The Meaning of Lent

THIS MONTH MANY sincere believers in the Christian world will observe Ash Wednesday on February 21, and the beginning of Lent. Lent is a period of forty days of penitential preparation for Easter which is observed by Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many Protestant churches. Strange as it may seem, the Bible says nothing about Lent, or any such penitential preparation. To learn about this ritual it is necessary to search writings that came later, starting in the fourth century.

The earliest record of an establishment of this penitential preparation is found in the transactions which took place in the Nicaean Council of A.D. 325. The Council called this period by the Latin name, “quadragesima,” meaning ‘forty days of fasting’. As differences arose in the church and it split into a western and eastern church, the exact time period assigned to this period of repentance varied because of their rules on fasting.

The features of ‘forty days’ and ‘fasting’ appear to be associated with our Lord’s forty days in the wilderness. Jesus went into the wilderness to meditate, immediately following his baptism in the Jordan River. There he fasted forty days and forty nights—he ate no food—and there the Devil came and tempted him. (Matt. 4:1-11) However, our Lord’s meditative period in the wilderness was not intended to be a pattern for a ritual concerning his death, but rather an illustration of temptations that beset all consecrated followers of Christ.

When Lent was first established, fasting consisted of eating one meal a day with no meat, fish, eggs or butter. Also, there was public penance for notorious sinners. They were clothed in sackcloth and ashes and kept apart from everyone until the Thursday before Easter, at which time they were reinstated into Christian fellowship. This treatment of these sinners was discontinued about the eighth or tenth century, when a form of public penance was imposed upon all the congregation, including the clergy. This was done by burning the palms saved from the previous Palm Sunday and using the ashes to form a cross on the foreheads of all penitents on Ash Wednesday. This ritual has remained to this day.

Somewhere between the fourth and eighth century, the word Lent became associated with this period of penance. The word Lent in Old English means ‘spring’. It is evident that the church leaders sought to combine this period of forty days of fasting with the spring season. Likewise, Easter was adopted from the Saxons and refers to their goddess, Estera, whose festival was celebrated in the spring of the year. The adoption of the two names, Lent and Easter, and their application to the period celebrating our Lord’s death and resurrection were designed to assist the supplanting of heathen beliefs by Christian events.


There is yet another strange outgrowth of this imposition of the church upon its congregations, and that is the Mardi Gras (the French name for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent). Since it was the last day before the fasting season, it became the occasion for great merrymaking in the Middle Ages. In the cities or regions of some of the Roman Catholic countries, the custom of holding carnivals for Mardi Gras has not only been continued but has become more elaborate. The carnivals, with spectacular parades, masked balls, mock ceremonials, and street dancing, usually last for a week or even two weeks before Mardi Gras. Some of the most celebrated carnivals are held to this day in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Nice, and Cologne. After the merrymaking comes fasting, and the call to refrain from certain carnal pleasures.

The development of carnivals and merrymaking before Lent came as a natural consequence of forcing fasts and abstinence upon a people not consecrated to God. Church leaders have not been too concerned about this development. They are satisfied that after the gaiety their congregations still come to church, fast, and obediently support the church.

The question could be asked, “Is Lent and abstinence a way of Christian sacrifice?” The answer is, No! God has never forced anyone to sacrifice. The Christian must be a willing sacrificer, or not sacrifice at all.


The first step toward becoming a willing sacrificer, according to the Scriptures, is for God to draw that person to himself. Jesus explained this in John 6:44 when he said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” Once the Father has drawn one to Jesus, then must come the willingness to follow Jesus and be a sacrificer.

In Matthew 19:16-30, a rich young man went to Jesus and asked him, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.”

It is noteworthy that Jesus had a very simple requirement of those whom the Father drew to him. They were to follow him. In order to get treasures in heaven, they had to be willing to give up treasure on earth. This was not a sacrifice for a period of time each year during Lent, but for the rest of their lives.

This young man was rich, and unwilling to give up his possessions. So Jesus continued on this occasion to make the point of how necessary it is to give up all we have: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?”


The point Jesus made was that riches were a burden to a rich man, and that they would more likely hinder than help him enter the kingdom of heaven. The illustration of the camel going through the eye of the needle makes this point. In the walled cities of Biblical times, the gates to the cities would be closed at night. One small door, called the ‘eye of the needle’, provided guarded access to the city. A traveler coming to the city late in the day after sundown might find the gates closed. To get his camel through the needle’s eye it was necessary to take all of the camel’s burden off his back, have the camel kneel, and then, by pushing and tugging, get the camel through the needle’s eye.

The illustration was not intended to convey that it was impossible for a rich man to enter the city, but rather that it was possible to enter through humility; illustrated by the camel kneeling. Sacrifice of earthly goods was pictured by unburdening the camel; and that it would be difficult, was shown by the need for pushing and tugging. The disciples, upon hearing this illustration, were amazed and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ The attitude of sacrifice sought by God of those whom he was calling seemed so difficult to attain.

Jesus, sensing their discouragement, said, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter was encouraged enough to say, “Behold, we have forsaken [left] all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” Jesus answered: “Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”

Furthermore, the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1 says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”


Those whom God calls are to give up their all. Their very lives are devoted to him. The Apostle Paul calls it a ‘reasonable service’. It is not a ritual that is imposed upon us for a period of time. It is a lifetime of reasonable service to God. Also associated with this willing sacrifice is a desire to be transformed so that we do all things as God desires us to do them. Hence the Apostle Paul says, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” (vs. 2) To the true Christian it would be a delight to do God’s will rather than partake of worldly pursuits.

Jesus mentioned, in answer to Peter’s point, that these sacrifices would have a manifold compensation to those who are faithful. In his kingdom these brethren would be with him ruling over Israel and the world as a reward for their sacrifice.

Another objective that the church leaders had in setting up the observance of Lent was to make people aware of their sins, and to do penance. The awareness of sin should always be with us. The Apostle John writes, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”—I John 2:1,2

We are to so chart our course of life that we ‘sin not’. But we won’t succeed. For John makes this plain: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (I John 1:7-10) We have the assurance that Jesus died for our sins and has become the satisfaction, not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. This appreciation of our Lord, particularly that he died for our sins, should be a matter of reflection every day, and not only for a period of forty days within a year.


When Lent was conceived, it was to be particularly associated with fasting. Fasting can be a way whereby people show devotion to God. In the sermon on the mount (Matt. 6), Jesus presents three ways of showing devotion to God and comments on these. One of these is fasting.(vss. 16-18) The other two are prayer (vss. 5-15), and the giving of alms. (vss. 1-4) Each of these can be misused, and so Jesus says: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. … Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”

In each of these acts of devotion, Jesus recommends that others not be aware that we are performing them, or it will all go for naught. Above all, these acts of devotion must all be done willingly, at any time, and never by decree. Setting up a period of time in which all must fast violates these principles. The imposition of Lent rituals upon church congregations would seem to oppose the principles laid down by Jesus.

Finally, on this matter of observing Lent, we note that the church leaders had in mind the forty days that Jesus was in the wilderness after being immersed by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. It would be difficult for anyone in the world to comprehend these particular experiences of Jesus unless they were called of God to be joint-heirs with his Son and to partake of his sufferings: “joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him.”—Rom. 8:17


These are those whom the Apostle Paul describes as the “called according to his [God’s] purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) In this part of Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome, the apostle tells how Jesus was in God’s mind, first, and that he should be the eldest in a family of brethren. Having provided this earth as a place where he could test our Lord as to his worthiness to receive the divine nature—a nature like unto his Father’s—immortal—God planned to use it as well for the trying and testing of those ‘called to be joint-heirs’ with his Son. In II Timothy 1:9 the apostle describes it thus: “Who [God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”

Hence we should not expect everyone in the world to understand the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, for these are lessons applicable to those called to be with him. Nor should we expect those who are followers of Christ to duplicate what he did when he spent forty days and nights without food. This was true fasting. It would be inadvisable to try this and, for most, impossible. The lesson concerns the temptations presented by the Adversary—to which temptations all of Jesus’ followers are exposed—and how to deal with them.


The Scriptural account of these temptations is found in Matthew 4:1-11: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the Devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

“Then the Devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the Temple. And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

“Again, the Devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the Devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”

In these temptations, the Devil used the approach, ‘If thou be the Son of God’, attempting to goad our Lord into proving his identity by sensational means. The first temptation to Jesus was to gratify his desires as a man. Being hungry, he could use his power to provide food, as he was later to prove when he fed 5,000 people. The second temptation was the suggestion that Jesus bring himself before the eyes of the people by jumping from a pinnacle in the Temple. This is believed to be the top of the royal portico, in itself 150 feet high, and the valley below it about 600 feet deep.

When these approaches failed, the Devil appealed to Jesus to consider avoiding the course of sacrifice, suffering, and humiliation as a path to glory, and take a shortcut, suggesting that his gain would be as great by joining forces with him. In each case the answer Jesus gave came from God’s Word: “It is written,” and the Devil failed in his temptation of Jesus.


All three temptations are typical of those which the followers of Jesus must endure. Although the Devil was involved in all three, the first two are typical of how our flesh and the world are particularly involved, under Satan’s direction, whereas the third is typical of the Adversary, himself.

The first test is typical of those temptations besetting the followers of Jesus that involve the gratifying of their senses their fleshly desires. The second test is typical of those temptations besetting the followers of Jesus that involve entanglement with the world and its ambitions, desires, and appetites. The third test is clearly that of the Adversary enticing us to worship him. If we are to succeed, as Jesus did, in resisting these temptations of the Devil, we need to be thoroughly acquainted with the Word of God and his plan. We could never hope to succeed by setting aside forty days in which to fast. The temptations will come every day and must be met every day.

The way of Christian sacrifice is not open for all. This is made clear by Jesus when he explained to his disciples why he spoke to the people in parables and dark sayings: “He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever bath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever bath not, from him shall be taken away even that he bath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: … lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.”—Matt. 13:11-17

The opportunity for the rest of the world of mankind to understand God’s words will come in God’s millennial kingdom when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” See Isaiah 11:9, Jeremiah 31:34; and also Hebrews 2:14.

The observance of Lent implies that whosoever will join a Christian church can sacrifice and fast as Jesus did. This is not so. God has reserved the privilege of following Jesus for a few. But those who have been invited should appreciate this privilege and seek to carry out their consecration vows faithfully every day. “If we suffer [with him], we shall also reign with him.”—II Tim. 2:12.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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