Lent: Why Jesus was Tested in the Wilderness

The Spirit shoved Jesus into the wildernessThe Spirit shoved Jesus into the wilderness.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart… And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
Mark 1:10-12 NRSV

Immediately after God rips open the sky and declares Jesus the beloved Son, the Spirit expels Him from the Jordan River saying, “Go! Figure things out so we can get started.”

What a way to fill a guy with self-confidence, then rip it away…

Why did the Spirit throw Jesus into the wilderness with such force that Mark uses the word ἐκβάλλω, the same word used to exorcise a demon?

What was so necessary that Jesus didn’t have a choice?

According to Matthew, Jesus must be tested by the devil.

to be [tested] by the devil.
Matthew 4:1 NRSV

Many of our translations use the word tempted rather than tested, but tempted has unintended negative connotations. Tested more accurately describes the ordeal.

A test reveals what the student has learned. They are difficult, stressful, and challenging. This examination in the rugged wilderness will reveal how Jesus perceives His identity.

Before entering public ministry, God must be certain of Jesus’ heart.

His wilderness experience parallels that of the Israelites’ following their freedom from Egypt. God brought them through the Red Sea and into the wilderness to teach them to be His people—to prepare them to be a light to the world.

But as soon as they feel hungry, they forget that God rescued them from Egypt with plagues from which they were miraculously spared. They only see their present rugged, dry, hungry, and thirsty circumstances. And they complain.

If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
Exodus 16:2-3 NRSV

They distrust God’s intentions, doubt that He’ll provide.
If God is for us, why are we so uncomfortable with no relief in sight?

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. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna… in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Deuteronomy 8:2-3 NRSV

Let’s break this down. God let them hunger, then fed them so they’d know they needed more than bread to live; they needed God’s Word. The Bible Project’s Tim Mackie helped me understand. Humans can certainly survive on bread. But when God gives them purpose, meaning, and loving relationship they thrive and flourish as the humans made in His image. To thrive, humans need God to guide and provide. His commandments lead to flourishing.

Jesus faces the same hunger test, in the same place that God examined the Israelites’ hearts. Where they failed, Jesus must succeed as the obedient, flourishing, image of God that humans were created to be. Will He pass?

Jesus is famished from fasting 40 days when the devil questions His loyalty:

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Luke 4:3 NRSV

The devil’s taunt beckons Jesus to doubt God’s goodness. “Why are you out here? If you’re the Son of God, you don’t have to be hungry! Why go through hell when you can fix this? Why is God starving you? He certainly doesn’t have your best interests in mind.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Luke 4:4 NRSV

Jesus’ recalls the Deuteronomy lesson and refuses to misuse His power for personal gain, trusting God’s provision and plan. Jesus won’t take a shortcut. Jesus answers the devil’s question:

My physical circumstances do not change the fact that God calls me beloved.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.There are no witnesses to Jesus’ time in the wilderness, so Jesus deems the experience important enough to later relay to his disciples (and us). He knows we’ll face similar tests.

Jesus warns of the voices that will encourage us to doubt God’s love.

Much like the wilderness, life can be harsh. We struggle against cultural influences and family values. We suffer losses, lacks, and loneliness. Jesus does too. Yet He trusts God over his physical need.

However, non-Christians (and sometimes Christians) will look at our circumstances and question God’s love for us:

  • Why does God allow (or cause) you to suffer? Doesn’t He care?
  • Does He really have your best interests in mind?

And we, too, are shoved into the wilderness.

Welcome to Lent when we follow Jesus into the wilderness and examine our hearts for 40 days. Consider these reflections:

  • Identity in God’s Eyes: God affirmed Jesus as his beloved before facing trials. God declares you His cherished son/daughter created in His image. Jesus loves you and gave His life for you. How does this identity strengthen your resolve?
  • Tests and Trust: Trials reveal character, test our obedience, and strengthen our faith that God is good and faithful. Do you perceive hardships as obstacles to overcome or opportunities for growth? Do you sometimes compromise God’s instructions to ease adversity?
  • Trust God’s Love: God can feel distant and unconcerned during times of hardship but hold fast to God’s unwavering love. How can you remember that your physical circumstances aren’t a measure of God’s love for you?

Digging deeper:
If you’ve been a reader for any length of time, you know I love cross-references! The exchange between Jesus and the devil is the perfect example of enhancing the meaning of scripture by following and understanding the reference. These hyperlinks excite me and add significance to Jesus’ encounter.

This post only examines the devil’s first test. The remaining two also gain meaningful context from Old Testament references—Deuteronomy and the Psalms. Are you curious enough to do the work? If so, tell me what you discover in the comments.

Digging even deeper:

Curious what Ash Wednesday is about or why we smudge ashes on our foreheads? Click the links.
Curious about Fat Tuesday or why Lent lasts 40 days? Click the links.

James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974).

Tim Mackie, “E3: Testing Jesus in the Wilderness,” May 14, 2018, Matthew Marathon, Exploring My Strange Bible Podcast, MP3, 1hr, https://bibleproject.com/podcast/matthew-p3-testing-jesus-wilderness/

#seedsofscripture #readthebiblebetter #biblestudy #studytheword #studythescriptures #lent2024 #ashwednesday #ashwednesday2024 #inthewilderness #lentenjourney


  1. Barbara Latta on February 15, 2024 at 2:32 PM

    Great information, Cathy. I, too, love to dig deeper and find the meaning of Hebrew and Greek words. This lets us know the context the Scriptures were written in. We can know the truth and be set free.

    • CathyChung on February 21, 2024 at 8:54 PM

      Original language studies are fascinating!

  2. J.D. Wininger on February 22, 2024 at 5:50 AM

    Thanks for sharing your insights Ms. Cathy. Always learning, and always enjoy different perspectives on things. God’s blessings ma’am.

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