While the number of terms denoting temptation and testing is small, their range of meaning is wide, extending from a secular sense of trying something out to a religious sense of luring toward evil. In the Old Testament the most common terms are bahan [;j'B] and nasa [a'f"n]. Bahan [;j'B] is used in the sense of examining to determine value ( Job 7:18 ; Psalm 139:23 ). A literal application is to the testing of metal to determine its purity ( Job 23:10 ; Zech 13:9 ). It is also used of the testing of persons. Nasa [a'f"n] exhibits a similar range of meaning. It may mean try in the sense of attempt ( Deut 4:34 ). In 1 Samuel 17:39 David refuses Saul's armor because he has not tested it. The term is also used of the testing of persons ( Gen 22:1 ).
Corresponding to the Hebrew bahan [;j'B] is the Greek dokimazo [dokimavzw] and its cognates. It is used of the testing of buildings ( 1 Cor 3:13 ) and precious metals ( 1 Peter 1:7 ), as well as of Christian character ( Rom 5:4 ; James 1:2-3 ). But by far the most common term in the New Testament is peirazo [peiravzw] and its cognates. This verb expresses the idea of trying in the sense of attempting ( Acts 9:26 ; 26:21 ), but the overwhelming majority of uses denote the testing of persons ( Gal 6:1 ; Heb 11:17 ).
Christian believers are encouraged to test themselves ( 2 Cor 13:5 ). Sometimes the precise objective is stated: to ensure fitness for the Lord's Supper ( 1 Cor 11:28 ) or to distinguish authentic prophetic utterances from unauthentic ones ( 1 Thess 5:21 ; 1 John 4:1 ). Second Corinthians 13:5 shows that testing can have a negative outcome even though that is not its intended purpose.
At times persons are tested by others to prove their truthfulness ( Gen 42:15 ), knowledge ( 1 Kings 10:1 ), or character ( Job 34:36 ). Jesus is tested by the Pharisees with hostile intent ( Matt 16:1 ; Mark 10:2 ). God puts people to the test to disclose their inner quality, testing the heart and the thoughts ( Prov 17:3 ; Jer 12:3 ; 1 Chron 29:17 ) so much so that those seeking his approval implore him to do so ( Psalm 17:3 ; 26:2 ; 139:23 ). In particular, he tests those exercising a pivotal role in his purposes, such as Abraham ( Gen 22:1 ) and especially the people of Israel ( Exod 15:25 ; 16:4 ; Deut 8:2 ; 13:3 ). Jesus also tested people ( John 6:6 ). Those who emerge successfully from such testing are described as "attested" or "approved" ( 1 Thess 2:4 ; 2 Tim 2:15 ). The recognition that God holds the power of testing is expressed in Matthew 6:13. While it is accepted throughout the Bible that God puts people to the test, the form of his involvement is carefully defined.
Positively, the purpose of God's testing is that it might go well with his people and keep them from sinning ( Exod 20:20 ; Deut 8:16 ). When they experience enticement to evil, he is able to deliver them ( 1 Cor 10:13 ; 2 Peter 2:9 ; Rev 3:10 ). Negatively, it is denied that God tempts anyone to evil ( James 1:13 ). God can also be the object of testing, particularly on the part of those who question his will or power. The classic example in the Old Testament is the Israelites in the wilderness, who tested God by doubting his presence with them and care for them ( Exodus 17:2 Exodus 17:7 ). On the other hand, in some instances God invites people to put him to the test so that his power and benevolence may be made clear ( Isa 7:10-12 ; Mal 3:10 ). The picture in the New Testament is no different. It is possible and dangerous to test God's tolerance of sin ( Acts 5:9 ; 1 Cor 10:9 ; Heb 3:9 ) or the scope of his grace ( Acts 15:10 ).
In Jesus' ministry Satan stands out as the great choreographer of temptation, so that he is referred to as the tempter ( Matt 4:3 ) and the devil ( Mark 1:13 ). His single purpose is to harass the people and destroy the work of God ( Acts 5:3 ; 2 Cor 2:11 ; 1 Thess 3:5 ; Rev 2:10 ; 12:9 ). But the prime target of his attention is Christ, and in particular, at two critical points in Jesus' saving mission: his baptism and death. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-11 depict Jesus as tempted to deviate from his appointed task by seeking provision, protection, and fake power as Israel had done in the wilderness. But Jesus triumphed where Israel failed. Mark 1:13 describes the same struggle, but in terms suggestive of the temptation in paradise, whose gates Christ reopened by his victory. The climactic test is in Gethsemane, where the incitement to avoid the cross is described as temptation by all the Synoptists ( Matt 26:41 ; Mark 14:38 ; Luke 22:46 ). The language of the "evil inclination" is not prominent in the New Testament in connection with temptation, although the idea is not absent ( 1 Cor 5:5 ; 1 Tim 1:20 ; James 1:14-15 ). Other terms such as "flesh" carry that sense, but in speaking of temptation the New Testament writers appear to prefer apocalyptic over anthropological language.
In general, testing and temptation are facts within God's world and constitute some of the tools through which he is bringing to fulfillment his redemptive purpose. Both trials (as revealing and stimulating character and progress) and temptations (understood as allurements to evil) may minister to the divine purpose, provided the outcome is positive ( James 1:12 ). But there is this important distinction: since temptation embodies incitement to evil, it cannot be God's doing ( James 1:13 ). Hence the tendency of the biblical writers is to say that while God sustains his people during testing ( Rom 5:3 ; Rev 3:10 ), he delivers them from temptation ( 1 Cor 10:13 ; 2 Peter 2:9 ). What is true in the private experiences of individuals is also true in the history of salvation in which the testing of Abraham ( Gen 22:1 ), Israel ( Psalm 66:8-12 ), or Christ ( Heb 2:17-18 ) contributed to the furtherance of God's saving purpose.
Temptation neither constitutes nor necessarily leads to sin. Temptation could not destroy Christ's sinlessness ( Heb 4:15 ), and his temptations were entirely like those of all other humans ( Heb 2:17 ). Still more, succumbing to temptation is never inevitable. The triumph of Christ over the powers of darkness ( Matt 12:28-29 ; Col 1:13 ) means that a way of escape is always open for those united to him ( 1 Cor 10:13 ). When temptation is yielded to, forgiveness is available through Christ ( Heb 2:18 ; 4:14-16 ; 1 John 2:1 ).
Alex R. G. Deasley
Bibliography. E. Best, The Temptation and the Passion; B. Gerhardsson, The Testing of God's Son; W. Popkes, EDNT, 3:64-67; W. Schneider and C. Brown, NIDNTT, 3:798-808; H. Seesemann, TDNT, 6:23-36.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Temptation, Test'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".