The gospel for the first Sunday of Lent opens on an upbeat tone.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Nazareth, in the first century CE, was a small town of about 500 people in lower Galilee. It was ruled over by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. The traditional baptismal site in the Jordan river, where John is believed to have baptised Jesus, is "Bethany beyond the Jordan”, north of the Dead Sea, roughly 130 south and east of Nazareth. To get there, Jesus had to make a considerable pilgrimage.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

God endorsed Jesus as his ‘beloved son’, and piled on the praise, with you I am well pleased.’ The words echo the divine acceptance such as found in Psalm 2:7, You are my son and in Isaiah 42:1-2, in whom my soul delights.

While the voice addressed Jesus, it seems that God intended that those on the banks of the Jordan should hear and understand God’s pleasure. It was a celebratory moment of God’s approval.


But then comes a surprising turn.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

The verb, drove, conveys a sense of compulsion and feels a bit out of step with the Spirit’s role in the Father’s blessing of Jesus in the verse immediately before. (Matthew’s gospel of the same event reads, then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Matt 4:1)

Mark sketches an impression that Jesus experienced such a profound transformation at his baptism that he needed to retreat to a place where he could reflect on the significance of the message and, particularly, to the next stage of his life. Would he continue to be the carpenter of Nazareth or would he become the teacher, the prophet, or the Son of Man?


He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Mark’s gospel is notoriously compact and this verse exemplifies that, summarizing forty days in a few words.

Wilderness was a place God tested the Israelites for forty years and where he revealed more of himself to them through Moses. Perhaps more significantly, this period reflects Moses’ own time of fasting before the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the promised land: I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, for forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water…(Deut. 9:18) The time period captures the dual sense of revelation of God and also a period of testing.

In the Old Testament, wild beasts are often associated with evil powers. In Psalm 22 (11-21) we read

trouble is near…strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me…….

Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.…

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

Ezekiel (34:5) says, they were scattered .. and... they became food for all the wild animals.


This sense of evil is reinforced by the next phrase …tempted by Satan…

We tend to use tempted as “an inducement to sin”. In the broader context of scripture, though, it evokes the testing of God’s people, who, through testing, became faithful to God. Some modern translations, such as The Voice or The Message, in fact, translate the verb as tested.

The temptation may have arisen from Jesus' own reflection on the meaning of his baptism and the words of the Father. He may have been tempted to doubt that he was ready for what the Father intended for him and his ability to deliver on that mission.

Wisdom 2:12-20 gives the flavour of this kind of testing that Jesus may have experienced. The passage takes the perspective of Satan.

‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,

because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;

he reproaches us for sins against the law,

and accuses us of sins against our training.

He professes to have knowledge of God,

and calls himself a child of the Lord.

He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;

the very sight of him is a burden to us,

because his manner of life is unlike that of others,

and his ways are strange.

We are considered by him as something base,

and he avoids our ways as unclean;

he calls the last end of the righteous happy,

and boasts that God is his father.

Let us see if his words are true,

and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;

for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,

and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.

Let us test him with insult and torture,

so that we may find out how gentle he is,

and make trial of his forbearance.

Let us condemn him to a shameful death,

for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’


Whatever the temptation, Mark concludes his statement of this passage by saying, the angels waited on him….as angels administered to Elijah when he was in the wilderness fleeing from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-8) In a sense, the angels’ waiting on him was a further endorsement by God: a bookend to the Father's blessing immediately before his forty days in the desert. 


  • One understanding of Jesus’ need to go to the wilderness assumes that Jesus had not fully realized his own identity and purpose up to the moment of his baptism. He had to “grow into” his role as the Christ during the forty days. Is that how you see it? Or do you think that he knew exactly who he was and that he wanted to pray for the strength to live up to his call and plan his next few years in detail? Alternatively, did he want to spend deep, peaceful time experiencing the love of his father without distraction before he entered his public ministry?
  • Does the fact that God tested his own beloved son tell you something about the trials in your own life? Do you sometimes feel abandoned by God? Does following Jesus sometimes seem harder than it should? Does the fact that Jesus was tested console you?
  • What tests do you engage in during Lent? Do you give up some kind of personal treats? Do you take on additional forms of Lenten prayer or practice? Do you review your own life in celebration of being God’s beloved child? Do you turn your life to God in some other, special way?