Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Cor. 10:6-11)
Last night, as I read this passage, the first phrase of verse 9 stood out to me: “nor let us tempt Christ.”
Nor let us tempt Christ.
What does that even mean? What can we as humans do that would tempt the Lord?
The passage itself points to a specific example, which can be found in Numbers 21. In this passage, the people of Israel become very discouraged, and they speak out against both God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”
They complain against their Deliverer and their leader. They forget that it’s their fault they will be dying the wilderness, since they refused to enter the land of Canaan back in Chapter 14. They even complain about the heavenly food that God has graciously provided. They don’t seem to really expect Him to do anything about it, either. Or maybe they do.
But they sure weren’t expecting what He did send – “fiery serpents.” And from that punishment arose the famous Bronze Serpent that pointed to Christ.
But what does this event tell us about what it means to tempt God? Is the temptation found in the complaining? The lack of gratitude? The selfishness?
Let’s pull out our concordance and look at the very first instance of tempting God. This can be found in Exodus 17, and so we’ll turn there for answers.
Here we find Israel journeying in the wilderness, stopping to make camp, and realizing there is no water. The Hebrews, so quick to complain and turn to anger, throng to Moses demanding that he provide them with water.
“Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (vs. 3b).
They had no faith. In spite of all the miracles they had seen, they had no faith – no expectation that God would provide their needs. Maybe they were even doubting His existence, as they accused Moses of delivering them, demanded Moses to provide water, and threatened to stone Moses if he didn’t.
Moses responds, “Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the LORD?”
But he cries out to God for help, and the LORD graciously answers his request.
Continuing to the end of the story, we find verse 7: “So he called the name of the place Massah [tempting] and Meribah [contention], because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
So our conjecture is correct. They were doubting God’s existence, doubting God’s power, doubting God’s care. Is God really there? Is He really going to do anything? It was as though they were tempting God to prove if He really was there.
We see this pattern in the New Testament as well.
In Matthew 4, we learn of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. And just as the Israelites in the wilderness long before, Satan questions Jesus’ identity and power. “If you are the Son of God, throw Yourself down.” And Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, which in its full text reads, “You shall not tempt the LORD your God as you tempted Him in Massah.”
The Israelites tempted God in Massah by asking if He was really there, if He really was going to do anything for them. And Satan tempted Jesus by asking if He really was who He claimed to be.
Other places where we see God tempted is when the Jews were trying to set Jesus up, trying to trip Him up. They were trying to disprove Who He claimed to be.
In Mark 8:11, the Pharisees tried to test Him by asking for a sign from heaven. If You really are God, then prove it! But Jesus knew their hearts and their lack of faith, and He did not give them a sign. He’d already given them plenty of signs, and they had refused to believe.
The vein continues in Acts 5:9, when Ananias and Sapphira sold some land and donated part of the proceeds. It was a noble deed – except they lied about it. They made it sound like they were donating all of the proceeds, when in reality they were keeping back some of it. And Peter responds, “How is it that you have agreed together to test [tempt] the Spirit of the Lord?” I don’t suppose the couple were intending to tempt God, but that’s what they ended up doing. Indirectly, they were asking, “Will God really know the truth? Will He even do anything about it?”
In Acts 15:10, we see an interesting application. As the disciples dispute over whether the Gentiles need to follow the Law or not, Peter stands up and says, “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”
How is this an example of testing God? Maybe Peter was trying to point out that God alone saves. By trying to put the Gentiles under the law, the disciples were unwittingly questioning God’s power to save. Can He really save them on His own, or does He need the help of the Law?
So in conclusion, I believe we find that tempting God is usually rooted in a lack of faith. It involves doubting Him: doubting His existence, doubting His power, doubting His claims. It may at times include a demand for Him to prove Himself – but all the while doubting that He will.
Now, we’ve heard the stories of men and women who begged God to show them if He is real, and He did reveal Himself. I don’t think these are instances of tempting God. Those are desperate, heartfelt cries of seekers, and God promises, “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). These cries are very different from the bitter, jeering cries of, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God” (Luke 23:35).
Let us not tempt Christ.
I think that the way we avoid this sin is by having faith, fear, and gratitude. We need to be grateful for all the blessings that God has given us, keeping our eyes open to all the ways He has already manifested Himself – recognizing that these are great gifts from God. We have no right to demand Him to give us gifts or to prove Himself. While we are to love God, we are also to hold Him in reverence, awe, and respect. And we need the faith to believe that He is who He says He is, that He is always with us, and that He will provide all our needs – because He can, and because He already does.