Many people who observe Lent associate it, first and foremost, with the idea of giving something up. Whether it’s a favourite food, Starbucks, Netflix or social media, abstaining is seen as a physical or spiritual cleanse of sorts, an exercise to curb overindulgence and restore healthy life balance.

Such a practice may be beneficial, as far as it goes, but that has never been the primary focus of Lent. The 40-day fast is not an end unto itself, and most certainly not a means to earn favour with God.

For followers of Jesus who choose to observe it, Lent is an opportunity to prepare our hearts and minds for celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord at Easter. We do this best by meditating on the implications of the Cross, the height and width and depth of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Here’s a handful of Scriptures that can help us along that Lenten journey.

The first Gospel promise

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15)

Theologians call this passage the protoevangelium, the earliest hint of the Gospel in the Scriptures, coming right after the Fall of humanity that brought brokenness and death to all of creation. Along with God’s curse, he promised that one of Eve’s descendants would destroy the serpent, overturn the curse and redeem creation from its effects. Remarkably, God made this first Gospel promise to the first woman, cast as Satan’s adversary and foremother of God’s ultimate champion, the Messiah. Later Scripture clarifies that God had planned this redemptive act even before he created the cosmos.

The priestly monarch

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:1-4; compare Genesis 14:17-20 and Hebrews 7)

The Psalms are replete with foreshadows of the coming Messiah, but this is one of the most beguiling. Melchizedek is a mysterious figure who had appeared out of nowhere to bless Abraham and receive tribute from him, and then disappeared just as abruptly. He is thought to have been a theophany, an appearance on Earth of God the Son before his Incarnation. The text in Genesis and the commentary in the book of Hebrews bear this out. Melchizedek’s name and title mean king of righteousness and king of peace, without beginning or end and greater than Abraham the founder of Israel. Melchizedek combined the offices of priest and king and brought bread and wine to Abraham, prefiguring the body and blood of Jesus, which would be given for the life of the world.

The man of sorrows

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53: 1-6)

Along with the Psalms, the book of Isaiah is the richest source of messianic prophecies in the Old Testament and frequently quoted as such in the New. Isaiah is packed with imagery of the Messiah to come: Immanuel, born of a virgin; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace; suffering servant; healer of the sick; liberator of the prisoners; shepherd of his people; hope of the nations. None is clearer or more sustained, however, than the majestic 53rd chapter, which portrays the Messiah as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who takes the place of fallen humanity and is crushed by God for our sins. Contrary to popular religious art, this messianic figure isn’t physically attractive; his character and sacrificial actions speak for him.

The atoning sacrifice

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is his masterpiece, unfurling all the theological and practical implications of the Gospel of Jesus. It begins with his declaration that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all people groups and culminates with the thrilling assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. But the crux is found here in the third chapter, where Paul lays bare the heart of the Gospel, anticipated by Isaiah seven centuries earlier – the substitutionary death of Jesus on behalf of sinful humans. Propitiation is a fancy term meaning an atoning sacrifice that satisfies God’s righteous anger against sin, a concept that’s unpalatable to many modern minds. But in Paul’s language, for those who are being saved, it’s the power and wisdom of God. The Cross is the point where God’s justice and mercy intertwine, the ultimate expression of his love for his fallen world.

The humble servant

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Scholars consider this passage from Philippians to be one of the earliest creedal statements in the fledgling church, predating Paul and quoted by him here. It’s an artful poetic framing of the extent to which Jesus humbled himself to save us from our sins. A millennium earlier, King David had hinted that the Messiah wouldn’t merely be his human descendant, but also his Lord, and that trinitarian mystery is stated explicitly in this creed: Jesus is God and also equal with God. Yet the Sovereign Lord took an infinite step downward, entering his creation in the form of a human servant for the express purpose of dying on the Cross for those he loved. Afterward, he rose and ascended all the way back up, to the ultimate position of honour and authority.

The cosmic redeemer

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)

What the Philippian creed frames in poetry, the author to the Hebrews expands with a mindboggling underscore. The Son of God is the exact expression of God’s glory, character and power. As Jesus told his followers, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus is the one through whom God created the universe and upholds it with a word. We need to let this roll around in our minds and imaginations. From atoms to galaxies, all life, matter, time and energy was created by Jesus and is maintained by his power. The sun rises, the earth rotates, plants grow, weather patterns change, our hearts beat and our minds think because Jesus wills it so. And this infinitely sovereign God became a finite human being to redeem us from our sins, after which he reassumed his place of infinite power and glory. This story of redemption didn’t begin with the promise to Eve. It was planned and put in motion by the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – from the beginning, from before they had created anything.

Concluding thoughts

On more than one occasion, Jesus either declared or alluded to the fact that all of Scripture was about him. It’s an astounding yet authoritative claim from the one who is the Word of God, the author of nature, Scripture and our salvation.

Of course, not all of Scripture speaks directly about Jesus, but all of it points to him in some way. Each book of the Bible contributes a chapter to God’s grand narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.

Jesus promised that we would be sanctified and set free by the truth of his Word. It’s by reading and meditating on Scripture, trusting the Holy Spirit to open it to us, that we encounter new vistas of the height, width and depth of Jesus’ love for us. That’s a worthy project to occupy our hearts and minds, not just during Lent, but throughout the year and every year of our lives.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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