Forty days, tested by Satan

Published on 12 Feb 2018
Get behind me Satan. Painting by Ilya Repin

A reflection on the gospel for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B by Dries van den Akker SJ

1. Context

Jesus has just been baptised by John the Baptist. On that occasion we witnessed the Spirit descending from heaven, coming down on Jesus. From now on, we see that everything that Jesus does, is guided by the Spirit of God, and is a sign of God’s Spirit.

The first thing that the Spirit does with Jesus, is to ‘drive him out’ into the desert. A remarkable expression. For the word for ‘drive out’ is used almost exclusively in connection with the driving out of evil spirits (1: 34; 1: 39; 3: 15 etc.).

The desert

Jesus remains in the desert for forty days. What does that mean? It reminds us of the forty years during which the people wandered in the desert, on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Does Jesus want to make the history that the people have experienced into his own history, as it were? If so, it is strange that Jesus is said to be put to the test by Satan. Indeed, the people were also tested at the time, but by God Himself. In order to see whether they would keep their trust in Him in dire circumstances (e.g. Exodus 20: 20; Deuteronomy 4: 34).

Or is it the other way around? After all, the people themselves put God to the test often enough (Exodus 17: 2-7; Numbers 14: 22)! Was that what Jesus had to endure at the hands of Satan now? Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not explain the temptations with which Satan confronted Him. But in view of the complete gospel of Mark we may still imagine their nature. See below.

Etching of Jesus' baptism and time in the desert

After Jesus was baptised, he was led to the desert by the Spirit. The artist merges both occasions into one image. In the foreground: Jesus’s baptism; in the background: His stay in the desert. Both occasions are overlooked by the Spirit, which is depicted as a dove in the clouds, and the rays of which descend from heaven onto Jesus. 1640, S. Vierrae, etching.

Wild animals and Angels

Mark mentions two more things about Jesus in the desert: 1. ‘He was with the wild animals’ and 2. ‘the angels looked after him’. Are these wild animals meant to further emphasize the ominous character of the desert? Is this a reference to Psalms 22 (12-13): ‘12Many bulls are encircling me, wild bulls of Bashan closing in on me.13 Lions ravening and roaring open their jaws at me..14 Then the next line about the angels is reminiscent of Psalms 91,11: ‘he has given his angels orders about you to guard you wherever you go...’ Does Mark mean to say that Jesus did not only repeat the salvation history of the forty-year desert journey in his person, but also embodied – so to speak – the Psalms? Or is it the other way around? Did he transform the desert into paradise again, by living peacefully among wild animals? Like it was in the days of the creation, before the Fall of Man? Even more emphasized by adding that the angels looked after him? Both interpretations are possible.


Considering the text on Jesus in the desert, I cannot help but think that verse 13 bears the character of a hymn:

           And He was in the desert
            forty days, tested by Satan.
            And He was with the wild animals
            and angels looked after Him.

Particularly the use of the word ‘was’ indicates this. As is well known, it is not generally necessary to use the verb ‘be’ in the Greek language. When writers do use the verb nevertheless, they explicitly lay emphasis on it.

In fact, Mark does so twice here. In this way a construction is established that is rather common in the Book of Psalms: the same idea being expressed in two different ways. The rhyming is not in the sound of the words but in the underlying thoughts. ‘And He was in the desert...’ rhymes with ‘And He was with the wild animals.’ ‘Tested by Satan for forty days’ rhymes with ‘and the angels looked after Him.’ In other words, he stood the tests...

The Creation narrative revisited

... unlike Adam, the first man in paradise. Mark appears to rewrite the Bible from the perspective of Jesus. As ‘in the beginning’ (Mark 1:1!) God entrusted His Spirit to the first man Adam (‘blew into his nostrils’ Genesis 2:07), so does this happen again with Jesus (Mark 1:10). The first man was tested by Satan, and he did not stand the test (Genesis 03,06). How promising it is then, when we hear of someone who did stand the test. That must bring about a new, unheard-of Bible book. It is with this idea that Mark wrote his gospel.

2. Putting to the test

In contrast with Matthew and Luke, Mark does not say what temptation of Jesus by Satan consists of. But when we observe the words ‘put to the test’ and ‘test’ we find an answer to this question in the course of Mark’s gospel. In addition, we come across the verb ‘put to the test’ (peirazzoo) in Mark 8:11; 10:2; 12:15. And we find the noun ‘test’ (peirasmos) in Mark 14:38.

Mark 14:38: ‘the test’

We find ourselves in Gethsemane. Soon Jesus will undergo his suffering and die. He knows. He has said to three of his disciples: ‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. Wait here, and stay awake. He withdraws and prays: ‘Father, take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.’ He returns to the three disciples and finds them sleeping. ‘Stay awake and pray not to be put to the test.’ What test? This is my firm conviction: in this difficult hour, do not stray from the road that we have set out on: the road of love and of forgiveness. The test is in the – understandably human – feelings of Jesus: ‘Take this cup away from me.’ That is the test. Now Jesus will have to show that love and forgiveness have the final say. Even where the aggressive and the malicious are concerned. Even if his own life is at stake.

Mark 8:11: ‘putting to the test’

Pharisees appear and they demand of Jesus a sign from heaven, to ‘put him to the test’. His answer is puzzling: ‘Should a sign be given to this generation...’ An unfinished sentence (anacoluthon). Most commentaries assume that, in speaking these words, Jesus bluntly refuses to give a sign, and that the sentence should be completed with words such as: ‘... then may God do me harm or even worse!’ This manner of speech is quite common in the Old Testament.

I understand Jesus’ words in a slightly different way. A bit further on in the text, Mark speaks of Jesus as of ‘the only loaf of bread’ that the disciples had with them (8:14). In this way, Jesus himself is the sign from heaven. Therefore I am inclined to complete the sentence in a different way: ‘Should a sign be given to this generation..., then it is right before them: I am the sign from heaven. But you are not willing to acknowledge it.’

Pharisees questioning Jesus from an illustrated manuscript

Pharisees asking for a sign from heaven. 1375, manuscript; Germany, Hamburg, Kunsthalle.

The test consists of Jesus being tempted to realize another sign from heaven besides himself. A sign outside himself. And indeed, would such a sign have brought about a change of heart? Jesus does not stray from his road.

Mark 10:2: ‘put to the test’

The Pharisees come and ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. A test. For in those days, this was a delicate issue. The views of the theologians were divided. Whatever Jesus would answer, he would always be opposed by a party that could accuse him of not keeping the Law of Moses, God’s Law. This might tempt Jesus to temporise, or to participate in the discussions of his contemporaries whereas the question that provoked the discussion was wrong in itself. That is what Jesus proves. He has not strayed from his road.

Mark 12:15: ‘put to the test’

Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus and ask him if one should pay taxes to the emperor or not. This introduction is in itself threatening. Indeed, since Mark 3:06 we know that the Pharisees and the Herodians made an alliance to bring about Jesus’ downfall. Jesus answers: ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’ Pharisees and Herodians were in direct contradiction over this matter. For the moment the hatchet is buried because right now Jesus’ downfall is even more important to them. Whatever Jesus will answer, he will always be confronted by one of both parties. Again he shows that the question on which this discussion is based, tempts people to deviate from their calling: to be an image of God.

Mark 8:33: Satan

Considering all this, I am inclined to interpret Jesus’ rejection of Peter as a test. When asked what the disciples think of him, Jesus, Peter answered: ‘You are the Messiah.’ Then Jesus explained that he is a very different Messiah from what people expected. Not someone who would miraculously change the world into a paradise. Instead, he would have to suffer and die, and obtain his glory in that way. Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him for it. But Jesus rebuked Peter in turn: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ The word ‘testing’ is not mentioned. But Peter does what Satan did when Jesus stayed in the desert. Jesus makes that clear by addressing him as ‘Satan’. He tempts Jesus to stray from the road which Jesus knows he must follow.   

Painting by Ilya Repin 'Get Behind me Satan'                    

‘Get behind me, Satan’. The strong reaction of Jesus and the Satan-like posture of Peter depicted in a gripping manner. 1895, Ilya Repin; Russia, St Petersburg

3. John the Baptist

After the forty days in the desert, Jesus returns to Galilee, whence he had come (1:9). By using ‘came from’ and ‘went into’ Galilee, Mark frames the history that lies in between: Jesus’ baptism and his stay in the desert. Therefore, baptism and desert belong together, forming a diptych, as it were.

But then, all of a sudden, there is this ominous sentence: ‘After John had been handed over...’ (1:14), Mark does not pursue this. All that he does, is make this, almost off-hand, remark that John has been arrested. Leaving us, the listeners, with the question what may have happened to John. We will not learn of it until the 6th chapter (6:14-29). Thus, the shadow of John’s fate lies over everything that is told after this. After Jesus’ baptism we had not heard anything about John anymore. However, Mark started his gospel off with the person of John the Baptist (1,02-08). He had presented him as the Elijah who would precede the coming of the Messiah; who would prepare the way for Jesus. John was to prepare the way that Jesus would take after him. Mark had been very consistent about this. Everything that he was to tell about Jesus, he told about John the Baptist first.

Stained glass showing John the Baptist preaching and Christ

Jesus stands behind John, ready to take over his place... Ca. 1900, stained glass art, France, Bretagne, Dinan, St Malo.

When we observe Mark’s language, we find that already in his first chapter he provides us with several examples of this. He introduces John by saying: ‘and so it was (‘egeneto’) that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness...’ (1:4). Thus, he suggested that the salvation history of God, which began in the days of the Old Testament, was still continuing. Mark uses the same phrase to describe Jesus’ appearance: ‘And so it was (‘egeneto’) that Jesus...’ (1: 9). Of John, it is told that ‘he baptised’ (1: 4); similarly will he who comes after him, Jesus, ‘baptise’. Albeit that each of them delivered a baptism that befitted their own role: John baptised ‘with water’; Jesus will baptise ‘in the Holy Spirit’. With John there is ‘a voice’ (1: 3); when Jesus was baptised there is ‘a voice’ too (1:11). Of John, we hear that he was ‘in the desert’. Similarly, we hear about Jesus that he goes ‘into the desert’. Of John, we hear that ‘he was proclaiming’ (1: 4); similarly, we hear of Jesus that ‘he proclaimed’(1:14). John proclaims a baptism of ‘repentance’; the first word that Jesus will proclaim, is: ‘Repent’ (1:15). In short, John prepares the way for Jesus. He prepares the way that Jesus will take after him. This makes it even more bewildering that the text suddenly reads: ‘After John had been arrested...’. Cliffhanger. The cliffhanger is not resolved until in 3:19 Mark names the twelve whom Jesus appoints. The last of them is Judas ‘who was to hand him over’. But this announcement is a cliffhanger as well. For there is no explanation there either. Just the cold statement. We will have to wait until Jesus’ predictions of his suffering. There he himself will announce what will happen to him (9:31; 10:33). All that is to come true in the chapters 14 and 15

4. Meta-noia

Jesus takes over the place of John the Baptist. Just as the Baptist preached to repent, Jesus does too. Where the translation gives ‘repentance’, Mark uses the Greek word ‘meta-noia’. It is very well possible to translate that word into ‘repentance’. But ‘meta-noia’ is more than that. It means ‘changing of mind’. ‘Meta-‘ is ‘changing’, as we see, for example, in ‘meta-morphism’: changing of form. From the word ‘-noia’ comes, for example, the English word ‘notion’: ‘opinion’. So ‘meta-noia’ has the meaning of ‘change your mind’, ‘think differently’. John the Baptist invites us to confess our sins and to be ready/prepared to be converted. He who comes after him will give us a new spirit, which will make us change our minds.

Left: John the Baptist has been arrested. Right: Jesus takes over his place and preaches... 2009, Peter Clare. Private Collection.

Left: John the Baptist has been arrested. Right: Jesus takes over his place and preaches... 2009, Peter Clare. Private Collection.

Changing our minds

What that means, specifically, Mark doesn’t tell at this moment. It is a sort of cliffhanger. So he makes us curious about the person of Jesus. What will his other way of thinking be like? But we probably know enough of the gospel to realize that Jesus reproached his religious countrymen for being so eager to keep the Law that they had forgotten about mercy, charity and forgiveness. Metanoia ‘change your minds, and God’s kingship will be very near’ as he himself announces some time later (1:14-15). Don’t judge, but forgive and love your neighbour as you’re forgiven and loved by the Lord God himself.

Gospel of God’s Kingship

If we change our minds and believe the gospel, the Kingship of God will be near. The words ‘gospel’ (eu-aggelion’, ‘good message’) and ‘kingship of God’ have a close relationship. In his first line Mark announced that he intended to write a ‘good message’ about Jesus, ‘Anointed’ (Christos, Messiah). The word ‘good message’ was a reminder of prophecies of Isaiah. He never uses the substantive, but always the verb: ‘to bring the good message’. We hear this word in Isaiah 40: 9-10; 5:,07; 61:01.  Taking this three texts together, the sigificance of the Good Message is: God himself will come to Jerusalem (40:9-10), to found his kingship there (52: 7); He will do that in the person of his ‘Anointed’ (‘Messiah’); this Anointed will be recognized by the fact that he is healing and redeeming afflicted people and soothing the broken hearted (61:01).

So, if we change our minds and will think as the Anointed does...: not judging and discriminating sick and unhappy people, but comforting, loving and forgiving them...: then God’s Kingship comes nearer and nearer.

That is exactly what Mark will tell about Jesus in the continuation of his Gospel.


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