Lent in the Bible and the Temptation of Jesus

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“What are you giving up for Lent?” is a common question on my Facebook feed this week as my Catholic and some Protestant friends confront their inner demons or look to bring themselves closer to God for in preparation for Easter. A few friends are giving up alcohol, one is becoming a vegetarian, and at least one poor soul is trying to use his iPhone less often. Even those who are not deeply religious, or whose denomination does not celebrate Lent, are getting into the act. The act of giving up something solemnizes the season and serves as a daily reminder to be thankful for the things that we have.

Not all Christian denominations celebrate Lent, and even those that do disagree on some of the specifics, but Lent commemorates and prepares believers for the coming of the crucifixion. For most, it is a period of around forty days from Ash Wednesday (better known in some circles as “the morning after Mardi Gras”) and ending the friday before Palm Sunday, Holy Week. Lent also brings the story of Jesus full circle: as Christians prepare for the end of Jesus’s time on Earth, Lent calls back to just prior to his ministry, one of the first stories of the New Testament: the Temptation of Jesus. Jesus’s forty days in the desert, culminating as he resists three temptations by Satan, was his call to arms to begin teaching the masses. Even for non-Christians, it’s a great story with explicit connections to the Hebrew Bible.

Forty days, three temptations, and only one link to click. Read on for more.

When Was Jesus Tempted?

Temptation of Jesus from the Saint Germain Cathedral in Paris
Temptation of Jesus from the Saint Germain Cathedral in Paris (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Jesus’s temptation by Satan appears in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark provides only a “Cliff Notes” version of the story, just a mention in passing. Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are nearly identical and go into detail about Jesus’s conversation with Satan, while still disagreeing on some key points. In each of these gospels, Jesus is tempted shortly after his baptism by John the Baptist and immediately before beginning his ministry in Galilee.

Mark sums up the story pretty well, so let’s just start with him:

At once [immediately after his baptism] the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Mark 1:12-13

The key detail that all three versions of the story have in common is that Jesus was in the “wilderness” (generally believed to be the Judean Desert) for forty days, an important parallel to the many events in the Hebrew Bible that happen for either forty days (such as Noah’s Flood) or forty years (the Israelites wandering in the desert). Matthew and Luke make the connection to the story of the Exodus explicit. But the three versions of the story do have small differences:

Temptation of Jesus - Differences

 MatthewMarkLuke
Attended by angels?YesYesNo
When did Satan visit?After forty daysDuring forty daysDuring forty days
First TemptationStones to breadn/aStones to bread
Second TemptationHighest point in templen/aAll the kingdoms
Third TemptationAll the kingdomsn/aHighest point in the temple

None of these differences are important to the story! But I notice, for example, that Mark and Luke are clear that Jesus is tempted for the entire forty days. But Matthew suggests that Satan only appeared to Jesus at the end of the forty days, when he was at his weakest:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Matthew 4:1-3 (Emphasis mine)

In this post, I am going to use the order as described by Matthew. In my view, this is the most beautiful version of the story because the temptations start inward and gradually grow: first about only Jesus, then about the Temple (signifying Israel), and finally the whole world is the temptation. Let’s take a look at them now.

The First Temptation

"The Temptation of Christ" by John de Flandes, circa 1500. In this painting, the wilderness is depicted as European rather than Judean. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
“The Temptation of Christ” by John de Flandes, circa 1500. In this painting, the wilderness is depicted as European rather than Judean. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless of whether Satan appeared after forty days, or at some point in the middle, he challenges Jesus: prove that you are the Son of God by performing a miracle! Of course, Jesus refuses. The words that Jesus uses, “man can not live on bread alone […]”, are one of the famous quotes from the bible, but Jesus was not the first person to say those words– he was quoting Moses from Deuteronomy 8.

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. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3 (emphasis mine)

In this speech, Moses is reminding the Israelites that God fed them during their forty years in the desert, but not only with manna. It was God’s law, delivered on Sinai, that was the truest sustenance. By saying these words, we also realize what Jesus’s time in the desert is all about: this is a second exodus. When Jesus returns to civilization, he will be returning as a new man with a new mission– as different from the man that came before as Jacob was from Moses.

Second Temptation of Jesus

Detail from "Three Temptations of Christ" by Sando Botticelli, c. 1481. Satan stands with Jesus on top of the Temple in Jerusalem. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Detail from “Three Temptations of Christ” by Sando Botticelli, c. 1481. Satan stands with Jesus on top of the Temple in Jerusalem. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At this point, our story diverges. In Matthew, the second temptation is to be taken to the temple in Jerusalem, while the third is to see all the kingdoms of the world. Luke includes the same two temptations, but in the reverse order. Let’s follow Matthew:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Matthew 4:5-6

In the first test, Satan was using Jesus’s hunger, but in this second test Satan is using Jesus’s own knowledge of the Hebrew Bible against him. It is a fantastic reminder that not all men and women who quote scripture are good! In specific, Satan was quoting from Psalm 91:

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:9-12 (emphasis mine)

Of course: he’s quoting it wrong. When Psalm 91 says “make the Most High your dwelling”, it is a statement of the importance of keeping God in your heart rather than the literal-minded Satan’s interpretation of actually finding the highest point of the temple. Jesus again responds by quoting Moses:

Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.
Deuteronomy 6:13-16 (emphasis mine)

As Moses led his people through the desert, they ran out of water and the Israelites threatened to stone him unless he (and God) performed a miracle. In the Exodus story, Moses was forced to prove that God was with them and made the miracle. Jesus does not make the same mistake here. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus does not need proof to know that God is with him. Jesus also knows that Satan is mis-representing the Psalm. In the end, the second temptation is passed and Satan tries one more time.

 

Third Temptation of Jesus

A painting by Alexandr Ivanov, 19th century, depicting Jesus at the top of the world. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A painting by Alexandr Ivanov, 19th century, depicting Jesus at the top of the world. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew and Luke’s versions of the third temptation are slightly different. Jesus is no longer being tempted by food, or by scripture, but rather by worldly power. Here is Luke’s version:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
Luke 4:5-8

Matthew’s version has two small differences:

  • Jesus is taken to a “very high mountain” (4:8) rather than a “high place”.
  • In Luke, Satan claims to control all the nations of the world, while in Matthew he says only that he can give them to Jesus.

The second issue is a tiny one, though it may be a political message: Satan implicitly claims in Luke to even control Israel, which was under Roman occupation at the time. In both versions, Satan offers jesus worldly power in exchange for subjugation. And how does Jesus respond? He quotes Moses from the Hebrew Bible. But notice that Jesus does not speak against having the “authority” or “splendor” over the kingdoms of the world, but rather to Satan’s means of getting them: worshipping him. Jesus, through his ministry, intends to have an impact over all of those kingdoms, but he is going to do it by bringing people to God, rather than Satan.

Conclusion

Two elements bind the story of Jesus’s temptation to the holiday of Lent: the duration (forty days), as well as the message of avoiding temptation. Although based on a biblical story, Lent is not described in the bible itself and may not have been celebrated prior to the fourth century. I have been unable to find when Lent was first connected temptation of Jesus, whether the forty days were created first and attached to the story or vice-versa. It hardly matters.

A few more tidbits before we close:

  • While the Bible does not specify where Jesus’s temptations happened, some Christians believe that it was on The Mount of Temptation, now a religious tourist attraction.
  • The name “Lent” originally derives from an Old English word that means “spring” and did not get its modern exclusively-religious meaning until later.
  • While we say that there are forty days in Lent, different denominations count them differently. In Roman Catholicism, for example, Sundays are not counted, nor is Holy Week. Others count Sundays or even count neither Sundays nor Saturdays, or have other schemes for determining the start and end of Lent.

Up next will probably be a look at the Jewish holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther.

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