Seed of Hope.

Christianity, Religion

“I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15

The Genesis 3 account of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a story with which many of us are familiar. It is a Bible “story” that we’ve heard time and time again: in Sunday School, in children’s ministry, in Bible school, and in any other place where children learn the Bible. Given how many times many of us have heard this story, it is possible that a degree of “blindness” has come along with familiarity. We’ve become so used to hearing that Genesis 3 is about how humanity ruined things and brought sin into creation, and was then punished by being expelled from Eden. This approach makes sense and helps us to comprehend the nature of the world, but we miss the most crucial part of the narrative if we only focus on how the man and woman failed.

This passage is not about how Adam and Eve failed and received punishment; this account is about so much more than humanity’s failures. This passage is about how God showed mercy, how He didn’t punish them as wholly as He should have. This passage is about how God–right from the very moment of humanity’s first wandering from Him–already had a plan to bring humankind back to Him. 

This passage is about undeserved mercy and the promise of hope of redemption.

Adam and Eve, despite their disobedience, receive an incredible outpouring of God’s mercy. They had both been told by God what the penalty was for eating from the forbidden tree–death. Yet, when God confronted their sin, He did not kill Adam and Eve. He did not destroy creation and begin anew. God punished them justly. Death did come to the scene–something did die for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to be covered–but God did not demand their lives there at that moment as He could have.

God shows even more mercy to Adam and Eve by sending them away from the Garden. Eden was the place where God’s realm and creation overlap; it was the place where God would come and walk among His creation. Adam and Eve, who were now sinful and fallen, could not be in God’s presence; His mere presence would destroy them. God is so perfect and so holy that anything infected with sin cannot survive being near Him. To protect Adam and Eve from being killed, God sent them away from Him. The man and woman were also exiled from Eden to protect them from themselves. Now that they had fallen and become sinful, God did not want Adam or Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, and then live forever in their fallen state. To protect humanity from itself, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. We often think of the exile from Eden as punishment; we fail to see that God sent humanity away from Eden to protect them. In exiling Adam and Eve, God had their best interests in mind; He did what was best for them.

We also see in Genesis 3 something which further shows the compassion that God displayed: the promise of hope. While He was levying the curses upon the Serpent, Eve, Adam, and the land, God made this promise to the Serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Genesis 3:15). The Serpent, who had orchestrated mankind’s rebellion through his deceit and deception, was told that there would come one who would avenge the woman. This Avenger would be from the woman’s seed–he would be human–and he would deliver a death blow to the Serpent. The Serpent would hurt the Avenger, but He would not succumb to the Serpent. For the rest of his days, the Serpent would crawl on his stomach, eating dust, knowing that the Avenger was coming to destroy him; the Serpent knew his destruction was sure.

When the Avenger came and finally destroyed the Serpent, the curses would be broken. The Avenger, through His injury from the Serpent, would atone for humanity’s rebellion, but He would break the curses through destroying the Serpent. By breaking the curses and atoning for humanity, the Avenger would end humanity’s separation from God and end their exile.

The Avenger would not defeat the Serpent with might or through force, nor would He do it through confrontation; He would defeat the Serpent through the most curious and most unusual means: He would defeat the Serpent by allowing the Serpent to kill Him. 

We see this play out many generations later, when the one from the seed of the woman, when the Avenger– Jesus of Nazareth–came to earth. He was born of woman and lived a life of complete obedience to God. He went willingly and of His own volition to the cross. Though He was perfect and never sinned nor disobeyed God at any point in His life, He allowed the ravenous, bloodthirsty animal of sin and its minion death to consume Him and to kill Him. Death, however,  could not hold Him; the Serpent could only bruise Him. Through this selfless act, through His sacrificial death, Christ stomped on the head of the Serpent with His bruised heel when He rose again walked out of the grave three days later.

Already here, at the very beginning of Scripture, here where humanity has just fallen, where sin and death have just been introduced to the story, Calvary is already on the horizon. The promise of the Avenger–of the Snake Crusher–is the first glimmer of messianic hope to the fallen world. This promise shows us that, from the very beginning, God knew how He would defeat sin and death; from the beginning, God knew how He would redeem humanity and bring them back to Him.

Artwork: “Mary consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, 2003.

Vines and Roots.

Christianity, Religion

“Let me sing now for my well-beloved

A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.

My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.

He dug it all around, removed its stones,

And planted it with the choicest vine.

And He built a tower in the middle of it

And also hewed out a wine vat in it;

Then He expected it to produce good grapes,

But it produced only worthless ones.” Isaiah 5:1-2

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” John 15:1,4 

The Old Testament prophetic works give us a unique view of the society of ancient Israel. Those whom God called upon to be His prophets had a specific purpose: to deliver a message from God to the people. Often, God also called upon the prophets to write down the words that He had given to them, so that future generations would heed them and learn from them as well. From these writings, we learn about what the people of Israel were doing, and we also read of the work that the prophets did. Our view of Old Testament-era Israel is written from the perspective of those who remained faithful to God, and this allows us to see how far Israel had wandered away from God.

The prophet Isaiah is a perfect representation of all of this: he lived in the era before the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, and God called upon Isaiah to deliver a two-fold message to the people of Israel and Judah. The first part of the message was one of punishment; the people were told that their sinful behavior and disregard for God had gone on for too long, and that God would bring about corrective judgment. The second part of Isaiah’s message was one of hope–that after the judgment came, there would be a restoration.

Chapter 5 of Isaiah’s writing presents one of the most beautiful examples of his work. In it, the prophet relays a parable to the people of Israel from God. In this parable, God describes Himself as a vinedresser who plants a beautiful vineyard, a vineyard which the vinedresser loves and cherishes and nourishes. Within the vineyard, the vinedresser reserves the best spot for the best vine, and the vinedresser does everything within his power to ensure the success of the best vine and vineyard. The vinedresser goes as far as to build a tower in the midst of the vineyard so that he can stay in the vineyard with the vines, look out over the vines, protect them, and watch them grow and flourish.

The vinedresser loved the vines in his vineyard, and he did everything he could to ensure their success–to ensure that they bore good fruit.

The vines, however, did not produce good fruit. They instead produced worthless grapes; grapes which were good for nothing and were rotten and inedible. Despite the love and best efforts of the vinedresser, the vines had become infected and infested with something that had ruined them, and destroyed any potential they had of producing good fruit. The vinedresser laments “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” (Isaiah 5:4). The vinedresser had done everything he could for the vines, and yet they still failed to do what he had hoped they would.

Isaiah unpacks this parable for us–Israel is the vineyard, and Judah the choice vine. God planted Israel in the Promised Land, He nurtured Israel, He proved for them, He protected them, He did everything that He could do for them–even gave them the Law–so that they could be His holy people; so that they could be holy as He is holy. God loved Israel and built His house, the Temple, in their midst–just as the vinedresser built the tower in the vineyard–so that He could dwell among His people.

And yet, just as the vineyard in the parable failed to produce the fruit it was supposed to yield, so too did Israel fail at being God’s holy nation of priests. Israel could be no different than the fallen humanity around them; they were infested by sin and succumbed to pagan worship, idolatry, immorality, and infidelity to God. Israel’s spiritual fruit was just as worthless and rotten as the worthless grapes of Isaiah’s parable.

In the parable, the vinedresser realizes that the only way to remedy the infestation in the vineyard is to let the vineyard be destroyed; to allow the elements reclaim the vineyard and to begin anew. God would do this same thing with Israel; the kingdoms of Israel and Judah would be destroyed by Assyria and Babylon. This destruction was to be the punishment for their continued sin; it was also to purge the faithlessness from the people so that they would not stray from God again.

Isaiah’s message, though bleak, does contain hope. In chapters six and eleven, he begins to talk of a root which would survive the destruction and judgment, and which would grow back. This root, the Root of Jesse, would lead to one who would be the true vine–who would be the vine that Israel was always intended to be. This root of Jesse, or the line of David, would lead to one who would undo the curse which has decreed after the Fall, and this one–this messiah–would lead all the peoples of the Earth in seeking after God. The One from the Root would enable people to live as God commanded them to live.

On the night that Christ was betrayed, He celebrated the Passover–the holiday in which Israel commemorated God resuing from slavery in Egypt so that He might plant them in the Promised Land–with His disciples. After eating the Passover meal, Christ gave the disciples a new observance, the Lord’s Supper. Following the Communion, Christ and the Eleven walk through the streets of Jerusalem to Gethsemane. In John’s account of this nighttime trek, Jesus spends these last moments giving the disciples His final teachings and instructions. He also reveals His messianic identity in a way that beautifully demonstrates the connectivity and cohesion of the Old and New Testaments.

In John 15:1, Christ tells the disciples plainly that He is that true vine–the one which grew from the Root of Jesse, and that His Father is the vinedresser. His words hearken directly back to the themes we read about in Isaiah; Christ here establishes Himself as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.

Christ gives the disciples–and all future believers–a crucial instruction: to abide in Him. The Christian must remain connected to and believing in Christ for two reasons: first because on our own, we can do nothing. Just as a branch cannot grow and produce fruit unless it remains attached to the vine, neither can we be fruitful and faithful unless we stay connected to the true vine–Christ. Secondly, and more importantly, it is only through abiding in Christ that we can keep from being infected and infested like the vineyard of Isaiah’s parable. Abiding in Christ is the only way in which we can avoid being ruined by sin.

We must understand this: just as the vinedresser allowed the vineyard to be destroyed to purge it, and just as God allowed Assyria and Babylon to lay waste to Israel and Judah to purge them of their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God was now going to let the true vine be destroyed in order to cleanse humanity from its infestation of sin. The destruction that Israel experienced was only a preview of the judgment and destruction that humanity deserved, but Christ took that judgment in our place. He had the full cup of God’s wrath–the wrath which we should have endured for eternity–poured upon Him and He allowed it to kill Him so that we would be pardoned.

Through the shedding of His blood and His death, Christ purged us of the sin which infected us, which keeps us from bearing good fruit. By cleansing us of our infestation of sin, He made us able to live as He commands us to live; He corrected the very problem Israel could never overcome. With that, just as the root of the previously destroyed vine grew back, death would not be able to contain Christ, and He–the true vine–would grow back again, only three days after his death. As Christ walked with his disciples on that first night of Passover–Christ knew everything that was about to happen, and He knew why it must happen. So Jesus commanded the disciples to abide in Him, to stay connected to him– to keep believing in Him, because that was the only way for them to be rid of the sin which would destroy them.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, God planted a new vineyard, and Christ is the choice vine. Faith and belief in Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to become branches on His vine, and as long as we abide in Him–remain connected to him, believe in Him, seek to do his will–we will bear fruit. We will be pruned and cut back from time to time, this process will hurt and be painful, but it re-shapes us; this is the only way in which we can grow. Our sinful flesh still causes us to think that we can grow on our own; it still tempts us to turn away from God, but we must abide in Him. Without Him, we will be no better than the worthless vines of Isaiah’s day, and if we turn from Him, we deserve the same fate that they met.

In Isaiah 5:4, we saw God asking what more could He have done for his vineyard, for Israel. In Christ, we see God doing the only thing left to do– going to the root of the problem, and killing the sin which ruined Israel and all of humanity. In order to do this, Christ had to suffer. He had to endure the fullness of the wrath and judgment of God–the wrath and judgment which was rightfully ours–and He did so willingly. He did this so that we could be grafted in as branches of the true vine, His vine, and so that we could abide in Him and be empowered by His spirit to live as He commands us to live–as Israel was supposed to live– as His holy people–a people who live out righteousness and justice.

He died so that we could live differently and bear fruit.

So, we must exam our lives; we must look at ourselves and determine this: what kind of fruit are you? What kind of fruit are you producing? Are you abiding in Christ? Are you bearing fruit? If so, continue abiding in Him, and be ready to be pruned back from time to time so that you might grow and bear more fruit. When the pruning comes, continue to abide in Him, regardless of how painful that process might be.

God has done everything for us, even more than what He did for Israel–He sent His son to redeem us from sin. In three hours on the cross and three days in the grave, Christ fulfilled our eternity in Hell.

Abide in Him; stay connected to Him. Turn away from the sin that infest you, and allow Christ to cleanse you and enable you to live differently, and then bear fruit for Him.

Artwork: “The Green Vineyard,” Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

Excess.

Christianity, Religion

”Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes often offers advice that seems baffling, and frankly, contradictory with what is found elsewhere in scripture. Repeatedly throughout the Bible, we are called to seek after righteousness, yet here the Teacher tells us not to be excessively righteous or overly wise. The appeal to avoid wickedness and foolishness makes sense, but how do we make sense of this call to avoid excessive righteousness?

Pursuing righteousness is a good thing. However, as with any noble pursuit, it is the nature of one’s motivations which can undermine their quest. This is what is at the core of the Teacher’s caution to avoid excessive righteousness; he is calling on us to examine the nature of our motivations for our pursuit.

In our pursuit of righteousness, there are two pitfalls to be avoided. First is that of self-righteousness. Are we pursuing righteousness and justice because these are the earnest desires of our heart, or are we pursuing them because we desire for others to see us in this pursuit? Are we seeking the praise of man, or are we seeking to please God?  True righteousness is not compatible with self-righteousness. True righteousness is humble and modest and labors out of love. Self-righteousness is loud and bombastic, it draws attention to itself; it desires for all to see just how “righteous” it is. Self-righteousness might have once been true righteousness, but it became misguided and addicted to itself; it chokes the life out of true righteousness. We see this self-righteousness refuted and rebuked numerous times in the New Testament. Time after time, Christ calls out the Pharisees for their hypocritical approach to righteousness. They would go to extreme lengths to appear righteous before others, but it was all because they wanted others to see how righteous they were. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” (Matthew 23:27-28). Self-righteousness might make us appear to look right with God outwardly, but inside–where it matters–the self-righteous is just as lost as the most wayward sinner.

The second pitfall that must be avoided in pursuing righteousness is that of “bargaining,” or “hedging one’s bets.” This is the myth and lie that is sold by the “prosperity gospel.”  In scripture, the Old Testament especially, we see where those who are righteous are often blessed, while the wicked are often not, or even worse, are cursed. This is not, however, a standard rule of thumb. There are just as many, if not more, instances where the righteous suffer and the unjust prosper–just read Job or the rest of Ecclesiastes. In spite of this fact, many seek righteousness because they think that it will force God to bless them; that God will “owe” them something. How blasphemous this idea is! The Almighty God Most High, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, does not and will never owe us anything.  He does not even owe us the salvation which He offers to us; this is–as is every other blessing He bestows upon us–a gift given freely out of His own good will. “God does not show partiality,” (Acts 10:34);  “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45). Seeking righteousness out of a desire to be owed something by God is just as dangerous and sinful as self-righteousness, and the two traps are not necessarily unrelated; one can easily lead to the other. Those who teach others to pursue righteousness because God will bless them for it–the prosperity gospel–make a mockery of the cross. They spit in the face of the self-sacrificing Savior and demean His atonement into nothing more than a suggestion in a self-help book. God blesses those whom He chooses to bless, and He does so because He can. He owes us nothing. We deserve Hell, and He chose to save us.

After considering the significant pitfalls that so frequently trap those who are seeking righteousness, we can now see what the Teacher meant by telling us to avoid excessive righteousness. We cannot allow ourselves to become self-righteous; we must not seek righteousness because we think it will buy us favor with God. These behaviors are just as sinful as wicked and foolish living. These behaviors make us unteachable; they make us become like a fool. Instead, we must seek righteousness with humility and sincerity. We must bow continuously before Christ our King, and we must remember that He gives us gifts and blessings, not because He owes them to us, but because He wants to. We must also remember that we suffer so that we can learn to trust Him more. He blesses whom He blesses—the good and the bad—for His own reasons and in His own time.

Heed the Teacher’s advice: avoid excessive righteousness. Be humble, be meek, and seek righteousness with a sincere heart.

Artwork: “Christ and the Pharisees,” Anthony van Dyck, c. 17th C.