“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.”
The disobedience of Israel (Deuteronomy 8)
Hardship is a test of our loyalty and commitment. In the wilderness, the Israelites had to learn how completely dependent they were upon God, even for the most basic essentials of life. They had to learn to keep all His commandments (such as resting on the Sabbath), and to put their trust in Yahweh to bring them to their eventual destination. And once they had settled in Canaan, they were to remain loyal to Him under the equally demanding circumstances of prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)!
Unfortunately, Israel failed these tests. During their time in Sinai, they frequently rebelled against God and provoked His anger. Within a generation of entering the Promised Land, they had abandoned the worship of Yahweh and turned to idolatry (Judges 2:10-13). And He knew that this would happen (Deuteronomy 31:20).
The obedience of the Son (Hebrews 5:8,9)
Just like Israel, Jesus began His public career with a period of testing in the wilderness (the ‘forty days’ is significantly parallel to Israel’s forty years of wandering in Sinai). The next three years of His ministry, culminating in His death, were scarcely any easier. But He never put a foot wrong; He remained steadfastly obedient in the face of temptation.
What does the writer of the letter to the Hebrews mean when he says that Jesus “learned obedience from what He suffered” (verse 8)? Surely it was not that Jesus started out being disobedient and then gradually became obedient. Rather, He found out, through practising obedience, what it is like to obey even when tempted to disobey. His obedience was tested to the limit by His sufferings – and was therefore not a hypothetical obedience, but the genuine article.
The obedience of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-14) and of Peter (John 21:15-17)
If God knows everything that is in our hearts, surely He knew how much Abraham trusted Him. Why then did He need to put Abraham through all the anguish of preparing to kill his beloved son Isaac?
Peter has already failed Jesus badly (and Jesus knew that he would – He predicted Peter’s threefold denial before it happened – John 13:38). Now Jesus is asking him the painful question: “Do you love Me?” And since Jesus surely knows the answer (verse 17), why does the question need to be asked at all? Why does Peter need to be told (three times over!) to prove his love by serving the Church?
Faith and love (in their Biblical senses) are not abstract concepts but practical ones. In other words, they are actions, not feelings; they exist only when put into practice. And so even God, who knows all things, can know the reality of our faith and our love only because we act on them. “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12) Hence the necessity for faith and love to be tested by obedience. The enormity of Abraham’s faith is demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac at God’s command. The sincerity of Peter’s love for Jesus can be seen in his fulfilment of Jesus’ commission – even knowing that in the end it will cost him his life (John 21:18,19).
Our obedience? (James 2:14)
If I obey God only when His will agrees with mine, that isn’t really obedience – it’s just coincidence. Real obedience begins when I put His will above my own (as Jesus did in Gethsemane – Mark 14:36). Obedience becomes real obedience when it starts to cost – emotionally, financially, or physically. And this kind of obedience is more than just evidence of my faith in God, and of my love for God. It is the very essence of these things.