by Matthew C. Harrison
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:12–13).
“And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry” (Luke 4:2).
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matt. 4:1–2).
Why did Jesus fast in the wilderness? Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes that Jesus fasted because He is Israel reduced to one. “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1). Already at the time of the great Exodus of God’s people from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, God said, “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22). The Lord brought His people out of bondage and back to the Promised Land, but they blew it almost every step of the way. They worshiped idols. They grumbled. They were thankless. God sentenced many of them to death, and they spent 40 years of wandering as a result. Even the great prophet of God, Moses, sinned grievously, and the Lord prevented him from stepping into the Promised Land.
The great prophet Moses also prophesied, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers — it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). This became spectacularly evident at Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus in His Baptism was likewise all people reduced to one. His Baptism was “fitting to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15) — that is, to open the gates of righteousness for all. The Holy Trinity was gloriously manifest. Jesus, the perfect “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), was baptized for all, to empower the “water with the word” such that “when we go into the water, we come out with Jesus” (Luther).
Then Jesus was cast into the wilderness for all of us. He stood against the devil’s attacks for Israel and all of us. Jesus withstood 40 days of spiritual attack for all of us. He suffered hunger for 40 days for all of us. He refused to turn stones to bread for all of us. He refused to budge one iota from the Word of God for all of us. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). He withstood the devil’s appeal to vanity through distorting the meaning of the Bible. “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt. 4:7). Finally, the devil promised worldly glory. But Jesus replied: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matt. 4:10).
The account of Jesus in the wilderness does not tell us in so many words why Jesus fasted for 40 days. But fasting has a long and salutary history in the Old Testament (Ps. 35:13; Joel 1:14; Isaiah 58:6). Moses fasted on the mountain when he received the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:9). Fasting was performed in the Old Testament by those who had come into the presence of Yahweh.
Fasting is also thoroughly connected with repentance in the Bible. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). While Jesus needs no repentance, He takes an attitude of humility, bearing disgrace for our sake. Jesus warned against hypocritical fasting (Matt. 6:16–18). Even though John the Baptizer’s disciples fasted, Jesus’ disciples did not fast because He was present with them. “When the bridegroom is taken away from them, … then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15). St. Paul suggested that husbands and wives “may give yourselves to fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5 KJV). But Paul also taught, “food will not commend us to God” (1 Cor. 8:8). So also Jesus taught, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:17–18). “Christ abrogates the external rites connected with fasting in such a way that He makes them free” (Chemnitz, Examination, Vol. 4, 262).
Our fasting gains no points with God. Jesus did all that by His life, death and resurrection. Jesus fasted for all of us as part of His obedience to the Law. But no doubt, Jesus also fasted to keep His body, mind and spirit focused upon His Father and His mission. So it is for us as well, as Martin Chemnitz sums it up:
“If fasting is joined to repentance and prayer … that the flesh may be coerced, subjugated, and reduced to servitude, lest it contend against the spirit and hinder and disturb its actions either by its willfulness or its indifference, but that we may have a body obedient and fit for spiritual things and for the performance of its duties, lest satiety and sloth goad us into sinning, but that the mind may be … more fit for spiritual desires … and willingly to give and devote itself to repentance, prayer and other exercises of piety … if, I say, fasting is practiced to this end, then finally it is pleasing to God” (Chemnitz, Examination, Vol. 4, 264).
Jesus indeed fasted. And so He holds it before us as a free gift, not a matter of coercion.