The wilderness is a recurring theme found throughout scripture. One may think of eccentric ascetic figures such as Elijah, Isaiah, and John the Baptist, who were known for living in wadis and being fed by ravens, preaching naked for three years, and eating locust and wild honey, respectively. The season of Lent, while bringing to mind all of these wonderful figures, focuses particularly on two interrelated periods: Israel’s wilderness wanderings and Jesus’ time in the wilderness. These were crucial periods for both Israel’s history and Jesus’ ministry, as each were led out to meet God in a barren land.
As Israel was led triumphantly through the waters of the Red Sea, they found themselves in the desert wilderness, lacking both food and water and questioning God’s purposes in delivering them from Egypt. The first events that took place there showed their tendency to complain against God when faced with adversity.
One particular incident, recalled in Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13, describes how the Israelites complained against Moses because of the lack of water and put the LORD to the test by demanding it. Moses went on to name that place Massah, meaning test, and Meribah, meaning quarrel. Later Old Testament writers looked back to this event as a kind of paradigmatic disobedience by Israel. In Deuteronomy 6:16, Moses, on the verge of the promised land, declares to his hearers, “do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” Similarly, the writer of Psalm 95 commands his fellow Israelites, “Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” Israel’s time in the wilderness is thus looked back upon as one of distrusting God, and later writers encouraged them not to repeat this unbelief.
The Gospel writers purposefully draw on this tradition by tying Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness to Israel’s time in the wilderness. But they do so in a way which presents Jesus as an obedient and faithful Israelite who did not repeat Israel’s sin. Besides the connection with the number forty, the events surrounding Jesus’ time in the wilderness is strongly reminiscent of Israel’s. As Israel passed through the waters and was led out to the wilderness to face a period of testing, so Jesus, following the waters of baptism, “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.”
Furthermore, Jesus’ responses to Satan’s temptations are drawn directly from texts that refer to Israel’s time in the wilderness. In response to the first temptation to turn stone into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:4, declaring that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Directly prior to this verse in Deuteronomy, Moses had told the Israelites, “remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” Whereas Israel revealed their heart to be full of unbelief, Jesus showed himself to be pure and faithful.
Similarly, in response to the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus quotes the first half of Deuteronomy 6:16 , saying “do not put the Lord your God to the test.” This draws a direct connection with Israel’s time at Massah. Jesus heeds both Moses’ and the psalmist’s warnings not to repeat Israel’s testing and quarrelling that took place there.
Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness was also a time where he was tempted to take a form of Messiahship not in line with God’s plan. At a time when Rome dominated Israel in every aspect of its life, the temptation to pursue a kingship which took “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” by force was most certainly very real. But Jesus remained obedient to God and hostile to the true enemy that held his people captive. In doing so, he embraced the messiahship marked by the cross, which turned out to be his greatest victory. As the apostle Paul explains, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them by it (the cross).” So what appeared to be two of Jesus’ weakest moments- fasting in the desert and crucified on a cross- were actually his moments of greatest victory.
Thus the forty days of Lent climax in the cross of Good Friday. And as we continue our lenten wilderness march, we march towards the cross. But we go in victory, knowing that our saviour remained faithful and our enemy has been defeated. And we go, having the secure hope of resurrection on the other side. Lent, then, is a time of embracing weakness so that we may share Christ’s victory. It is a time of wilderness warfare in which we are already victorious.
Sam is originally from Calgary and has been attending Redemption Church in its various forms for the past four years. He's a graduate of Regent College, and enjoys theology, working with the Redemption youth group, travelling, ice hockey, kittens, and ducklings.