There's no magic in numbers, but the number 40 keeps coming back as if there were something special about it. The writer of Genesis says that Noah endured rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses twice spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai in the presence of God. The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert because of their disobedience in not entering Canaan. Ezekiel lay on his right side for 40 days to bear Judah's 40 years of iniquity. And Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted. The number 40 often seems to signify a period of trial or testing.
Matthew 4:1-11 describes Jesus contending with the three temptations of privation, publicity, and power — six weeks in a mere eleven verses — doubtless Jesus' summary of the key lessons from that ordeal. But what was He doing out there that occasioned such an ordeal? And why are we remembering an event from the beginning of Jesus' ministry as our lead-up to the crucifixion and resurrection, which actually happened three years later?
As Peter later noted in reference to Jesus at Acts 3:22, Moses had predicted that "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." (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV) So, we conclude that Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness recall both Moses' 40 days on Mount Sinai and Israel's 40 years in the desert.
From the fact that Jesus rejected those temptations by quoting Bible verses, it appears that He spent those days wrestling with the Scriptures, which, of course, He knew by heart. But why? Because He undoubtedly recognized passages in the Bible that seemed to point to Himself. Perhaps, He struggled with whether He was destined to be that "prophet like me". He knew that His family tree led back to King David, but was He to be David's unique Son? He knew Daniel's vision where a "Son of Man" is presented before the Ancient of Days to receive an everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7), but during that 40-day fast, His body certainly didn't feel everlasting. He also knew Isaiah's prophecy about the Suffering Servant, who would pour out his soul unto death and be numbered with the transgressors. He surely understood that following these prophecies would prove fatal. Could He go through that ordeal for an ungrateful, skeptical humanity? And could He be confident that "when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days"? (Isaiah 53:10b ESV) His answer was "Yes!"
So we commemorate those 40 days immediately before Good Friday and Easter, because what happened on that weekend outside Jerusalem had already been decided three years earlier in the wilderness. In that decision, Jesus ratified what He understood from Scripture to be God's plan for Him — and for us. When Jesus emerged from the wilderness, He was already halfway to Calvary.
The 40 days of Lent also remind us that, like Moses' people, we, too, are pilgrims in a barren land, and our kingdom still lies ahead. But we celebrate with this glorious advantage: we have met the King, and He has gone before us and secured the way.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, Who for our sakes fasted 40 days and 40 nights, give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to Your Spirit, we may ever obey Your godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to Your honour and glory, Who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
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