Why did Jesus fast for forty days?

Jesus wasn’t the first man in the Bible to fast forty days. Moses fasted forty days too – twice. The first time for Moses was in Exodus 34:27-28 when he “stayed there (on Mount Sinai) with the LORD for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” Moses mentioned this again in Deuteronomy 9:9. 

The second time Moses fasted forty days was in Deuteronomy 9 again, this time in verse 18, when “once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights. I ate no bread and drank no water” after discovering on his trip down Mount Sinai with the ten commandments that the Israelites had made a cow-like idol out of gold (verse 12).

In the first instance, when Moses fasted, he had no choice in the matter. God told him to go up the mountain in Exodus 34:2 and God had him stay there for forty days without food and water until the commandments had been written on the two tablets of stone. And Jesus had no choice in the matter either, when he fasted for forty days too. We see that in Matthew 4:1, that says “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil,” and the Spirit had him stay there for forty days without food and water until the devil turned up. 

So this was all God’s doing. He was the one who had Moses and Jesus taken to the brink of dying from starvation. He did the same thing with Elijah too: In 1 Kings 19:8-9 God had Elijah journey for forty days and nights without food and water, just to give him a message in a cave at Mount Horeb. 

But in the history of Israel, these three men were the big three – Moses, Elijah and Jesus, all three of whom appeared at the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-3, because it was through these three men that God’s plan of salvation through Israel would be kickstarted, preserved, and fulfilled. 

First, it was Moses, through whom God instituted the laws that would govern and bless the lives of the Israelites, to attract other nations through Israel to him. Through Elijah he then kept Israel from falling victim to the cunning and influence of evil people like Jezebel, who wanted to destroy Israel entirely. And through Jesus he did what the Israelites could never do, and that was resist and defeat the power of the devil. And by having all three men fast to the point of near death, God made it clear it was by his power and not theirs that his plan of salvation through Israel was being fulfilled. 

God emptied these three great leaders of Israel of all their human strength and power, because it was his leadership they needed to obey and trust. And Jesus made that clear to the devil in Matthew 4:4,7 and 10, when three times he parried the devil’s temptations with his total obedience to, and trust in, God and his word. 

Their fasting, therefore, had nothing to do with voluntary self-denial to get them closer to God. Even when Moses fasted for forty days the second time by his own choice, it was purely for the preservation of Israel, Deuteronomy 9:18-19. God’s plan of salvation through Israel was at the heart of their fasting. And that’s because the whole plan of God through Israel is the story of God’s faithfulness and God’s power making salvation possible.

By God having Jesus fast for forty days, therefore, emptying even his own Son of all his human power and strength, it was clear proof yet again that the story of our salvation is all God’s doing, and not our own.

What does it take for people to believe who Jesus is? 

In Matthew 17:2 Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”  

To Peter, James and John, the three disciples who witnessed this amazing transformation in Jesus, it was proof there was more going on in Jesus than just wise teacher and powerful healer. At the press of a switch he could blaze like the sun itself. It was made clear who had pressed that switch too, because in verse 5 “a bright cloud enveloped them and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.’”

It was the Father who had flicked the switch on, just briefly, but enough to imprint an image of Jesus in the eyeballs and minds of these three disciples that this Son of his was the one he’d sent to fulfill everything written in the Old Testament (pictured by Elijah and Moses), so get listening to him now. 

Well, if that was the Father’s point here, then why didn’t he flick the switch and make Jesus shine like the sun for everyone else who met him, rather than to only three disciples at one time, and only briefly and out of sight? 

Jesus explained why in verse 9, when he told Peter, James and John they shouldn’t tell anyone what they’d seen “until the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.” What I get from that is this: that only after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead would people really start to grasp who he was. It didn’t matter what spectacular miracles Jesus did before that time, therefore – including him shining like the sun – because the reaction in most people would be, “So what?” – or just a blank look of disinterest. 

Jesus backed that explanation up when he was asked by his disciples in verse 10, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” It seems like an odd question right after seeing Jesus shine like the sun, but it was just the question that needed to be asked, because in Jesus’ reply we see how naturally blind to, and how hopelessly disinterested we are in, who Jesus is. 

Jesus replies in verse 11, “To be sure, Elijah has already come, and they (the teachers of the law) did not recognize him.” These same teachers of the law would then cause Jesus later on to “to suffer at their hands” too, verse 12. In other words, the teachers. of the law, the one group of people in all Israel who should have recognized who Jesus was, didn’t have a clue.  They even wanted to snuff hm out.

There was no point in the disciples broadcasting that Jesus had shone like the sun, therefore, because it wouldn’t have made any difference whatsoever in people recognizing who Jesus was. And Jesus illustrated that point in verse 12 when he said, “Elijah has already come,” because the beginning of the restoration of all things had already begun with the arrival of John the Baptist (verse 13). John the Baptist was the prophesied Elijah, heralding the promise of restoration of all things at last, but the teachers of the law had totally missed that too.

What we’ve got in this story of Jesus shining like the sun, then, is what it takes to believe who Jesus is. it takes the Father flicking a switch on. And we see that illustrated again when Jesus asked his disciples in the previous chapter, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” because Jesus replies back that “this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” Matthew 16:15-17.  

Jesus had already said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” John 6:44, so there it is again. It has to be revealed by the Father. And Paul understood it that way too, when he said in Galatians 1:15-16 it was God who “was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” 

It doesn’t make other people inferior if they don’t grasp who Jesus is. It simply illustrates that it takes the Father to flick the necessary switch for “the lights to come on” about Jesus in people’s minds. That’s when all those prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament suddenly “come to light,” just as they did to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:31.

So if people “don’t get it yet” about who Jesus is, it’s only because the Father hasn’t  flicked the switch in their minds yet. But Jesus did hint to his disciples back in Matthew 17:9 that it would happen after he was resurrected, so expect it to happen to people any time. And that’s very encouraging, because it could happen any time to those we’d just love to get the picture about Jesus.

Up to that time, here’s hoping we shine a light on Jesus too, so that when their turn comes they recognize Jesus easily and readily, because of the light that shone from us as well.

Less ritual; more reality

So much of my life has been taken up with religious ritual that there hasn’t been much room left for actually living and experiencing the reality of what Jesus taught.

I was reminded of this when reading Matthew 5:23-24, when Jesus said, “If you’re offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.“

Well, over the years I’ve “offered a lot of gifts at the altar.” I’ve prayed a lot and studied the Bible until my knees hurt and my eyes blurred. I’ve given a lot of offerings in money to my church too, sat for thousands of hours in church services and ceremonies, taken pages and pages of sermon notes, and sung multiple hymns. I’ve done my time, gone through the motions. I’ve left a lot of gifts at the altar of religious ritual.  

But one day it hit me that all my religious rituals were only a thin veneer covering a rather nasty inner self. I remember the occasion vividly. I had just preached what I thought was a scorcher of a sermon and I glowed in the aftermath of a job well done. It was in the car on the way home, however, that I blew up at one of my children. I can’t remember what it was about, but I do remember the contrast between how religious I felt after my sermon and the reality of how quickly and horribly I turned nasty and very unreligious with my child. 

It was too late to leave my gift in front of the altar and be reconciled to my child, because my sermon had already been done. But what I could have done was stop the car at the first available safe spot on the road and apologized to my child for snapping at him. In other words, don’t let too many miles go by without admitting I was wrong. I wish I’d done that. I didn’t, so the rest of the journey was awful. I stewed with guilt, and he stewed with “What on earth was that all about?” 

The obvious gap between my religious rituals and the reality of my actions really hurt our relationship. I can see why he left off attending church with us in his late teenage, because if all that ritual we’d gone through as a family couldn’t stir me to make a simple apology when needed to keep our relationship as father and child intact, then what was the point of it all?

No wonder he left church and home. It was heartbreaking, because he really struggled without the warmth of family. I see now why Jesus said what he did. A simple “drop everything” on my part until my son and I were “reconciled,” and what a difference it would have made to our relationship for the last twenty years. What we’ve both missed out on instead is so sad.  

I’ve heard it said by many teenagers who left church and home that they left because of the hypocrisy they saw in the church, and especially in their church-attending parents. Hypocrisy is a tough word to take, because Jesus used it often in describing the most religious people of his day too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites,” he yelled in Matthew 23:27. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside you are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

I don’t like reading James 1:26 either, that says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” There’s that gap again, between all that religious ritual we do and the reality of our actions. 

So what’s the cure? Well, fortunately, James also comes to the rescue in the cure too, because in James 3:17 he says, “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.”

What a gift from God that is. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It comes from God. He’s the source of it. And it has nothing to do with religious ritual either. He’s interested in us experiencing the reality of his gifts, not us giving gifts to him. In other words, “Less ritual from us, and more reality from him.”   

Christians don’t always agree, but does it matter? 

If I was to ask, “Is taking bread bread and wine in memory of Jesus’ death a requirement for all Christians?” – how would you answer? And if I was to ask, “Is baptism in water a requirement for all Christians?” – how would you answer that one too? 

Those are the two “biggies” in Christian circles too, communion and baptism, the two most common “sacraments” that for many are an “absolute must,” but for some in the Christian Community they are aids, or symbols, not requirements. And those who believe they aren’t requirements have scriptures to back up their belief too, just as those who believe the sacraments are requirements have scriptures to back up their belief.

There are dozens of other differences among Christians too, also backed up with scriptures, in answer to questions like: “Can Christians go to war and kill people?”; “Is heaven our final destination or living in resurrected bodies on the earth?”; and “Will God save everyone in the end, or will some people spend eternity in hell?” 

And for the sake of Christian unity “Should we all follow a prescribed Worship Calendar based on evolving human tradition?” – to which many would say “yes,” because it focuses their hearts and minds on the greatness and love of Jesus, but others would vehemently say “No,” because it smacks too much of legalism and a noose squeezing the breath of the Holy Spirit out of them. No wonder Christianity is scarred by “worship wars,” and now endless debates about whether it’s right or wrong to allow same-sex marriage among Christians, or the ordination of women and practicing homosexuals into the clergy.  

And reading through Romans 14 and Paul’s other letters, especially his letters to the Corinthians, there were huge differences of belief and opinion among Christians back then too. So how did Paul deal with them?

Well, he got right down to the purpose of the church and how God set it up with “pastors and teachers, etc.” in Ephesians 4:11, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” verse 12, “until,” verse 13, “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

So Paul concentrates our attention on becoming mature, which he defines for us as becoming like Jesus in all his fullness. And that’s the same for all of us; it’s sharing exactly the same purpose in life of having it engrained in our heads that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you (or we) have been given fullness in Christ,” Colossians 2:9-10. In our own bodies, therefore, we can be as full of God as Jesus is. And that’s God’s great goal for us, repeated in 2 Corinthians 3:18, that we are “being transformed into Jesus’ likeness with an ever-increasing glory.” 

So that’s what we concentrate on if we hope to become mature Christians. But what does that involve us doing? Paul’s answer in Ephesians 4:15 is “speaking the truth in love,” and that’s how “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” 

In other words, we talk together about our differences as Christians, and “speak truthfully” to each other, verse 25, “for we are all members of one body.” We still may not agree but if talking out our differences is the best solution, according to Paul, and it’s done “in love” (verse 15), then we all get to experience what it’s like being filled with the fullness of Jesus himself. And isn’t that what matters? 

It’s proof too that we are “putting on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” verse 23. In other words, it’s proof we are maturing: it’s in our simple willingness to talk things over with each other in love, and “not give the devil a foothold,” verse 27.

In my own experience it’s been wonderful being in a small group of Christians willing to do just that, talk things out in a spirit of love. It gets heated at times when we don’t or can’t agree, but we don’t stop being friends and it doesn’t stop us listening to each other, or coming back for more. And sometimes a bit of truth sneaks through, or strikes home, that we hadn’t thought of before.

I’ve learnt, therefore, that disagreement is not something to fear or try to stamp out. I’ve also learnt that disagreement doesn’t even matter one bit when you love each other and want “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs,” verse 29. It’s one of the marvellous blessings we get to experience that enables us, verse 3, to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” at those awkward moments when disagreement could easily tear us apart.  

Global warming – is it all “hot air”?

     I’m a Christian, but I’m in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to the fear, facts and future of climate change.

     Take the fear, for instance: I may be a Christian but it scares me too when I hear that extreme weather events will increase due to “global warming.” And when it comes to facts, I’m just as confused as millions of others as to who’s right and who’s a fraud among the climate change scientists. And I switch again and again from being an alarmist to a denier of climate change whenever I read or view a convincing argument about the future. Are we on the edge of extinction, or has doom and gloom been deliberately overblown for political and financial gain? 

     But what am I supposed to think when I read a quote like this one: that “The common drivers (of the climate change scare) are bad ‘science’, the press seeking disaster stories, NGOs seeking influence to pursue social engineering agendas, politicians seeking votes, government funded agencies seeking funding, the egos of the proponents and a gullible, uneducated population. The sad reality is that there is little, if any, learning from the past and none of the proponents are ever brought to account.” 

      But is that true? Is it true that global warming is “the greatest scam in history,” or are our children and grandchildren truly facing a frightening future? Can we carry on with our lives without having to worry that much – as a multitude of “experts” say – or should we be frantic in reducing carbon emissions? Well, after watching YouTube videos and reading articles until my eyes crossed and the circulation of blood in my bum quit, I admit I still don’t know what to think.  

     So I turned to my Christian chums for help, to see what they thought. I liked the comment by one prominent TV evangelist, that we don’t have to worry about melting glaciers, because God promised he’d never drown the world in a flood again, the rainbow being his proof of it. In other words, God won’t let us self-destruct, no matter how much the globe warms. 

     But I’ve also been watching a ton of stuff from Katherine Hayhoe, a prominent Canadian atmospheric scientist and wife of a Christian pastor, who says there’ll be lots of destruction as the globe warms. And it’s going to hit the most vulnerable people too, so in love to God and neighbour, turn our fears into action. 

    I like that, because if I love God for creating me and this planet, and I show my love by thinking about and caring for others, isn’t that the obvious approach to global warming? It becomes a pleasure doing business with God too, because if anyone’s got great ideas on what we can actually do about global warming, he does. He just needs people who are interested.

     And that thought came in rather useful when faced with one of my grandchildren recently, who said to me, “What’s the point of doing anything when we’re being told the damage done to the planet is irreversible, and no matter what we do all hell will be let loose in twelve years or so?” 

     But what I see in her is a multitude of talents and amazing thoughts that God implanted in her for just what the planet needs to flourish and survive. So, use your schooling, kiddo, get the best grades you can and develop every talent you’ve got. I went on and on about it to her too, because it’s dawned on me that God will do amazing things through our young people, if they’re interested. I wish I was young again, and someone had told me that when I was in my teens, that God is all for signing us up as partners to become movers and shakers, pioneers and discoverers, and good, solid citizens who care.

     I desperately hope that’s the picture she gets in her head, then, that to God it’s a pleasure doing business with her to make this planet flourish.  

Must a person be baptized to be saved?

In Mark 16:16 Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,” which at first glance seems to drop a very strong hint, that “Yes, a person needs to be baptized to be saved.”  No baptism equals no salvation. Could it be any more clear than that? 

So, if I don’t take the necessary step of believing and being baptized I won’t be saved, right? But isn’t that basing my salvation on things that I do? Or put another way, doesn’t it mean my salvation depends on me – on my belief, first of all, and then on me being baptized too? And does that mean I won’t be saved until those two conditions are met?

No, it doesn’t mean that, because God sent his Son to save us by his death on the cross – meaning we were all saved long before we believed – or even knew anything about – God or baptism. So it can’t be our belief or baptism that saves us, because only Jesus’ death has the power to save. 

And at some point in our lives that dawned on us, didn’t it? It suddenly became clear that when Jesus yelled out on the cross, “It is finished,” it meant his death had saved the world from the eternal death hanging over us, caused by human disobedience to God and lack of trust in him. In his death it had all been forgiven and buried. That job was done. 

The big question then becomes: “Do I believe it?” Do I believe that the job of my salvation from eternal death – caused by my ignorance, disobedience and lack of trust – was completed by Jesus’ death on the cross? Or as Romans 3:24 phrases it – do I believe that I’m “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”? 

I was “justified freely by his grace,” take note, not by my obedience, my works, my faith, or anything I do or did, including believing and being baptized. “For it’s by grace you have been saved, through faith – and (even that faith) not from yourselves (too); it is the gift of God, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), so that no one can boast.” So even my belief was a gift from God. And God didn’t wait for me to believe and be baptized to save me either. He made me “alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions,” verse 6. 

I came “alive with Christ” – meaning my life was altered to the very depths of my being – when I grasped what Jesus had done for me. And it happened without me adding one stitch of belief on my part, or baptism. But the sign that proved this had happened to me was my belief. I grasped what Jesus had done for me. I acknowledged that it was only because of him that such a salvation had been made possible. It was a clear sign that the salvation Jesus had won for humanity on the cross had, and would, continue in its fullness, in me. And if I’d also come across those verses on baptism, and I wanted to be baptized, that too would be an acknowledgement and a sign that I’d been gifted by God with a grasp of his salvation through Christ alone, and the fullness of his salvation would continue in me.

But baptism would be a sign of that, not a requirement. Not being baptized would not damage or affect my salvation at all, because my salvation had already been secured in Jesus’ death. But there’s more salvation to come, where Jesus now lives his life in me, and belief and baptism become lovely signs, therefore, that this salvation would be happening to me as well. 

Why was Jesus baptized?

John the Baptist was really surprised when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but Jesus’ reply in Matthew 3:15 was: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” 

But why was Jesus being baptized in John’s water baptism so necessary in fulfilling all righteousness? John’s baptism was all about “confessing sin” (verse 6), and “producing fruits in keeping with repentance” (verse 8), neither of which Jesus needed to do.  Jesus didn’t need to confess to, or repent of, anything. But the Jews of that day, or Israel as a whole, did. They were the ones in desperate need of confessing their sins and producing fruits in keeping with repentance, because they had fallen far short of what God had called them to be and do.

God’s purpose for Israel had been clearly stated back In Isaiah 49:3, that “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” And in verse 6, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  Unfortunately, Israel had failed miserably in fulfilling those two purposes, and God had punished them severely for it, by sentencing them to many years in slavery to pagan nations. And.even after they’d been freed from captivity in Babylon, they were still under the thumb of the Romans 400 years later in Jesus’ day.

But God had sent Jesus to change all that. To prepare Israel for Jesus’ coming, God sent John the Baptist in advance, telling the Jews in Matthew 3:1-3 to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” – taking a quote right out of Isaiah again, about “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'” in Isaiah 40:3. It resulted in Jews “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” going to John to “Confess their sins,” verses 5-6, and be baptized by John in the Jordan river.

And John baptized them “with water for repentance,” verse 11, but that wasn’t enough to make up for Israel’s failure in fulfilling God’s purpose for them. Their baptism in water was only preparation for the one who could make up for it, the one coming after John who would “baptize” them “with the Holy Spirit,” verse 11.   

But before Jesus could baptize those Jews with the Holy Spirit, God needed Jesus himself to be baptized in water too. Not for his own sake, but for Israel’s sake. The Israelites had clearly proved throughout their history that they could not confess their sins or produce fruits for repentance sufficiently enough to make up for all their failures. Their baptism in water, therefore, was only pointing them to the one who could. Only Jesus in his baptism could “fulfill all the righteousness” of confession and repentance they had been unable to fulfill themselves. His baptism could, and would, do that, not theirs.

The message was clear, that only in Jesus could true confession and repentance be made, sufficient enough to take away the sins of Israel. He was doing it for them, in other words, because only he could. But this would be the great beginning of God “bringing back those of Israel I have kept” and “restoring the tribes of Jacob,” in their mission of being “a light to the Gentiles” and bringing “God’s salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6 again).

Or as Peter phrased it in Acts 3:26, “When God raised up his servant (Jesus), he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” And that “turning from their wicked ways” began with Jesus’ baptism fulfilling the confession and repentance the Jews and Israel had been unable to do themselves. But with that righteousness now fulfilled by Jesus, salvation from sins could now spread from the Jews to the Gentiles too, thereby fulfilling John the Baptist’s statement in John 1:29, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the (whole) world.” That righteousness would now be fulfilled in Jesus too, all pictured so perfectly by his baptism.