where Israel tested God by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Forty years later, Moses preaches his final message to the children of Israel, to a new generation getting ready to enter the Promised Land. He says to them,
“You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers by thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised” (Deuteronomy 6:16-19).
And 1,500 years after this, the Son of God chooses to quote these very words to the Devil amidst His temptations in the dry wilderness. Why?
The Second Temptation
From the bleak wilderness the devil takes Jesus to the holy city Jerusalem. Whether Satan transports Jesus there in body or in a vision, we are not told. We only know that suddenly Jesus finds Himself standing on top of the pinnacle of the holy temple. Jesus can see that He is on top of Herod’s portico, and next to him is a 450-foot drop into the Kidron Valley. Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6).
Jesus knows this passage well. It is the 91st Psalm—the majestic psalm which promises refuge and protection to God’s people, deliverance from the fowler’s snare, from deadly pestilence and destruction, and from evils and plagues. Satan’s argument from Scripture is somewhat persuasive at first glance: Surely, if God promises protection for God’s people, then the long-awaited Messiah can expect the same blessings. Moreover, the psalm is written to those who “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” (Psalm 91:1), that is, the temple of God. Surely here, at the holy temple, God will uphold His promises to protect the Son of God.
Moreover, isn’t this what the people expect the Messiah to do? Couldn’t the Messiah authenticate himself by summoning the angels to catching him falling from the temple? Years after Jesus came the rabbis did circulate such a story among the Jewish people. We don’t know if such an expectation was common in Jesus’ day, but we do know that this expectation is representative of what the Jewish people desired from their deliverer: God authenticates the arrival of the Messiah with great fanfare of the miraculous.
Moreover, Psalm 91 was considered (in Jesus’ day) a Messianic Psalm, a picture of what the kingdom of God would be after Israel’s enemies were destroyed. By quoting from this psalm Satan challenges the very meaning of Jesus’ Sonship: Since you are the Son of God, since you are the Messiah, act like Him! Leap from the temple! Trust Your Father to protect You and authenticate the arrival of the kingdom!
But again, Jesus sees through the Devil’s trap, and says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7).
1. Jesus knows when Scripture is being used incorrectly
Satan chooses Psalm 91 as his proof-text, but he misses major themes throughout the psalm. The deliverance promises of this psalm go to those who “have made the Lord [their] dwelling place” (v.9) and those who hold fast to God in love and know His name (v.14). By testing the Lord, Jesus will directly disobey God: not at all indicative of someone who loves God wholeheartedly.
Moreover, Jesus knows that this psalm does not teach that the temple has special miraculous properties. Yes, it is the house of God, the place where God has placed His name, but it holds no special properties apart from God’s presence. People in Jeremiah’s day had fallen into this way of thinking. Jeremiah preaches to them:
“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ . . . Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4,8-11).
Jesus will not give into superstition. The temple is not a magic charm.
2. Jesus knows the difference between faith and presumption
Satan’s temptation is an attack on the sanity of trusting God: he wants Jesus to turn trust into presumption. Real trust does not lead someone to self-sought danger. Real faith in God does not mean we seek God for privatized magic or demand the miraculous from Him. Psalm 91 is about trusting God—not about testing Him.
If Satan’s first temptation is to be unspiritual—just rush ahead of God and take control of the situation—then this second temptation is to be super-spiritual—demand that God do the miraculous and force His hand. Certainly, Jesus will do great and miraculous things later, but only at the command of His Father.
The difference between great, mountain-moving faith and presumption is one of motive: the first is born out of an unshakable trust in the promises of God, and the second is wrought out of demand—the belief that God should conform to our ideals.
The difference between faith and presumption applies directly to our besetting sins. In our hunger for deliverance we may purposefully place ourselves in harm’s way, right in the path of temptation, testing to see if God will provide the way out. When God promises a way of escape from temptation, do we test this promise by being foolishly unguarded in where we go, what we see, what we hear, or how we live? Do we see this promise as a prescription to dance on the edge of disaster, “trusting” that God will pull us out?
Presumption also applies to our emotional response to the stresses of life. Do we test God with our complaints and grumbling? Do we murmur among ourselves about things which are not working out for us? Do we assume that God will follow our carefully planned schedules? Or do we turn our anxieties and ambitions into faith-filled prayers?
Again, if we are going to win against the devil’s schemes then we must be willing to see the root sins underneath the obvious sins. If Jesus’ second temptation shows us anything as disciples, it is that we must let every action and thought in our lives flow from a disposition of faith, not presumption. We must be willing to look long and hard at our theology and see if we have developed a man-centered understanding of God—demanding Him to meet our whims and conform to our timetables.
But the great majesty of this story is not what it teaches us about temptation or ourselves; rather, it teaches us about Christ.
The deep mystery in the story of Israel at Rephidim is the identity of the rock that gushed water. Paul writes about that generation which traveled under the cloud of God’s presence and ate the spiritual food and drank the spiritual drink. They were much like us, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, italics added).
Despite their rebellion and complaining, God still provides them water to drink, and in a manner that is most unusual. God can provide water any way He chooses. He can bring water from the rock in any manner, but he asks Moses to strike the rock. As the cloud of glory moves to rest over the great stone, it must have looked like Moses was literally striking God Himself. And the result was life-giving water.
This is exactly what Christ came to do: to be struck and beaten and thus give the water of life to the world. Jesus knows His mission will eventually bring Him to a cross where He will lay down His life, where he will be wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastised to bring us peace, and striped so we can be healed (Isaiah 53:5).
At the heart of every temptation is enticement to delight in something else more than God. Jesus overcomes the temptation to test God with the superior delight He has in trusting God, like a son trusts his father. Jesus will not doubt God’s timing or strategy or plan because He knows patient, trusting obedience yield’s God blessing, just as the text He quotes in Deuteronomy states: “And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land . . .” The good land of God’s kingdom is before Jesus’ eyes, the redemption of God’s people is at stake. Fed on that vision, Jesus resists the temptation to test God’s timing.
Because Christ is a man of faith, not presumption, he conforms His life to God’s plan, not to the popular theories of the Messiah’s coming. There, on the cross he will hear an echo of Satan’s temptation from the people who watch Him die: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. . . . He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:39-42). There, as He hangs in cruel agony, abandoned by friends and forsaken by His Father, He chooses the path of faith, not the path of presumption. He chooses to trust His Father right to the bitter end, doing all of the Father’s will, not playing to the crowd’s demands.
And because He does, because He waits on God, we receive a greater miracle than Jesus coming down from the cross. We receive the miracle of resurrection. Because He chooses the path of faith (all through His life), He is the great pioneer of our faith, blazing a trail straight to the heart of God.
Thoughts for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Read Exodus 17:1-7. What stands out to you? What in this passage is the most convicting or encouraging to you?
2. Have you ever experienced someone twisting Scripture to encourage superstition or presumption? Have you done this?
3. In what ways do you test God by your action or inaction? In what ways do you demand that God work in the ways you want Him to work?
4. Jesus died that we might experience living water flowing in our innermost being (John 7:37-39). Take time to study what this means. On your own, or in a group, attempt to answer the question: What does it mean to come to Christ and drink?