The story goes that two high school football players were taking a biology test. Only a couple of hours after they had finished, they were called into the principal's office. With a serious face and somber tone, the principal said to the boys, "I have reason to believe that the two of you cheated on your biology test earlier this afternoon." Not surprisingly, they both adamantly denied any such wrongdoing. So the principal systematically laid out his case. "You both got questions 8, 14, and 15 wrong," he began. "Yeah, but I'm sure other kids got those questions wrong too," they protested. "They were hard questions! It's just a coincidence." "Yes," the principal continued, "but neither one got the answer to question 20 correct. In fact, you, John, just wrote 'I don't know' as your answer to that question." "Well," John retorted, "I didn't know! That's not cheating! That's just an honest answer." "Yes," the principal pressed, "but you, Peter, in response to the same question, wrote, 'I don't know either.'"
Tests. They're something not many of us like to take. And sometimes, in a moment of weakness, we may even engage in dishonesty in an attempt to pass one. In fact, according to a survey in U.S. News and World Report, 80% of so-called "high-achieving" high school students admitted to cheating, along with 75% of college students. Moreover, a 2006 study conducted by Claremont Graduate University found that 61% of all tenth graders reported being affected by a clinical psychological condition known as "test anxiety," which often leads to cheating. It seems tests are almost universally feared.
Our reading for today from Matthew 4 begins: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the deserted to be tempted by the devil" (verse 1). Quite honestly, this verse has always bothered me. Why would the Spirit lead Jesus to a place where the devil can tempt him with all sorts of wicked sin and desire? Does not the Bible say, "God tempts no one" (James 1:13)? Yes, but Christ's "temptation" by the devil is only half of this story.
The Greek word for "tempt" is peirazo, which can not only mean "tempting," a word that has negative connotations of leading people into sin, it can also mean "testing," which is something that God himself does with those he loves. An example of such testing is offered by the author of Hebrews: "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned'" (Hebrews 11:17-18). Abraham is peirazo-d by God when God says to him, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about" (Genesis 22:2). God wants to see if Abraham will follow his every command, even when his command seems shatteringly devastating and oppressive. Gloriously, Abraham passes God's test, and God spares Isaac's life. This, then, is what the Spirit is doing with Jesus: he is leading him into the desert to be "tested."
But there is a double entendre in Matthew's use of peirazo. Because although the Spirit may be using Jesus' trial in the desert as a test, Satan wants to twist it into a temptation. For Jesus has been fasting for forty days and is now hungry (cf. verse 2). And it is then that Satan arrives to see if he can use Jesus' test in hunger to tempt him into vice: "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread" (verse 3). In other words, "Let me take your test in hunger," Satan says, "and turn it into an opportunity for sin - to fill your grumbling stomach in a way that would dishonor God." To put it another way, Satan's desire is that Jesus gets an "F" on the Spirit's test. But Jesus, although willing to endure the Spirit's holy test, will not put up with Satan's sinister temptations. "Away from me, Satan!" Jesus shouts (verse 10). And Jesus passes the Spirit's test. For he rejects the way of sin and walks in the way of righteousness.
James writes, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (James 1:2-3). God, James says, tests his people, even as he tested his Son. But he does not test us in the hope that we will fail. Nor does he test us out of a sadistic desire that we will suffer and stumble. No, God tests us for our good. He tests us so that we may persevere in life and in faith.
So today, live your life knowing that this is a test. But it's a test that, by God's grace, you can surely pass. No test anxiety necessary.