Try Me and See: Jesus and the Test of Obedience

Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven …

But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves … Do you not yet understand, or remember?”

(Matthew 16:1, 8-9, NKJV)

I think I should point out: Jesus could have shown the Pharisees and Sadducees a sign from heaven.

That’s one of the interesting aspects of this story, and of Jesus’s whole life on earth. It’s interesting because it’s so current: if God exists, our neighbors ask, why doesn’t he just show himself?

Why doesn’t he make himself unmistakable?

God is hidden, we say, therefore he must not be real. Never mind that the laws of physics are hidden, to our eyes at least; we see their effects, but no one has ever seen gravity. Never mind that love is invisible, and yet it makes our world.

Our questions (demands) may seem reasonable, yet they do not lead us good directions. In the “testing” of the Pharisees and Sadducees there’s a clear echo of another test, also recorded by Matthew:

Then the Devil took Him to the holy city, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:

He will give His angels orders concerning you,
and they will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike
your foot against a stone.”

(Matthew 4:5-6)

But Jesus said to him, “Do not test the Lord your God.”

Whether the tempter was Satan or a human being, Jesus never would play along. He resisted manipulation, always. He never allowed anyone to take the position of judge over him — to force his hand. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not asking for a response to faith. They were asking for control.

Jesus couldn’t give them that.

For man to control God would, after all, be a dangerous thing.

The Right Way to Test God

Is there no way, then, to see the hidden and invisible? No way to test it? Drop an apple, and gravity will prove itself, as it did to Isaac Newton. Is there any way to righteously test God?

Actually, there is, but it requires faith — that is, the willingness to commit oneself in trust. It requires surrender, not grasping after control. We can’t do it without humility.

It’s the way of obedience.

In the Old Testament book of Malachi, God challenged the people of Israel to hold up their end of his covenant with them. In this specific context, the issue was their refusal to pay the tithes and offerings they owed:

“Since the days of your fathers, you have turned from My statutes; you have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of Hosts.

But you ask: “How can we return?”

“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!”

You ask: “How do we rob You?”

“By not making the payments of the tenth and the contributions. You are suffering under a curse, yet you—the whole nation—are still robbing Me. Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this way,” says the LORD of Hosts. “See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure.” (Malachi 3:7-10, emphasis mine)

Tithing to the temple was a part of Israel’s covenant responsibility, voluntarily entered into by them. But the bigger issue was obedience.

This is still the way to test God, the way to know whether what he says about himself is true — by letting go of control, stepping out in faith, and acting in obedience.

Unlike the disciples, the Pharisees and Sadducees were not willing to test Jesus in this way — by actually doing what he said.

Obedience isn’t glamorous, because Jesus asks us to do such simple things. In the moment, it might have looked like the Pharisees and Sadducees had more faith than the disciples did: they were asking for a miracle! The disciples were just following Jesus and listening to him, without asking for anything. They were doing the things Jesus taught: following him, praying, giving, forgiving, trusting, turning the other cheek.

But it was the disciples who, if they stayed the course, would see God. Jesus promised that in his first great message, the Sermon on the Mount — “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Purification of heart would come through faith in Jesus and active obedience to him. This was part of Malachi’s long-ago message too:

“Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD as in days of old and years gone by. (Malachi 3:1b-4)

The act of following Jesus works in our hearts like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye: as we obey his word, we “prove his good, perfect, and acceptable will” through our own transformation (see Romans 12:2).

Obedience is the way to know truth; empowered by the Spirit and grace of God, it is the way to know God.

The Truth Will Set You Free

The truth that sets us free is not mere knowledge, but truth lived out — truth put to the test, not from a place of doubt and demanding, but from a posture of faith and trust. This is the message Jesus gave in John 7 and 8:

Jesus answered them, “My teaching isn’t Mine but is from the One who sent Me. If anyone wants to do His will, he will understand whether the teaching is from God or if I am speaking on My own … If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 7:16-17, John 8:31-32)

And again, in John 14:

“The one who has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves Me. And the one who loves Me will be loved by My Father. I also will love him and will reveal Myself to him … If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (John 14:21, 23)

Obedience, from a place of desire, love, and faith, empowers understanding and revelation. God shows himself, not by manifesting himself across the sky in some cataclysmic, unmistakable sign manifest to all of humanity, but by entering into an intimate and transformational relationship with everyone willing to take him at his word.

It Starts with Faith

In the Bible, obedience and faith are never separated. One requires the other. And both, together, lead to true understanding and knowledge of God.

When Jesus warned his disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees and they immediately began reproaching themselves for forgetting to bring bread, he asked them why they “reasoned among themselves” about it, and he commented on their “little faith.” (The NKJV wording here, “reason among,” is better than the Holman’s “discussed among themselves.”)

Because they lacked faith, they were incapable of understanding. Reason is a gift from God and a helpful tool for us, but when it comes to the things of God, reason is hobbled if it doesn’t come from faith.

In their “little faith,” the disciples lost their connection to Jesus and what he was doing, so much so that they completely misunderstood what he said — they fell back on habits of self-recrimination and heard a rebuke where Jesus was offering a teaching that had nothing to do with bread, or logistics, or who was responsible for what.

This story really hits home for me, because I have done this countless times. I am so accustomed to seeing the world through a certain lens that I fit even the teachings of Jesus into that lens instead of allowing them to reform my worldview. When I do, I am at risk of operating in the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees — construing Jesus’s teachings wrongly, trying to manipulate and control him, and ultimately operating from a place of hypocrisy (unreality) in my spiritual life.

To grow their faith, Jesus pointed the disciples back to their experiences with him — the things they had seen and experienced in the course of walking with him. “Don’t you understand or remember,” he asked, “how many people I fed, and how many baskets I took up?” Our own history with God often contains the keys to our understanding, but it’s a history we only possess as we actually follow him — one day, one step at a time.

For me, the way is the same as it was for the disciples. Jesus calls me, and you, and all of us, to obey ¬— to walk the road that leads to life, to know the truth that sets us free.

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This is Part 239 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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