I had the privilege of writing a Lent devotional for my church this year. It was a lot of fun to put together. The full content is below. It was emailed out each Monday morning during the Lenten season.
For reasons unknown to us, the length of 40 – whether 40 days or 40 years – has been significant throughout biblical history:
- The great flood lasted for 40 days.
- Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days before he brought down the Ten Commandments.
- The establishment of the Kingdom of Israel was founded on its first three kings – Saul, David and Solomon – and each ruled for exactly 40 years.
- The prophet Elijah fasted for 40 days.
- Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days.
- Jesus walked the earth for 40 days following His resurrection before returning to heaven.
The common thread tying all of these together is that each period of 40 days or years is associated with something new; a new development in the history of God’s activity or new beginnings. In the Bible, every new chapter of God’s work was marked, at the onset, by some period of time related to 40. In each chapter of God breaking out anew – of seeing life change raging through a person, a community, a nation or a world – you find that the number 40 has always been at its heart. Which is why throughout Christian history, 40 days has taken on a special significance, particularly through the season of Lent.
The word Lent comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word that simply means Spring or Spring season of the year. In Christian history and tradition, it is a period in the Spring set aside for fasting in some way (giving up something for spiritual reasons) in preparation for Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Traditionally, it starts on Ash Wednesday, which is the Wednesday that falls 40 days before Easter. The purpose for Lent has always been clear: to get spiritually ready. To use the time for life change by taking 40 days to turn away from something or turn towards something that will allow your life to honor God more deeply and to live the life you’ve been called to live.
(*Note: Much of this introduction is from a previous work by James Emery White called “40: God’s Number for Life Change”.)
Fasting simply means giving something up so you can grow spiritually. Fasting is not an obligation, but an opportunity to grow closer to Christ. Fasting does mean subtracting something from your life, but it’s for the purpose of adding something much greater to it.
So what should your 40-day fast focus on? Anything keeping you from pursuing a deeper relationship with God.
Here are some ideas to consider, but this is by no means prescriptive:
- Social media
- Shopping for non-essentials
- Sleep (not altogether, but in terms of giving up one hour of sleep in the morning, for instance)
Whatever you choose to fast from, the idea is to fill the void with God. That could mean giving up an hour of sleep at night or in the morning to spend time reading the Bible, or it might mean fasting from lunch and instead spending that hour in Bible study and prayer. Perhaps it means giving up an hour of Netflix each night and choosing to invest that time in reading that informs you spiritually.
How to Use this Guide
On Monday of each week leading up to Lent (with the exception of the first week) you’ll receive an email with the week’s devotional content. If you’d prefer to see the entire plan or print a copy, you can do so here.
Each week’s devotional will be made up of three sections:
Lent is a season to focus on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Each week this section will include a reading from the book of Matthew. These are meant to increasingly narrow your focus to the death of Jesus so that you have a deeper sense of what Easter (Resurrection Sunday) is truly about.
Here you’ll be prompted with reflection questions that draw out the meaning of the week’s reading. Some are meant to clarify the meaning of the reading, others are meant to bring aspects of your own life into focus. The hope is that you would be challenged by this section as you think about your inner life and your relationship with God.
Finally, you’ll be prompted with some suggested prayer topics that would make sense following the weekly reading and reflection. Don’t think of this as a rigid guide, but simply a starting point for you to have an honest conversation with God.
Week 1 – Temptation
Oh, trust thyself to Jesus
When tempted to transgress,
By word or look of anger,
Or thought of bitterness:
Then is the hour for claiming
Thy Lord to fight for thee:
Then is the time for singing,
He doth deliver me.
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Matthew 4:1-11 NIV
Satan’s first two temptations opened with the same phrase – what was it? What does that reveal about how Satan tempts you?
In the opening pages of the Bible (see Gen. 3), a serpent that is understood to represent Satan tempts Adam and Eve and succeeds in getting them to disobey God. When Jesus faced the same temptation from the same source, how was he able to stand firm and not give in?
How might Jesus’ strategy be used in your own life, particularly during your season of fasting, to stand firm and not give in to temptation to stray from God?
This passage is the most graphic depiction of Jesus facing temptation, but the rest of the book of Matthew and the other gospels (biographical accounts of Jesus’ life) record many instances where Jesus was tempted. How might it change the way you view temptation in light of the fact that Jesus was tempted in every way you are (Heb. 4:15)?
Father, thank you for sending Jesus to stand firm in the face of temptation and to give us an example of godly living. Help me to stand strong in the face of my temptations. Help me to rely on the strength of Jesus instead of giving in to my own weakness. Lord, you know what it means to suffer. I pray that I would rest in the comfort of knowing a God who relates to my trials.
Week 2 – Love
Come to the water
You who thirst
And you’ll thirst no more
Come to the father
You who work
And you’ll work no more
And all you who labor in vain
And to the broken and shamed
Love is here
Love is now
Love is pouring from His hands
From His brow
Love is near
Streams of mercy flowing from His side
(Jason Jamison, Jason Ingram, Michael Donehey, Phillip la Rue, Drew Middleton, Andrew Middleton)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 NIV
Jesus’ words in these verses reveal something crucial about God. They tell us that His love, His heart, extends to those who don’t know or believe in Him. True love, Jesus tells us, doesn’t just show love to those who love you in return. Instead, the measure of our love is the extent to which we’re able to love our enemies. What does that measure reveal about the condition of your heart?
Jesus is telling us to love our enemies, which seems too difficult, doesn’t it? Through our sin, we have all made ourselves enemies of God. But Jesus came to redeem us even though we were His enemies. Do you see this as being true of you?
If you do believe that Jesus saved you even though you were His enemy, how does that change or enrich your understanding of what Jesus has done for you?
Who might your enemies be? Think of those you work with, live near, or see on the news. What would it look like to love them? How might showing them love impact their lives and and the lives of those around them?
Father, thank you for loving me even though I have acted like your enemy so many times before. Thank you for sending Jesus to be the ultimate display of that love. Show me who my enemies are and reveal to me ways to love them. Renew my heart so that I can love the way Jesus loves.
Week 3 – Fasting
Be Thou exalted over my reputation.
Make me ambitious to please Thee even if
As a result I must fall into obscurity
And my name forgotten as a dream.
16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
Matthew 6:16-18 NLT
If you’ve been sticking to your 40-day fast to this point (or if you’ve fasted in the past), how do you typically act when you’re in the midst of depriving yourself of something in order to focus on God?
Reread verses 17-18. Why should we keep it a secret from others when we’re fasting?
God’s rewards sometimes come in the forms of earthly blessings, but other times the Bible refers to God’s blessings as being received in heaven. What does Jesus mean by saying that those who make it obvious they are fasting have received the only gift they’re going to get (v.16)?
Are there some behaviors you need to stop doing in order to honor how Jesus says we should be fasting?
What have the strongest temptations been to this point in your fast? What are some ways you might combat them?
If you have not been able to keep up your fast, what can you do to start again? If you’re feeling defeated because you haven’t been able to hold strong, simply resolve to start again, and rest in the fact that despite our struggles God gives more grace (James 4:6).
Father, thank you for your grace and mercy. These days and weeks are hard as I struggle to withhold things from my life, but they’re worth it to focus more on You. Help me see the wonders of your love. Strengthen me to keep going (or start again) on this fasting journey.
Week 4 – Signs
In the tomb for three days buried,
Christ had gone to face the worst.
Just as God took care of Jonah,
God raised Jesus as the first.
All who know the Holy Spirit
shall defeat the grip of sin.
Christ has conquered death and Satan:
let the jubilee begin!
(Calvin Seerveld and John Ambrose)
38 One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.”
39 But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.
41 “The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent. 42 The queen of Sheba will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen.”
Matthew 12:38-42 NLT
What is the sign of Jonah (see v. 40)?
Jesus’ reference to the sign of Jonah was His way of telling people that after He was killed and buried for three days He would rise from the dead in the ultimate display of His power and authority. Stop and think about those details for a moment. It’s easy to read the story so quickly that you miss the fact that Jesus was dead in a tomb for three full days. What does it tell you about God’s power that He could raise Jesus from the dead after three days?
Reread verses 41-42. What do these verses reveal to you about what God desires of us? What does He wants us to do?
Which of the people(s) mentioned in the passage most reflects you and your heart at this moment: the religious teachers and Pharisees, the people of Ninevah, or the queen of Sheba? What does that tell you about your relationship with God?
Father, thank you for sending Jesus to rescue me from my sin. Help me to see and believe the truths about You I already know and open my eyes to more truth in your Bible.
Week 5 – Heart
Give me Your eyes for just one second
Give me Your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me Your love for humanity
Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me Your eyes so I can see
1 Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? 4 For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ 6 In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
8 ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’”
10 Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. 11 It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?”
13 Jesus replied, “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted, 14 so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.”
15 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Explain to us the parable that says people aren’t defiled by what they eat.”
16 “Don’t you understand yet?” Jesus asked. 17 “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. 18 But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. 20 These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.”
Matthew 15:1-20 NLT
Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah in verses 8-9. What do these verses tell us about the relationship of our hearts to our actions?
We can do the right things for the wrong reasons. That’s exactly what the Pharisees did. They followed the rules, but they missed the spirit of the rules. What Jesus tells us is that God wants us to do the right things for the right reasons. Why do you think that is so important to God?
What does verse 18 tell us about the origin of our words? What implications does this have for those moments where we have to say “I didn’t really mean what I said” or when someone “just tells it like it is?”
It’s easy to think that those who have more visible sin are far worse off than we are. But that’s not how Jesus see things. He speaks harshly against the Pharisees and others whose hearts were defiled. What do you think the condition of your heart is? What would Jesus think?
Father, thank you for sending Jesus to make a way for me to have a pure heart. Help me to follow your ways and have a heart like yours. I pray that you would make me able to hold my tongue more often and to evaluate my words with this passage in mind.
Week 6 – Crucifixion
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
11 Now Jesus was standing before Pilate, the Roman governor. “Are you the king of the Jews?” the governor asked him.
Jesus replied, “You have said it.”
12 But when the leading priests and the elders made their accusations against him, Jesus remained silent. 13 “Don’t you hear all these charges they are bringing against you?” Pilate demanded. 14 But Jesus made no response to any of the charges, much to the governor’s surprise.
15 Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner to the crowd—anyone they wanted. 16 This year there was a notorious prisoner, a man named Barabbas. 17 As the crowds gathered before Pilate’s house that morning, he asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you—Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 (He knew very well that the religious leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy.)
19 Just then, as Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him this message: “Leave that innocent man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about him last night.”
20 Meanwhile, the leading priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be put to death. 21 So the governor asked again, “Which of these two do you want me to release to you?”
The crowd shouted back, “Barabbas!”
22 Pilate responded, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”
But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”
24 Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!”
25 And all the people yelled back, “We will take responsibility for his death—we and our children!”
26 So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.
27 Some of the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into their headquarters and called out the entire regiment. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. 29 They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and struck him on the head with it. 31 When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified.
32 Along the way, they came across a man named Simon, who was from Cyrene, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. 33 And they went out to a place called Golgotha (which means “Place of the Skull”). 34 The soldiers gave Jesus wine mixed with bitter gall, but when he had tasted it, he refused to drink it.
35 After they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice. 36 Then they sat around and kept guard as he hung there. 37 A sign was fastened above Jesus’ head, announcing the charge against him. It read: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
39 The people passing by shouted abuse, shaking their heads in mockery. 40 “Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!”
41 The leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders also mocked Jesus. 42 “He saved others,” they scoffed, “but he can’t save himself! So he is the King of Israel, is he? Let him come down from the cross right now, and we will believe in him! 43 He trusted God, so let God rescue him now if he wants him! For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 Even the revolutionaries who were crucified with him ridiculed him in the same way.
Matthew 27:11-44 NLT
Why didn’t Jesus answer the charges brought against Him?
How must Jesus’ followers have felt as they witnessed their leader being executed?
Jesus endured a shocking amount of humiliation and scorn. What do you think motivated those who were treating Him this way? How might you just as easily fall into their line of thinking?
Jesus endured the suffering and shame in order to make salvation possible for all mankind. How much would you have to love someone to endure what you just read about (go back and reread the details)?
Thank you God for loving me and everyone else enough to send Your Son to die for us. Help me honor You in the days ahead and show You my thankfulness by following You and doing whatever You ask of me.
Week 7 – Darkness
How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That he should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss;
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.
Behold the Man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders.
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life,
I know that it is finished.
45 At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. 46 At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
47 Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. 48 One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. 49 But the rest said, “Wait! Let’s see whether Elijah comes to save him.”
50 Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, 52 and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. 53 They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people.
54 The Roman officer and the other soldiers at the crucifixion were terrified by the earthquake and all that had happened. They said, “This man truly was the Son of God!”
55 And many women who had come from Galilee with Jesus to care for him were watching from a distance. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James and Joseph), and the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
57 As evening approached, Joseph, a rich man from Arimathea who had become a follower of Jesus, 58 went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. And Pilate issued an order to release it to him. 59 Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a long sheet of clean linen cloth. 60 He placed it in his own new tomb, which had been carved out of the rock. Then he rolled a great stone across the entrance and left. 61 Both Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting across from the tomb and watching.
62 The next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. 63 They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ 64 So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.”
65 Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” 66 So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it.
Matthew 27:45-66 NLT
Perhaps the best way to realize how shocking Jesus’ death was, is to put yourself in the shoes of the women and other followers of Jesus that were there. These were people who had seen Jesus heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and even raise the dead. They fully believed Him to be God in the flesh. Yet here they are, witnessing His last breath. What do you think they were feeling?
Verses 51-53 tell us that the earth cried out in agony at the death of Jesus as all sorts of crazy things began happening. Verse 45 tells us that darkness fell over the whole land. But go back and look at what time it was when the darkness fell. These are supernatural acts that could only have been done by God Himself. Putting together what you read in verse 45 and verses 51-53, what do you think God was feeling at the moment Jesus died?
Now consider that God put His Son through this, and that Jesus endured this, for you. What must change in your life if God loves you this much? Who do you need to tell about this God who loves you enough to die for you?
Father, thank you for condemning Jesus to die in my place. That is a gift I don’t deserve and one I could never pay back. Your grace is amazing, and I need it every day. Thank you for this day of darkness that prepares us for the light of Jesus.