Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Up

Today marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays). As we approach Holy Week 2021, we ponder our spiritual brokenness and earthly mortality. We give ourselves to humble mourning and repentance for our contrbution to the death of Christ on the cross. As Paul Tripp notes, “We should be a rejoicing people. But this side of our final home, our rejoicing should be mixed with mourning as we witness, experience, and, sadly, give way to the power of evil.” We don’t have to look very far to see that we live, work, and relate in a world that has been twisted and bent by sin. Some of it our own.

God’s Cosmos
Is Beautiful and Broken

And God saw that it was good.
Genesis 1:25

BUT NOW

  • “…cursed is the ground” (Gen 3:17).
  • “…it will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen 3:18).
  • “…creation was subjected to frustration” (Rom 8:20).
  • “…its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21).
  • “…groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Rom 8:22).

God’s Image Bearers
Are Beautiful and Broken

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Genesis 1:31

BUT NOW

  • “…every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21).
  • “… I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5).
  • “…there is not a righteous man on earth who…never sins” (Eccl 7:20).
  • “…all have turned aside, they have together become corrupt” (Ps 14:3a).
  • “…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3b).
  • “…all we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 53:6)
  • “…all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
  • “…if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
  • “…if we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar” (1 John 1:10).
  • “…tears…death…mourning…crying…pain” (Rev 21:4).
  • “…for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:19).

God’s Son
Is Beautiful and Broken—For Us

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.
John 3:16

BUT NOW

  • “…Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
  • “…Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
  • “…Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).
  • “…God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).
  • “…who gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4).
  • “…who gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
  • “…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).
  • “…who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6).
  • “…Christ suffered for you” (1 Pet 2:21).
  • “…Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18).

God’s Gift of Repentance
Turns Us from Broken to Beautiful

In repentance and rest is your salvation.
Isaiah 30:15

David’s famous prayer of repentance, which the church typically reads and practices on Ash Wednesday, demonstrates the beauty of the king’s brokenness before God. My analysis of his literary artistry is as follows: 

The addendum (vv. 18-19) was possibly added later to correct the potential misimpression that sacrifices were no longer important or necessary in Israel.

Ken Miller writes, “David’s plea in Psalm 51 comes from someone one who has honestly faced himself for who he really is and what he has really done. No excuses, no explanations, no blame placed on circumstances or on other people. He knows he has committed sin and wants only to be honest and acknowledge what God already knows. He cannot have peace, he cannot please God, he cannot be of meaningful service unless God washes him and restores him completely. Far from David’s mind is any idea that God is lucky to have him on his side, that God should take what he gets and be satisfied, grateful for the assistance he has received.”

Miller is right. David came clean with God and thus got cleaned by God.

We fall down in repentance only to be lifted up in grace.

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
Psalm 3:3

God does this to

“…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.”
Isaiah 61:3

This is falling upward. And the best is yet to come.

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
1 John 3:1-2 

Image Credits: hoodmemorial.org; powerpackedpromises.com; ericambasan.com.

Not Quite Home on the Range Yet

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.

Image Credits: pexels.com; nationalinterest.org; aurrpc.com.

Two Hebrew Words for Forgiveness

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.

Image Credit: centrostudismmaddalena.

As White as Snow

A light snow has dusted southcentral Pennsylvania today, and it looks like shoveling will not be necessary. (I’m o.k. with that!) Is there anything more beautiful than nature’s white blanket covering our dead and dying trees and foliage? Isaiah’s image comes to mind whenever the white stuff falls from the sky:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, 
they shall be as white as snow.”
Isaiah 1:18b

Seven hundred years later, it all came to pass. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Christmas, then, deals a death blow to both moralism and relativism. 

Moralism says we can save ourselves through our own good works. That makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God the Son go to all the trouble of becoming a human being to live and die in our place if we could fulfill the requirements of divine righteousness ourselves? His sacrifical death on our behalf would have been totally wasted and therefore totally ridiculous.

Relativism, on the other hand, says no one is really “lost,” so we can all live by our own light and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sins are self-defined, so salvation can be self-achieved. Consequently, any higher power that might exist out there never would have bothered to be incarnated. Christmas is totally unnecessary in this scenario, too.

But Christmas is a thing because we need it to be a thing. God the Son did put skin on two thousand years ago. Indeed, God ignored our silly notions of moralism and relativism and came anyway. Thank God for that! I’m looking forward to the kind of weather that allows for sleigh rides—not because I have the equipment to go dashing though the snow in such a manner. I just like to contemplate Isaiah’s image when the snow extends as far as the eye can see. 

Speaking of sleigh rides, the first Christian album I ever bought after coming to faith in Christ back in college was Amy Grant’s Age to Age. Many of us went on to collect the rest of her albums, too, including her Christmas albums. Here’s a little gem of hers that gets me thinking about the joy of Christmas snow.

Image Credits: shutterstock.com.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

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).

Amen.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 4: The Colors

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.

No wonder Mary is comforting Eve.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 3: The Fruit

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.”

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 2: The Encounter

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.

Only God could author a story like that.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 1: The Gasp

Seldom do I look at a work of art and gasp audibly, but that happened about a year and a half ago when I saw Sister Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve” for the first time. The tears came quickly, followed by a time of personal worship and a whole lot of gratitude for what the sketch is seeking to communicate. I find it to be conceptually simple, artistically straightforward, theologically rich, and spiritually hopeful. Many months later, I’m still moved by its message. 

Let’s take the next several days to talk about what we see here. (I’ll be making short posts only as the dissertation process has begun in earnest.) If you haven’t viewed the piece yet, maybe you’ll gasp, too. Lest I diminish its impact in any way, I’ll simly place it here without comment for now. Just as I needed to sit with it for a while before saying a word, maybe you’ll need to “treasure up all these things and ponder them in your heart,” too (cf. Luke 2:19). Like Mary. 

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

‘God’s Many-Splendored Image’: A Review of Harrison’s Theological Anthropology

In many respects, Nona Verna Harrison’s book God’s Many-Splendored Image is a helpful and hopeful work on the subject of Christian anthropology. To those who might be jaded by the often harsh and unnecessarily critical Augustinian view of post-lapsarian personhood, this text can serve as a positive respite. But it is only a respite; it is not the final word, nor is it the only word that needs to be considered. From where I stand, GMSI is a legitimate counterweight to the despairing extremes of Reformed anthropology, and there are certainly many virtues here to extol.

But a counterweight is simply that—a correction to excesses; it cannot stand on its own, not if it seeks to be biblically faithful, historically comprehensive, and fully correspondent to our common human experience. This assessment is no slam on what the book seeks to accomplish. Harrison shows us one important facet of the theological diamond, and she makes it sparkle in brilliant, emotionally satisfying ways. Still, there are other facets to consider.

In this review, I’ll offer my positive assessments of the book. Then I’ll share the helpful challenge the book has made to my own spiritual formation. And finally, I’ll conclude with my concerns about the book as a whole, with a concluding question for the author.

Positive Assessments

I was delighted to see Harrison’s references to the issue of disabilities scattered throughout the book. She speaks of “Lepers as God’s Image” (pp. 99-102); “Affirming Royal Dignity Today” (pp. 102-106); and “Maximus the Confessor’s” contributions (pp. 131-37). The author repeatedly connects the personhood of those with disabilities to the image of God while highlighting several key figures in church history who have done the same. Indeed, Harrison notes that part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that persons have “a legitimate sovereignty rooted in their very being” (p. 90). As such, care should be taken to safeguard the sovereignty even of those with disabilities, not just the population at large. 

That sovereignty, however, creates a host of ethical challenges concerning the degree to which certain disabled persons—depending on their capabilities and functionality—may determine the nature and extent of their own care and participation in society. For example, declining eyesight may require the revocation of a person’s driver’s license. Increasing dementia may require the transfer of banking privileges to a responsible family member. Both of these actions we’ve had to take with my mother-in-law within the past few years. A guiding principle in such situations would be to work toward preserving both individual dignity and public safety as degrees of sovereignty are being surrendered. That’s not always an easy balance to find, but relational theology requires the effort.

Harrison puts the issue of imago Dei under the theological microscope using the lenses of early Greek sources. This approach is a welcome methodology, as nearly every non-Eastern Orthodox retrospective on theological history shreds the philosophical traditions standing behind the development of Christian doctrine (especially Plato and Aristotle). F. Leron Shults, for example, does a fair amount of shredding in his book Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality—a journey that gets laborious and overly critical at times.

Harrison, on the other hand, recognizes that all theology is contextual, so why not give our ancestors in the faith the benefit of the doubt? Examine what they were doing in their context rather than sitting in judgment of their work with what amounts to an attitude of “chronological snobbery.” For example, she can call Origen “a third-century student of Platonic philosophy” (p. 12) without listing all the obligatory caveats and warnings about how Platonism is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Kudos to her for letting the early Christians speak from where they stood. We probably would have done the same had we been in their sandals. 

And it has to be said that the very fact of Origen’s Hexapla tells me he was quite advanced in his intellectual capacities. How many of us today could translate the Scriptures in to six languages at such a young age—let alone any age? I suspect Harrison takes the approach she does because of the value she places on humility. Let these early writers be who they were at the time they wrote.

I also smiled with delight when I kept bumping in to Harrison’s metaphor of human beings as “works of art” having a few tears and tarnishings on them because of sin (e.g., “God invites us to remove the dirt hiding in these facets and polish them until they show with the beauty God bestows on each of us”; p. 5). I share a similar view. I do so because the metaphor is legitimately derived from Ephesians 2:10, where Paul refers to his readers as God’s poiema, or “workmanship” (i.e., his “poetry”). It’s an uplifting image, especially in light of the metaphor he uses nine verses earlier where he tells his readers they were “dead in sin.”

I was also sympathetic to Harrison’s concern, stated various times and in myriad ways, that, “Many outside the church think Christianity teaches that human beings are inherently bad and guilty and that human freedom is dangerous and gets us in to trouble. Many inside the church fear they might be right” (p. 4). Used wrongly, human freedom can get us in to trouble, but that doesn’t mean we’re “inherently bad.” Perhaps “inherently broken ever since Genesis 3” is a better way to say it. That expression retains the glorious value of human personhood without diminishing the real problem that exists in our species.

A Challenge to My Spiritual Formation

Harrison is at her best when she shares vignettes from early monasteries and other faith communities, and then derives thoughtful applications from them for our day. The stories on pp. 58-62 were especially poignant, and I found them to be particularly challenging to my own postures and demeanors as a pastor. She writes charitably of Abba Poemen’s gentle treatment of a sinning brother, which was more likely to lead him to repentance than a severe rebuke. She also speaks of the compassionate treatment of a young pregnant girl by Bishop Ammonas. Such “wise and discreet actions moved everyone involved toward healing,” she writes (p. 61). Christ would be pleased not only with such an outcome, but the method by which they got to that outcome.

I need to hear these stories as a pastor who is sometimes called to respond to people’s sins and failures (not to mention my own). Defending God’s righteousness does not have to involve denuding people made in the image of God of their royal dignity. (Cf. Joseph, a righteous man, had in mind to put Mary away secretly so as not to subject her to public shame.) We can shame people for their past, or we can inspire them toward a better future. Those who’ve been on the receiving end of the latter approach seem to have deeper and longer lasting transformations, not to mention deep bonds with those who restored them gently (cf. Gal 6:1).

Indeed, Harrison models this latter approach herself throughout the book. Rather than “scolding” other camps for their missteps or excesses, she quietly puts the responsibility on her own shoulders by saying things like, “I am thankful to those who manifest the image of God in their character and actions, because they make it easier for me to find and know God” (p. 58). It’s a beautiful sentiment beautifully stated.

Some Issues with the Book

My two issues with GMSI were: (1) the selective nature of citations from the early church, leaving us with the impression that Augustine invented the concept of Original Sin; and (2) the lack of a sufficient hamartiology by which to account for both the biblical record and the sad state of human affairs that we’re all a part of today. 

Harrison will routinely speak of humanity’s “fallen condition,” but she devotes little energy to exploring where that condition came from, and how it comes to us today—outside a brief hat tip in the direction of a misuse of human freedom. Well, we already knew that, but where did our universal impulse to misuse our freedom come from, and why does everybody, at some point, do it? Any doctrine of sin must seek to account for its ubiquity, intensity, and propensity. Harrison doesn’t really go there, except to acknowledge that sin is a sad fact of life. Period.

There is wide variegation among those who took up the issue in antiquity, even before Augustine, so, it is misleading to suggest that the Western Church, and its post-Reformation acolytes engaging in ad fontes, are to blame for people’s low self-esteem today. Jewish literature had spoken for centuries of human sin deriving from Adam (e.g., IV Ezra 3:7; Sifre Deut 323; 2 Esdras 3:10, 21-22, 26; etc.). The Psalms and the prophets also made similar connections (Ps 51:5, 10, 143:2; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9). So did the Gospels (John 1:13, 3:6, 5:42, 6:44, 8:34, 15:4-5) and the general epistles (Jas 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10, 5:12). 

Then, of course, there are “The Two Adams” teachings in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Under Adam’s headship, the whole race is broken and destined for death; under Christ’s headship, many are made whole and destined for life. Add to these two central passages the existential struggle of Romans 7, and it was only natural for subsequent thinkers to synthesize the biblical (and experiential) data the way they did. Here is a sampling of nascent concepts concerning Original Sin prior to Augustine. Quite significantly, not all of them are from the Western church.

From 100 A.D. to 200 A.D.

Irenaeus: “Men cannot be saved in any other way from the ancient wound of the Serpent except by believing in Him who according to the likeness of sinful flesh was lifted up from the earth on the tree of testimony and drew all things to Himself and gave life to the dead.” (Against Heresies 4:2:8)

Irenaeus: “Just as the human race was bound to death by a virgin, it is released through a virgin, the obedience of a virgin evenly counterbalancing the disobedience of a virgin. For the sin of the first-formed was wiped out by the chastisement of the First-born, the wisdom of the Serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and we were released from the chains by which we were bound to death.” (Against Heresies 5:19)

From 200 A.D. to 300 A.D.

Cyprian: “[Since] nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace, how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.” (Letter 58, To Fidus)

From 300 A.D. to 400 A.D.

Hilary of Poiters: “[David] does not think he lives in this life, for he had said: ‘Behold I have been conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me.’ He knows that he was born of sinful origin and under the law of sin.” (Exposition of Psalm 118)

Ambrose of Milan: “Before we are born we are stained by contagion, and before seeing the light we receive the injury of our very origin, we are conceived in iniquity. [Scripture] does not say whether that of our parents or our own. [But] in sins his mother gives birth to each one. Nor does [Scripture] state here whether the mother gives birth in her own sins or whether there are already some sins in the one being born. But, consider whether both are not to be understood. The conception is not without iniquity, since the parents are not without sin, and if not even a child of one day is without sin, so much more are those days of the maternal conception not without sin. Thus, we are conceived in the sin of our parents and are born in their iniquities. But birth itself also has its own contagions, and the nature itself has not merely one contagion.” (Defense of the Prophet David 11)

Gregory Nazianzen (an Eastern Father): “Let the word of Christ persuade you of this, also, as He says that no one can enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and the Spirit. Through Him the stains of the first birth are cleansed away, through which we are conceived in iniquity and in sins have our mothers brought us forth.” (Oratio in natalem Christi.)

Basil of Caesarea (an Eastern Father): “Fasting was established in paradise by law. For Adam received the first commandment: ‘From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat.’ But, ‘you must not eat’ means fasting, and the beginning of the Law. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we should not need [forgiveness]. For it is not the healthy who need a physician, but they who are sick. We have fallen ill through sin; we are healed by penance. But penance without fasting is vain. The accursed earth shall bring forth thorns and thistles for thee. Are you not ordained for sorrow and not for delights?…Because we did not fast we fell from paradise. Let us fast, therefore, that we may return to it.’” (Sermon 1)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “When Adam sinned that great sin, and condemned all the human race in common, he paid the penalties in grief.” (Letter to Olympia)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “Christ wept because mortality had transgressed to the point that, cast out from eternity, it loved the world of the dead. Christ wept because the Devil made mortal those who could have been immortal.” (Homily on the Resurrection of Lazarus)

John Chrysostom (an Eastern Father): “It is clear that it is not the sin which comes from transgression of the law, but that sin which comes from the disobedience of Adam, which has defiled all.”

Conclusion

In his book Against Julian, Augustine answers the charge that he invented Original Sin by seeking to: (a) show it from the Scriptures; and (b) show it from the Fathers. In light of the foregoing evidence, it is difficult to maintain the charge that Augustine was being innovative. One can say he may have been out of biblical balance at times, but he was not out of biblical bounds. To the extent that Harrison helps put us back in balance, we can all be grateful. But it must be said that the textual impulses leading to the doctrine of Original Sin don’t go away because they’re ignored or minimized. Better to wrestle with the doctrine honestly, as did Blaise Pascal:

“Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.”

If I could talk to the author directly, I would ask her, “Given the variegated hamartiology of pre-Christian and early-Christian writings, are you content to be only one, albeit an important, facet of the theological anthropology diamond?” Given the inherent humility with which she writes, I am quite certain that Harrison would say yes.

Image Credit: wallpapercave.com.

The Blood Covenant, Part 2: Is There Anyone Still Left? (1 Samuel 18:1-4; 2 Samuel 9:1-10)

David and Jonathan enter into a parity covenant, exchanging robes and weapons to signify their bond of loyalty to each other. The covenant they cut includes Jonathan’s young son Mephibosheth, whom David seeks out to bless even after Jonathan dies. Thereafter, Mephibosheth is invited to eat at the king’s table forever, unworthy though he may be. David shows Mephibosheth hesed (loving-kindness) because of his covenant with Jonathan, who served as his son’s covenant representative head.

This historical episode illustrates well the concept of representation. As Jonathan was Mephibosheth’s covenant representative head, so Jesus is the covenant representative head of the entire human race. Moreover, like David looking for Mephibosheth, God is searching for us, wanting to lavish upon us all the riches and blessings that come from being in covenant with him through Christ. He invites us to eat at the King’s table forever, unworthy though we may be. God’s hesed (lovingkindness) now flows to all who acknowledge Jesus by faith as their covenant representative head.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.