18 March 2008

Jesus and His "trick questions"

by Dan Phillips

When we read John 6, sometimes we Calvinists tend to race down to verse 44. But let's slow up a bit and not rush by this:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. (John 6:5-6)
On one level, I think we can look at this as a charming little story: dumb disciple, amazing Lord, big miracle. Cool! Jesus is great and powerful. Can we do verse 44 now?

When we read it that way, we feel no connection whatever between ourselves and the story itself. Which one of us has ever been in this situation? None of us. We've never been physically standing with Jesus, in immediate communication with Him; never been faced with a huge obstacle, and had Him verbally ask us, one-on-one, what we propose to do about it. Never. Huge gap between the Then and the Now, the There and the Here.

So let's step 'way back and paint the situation with a very broad brush:
  1. A disciple is pursuing God's will
  2. Providence puts a difficulty on his plate
  3. The difficulty is insurmountable
  4. He must make a decision
When we put it that way, the gap 'twixt it and us rather narrows, doesn't it?

"Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?", Jesus asks.

Today, we'd say reverently that Jesus' question was a trick-question. Not deceptive or insincere; but effective on two levels. Jesus means to teach Philip something, and He has to put him in a test-spot to do it. So Jesus in effect takes Himself out of the lead, approaches Philip as if He were observing the situation (instead of controlling it), and makes Philip deal with it.

Now, has that ever happened to us? "In the last five minutes, no," you say. "But before that, oh, about a zillion times."

Indeed yes. We're not pursuing sin in a brothel, or selling our souls to land a book-contract to peddle heresy, or waiting to rob a liquor store. We're doing something within God's will — preaching the Word, raising our children, loving our wives, doing our jobs. And then Providence drops a knotty dilemma on our plate, with no divine answer in sight.

"What are you going to do about this?", comes the question. How do we field it? Do we panic, because the train is clearly off the tracks? Do we lose all hope, all faith? Do we approach the situation as if we were indeed facing it alone, as it seems to the naked eye?

Well, look: if it weren't hard, it wouldn't be a test, would it? Do you build muscles by hefting a piece of typing paper, or by groaning over something that taxes your strength?

Nor do we grow as disciples by easy-answer situations. We grow by dealing with dilemmas, insolubles, dead-ends.

Are there promises of God's goodness, His kindness, His sovereignty, His invincible benevolence towards His elect? Is He panicked? Has He already made provision, in His eternal plan? Is there not, even in this "trick" question, a subtle hint: "Where are we to buy bread?" Philip isn't actually alone in the situation. Will he deal with it as if he were, or will he factor Jesus into the solution?

And so, in our situation: has God granted to us exceedingly great and precious promises to hold onto?

Now's the time to reach for them. The hopelessness of the situation is the illusion; the promises are the reality.

This dilemma that Providence has posed — it's a trick-question.

Careful how you answer.

Dan Phillips's signature


Rob Willmann said...


As someone who works in a Christian rescue mission, I have to *daily* handle challenges that I never thought I would deal with. Your post is spot on.

When the Lord challenges us, what do we reach toward? It seems that every time I reach for the wrong solution (such as my own way), that once the Lord calls me to task on the situation, it isn't long before I am presented with a similar challenge. It's as if the Lord continues to test me to see if I will lean on Him.

Praise Him for His ways, which are so far above ours!


FX Turk said...

We're not pursuing sin in a brothel, or selling our souls to land a book-contract to peddle heresy, or waiting to rob a liquor store.

um, let me get back to you on that ...

DJP said...

Which part?

Anonymous said...

Dan, thanks for this reminder. The truth of God's "trick questions" and quizzes to see what we've learned of His faithfulness and how we've grown is one that I've had to learn over and over again. I have studied and taught the epistle of James over and over, but it takes the Sovereign One putting me in a situation where He can test and examine me to see how I will really respond. To see if I "count it all joy" when these situations come. To see if I really am "knowing that the testing of my faith produces endurance." To remind me that endurance must have its work of completion to bring me to maturity and perfection in Him. Great stuff to teach academically. Harder stuff to live experientially.

DJP said...

You bet it is, Doulos. Nor should anyone ever think that anything I write about means "Here's something I've mastered, so now you do it too."

But I am wondering if this isn't a useful paradigm. I mean, you know, someone asks a question with a very obvious answer, and just as we open our mouths we think (maybe because of who is asking), "Wait a minute -- is this a trick question?"

And then we think again.

So I'm wondering if that isn't a Christianly useful paradigm for what we'd call rough Providence. A situation lands on us like a mountain, and it has "obvious" meaning and import, provoking an instant and "obvious" response.

But would it not be useful for us, as people called to walk by faith and not by sight, to stop and say to ourselves, "Wait a minute... this is a trick question. Better stop and think this through."

Rob Bailey said...

If I were Philip, I would be asking "Why is it my duty to buy them bread?"
What precedent was there for this question?
Philip's response and mine both mirror the responses I hear from people when it comes to our responsibilities in missions.
1. We don't have enough money.
2. Why should I go?

Strong Tower said...

You love your wife?

Their taxing our strength now. Will it never end?

All these quizezuz, when are finals?

r.d. - "It won't work" doesn't work"

This is the thing also with Philip, is it not- "You feed them-

Do you remember the last time you were forced into service? All that you did do was all that you could do and that was what God did. Too often we fall to the default position of guilt enslavement, "woe is me I have not done enough." Right answer, wrong emotion. The right assignment of guilt is with believing that we could do anything on our own in the first place, not with it not enough. Which do we fear more, failing, or the Lord? Addressing this paradigm Jesus' dealings with Peter were interesting. Peter was so confident that he would never abandon the Lord who had called him to follow, but Peter in spite of his "best" efforts did exactly what the Lord had determined before hand. Fear is also borne out in pride. Jesus' question was the same type - "Are you able?" This always seem to be the most difficult question to answer. You will see it again on the final examine. It is the same answer all the time. "Are you able to drink?" we answer wrongly "Yes, we are able." Then Jesus gives us the right answer, "No you are not able, but you will be."
And the dialogue continues. Whether we balk at the question with "It won't work." Or, "Sure Lord, I'm ready," It comes down to the providential work of God as to whether or not we will deny the Lord three times, or, if we will answer, "Lord, you know all things, you know I love you." In the end we bend the knee in utter dependence upon our Lord's provision of our daily bread, each day in preparation for the final Day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess, Jesus Christ Lord of everything.

S.J. Walker said...

thwack thwack thwack.

That's the sound of me trying to dislodge the projectile of conviction from the side of my head that resembles a tent spike with frightening accuracy.

Thanks Dan, and as for your question to Frank. I'd say the one you're thinkin'll work. :)

Anonymous said...

DJP: But would it not be useful for us, as people called to walk by faith and not by sight, to stop and say to ourselves, "Wait a minute... this is a trick question. Better stop and think this through."

It's always a good idea to stop and think before responding to any question or situation. This reminds me of an acronym we have in my workplace: STAR. Stop, Think, Act, Review. Perhaps if we as followers of Christ STARed a bit more, we would get scarred a lot less.

FX Turk said...


I'd rather not say. Would one of those be better than the others?

S.J. Walker said...


I usually got the SUIT.

(credit to Bill Engvall)

I should have listened.
You make a good point. Christ was not reactionary, because He was God. If we are supposed to be like Him, we should be less reactionary as well.
If our attitude is that of trusting in the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit as we go into situations that may or may not test us, we have our homework already done so to speak. And then when He asks "can these bones live?" We can say without hesitation, "Lord God, you know."

DJP said...

Better... for you?

DJP said...

(My last was to Frank... though I'm already kind of lost as to what we're talking about.)

Anonymous said...

A followup to the STAR methodology - Stop Think Act Review. How often do we self-sufficient Christians do the latter of these after God gets us through yet another trick question situation? How often do we review, reflect, consider how we responded and God showed grace, in the midst of a situation. Seems to me that this might be the most profitable part of the whole equation. An opportunity, while it's still fresh in our minds and hearts, to ask, "What did God teach me here?" before moving on with the next thing.

Solameanie said...

I can't help but contrast these types of knotty questions with the type raised by Emergents such as the Most Reverend McLaren. One type drives you more deeply into God's Word and prayer, while the other type serves merely to deify doubt and celebrate skepticism.

Dan, I think you and Brian should sit down for a cup of Mocca Java and compare notes. He might learn something.

Christopher Johnson said...

MAN, I like your stuff, Dan. Can't tell you the number of times I've read you, sat back and said, "Whoa."

Stefan Ewing said...

Hah, I just finished reading "These Inward Trials," the penultimate chapter of J.I. Packer's Knowing God.

This is a much more general application of Dan's thesis, but Packer's point is that as God raises us up to be mature believers, as long as there is still breath in us in this earthly, not-yet-glorified life, he will put trials in our path, in order to test, solidify, and strengthen our faith, and eliminate our self-reliance.

There are some, of course, who teach that faith in Christ is the solution to all our personal problems and that we will no longer be faced by dilemmas, trials, or our own sin nature, but Packer's point is that such teaching is unscriptural. After all, God's power is made perfect in our weakness, and we are purified in the Refiner's fire.

Stefan Ewing said...

And maybe also a useful approach to episodes of "rough Providence"—before deciding upon a course of action—would be to ask, "What is God teaching me here?" ...And pray!

I can think of too many examples just in the last year of where God was teaching me a lesson that I needed to learn, through the trials and travails of everyday life.

Anonymous said...

Stefan, your comment reminds me of a story told by Warren Wiersbe about a lady in a church he was pastoring. She had numerous trials in a short period of time, she lost he sight, her husband nearly died, etc. One Sunday Wiersbe told he he was praying for her. She asked what he was praying for. He replied, "For God's strength and grace in the trials." Her response was, "That's great, but pray for one more thing. Pray that I don't waste any of this."

Is that our attitude in the middle of tough trick questions that the providence of God brings to us? Hmmm...

Matt said...

Dan, thanks so much for this post. I've been going through one of those "trick question" situations. I've tried planning my way out of it so many times, all to no avail. I realize I'm not so self-sufficient after all.

I have to heartily agree with Stefan and Doulos. God uses these things to bring us to our knees and destroy any remnant of our own sufficiency and ability.

Perhaps it was providential that I also blogged on God's providence in Exodus 16 today! Before I came here! And then I ate the bowl. (Okay, only Canadians will get that last sentence).

DJP said...

My life is a trick question.

Unknown said...

Our Bible study group is looking at the flip side of this. 2Chronicles 20: Jehoshaphat (pursuing God's will)is facing the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites as they come to make war with him (the difficulty Providence put on Jehoshaphat's plate). The difficulty appears insurmountable. He must make a decision. What on earth will he do? Gather his generals, wring his hands, make strategies and plots and plans? Nope.

He turned his attention to seek the Lord. He proclaimed a fast. All of Judah gathered together to seek help from the Lord. Jehoshaphat publicly poured out praise to the Lord and laid his petition before God, then stood waiting.

Jahaziel piped up with these glorious words: "Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God's. ...station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem!" They put the musicians out front of the troops, loudly singing of the Lord's lovingkindness, and watched as their enemies slayed each other.

Look what can happen when we leave it in His hands.

Strong Tower said...


As Dandy Dan said, do we live by faith or by sight? The word of God gives us assurance that he will never leave us nor forsake us. His providential care is abundant in love for his sheep even in the valley of the shadow. So, as you rightly point out, stand your ground. What you had to say jives nicely with Ephesians, having done all to stand, STAND.

Unknown said...

Strong Tower - I pray that someday my instinctive response will be as Jehoshaphat's. Pray, praise, STAND. Amen!!

DJP said...

That is a good flip-side, Rabbit. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Now I'm all in a dither. DJP commented to me. :)

DJP said...

Don't get too dithery; I'm fairly chatty. (c;

Christopher, thanks so much for the kind words. I appreciate it.

Rob Willmann, I'll bet you could lay in some illustrations of your own!

Mike Hall said...


I want to make you aware of a breaking story that Dr. Tom Ascol, Dr. Russell Moore, and Tim Ellsworth have all mentioned in their blogs. Please do what you can to help parents be aware of what their children might not be taught this Easter Sunday.

Mike Hall

Anonymous said...

I can echo Matt who said, "I've been going through one of those "trick question" situations. I've tried planning my way out of it so many times, all to no avail. I realize I'm not so self-sufficient after all."

This post was in my face...in a good way. Thanks, Dan.

marie said...

God giving us open-ended ("trick") questions to test us. Certainly sounds like a faith-builder to me; an effective way to learn the lesson at hand. Now, in that same vein, do you think in a way Jesus was doing the same thing in the account of the Canaanite woman requesting healing for her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30)?

Of all the things the Lord said during His ministry, His comments here to the woman confuse me the most. Clearly Jesus was not xenophobic; He healed a centurion's son and salvation is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. So what gives?

A pastor once suggested to me that His response may have been intended to test His disciples. He knew of course in advance that the woman would not be dissuaded from her faith, but He wanted to show the apostles their own prejudice and was indirectly causing them to examine their own hearts by His answer.

I'm not sure I buy that, but do you think this is the type of "trick question" (or statement) Christ makes? I've yet to read a commentary on that passage that explains His intent satisfactorily.