Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
Those who follow in the footsteps of Christ seek to align themselves with the mission of Christ. There are two wings on this bird, and both are necessary to fly well: (1) The followers of Christ will practice gospel messaging; and (2) the followers of Christ will practice gospel neighboring. The gospel, or course, is the good news announcement that a new emperor has ascended the throne—Jesus Christ, not Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:8-14; Phil 2:9-11). It’s the declaration of what God has freely done for his people in Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10a). In his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death, and those who believe in him now have their sins forgiven, and they receive a new life—not by righteous things they have done, but because of the finished work of Christ. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is making all things new in the restoration of the entire cosmos. That’s the good news, and messaging that news is part of the believer’s mission.
But gospel neighboring is the other wing, and it is vitally important, too. In fact, messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel (Jas 2:14-17). It’s empty words and hollow bluster. We become resounding gongs and clanging symbols (1 Cor 13:1). Moreover, Jesus said that next to loving God, loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment we could keep (Matt 22:34-40). To “love” our neighbors does not necessarily mean having warm, fuzzy feelings toward them. To “love” our neighbors means to regard them as valuable and important. However wretched certain people may be—and we all have a certain amount of wretchedness in us—they are still made in the image of God. They therefore have intrinsic worth, value, significance, and dignity, whether they’re living up to their lofty status or not.
Gospel neighboring also means serving those around us, whether they believe the gospel or not (Matt 5:43-47). It’s easy to be kind to those who are like us, but Jesus doesn’t let us get away with finding loopholes in the command to love our neighbor. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) drives home the point. But how well do we actually know our neighbors? Mr. Rogers used to sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Do we even know? If so, how well do we know them? Gospel neighboring starts with getting to know the people who providentially surround us.But this challenge raises many questions. What if we don’t like our neighbors? What if our neighbors don’t like us? What if they’re loud, obnoxious, or annoying? What if they’re immoral, violent, or dangerous? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m already insanely busy? We have many questions about how to do this well, and we’ll look at some of them over the course of this series. For now, we’re simply getting centered on our need to radiate the gospel.
If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters!
So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.
Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart, And love that soul through me; And may I bravely do my part To win that soul for Thee.
There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.
The first word is transliterated nāśā.
The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).
Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words:
Who is a God like you, who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.
The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.
The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.
Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].
And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:
The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.
Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).
“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49:
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.
December is a time when many believers remind others that we need to put Christ back into Christmas. O.k., but why stop there? We also need to put Satan back into Christmas. If we take the biblical account seriously, he’s the reason for the mess we’re in today. Things like greed, selfishness, violence, injustice, abuse, alienation, and death can all be laid at his doorstep. That’s why 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” One of our Christmas carols contains the same idea: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” Yes, Satan is real and relentless, but ultimately ruined—precisely because Jesus came. In fact, on that first Christmas, Jesus began undoing what Satan did a long time ago: enticing the human race to walk away from God and his ways. The Lord’s great rescue effort began with a young Jewish virgin named Mary.
Gabriel gives the news of her mission from God in the famous “Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38), a text loaded with insights about Mary, Mary’s Son, and Mary’s God. Moreover, it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6), and the restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In one sense, then, our salvation hinges on Mary’s obedient response to God’s initiative.
All true, but what emerges from the biblical portrait of Mary is also her ordinariness. She was a normal young girl from a no-account town in Galilee. What made her extraordinary was the fact that she was a true servant of the Lord, totally surrendered to doing God’s will. In this regard, she’s still a model for believers today. It has always been the case that God has a plan to change the world, and ordinary people can be a part of it. That’s why Paul said to ordinary believers in Rome, “God will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). We don’t have to be extraordinary people to engage in serpent crushing. We just have to be available to God.
“And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
Our neighbors across the street have a nativity scene in their front yard. It’s simple, wooden, monochrome, and two-dimensional. It’s understated, sparsely lit, and lovely in its own way. It’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous because I can go by it every day and not be jolted by the shock of what it communicates.
A manger? Seriously? Is that where they placed the baby Jesus after his delivery was complete and his cord was cut? A place where animals nuzzled their feed just moments prior and insects foraged for their own microsopic morsels? It’s a bit crude, don’t you think? As the old carol says, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” The temptation is to scoff at such an account.
But if the Son of God came into our world two thousand years ago as a baby—as a real person joined to our humanity—and his first bassinet on the planet was a feeding trough for animals, might there be something in that detail that needs our attention? Might there be more here than meets the eye? What might God be trying to say to us through the startling semiotics of this well-known scene in my neighbor’s yard?
Whatever it is, not only did it make sense to the shepherds, it set them into motion. The Christ child as described—swaddled in strips of cloth and lying in a manger—was a meaningful “sign” to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth (Luke 2:17). What are we to make, then, of the swaddling clothes and the manger bed, which figure so prominently in the original Christmas story?
We’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accordance with Jewish prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:5-6). The word Bethlehem means “house of bread,” or “house of food.” The Arabic cognate means “house of meat” or “house of flesh.” It may have been known to the ancients as something of a food court—a corridor of lodging and hospitality for travelers. King David was born there a thousand years before Jesus. David, of course, was Israel’s leader who established the temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built under the reign of Solomon, his son.
The temple was the center of worship and sacrifice in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on the high holy days. Where did all those lambs come from? They came from the fields in Bethlehem, located about 4.5 miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless—without blemish or imperfection—or they could not be offered at the temple.
The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet when they’re born, and they can slip and slide quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of soft hay so it wouldn’t fall and bruise itself. If they did, they couldn’t be used in worship.
But these weren’t just any old cloths used to wrap the newborn lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white garments worn by Jewish priests during their daily rituals. After regular use, those garments got so covered in blood, filth, and dirt, they had to be swapped out for new ones.
Normally, the priests didn’t just get rid of their old robes. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them. The U.S. military has a similar view of old flags. They don’t just throw them away; they remove them from regular use with certain ceremonies and procedures for honorable disposal. The same was true with old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.
“This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told. They would go on to see a human baby wrapped in blood-stained priest garments. To a Bethlehem shepherd, such a sight would be loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He’ll be a bloodied priest himself someday in order to accomplish your salvation. He’s the child born to die a sacrificial death.”
God was speaking their language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first.
First-century mangers may have been made out of wood, but numerous stone mangers have been found in the region. As is the case today today, mangers served as food bins for animals. But it’s important to note that nowhere in the infancy narratives do we read that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave. The stable-cave setting is inferred because of the biblical references to a “manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). A better understanding of first-century culture makes the stable-cave setting unnecessary, though it certainly remains a possibility.
We need to go on a myth-busting journey here to sharpen our focus. The Bible neither states nor implies that Mary and Joseph were in a hurry to get to Bethlehem, or that they had just barely made it before the final contractions. Such ideas find their origin not in the Gospels but in a third-century novella. The myth has been perpetuated in stories, art, and film ever since (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth, The Nativity Story, etc.).
In many films today, Mary is “ten centimeters dilated and ready to push” while still riding on the donkey (also not in the text) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But Scripture and logic both tell us that Mary and Joseph had sufficient time to find suitable lodging and make preparations for the delivery. “While they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6, KJV). That is, at some point during the unspecified period of time that Mary and Joseph had already been in Bethlehem, Mary came to term and delivered her baby.
As a descendant of King David, Joseph would have had no trouble finding relatives (even distant ones) to lodge with inside “the town of David.” If my wife had ever gone back to a certain region in Hickory, North Carolina while eight or nine months pregnant and said, “I’m Lester Taylor’s granddaughter, and I need a place to stay to deliver my baby,” she would have had no difficulty whatsoever in finding a sympathetic relative to take her in. (Lester Taylor was a well-known farmer in the area, and he had fourteen children back in the day, many of whom still live in that town.)
New Testament scholar Kenneth E. Bailey argues that pregnant women receive special attention in nearly every culture, especially if they’re about ready to deliver their first child. Furthermore, the honor of all Bethlehem was at stake in caring for a pregnant woman from out of town. Given the unwritten hospitality rules and customs of the Middle East in ancient times, rejection of a pregnant woman is unthinkable.
But wasn’t there “no room” for the holy family in any of the local hotels (cf. Luke 2:7)? That’s a vast over-reading (and therefore a misreading) of the story. The text does not mention an inn keeper who turned away Joseph and Mary. Moreover, note the layout of a typical Middle Eastern home in the first century:
What’s labeled as a “stable” on the left end of this diagram is similar to our attached garages today—an extra room built off the side of a house where farm equipment and other household items could be stored. The house itself features a main “family room” and a “guest room.”
Animals were typically kept in the house at night to provide extra heat, prevent theft, and keep the elements off of them. For example, we read in 1 Samuel 28:24, “Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house….” Additionally, consider Jephthah’s famous vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). Jephthah fully expected an animal to come out of his house, not a person.
Luke 2:7 reads, “She [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma].” A kataluma is a “guest room” (cf. Luke 22:11), not an “inn.” A pandocheion is an “inn” (cf. Luke 10:34). That’s not the word used in the infancy narrative.
It’s likely that Mary and Joseph were granted the use of someone’s family room or “garage” in a house, since the guest room was already in use, possibly due to the influx of people because of the census. A manger was available, then, as a cradle in the house. So, Jesus may have been born in a garage-like room attached to a house, with mangers setting around for the animals sheltering in place overnight.
Nothing in this reconstruction minimizes the shock of the Christ child being laid in a manger. It’s still a feeding trough for animals. It’s still a crude bassinet in a crowded, makeshift room, not a satin-sheet crib in a royal palace. The point is that God ensured the safe delivery of his own Son on earth and sent a powerful message to those who first saw it. What was that message?
Christmas means the end of haughtiness. It’s the end of snobbery. It’s the end of pretense. It’s the end of airbrushing ourselves and preening for the camera or the academy. Oswald Chambers once said: “Beware of posing as a profound person—God became a baby.” There’s a powerful message in the manger, and it’s this: God is humble. God is gentle. God is winsome. God is relational. What’s more accessible and unassuming than an infant? What’s more inviting and endearing than a newborn baby?
Here, too, God’s wisdom is on full display. People want to be attracted to faith, not coerced into it. They want something that’s beautiful, true, and good, not pompous, overbearing, and intimidating. Bethlehem’s manger gives them all that and more. It’s the most disarming invitation there is to genuine faith. Besides, religion says, “Work your way up to God.” Christmas says: “God has worked his way down to you.” All the way down. The Prince of Peace comes in peace. He comes as a baby. And that must mean the end of all pomposity on our part. God doesn’t need to show off, so neither do his people.
During World War II, a man named John Blanchard was a lieutenant in the Navy. At one point he checked out a book from the library that had previously belonged to somebody else. Even though he liked the book, the thing he appreciated most were the handwritten notes in the margins. A woman who lived in New York City had written all of her own notes in the white space, and Blanchard loved those notes.
He was intrigued by their wisdom and insight, and he started getting attracted to the mind of the person who wrote them. Her name was on the inside of the book, so, with a little bit of effort, he discovered where she lived, and he wrote to her. Her name was Hollis.
During the war, they wrote back and forth. They had wonderful correspondence, and it turned into a deep friendship. Blanchard had the utmost admiration for her, but he also had an imagination of what she looked like. He asked her for a picture, but she never sent one.
Finally, the war was over, and Blanchard was coming home. He had arranged to meet Hollis at Grand Central Station at a particular spot at 7:00 p.m. Her last letter said, “Hey, we don’t know what each other looks like, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand at a particular place, and you’ll know me because I’ll be wearing a great big red rose on my lapel.”
Blanchard got out of the train, walked over to this spot, and he saw two women there. One was young and beautiful, and the other was much older, much heavier, and much dowdier than he had imagined. That was the woman wearing the big red rose. Blanchard stopped in his tracks. As he waited there, the pretty woman walked away, and the woman with the red rose on her lapel stood there looking for somebody.
Blanchard said, “I was split. I felt choked up by the bitterness of my disappointment, but so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had connected with mine and upheld me during the war, I thought, ‘Well, this won’t be love and romance, but it could be something precious, maybe a friendship for which I would always be grateful.’” So, he swallowed hard and summoned up his courage. He walked over to the woman and said, “Hello, I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard. You must be Hollis. I’m so glad to meet you. May I take you to dinner?”
She smiled and said, “Son, I have no idea who you are or what this is all about, but the young lady who was just standing here beside me—who walked away—she said I should wear this big red rose on my lapel. And only if you asked me to dinner should I tell you she’s waiting for you in that restaurant across the street.”
Blanchard knew what was most important in a person—not external beauty, however lovely it may be—but a beauty deeper down. A beauty of soul. A beauty of personhood in its totality.
The beauty of Jesus is not the beauty of this world. It’s actually better. Deeper. Richer. More authentic. Underneath the crudeness of the manger is the beautiful, disarming humility of God.
“Why lies he in such mean estate?” Because God doesn’t want to scare us off. He wants to have a relationship with us—freely chosen and warmly embraced. And nothing communicates that truth better than a feeding trough. So, come to the manger that holds the Messiah. He’s in a food bin so we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
May every nativity set we see this year jolt us a bit rather than just blending into the background. God has something to say to us through it. Something that can make our own lives beautiful, too.
Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn king.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; christianitytoday.com; israelmyglory.org; sketch derived from Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
Like many other people, I have a morning routine that includes coffee. Two cups at least. And most of the time, I drink Eight O’clock Dark Italian Roast with one cream and one Splenda. (Take my man card if you must, but that’s how I like it.) I drink other kinds from time to time, but the darker roasts and Columbian roasts are my favorites.
Often when I have my first cup, I think about and pray for the person who gave me the mug I’m using that morning. I have quite a collection, and as I drag myself to the place where I do my devotions, I pray God’s blessings over that person.
One of my all-time favorites is a light blue ceramic mug featuring a bleary-eyed Mickey Mouse on the front, and a printed message on the back, which says, “Some mornings are ROUGH!”
Mickey is right. Some mornings are rough, but coffee makes them tolerable. In any event, I treasure this mug because my son got it for me during his first-ever Christmas away from home. He was in college, and he did an internship at Disney World one year during the holiday break. That was emotionally challenging for us—not to have our son home for Christmas.
We got to Skype with him that year, and for that we were grateful, but it wasn’t the same as having him here with us. (One cannot hug pixels on an iPad.) When he returned from Florida, the Mickey mug was one of the gifts he gave me for Christmas. So, it’s special to me because it’s connected to a precious memory—an expression of a son’s love for his father.
Unfortunately, the handle broke off a few years ago. No one knows exactly how or why it happened, and it was quite upsetting when it did. “Not the Mickey mug!” I still have it today, and it looks like this:
My special mug without its handle. It’s now defective—less than what it had been when I first received it. But I still treasure it. It’s still special to me and always will be. The mug is broken but loved.
What an apt metaphor for people made in the image of God. After all, how much more valuable is a person than a mug! We’re spiritually broken but still loved by God.
I won’t ever get rid of my Mickey mug, even though it’s defective. Likewise, God won’t get rid of us—even if we’re broken in some way. We’re the reason Christmas happened in the first place.
So, drink up. And thank God for his caffeinated grace.
Bobby was six years old, and he had an inquiring mind. He had been learning how to measure things at school, and his teacher suggested the class go home that night and see what they could find there to measure. Bobby took the challenge to heart. When he got home, he measured his desk. He measured his toy box. He measured his bed. He measured everything within reach.
Then, while enjoying a moment of inspiration in the second-floor bathroom, Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder how long the wiggly white worm is that lives inside the tube of toothpaste.” Soon, under the pressure of eager, juvenile fingers, the wiggly white worm oozed its path down the sink, across the bathroom floor, out into the hall, and down the stairs into the living room, where the economy size tube finally expired.
Bobby was ecstatic. It was only a moment’s work to walk his ruler along the gleaming white trail and record the measurement. “Now,” he said to himself, “all I’ve got to do is put the toothpaste back into the tube before mommy finds out.” Sadly, Bobby’s progress in physics was not as advanced as his mathematics, or else he would have known that certain processes are irreversible.
His mother’s voice sounded from the kitchen, “Bobby, what are you doing?” A deep intuition alerted him to the fact that she would not be pleased with the long white worm on the floor. Frantically, he tried to scoop up the evidence, but that only made the mess worse.
“Bobby!” cried his mother at the sight of the strange new design on her favorite carpet. “What have you done?”
And with no further ingenuity forthcoming, Bobby—in typical six-year-old fashion—burst into tears. He ran full tilt and buried his face in the apron of his startled but kindhearted mother. “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m really sorry!”
Has it ever occurred to you that life can be a bit like toothpaste? It, too, flows out in an irreversible stream, and sometimes we wish we could put it back. But that cannot be done, and we’re often left with a mess we cannot clean ourselves.
“If life had a second edition,” wrote the poet John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” King David might have agreed with that sentiment. After his famous sin with Bathsheba and his murderous ploy to cover it up, he realized he had made a terrible mess of his life and kingdom, and he had no ability to clean it up himself. Yet in the midst of his tormented soul, he somehow knew that God did. In Psalm 51:1-2, he asked the Lord:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
With true remorse and raw repentance, David ran full tilt and buried his shame in the apron of God’s lovingkindness. He understood full well that to get clean with God, he had to come clean with God. And so, the disgraced king cried out to God in Psalm 51:7-10:
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
David discovered that the crushing weight of sin was no match for the mercy of God. In fact, he went on to celebrate in another psalm the forgiveness he received from the Lord: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps 32:1). God had truly made him “whiter than snow.”
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, received this instruction: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means salvation. Reflecting on what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection to make sinful people righteous, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20).
Ultimately, David learned that while our lives may be irreversible, they are not irredeemable. That’s true of your life, too.
Thank you, Lord, for your merciful heart. I confess that I’m not a person with a small debt. Sometimes I willingly choose my way above your way, preferring my own glory to yours. Sadly, I have done this, like David, even as a believer. Yet, your gracious heart remains. Thank you, God. I am grateful that my forgiveness is based on your character and not my own; that it’s based on your love for me, not my love for you. If that were the case, I’d be lost forever. But you are the God who still gives people new hearts. Do that for me, I pray, and help me to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Mary’s famous Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveals that the young Jewish girl who gave birth to the Messiah knew her Bible well. She weaves together at least 30 echoes, allusions, and citations from the Old Testament into her composition. The resulting scriptural tapestry bears a striking resemblance to the prayer of Hannah, a woman who was barren, yet God miraculously gave a son—the Prophet Samuel—whom she dedicated to the Lord. But it’s more than just Hannah’s prayer that stands behind the Magnificat; it’s myriad other references to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, too. Her song is saturated and marinated in Scripture. It’s a musical medley that we might consider in our day something akin to a biblical mashup.
Mary likely composed the piece in her head on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Judea, singing it to Elizabeth upon her arrival. She had several days to think about it, and now she cuts loose. It’s also likely that these words became a lullaby sung to Jesus in utero and postpartum. If so, Jesus had sacred words ingrained in him from the very beginning of his earthly life. It’s no wonder, then, that he quotes the Psalms more than once from his cross. It’s even possible he sang those words to the extent he was able—almost like a duet across the years with his mother, who’s standing there at the horrible spectacle of Calvary. He sings back to her now the words she sang to him from infancy. Both their lives are bookended by the Word of God.
Some rabbis in Mary’s day said, “Keep the Torah far away from women; they will corrupt it to go near it. If they so much as touch the scroll, you must burn it.” One can be glad Mary and her family didn’t adhere to such a foolish tradition, for Mary’s burst of praise becomes part of sacred Scripture itself—God’s revelation to the world. And Elizabeth is not her only audience; we, are too. In this passage, Mary is “rightly dividing the word of truth” from the Old Testament, pulling it together and describing for us how God is bringing the Messiah into the world, and what he will do when he comes. She teaches us the Scriptures—anticipating the promise in Acts 2:17: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy [i.e., speak forth the Word of God].” Mary leads the way on this declaration. Indeed, she’s an extraordinary reminder that a spiritually vibrant life is marked by Scripture, praise, and humility. While certain traditions overly exalt Mary, others greatly under appreciate her. Neither extreme is warranted. She is truly a model for the ages.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collectorwho “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right?
Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.
The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart.
But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.
When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!
Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!
Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.
Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.
So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:
Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God. “…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)
Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God. “…of the people of Israel” (5b)
Social status cannot make us right with God. “…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)
Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. “…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)
Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. “…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)
Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God. “…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)
Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God. “…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)
It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.
Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.
Prior to the writing of the New Testament, the Greek word for “gospel” (euangelion) referred to “the good news announcement” of a military victory on the battlefield, a legal victory in a court of law, or the birth and/or ascension of a new king to the throne. One ancient inscription refers to the birth of Caesar Augustus as “the beginning of the gospel,” the exact phrase Mark uses in the opening line of his account of the life of Christ. Mark actually “hijacks” that reference to Caesar and reassigns it to Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has won the ultimate battle over evil, sin, and death, and rules now from his throne in heaven. What unlocks the “good news” in a person’s life is faith and repentance—making a turn from going in one direction in order to go the other way and follow Jesus.
Ultimately, “repentance” is a positive word, as God graciously allows his people to leave their path of destruction and avoid disastrous consequences. God’s offer of repentance means there is still hope. It means God hasn’t given up on us. It means there’s still a possibility to participate in his kingdom renewal efforts here on earth. As John Climacus has said, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair. It is not despondency but eager expectation. . . . To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”
The difficulty for us is letting go of trying to be the boss of our own lives and letting Jesus call the shots instead. A well-known bumper sticker in our day says, “God is my co-pilot,” but the truth is: If God is your co-pilot, switch seats. He wants to be the pilot of our lives. Yes, God sees us as we are and loves us as we are, but by his grace, he does not leave us where we are. Indeed, he is ever ordering our lives in such a way that we can learn to make him our highest treasure.
Today we conclude our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple sketch with profound theological messaging. In Part 1 we looked at the picture without comment, scanning the piece and letting it have its impact on us. In Part 2 we looked at the encounter in general, noting the significance of these two women meeting in the presence of Christ. In Part 3 we looked at the three types of fruit presented in the sketch, two of which are visible and one of which is not. In Part 4 we looked at the artist’s strategic use of color and how each one telegraphs important spiritual truths. In this last part, we look briefly at the hands, feet, and faces of the two women. They, too, tell a story.
Garrett Johnson has noted, “We find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.” Johnson is perceptive in his assessment of the fallen matriarch. A similar and contrasting observation can be made of Mary. She clings to nothing; instead, her hands are free to gently caress the one who desperately needs her Son, whom she will soon share with the world. Indeed, all of Eve’s children need her Son, and God brings him to us as promised though this young obedient servant of his.
The two women make contact through look and touch, banishing the isolation and alienation that often accompany sin. Yet there is a hint of reluctance on Eve’s part, so the scene has begun, but it is not yet completely resolved—leaving us to contemplate her response to Christ. And ours.
Specifically, Eve’s right arm takes a defensive posture, as if she were trying to cover herself, even while holding onto the forbidden fruit. The bend in her arm forms a V, one of the universal symbols of women. Moreover, this V creates an arrow pointing down toward the serpent, which is entwined around her legs. Despite the entanglement, Eve is able to walk, though it is clearly difficult for her to do so. Her journey is encumbered every step of the way by the enemy, but the mother of the redeemer now stands before her. Consequently, Eve is stepping in the direction of hope—but not without assistance.
Eve’s left hand is touching Mary’s belly, but only because Mary has apparently pulled it toward the child, overcoming Eve’s hesitation. Her reluctance is no doubt rooted in her sense of shame and unworthiness. Mary knows, however, that it’s precisely for such people that Jesus has come. Confidently, then, she helps Eve touch the one who will undo the effects of her cosmic treason.
Additionally, Mary gently strokes Eve’s cheek with her right hand, giving her assurance that all will be well. The promised deliverer, “the seed of the woman,” has finally come. Jesus will take her shame and nakedness to himself on the cross, and in the process, his “heel” will be “bruised,” as the prophecy says. Crucifixion is ugly business, but no longer will Eve need to bear the weight of her own sin and all the calamity it unleashed on the world, for the world’s sin bearer is now here.
Mary, of course is stomping on the head of the serpent, rendering it impotent in the presence of the gestating Christ. This dramatic act portrays the protoeuangelion of Genesis 3:15, where God judges the serpent with these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Protestants need not object that Mary is the one crushing the serpent’s head in this scene because: (1) Jesus will do exactly that in his death, burial, and resurrection; and (2) Jesus will give his followers authority to do the same. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20; emphasis mine). Believers will share in the crushing because Jesus did the neutralizing of satanic authority: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Consequently, Eve is able to drop the forbidden fruit and step into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. Will she do so? Will we?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the sketch is the contrast of expressions. Eve’s face is crestfallen, downcast, and ashamed. She blushes profusely because of the humiliation that comes from having her sin exposed to the world. It’s difficult for her to look up, although she clearly tries to do so, daring to hope that Mary’s child might offer the relief her soul so desperately needs.
Mary’s gaze is priceless. She smiles gently at Eve, knowing full well that her child is the hope of the world and the remedy for all its miseries. She conveys no sense of judgment, haughtiness, or condescension toward Eve, only love. Her eyes are wider than Eve’s because she knows from the angel exactly who this child is and what he has come to do. Eve is still in the process of discovery, so her face is not yet relieved of all its agony, nor is she yet able to look at Mary directly.
King David had a similar experience. In his prayer of confession to the Lord over his sin with Bathsheba, he pleaded to God, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Ps 51:9). So ashamed was he of his sin that he asked God to stop noticing it, something he was unable to do himself (cf. Ps 51:3). But as soon as the king made that request of God, he virtually reversed course and cried out, “Do not cast me from your presence (literally, “your face”) or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). Did he want God’s face to stay or go?
The crisis was devastating to David. In v. 9, he wanted God to hide his face from his sin, but in v. 11, he didn’t want God to hide his face from him. The dilemma was acute. If God chose to look on David’s sin, it would produce in him a deep sense of unbearable shame; if God chose not to look on him at all, it would produce in him a deep sense of awful abandonment. Neither option was pleasing to David, and his only hope was that God would somehow find a way to cut the Gordian knot of unacceptable choices. The knot is finally cut by Mary’s child, who grew up and became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
I, too, know the shameful blush that comes from sinning against God and wounding others—precious people made in his image who deserved better from me. Maybe you know that feeling, too. We cannot undo our own treason against God, but Jesus can. Be assured that the grace of God in Christ is greater than your failures. Humbly accept his gift and turn from what made it necessary in the first place. If your face is downcast in shame, humiliated by your own sin, dare to look at Christ by faith this Christmas. You’re why he came.
We’re why he came—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As the old carol says, Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we are gone astray.” Indeed, he came to be “the glory and the lifter of [our] head” (Ps 3:3) so that we could look God in the eye again, stepping into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. He came so the ancient blessing given to God’s people could fully and finally be true:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).
We continue our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” the portrayal of a hypothetical encounter between the two main mothers of Scripture—the mother of the human race and the mother of the new human race. The descendants of the former are spiritually broken and stand in need of redemption; the offspring of the latter is spiritually perfect and thus stands able to serve as humanity’s redeemer. The colors in the sketch assist the artist in telling the story.
Eve is covered in her own beautiful brown hair, and brown is the color of the earth. In fact, the garden floor in this sketch is also brown. It’s the earth from which Adam was created by God. Eve, who was derived from Adam, was therefore made of the same “stuff” as Adam. As such, Eve is of the earth, and to the earth she will return in death because of her sin (Gen 3:19).
On a side note, what Eve is wearing underneath her hair is not immediately apparent in the sketch, but Scripture tells us it would have been the garment of skin that God had made for her so her shame and nakedness could be covered. God replaced the garment of leaves she made with her own hands with a more suitable covering made by his own (Gen 3:21). The theological point is that salvation is never rooted in human effort; it is always rooted in divine grace. Self-salvation is no salvation at all.
And do note that it was God who drew first blood on the planet, not Cain. God sacrificed the life of one of his own creatures so that Eve could be spared the imminent death sentence she rightly deserved. Somewhere in the garden, a bloody carcass lay dead because of Eve’s sin (and God’s mercy in covering that sin).
Mary is covered in a garment of snowy white, which is the color of purity.In Catholic theology, Mary’s purity is due to her own “immaculate conception” in her mother’s womb, preserving her from spiritual depravity. In Protestant theology, however, Mary is a member of the fallen human race like any other woman. As such, she needs a Savior, too (cf. Luke 1:47). Her purity comes from the fact that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I hold to the latter view, as the former is a late theological development with no biblical warrant.
In any event, the white garment signifies that just as Mary is made pure by the gracious presence of Christ in her, so the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, can make Eve and her descendants pure, too—but only through the cross, which also makes an appearance in the sketch.
In addition to her white robe, Mary is also draped in a blue head scarf, and blue is the color of the skies and/or heavens. She herself is not from heaven, but she carries the one who is—Jesus, “the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:14-49). Ominously, her headscarf forms a crown in the shape of a cross, which corresponds to the awful prophecy Simeon gave Mary just after the birth of Jesus: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).
Eve’s “crown,” on the other hand, is earthy brown—a row of curls made by her own tainted fingers. It’s a hint, perhaps, at the crown of thorns that will go on to encircle the head of Christ in his atoning work on the cross. But notice further that the blue cross seems to flow like living water down Mary’s shoulders and back, directly toward the head of the serpent. The crafty beast will soon get what’s coming to him.
The fair skin of the women is not historically accurate. They would have been much browner in tone, Easterners as they were. I suspect the fair skin represents an application of the universal biblical story to the specific race of the artist—an acceptable practice if applied across the board with equal acceptance. That is, were the artist non-Caucasian, Eve and Mary might well be portrayed in that artist’s race, too. “Red, and yellow, black, and white—they are precious in his sight.”
The garden arch is predominantly green, which speaks of life, abundance, and divine goodness, a theme discussed in the previous post. Moreover, the archway is lush with ruddy-yellow fruit, an indication of the kindness, grace, and provisions of the generous God who gave it. He delights in giving good gifts to his children. The single forbidden fruit in Eve’s right hand is solid red, distinguishing it from the copious good fruit made available to her throughout Eden. The serpent is green, too, because it’s a living creature, but it also features dark splotches, an indication of its sinister intentions toward God’s treasured child.
Best of all, the encounter takes place in a yellow-gold light, one that illuminates the entire scene. This color can represent both royalty and divinity, so the stage is awash in the presence of God. That presence envelops both Mary and Eve. Moreover, the in utero Christ is “Emmanuel,” God with us. The point is that God is here. He is in this scene despite the presence of the sinner and the serpent. He has not been put off. He has not abandoned his people.
The implication is that God is with us in our moments of failure and shame (as represented by Eve) as well as our moments of faithfulness and obedience (as represented by Mary). He does not run away. Rather, he pursues us with his “goodness and mercy…all the days of our lives” (Ps 23:6).
That pursuit took Jesus to another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane, where he “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Quite significantly, the first blood shed by Christ in his Passion was not drawn by human hands (cf. Gen 3:21). He bled freely of his own accord in the garden before placing himself into the hands of his captors. In other words, he had already given what his tormentors would claim they had taken (cf. John 10:17-18).
God sacrificed the life of his only Son so that we could be covered by him and spared the imminent death sentence we rightly deserved, similar to what happened in Eden. One hymn writer described it like this: “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” The result is what the Apostle Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49:
“The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”
In other words, we can go from earthly brown to heavenly blue, wearing snowy white—all because the golden Christ once became bloody red for us.
We’re reflecting on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple pencil-and-crayon sketch portraying a hypothetical encounter between the two towering matriarchs of the human race according to the Christian Scriptures. My comments are from the perspective of a Protestant evangelical pastor and seminary prof with an appreciation for what this Catholic nun has produced, even though our views on Mary and the church will not always align completely. No matter: it is my privilege to learn from (and be blessed by) others.
Remington does not consider herself to be a professional artist. She simply likes to doodle while thinking and studying. She got the idea for this piece while pondering the differences between Mary and Eve. Interestingly enough, the practice of Bible journaling art has taken off among evangelicals in the last decade or so. In an age of ubiquitous online memes, this practice is a welcome trend, and getting started is not difficult. I’m not an accomplished artist, but I can’t study the Bible without a pencil in my hand, either. There’s a treasure trove of truth gems in the canon to sort out. Some of these gems make their way into Remington’s sketch.
The scene portrays three kinds of fruit, two of which are in plain sight. First, there is the good fruit of Eden, scattered throughout the garden archway. It’s important to note that there’s much more good fruit available to Eve than the one bad fruit she wound up eating. As noted in a recent post, God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God, and generosity is seen as a prevailing attribute of his.
It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees with fruit were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17).
Celebrate the goodness of good in this divinely intended imbalance: God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotchety God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.
Alas, Eve ate the one bad fruit of Eden, which is the second fruit visible in the picture. This fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). What made it bad was not its internal composition but the fact that God said it was off limits to Eve. In the sketch, she is still clutching the forbidden fruit, which brings with it all the miseries of guilt, shame, and despair (as seen in her downcast, blushing expression), as well as crippling bondage and eventual death (as seen in her legs, which are encoiled by the serpent).
Every descendant of Eve, save one, has experienced this sense of guilt, shame, despair, and bondage. Such is the beguiling nature of sin. We want what we want, and we take what we want, ignoring the clear instruction of our kind and generous God. Consequently, we are justly placed under the sentence of death for our spiritual treason. “In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Is there no hope? Is there no way out? Is the human race irreversibly doomed? Blessedly, God’s grace is much greater than human rebellion.
The way out is the third fruit in the Remington sketch, the fruit of Mary’s womb, soon to be born. “Blessed are you among women,” said Elizabeth, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary’s fruit—Jesus—is the way out. Indeed, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is our hope. He is our deliverer. He is our salvation from guilt, shame, despair, bondage, and death. In fact, Mary’s fruit is the fulfillment of the protoeuangelion in Genesis 3:15. Jesus is the good fruit that can undo the effects of the bad fruit.
And yet on the cross, Mary’s fruit looked exactly opposite of Eve’s fruit. The crucified Christ was seen as worthless, not pleasing to the eye, and foolish—another messianic pretender who got himself killed. But Scripture tells us he was wounded for our transgression. He was bruised for our iniquity. Our punishment was upon him. And by his stripes, we are healed (cf. Isa 53).
Both women in the scene are looking at each other’s fruit. Eve gazes at Mary’s fruit—the fruit of the coming Christ, while Mary gazes at Eve’s fruit—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While only Eve touches the fruit of the tree, both women touch Mary’s belly since both need that fruit for their own salvation. And both are mothers of Christ, the good fruit who “comes to make his blessing known far as the curse is found.”
We’re reflecting on the pencil-and-crayon sketch titled “Mary Comforts Eve” by Grace Remington, OCSO, of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa. The image first appeared on a greeting card and is available for purchase online. I received my own copy last year as a gift for participating in a friend’s wedding. He knew of my appreciation for the piece, so he surprised me with a print of my own.
The scene shows an encounter between Eve and Mary even though they were not contemporaries. In fact, they lived thousands of years apart on the timeline. As such, the piece functions as a historical hypothetical. What might it look like if Eve were to meet with Mary? What might the nature of their interaction be?
The sketch, then, is a thought experiment. How would you picture an encounter between these two women? Would their conversation be cold? Awkward? Condemnatory? Hostile? Would there be a conversation at all? Using her theological imagination, Remington gives us a glimpse into how such a meeting might go.
Eve, of course, is “the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). She represents the entire human race, tainted as it is by sin. In the Genesis account, she was blitzed by her own disobedience to the clear command of God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17). Consequently, she was judged along with her husband (Gen 3:16-19) and banished from the garden of Eden for the rest of her life (Gen 3:24).
Before her expulsion, however, God made a promise that a descendant of hers would someday come and destroy the serpent (the creature who enticed her to sin), with her own offspring getting seriously wounded in the process (Gen 3:15). The prophecy is rather cryptic, but the implication is that a special descendant from Eve would reverse the damage done in Paradise.
That special descendant from Eve is now here in the scene, gestating inside Mary and soon to be born. Though a virgin, Mary will give birth to the one who is none other than “God with us” (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). He is the one who will reverse the curse that has befallen the planet (Gen 3:17). They will “give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Note that in Remington’s sketch, Eve is back in a garden again. Her banishment has ended, and Jesus is the one who ended it!
The nature of Eve’s encounter with Mary is revealed in several clues throughout the sketch, which we’ll look at in future posts. For now we’ll simply mention that it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the Fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6); the Restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38).
Irenaeus (ca. 130 – ca. 202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Tertullian (ca. 155 – ca. 240 A.D.) wrote, “What had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced.”
We have in this scene, then, an encounter between human sin and divine grace. Which will win? Remington leaves no doubt as to the outcome.
When God showed up to save the world from the consequences of Eve’s disobedience (and her husband’s), he came as a baby in the person of Jesus Christ. A crude manger—an animal feeding trough—would serve as his first bassinet (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). He would go on to die for the sins of the world and be raised to new life on the third day. Shockingly, God’s entire rescue project hinges on Mary, a young woman from a nowhere town and a no-account family, saying “Yes” to the impossible. She carried the weight of world’s salvation in her womb.
So, Eve is the mother of Mary, who is the mother of Christ, who is the creator of both. Jesus came from both in order to redeem them both. And us.