The 40 days before Easter is a preparation time known as Lent. During these 40 days, people in Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions choose to give up something (a certain food or activity) in the form of fasting.
Many Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches also follow Lenten dietary rules during this time. The goal of Lent is to grow closer to the Lord as one prepares for the anniversary of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Even though many Christians cherish the Lenten season, the specific observation of Lent is not mentioned in the Bible. Some believers have tried to point to different examples in the Bible as the basis for Lent, but there is no explicit evidence of Lent in Scripture.
Furthermore, there are no commands for Christians in the Bible regarding mandatory fasting or dietary rules. Such acts are based purely on church and man-made tradition.
However, each Christian can choose whether to celebrate the Lenten season, remembering that certain activities and rituals do not gain God’s favor or grace.
The True Meaning of Lent
Lent did not begin in biblical times. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, Lent was first mentioned in AD 325 (E. A. Livingstone, Oxford: Oxford University, 2006). The apostles and early church did not observe Lent, as it became a tradition in the fourth century AD.
Interestingly, such a date would place the beginning of Lent in the same year as the Council of Nicaea, which was a major historical church council that affirmed the deity of Christ.
Athanasius, the defender of Jesus’ deity during the controversy with Arius, which prompted the Council of Nicaea, mentioned the observance of Lent as a 40-day period of fasting in one of his Easter letters (Nicholas V. Russo, “The Early History of Lent,” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University).
Notably, the 40-day period of fasting differed from a few earlier examples, based on Irenaeus and Tertullian, that some Christians would fast for only a couple of days before Easter.
The Eastern and Western churches observe Lent at somewhat different times during the Easter season. Western Catholic churches begin their observance of Lent on what is known as “Ash Wednesday.” In contrast, the beginning of Lent in the Eastern Orthodox churches start on a day called “Clean Monday.”
Historically, both traditions would normally place a large emphasis on fasting from certain foods. However, today the Catholic church in the West places a larger emphasis on abstaining from certain activities, while still following Lenten dietary rules.
In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has continued in the tradition of fasting from specific foods throughout the Lenten season.
According to the liturgical tradition of Lent, there are multiple activities, which should be carried out during this period, although there are differences between the Western and Eastern traditions. Most of the foods that a person would abstain from during Lent are animal products, including meat, eggs, milk, and cheeses.
People often will also partake in fasting and abstaining from alcohol and cigarette use. Other activities during Lent generally include an increased emphasis on prayer, doing a Lenten devotional or Bible reading plan, giving to charity, and abstaining from a certain activity to spend more time with God.
For instance, a person may choose to abstain from watching TV or going on the internet to spend time reading the Bible or praying. Furthermore, a major emphasis is also placed on repentance and penance during the 40days of observance.
Is Lent Biblical?
As was shown, Lent is not mentioned in the Bible, but rather started in the fourth century AD. Even though there is no explicit evidence of Lent in Scripture, many believers have tried to argue that Lent is based on Jesus’ temptation in the desert for 40 days.
According to this theory, Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert is the basis of fasting for the season of Lent (Matthew 4:1-2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-2). The problem with this theory is that there is nothing in these passages about Jesus’ temptation that links it to an establishment of Lent.
Instead, the temptation demonstrates the Son of God’s success where Israel failed in their temptation in the desert (Joshua 5:6). Also, the Lord’s 40 days of fasting in the desert remind believers that He experienced temptation just as all people do yet He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Another biblical example used in support of Lent is Matthew 9:15 where Jesus explains that the disciples will fast once He is gone, not while He is still with them. The period that Christ is referring to is the time after His crucifixion.
In discussing that sorrowful time, Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20, NIV). Once Jesus was resurrected, the disciples rejoiced and possessed a joy that nothing could shatter (John 16:22).
Therefore, recreating the sorrowful period before Easter day may be helpful in better understanding the disciples’ experience, but there is nothing in these verses which suggests or requires a 40-day period of fasting. Followers of Jesus can choose to fast voluntarily but fasting is not a command or requirement.
While observing a period of fasting (whether from certain foods or certain activities) is not prohibited in the Bible, there are important considerations to keep in mind. First, Jesus never commanded His disciples to fast, as was shown in Matthew 9:15.
Secondly, fasting should be voluntary, not forced. Thirdly, the temptation of pride is very strong when fasting, which is why Jesus told His disciples to not let others know they were fasting (Matthew 6:1, 17-18).
To boast about one’s long period of fasting during Lent would match the Pharisees’ hypocritical pride and not be pleasing to the Lord (Matthew 6:16). Finally, Jesus has declared all foods clean, which is why requiring people to restrain from meat is problematic biblically (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:15).
Christians avoided meat sacrificed to idols during the early church period (Acts 15:29), but a mandatory fast of meat products seems to fall in line with legalistic rules rather than a form of spiritual practice (1 Timothy 4:3).
Lent – A Season of Preparation
Lent is known as a season of preparation looking forward to the remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Such a period can be helpful in preparing oneself for the significance of the most foundational events of the Christian faith.
The problem, however, is that many people may view Lent legalistically as a way to earn favor with God. There is also a risk of placing too much emphasis on Lent that one forgets the real meaning of the Easter season: Jesus coming to die and be raised to bring eternal life to all who would believe in Him (John 3:16).
Although Lent is not mentioned in the Bible, Christians can still choose whether to observe the 40-day period or not. If a believer decides to join in the Lenten season by fasting from an activity or certain food to spend more time with God, then it would be wise to remember that such an act should be done voluntarily.
Furthermore, Christians would be discerning to avoid publicly discussing their fast and remember that such an act does not earn special merit from God. The 40-day period of Lent can be an insightful time, which promotes spiritual growth, but it is not the main event of Easter.
Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and victorious resurrection should remain center stage, even if that might mean laying aside tradition and rituals if needed.