Looking unto Jesus in the Holy Season of Lent
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem…” — Luke 18:31–34
On Ash Wednesday, February 22nd, we marked the beginning of another holy Lenten season —a period of six weeks during which we give special attention to the study of our Savior’s Great Passion, His suffering and death for the sins of the world. And the dear Savior bids us, as He bade His disciples, to “behold” with eyes of faith riveted upon His precious Word the entire scenario of His bitter passion — what all He had to endure and why — in order to win reconciliation with God for sinful mankind, to “behold” how all the things that were written of Him by the prophets were “accomplished” for our redemption, justification and salvation. This year again we eagerly take up this study in our congregations, “looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), some of us in special Midweek Lenten meditations and some in Lenten texts chosen for the sermons in our Sunday worship services. In either case — or perhaps in both — we are privileged to “behold” with our eyes focused upon the Scriptures the fact that Jesus’ vicarious atonement had been God’s plan for the redemption of the world already in eternity and that, far from being a well-kept secret, He had made it known in divine prophecy down through the whole Old Testament. Then, in “the fulness of the time” (Galatians 4:4), those prophecies were fulfilled to the letter in Jesus’ bitter Passion; and “the grace of God that bringeth salvation,” God’s grace to fallen mankind in Christ, “hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11) in the message of the Gospel that has gone forth into all the world (Romans 10:18).
In preparation for this holy Lenten season, for our own learning and admonition, we “behold” in the title-text before us the Lord Jesus lovingly taking aside His disciples to give them a preview of the events that lay ahead for Him, to show them what all would be done to Him in Jerusalem, and to explain why all these things had to be accomplished. And yet, in spite of Jesus’ clear words and explanation, the poor disciples simply didn’t get the point; they didn’t understand; they didn’t SEE! They were suffering from spiritual nearsightedness and dullness which kept them from “beholding” or seeing the true nature of His redemptive work on their behalf, now soon coming to its full accomplishment in His suffering and death on the cross. As we now also find ourselves confronted with Jesus’ Great Passion in this holy season of Lent, let us examine, for our own warning and benefit, the reasons why the spiritually blind do not recognize their own Redeemer in the picture that Jesus sets before us.
The blindness from which Jesus’ disciples suffered was not total blindness (or the absence of saving faith), but a partial spiritual blindness or visual handicap, as it were, because of which the full knowledge of the truth was impaired. For Jesus’ disciples were indeed true believers in Him, having been called, enlightened and sanctified by His Holy Spirit through the Gospel. And they clung to Him in simple, childlike faith, though at times its weakness brought them to the point of real jeopardy and even to temporary loss of faith itself (as in Peter’s case).
All of us, because of the weakness and perverseness of our flesh (Cf. Romans 7:18ff.), suffer from spiritual blindness to some degree or other, inasmuch as we do not perfectly know, rightly understand, and fully appreciate every single truth of God’s Holy Word; and, because of that very weakness in our spiritual sight and the stubbornness of our flesh, we often find ourselves not all that interested in becoming enlightened, in learning more, in searching the Scriptures, and growing in grace. Consequently, some of that blindness remains and handicaps our faith, actually endangering it and making us an easy prey for Satan! That’s precisely why we must apply to our blindness the precious “eye salve” of the Gospel to heal and strengthen our eyes of faith (Revelation 3:18), and pray in humble faith with the Psalmist: “Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy Law!” (119:18), lest we remain blind to certain precious truths and at length, God forbid, fail even to see and recognize our precious Redeemer! For this was the terrible jeopardy into which the disciples placed themselves when they blindly resisted the fulfillment of divine prophecy in Jesus, the Messiah, in spite of His longsuffering and painstaking efforts to help them see!
We read in our title-text: “Then He took unto Him the twelve, and said unto them, ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished.’” Jesus had now taught these dear disciples of His for about three years; and, in the process of patiently instructing them concerning His person and work, He had shown them in detail how the prophecies of the Old Testament about the promised Messiah to come actually pointed to Him. He had talked about Moses and said, “He wrote of Me.” He had spoken of Isaiah, David, Jonah, and the other prophets who had served as the mouthpieces of God Himself to foretell the coming of His Anointed One, the Redeemer of Israel. And yet, as they now set out on their last journey together, headed for the city of Jerusalem and the fulfillment of all these prophecies in Jesus’ impending passion, we read that “they understood none of these things.” Although they had learned most of these wonderful prophecies from their youth up (as have most of US — Cf. II Timothy 3:15), and had heard them clearly applied to JESUS in His very own words; and, although they had confessed Him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16; John 6:69), they suddenly went blind, as it were, to the real significance of all these prophecies; and they failed to see Jesus, their Redeemer, revealed in these words of Holy Scripture!
The Jews of our day and time still do not recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the true Messiah of God, because they do not see Him in the Old Testament prophecies. They are, of course, totally blind, inasmuch as they reject Him outright in unbelief, and continue to close eyes, ears, and heart to “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29, 31), to His precious Word, which is able to save their souls! They regard Isaiah chapter 53, for example, as referring to the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of their enemies, rather than as what it in fact is, namely, a prophecy of the Messiah’s vicarious atonement for the sins of the world. —Now we might expect that kind of perversion of Scripture, even of their own acknowledged Scriptures, from the unbelieving Jews, but from Jesus’ own disciples?? —Oh, how even the slightest degree of spiritual blindness can endanger our faith if left to grow like spreading cataracts to close out the precious light of God’s pure Word!! Let us, therefore, enabled by God’s Holy Spirit through His powerful Word, vigorously fight against any inclination on our own part to be complacent and indifferent about our growth in grace and Christian knowledge, lest by such despisal of the Means of Grace we, too, fall prey to even greater blindness, lose sight of our Redeemer altogether in the glorious prophecies of His Word, and have it one day written of us: “They understood none of these things, neither knew they the things which were spoken.”
But there is in the verses of our title-text another reason why the spiritually blind do not recognize their own Redeemer, and that is that they find His entire suffering and death repugnant and disgusting, so that they look away from His cross and thus lose sight of the price He paid to reconcile us vile, unworthy and wretched sinners to His heavenly Father!
The unregenerate children of this world, who suffer from total spiritual blindness in their unbelief, refuse to admit even their need for a Savior, a Redeemer; for they rely upon their own goodness, merit, and worthiness for favor with God. They are so utterly oblivious to their wretched spiritual condition in His holy sight that, even when staring into the flawless mirror of God’s indicting Law, they see no sin, no shame, no iniquity in themselves whatsoever — certainly nothing worthy of damnation at any rate!
Now if even the fierceness of God’s Law will not crush their pride and soften their hardness of heart (Jeremiah 23:29) and bring them to their knees in terror of His punishment (I Kings 18:39; I Chronicles 21:16-17; etc.), what effect indeed will the Gospel have on such people?? The Bible tells us that the precious good news of Christ’s vicarious atonement for the sins of the world is “foolishness” to the Greeks and a “stumblingblock” to the Jews (I Corinthians 1:23). They feel no need for it, and they utterly reject it in unbelief as silly, ridiculous, completely unnecessary, and even disgusting! Thus they blind themselves “lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them,” St. Paul writes in II Corinthians 4:4. Is it any wonder, then, that the writer to the Hebrews exhorts US, saying, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called Today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin! For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end!” (3:12–14). May God grant that to us for Jesus’ sake, as we continue in His Word to grow in grace and strength of faith by the power of the Holy Ghost unto life everlasting!
But we note yet from our title-text that, although the disciples’ blindness and dullness had not yet destroyed their faith, it had weakened them severely, so that “they understood none of these things.” They were literally teetering on the very brink of disaster, so that even as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “all the disciples,” the Bible tells us, “forsook Him and fled” (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50). In their weakness they could not bear to see their beloved Master so mistreated, abused, and tortured, even though Jesus had tried to prepare them and to strengthen them well ahead of time. In their blindness, they blocked out from their understanding, so that they could not see it in their mind’s eye, what Jesus was so clearly describing here in our title-text, speaking about Himself: “He shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and spitefully entreated, and spitted on; and they shall scourge Him, and put Him to death; and the third day He shall rise again.” Not only had the disciples failed to see Jesus as their suffering Redeemer and Savior in the prophecies of the Old Testament; they even looked away with revulsion from Jesus’ own prophecy of the very same things! For a scourged, mocked, crucified Substitute-for-sinners (as Isaiah had so clearly described Him in his 53rd chapter) was inconsistent in their blind thinking with the glorious earthly Messiah they had envisioned, their Savior from the Romans, their Meal-ticket through life, and the ready Healer of their bodies —even more valuable than a Physician of their souls!
No wonder the Savior had spoken so sharply to Peter in rebuke of this very thinking —just after that disciple had boldly confessed Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16)! For when Jesus began to show the disciples then already how He would have to go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be raised again the third day (just as He repeated the same thing here in our title-text), “Peter took Him,” Matthew tells us, “and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Be it far from Thee, Lord! This shall not be unto Thee!’ But [Jesus] turned and said unto Peter, ‘Get thee behind Me, Satan! Thou art an offense unto Me! For thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men!!’” And yet, even after that sharp rebuke, in which the Lord warned that this blind, worldly kind of thinking was the devil’s work, yet now, just before Jesus’ passion, these disciples still “understood none of these things; and this saying was hid from them; neither knew they the things which were spoken.” —And that blindness stuck with them even after Jesus’ mighty resurrection from the dead, when He called them “fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25) —yea, to the very day of His ascension into heaven forty days later when they supposed He would at that time “restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6) as some kind of temporal Messiah! Not until the Holy Spirit powerfully removed the stubborn spiritual cataracts from their eyes on the Day of Pentecost did they truly understand the “plan of salvation” and its necessary cost to their Redeemer!
Now we too, in all honesty and humility, must confess ourselves as well to be “fools” and often so “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” For, due to the weakness of our old sinful flesh, we frequently find ourselves groping about in spiritual nearsightedness to understand things concerning our salvation, looking often in all the wrong places to find the sayings that seem hidden from our eyes, and, at the same time, reluctant to study, to search, to grow, and to abound in the priceless wisdom of God’s Word! Like so many who are spiritually blind to divine truths, we often imagine ourselves in our foolishness to be fully sighted in spiritual matters, adequately knowledgeable concerning the doctrines of Holy Scripture, and keen in our spiritual insight —so much so that we don’t need to grow! We often delude ourselves into thinking that we can be our own authority, our own guide, our own teacher. Yes, sinful pride is Satan’s tool, whereby he creates and nurtures just such attitudes in the heart of many a Christian! And the really sad thing about the blindness he creates is that it is so deceptive! “Wherefore,” writes Paul to the Corinthians (and also to us), “let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed, lest he fall!” (I Corinthians 10:12). The nearsighted person who rejects diagnosis and refuses to wear glasses thinks that he can see just fine! Not until he falls on his face does he recognize just how blind he has been! And for some, that knowledge comes too late; for Satan has already devoured them, and they are lost eternally!
And so, as the Savior comes to us this Lenten season and invites us: “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem” —to witness once again in the pages of His Holy Word what great things He has done for us and for our salvation— instead of despising the age-old Passion History, the summary of the Gospel accounts of His great sufferings, as something “we know already” (having heard it from our youth); instead of passing off special Lenten meditations, sermons, and services as so much “rehash” of “old material,” let us learn from our title-text to relish the Savior’s instruction and to pray as we hear and study and learn and grow in His grace: “Open Thou [our] eyes!” (Psalm 119:18); “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).
Lord, in loving contemplation
fix our hearts and eyes on Thee
till we taste Thy full salvation
and Thine unveiled glory see!
(TLH 155, 5)
— D. T. M.