Shadows of the Cross, Part 1: The Carcass in the Garden (Genesis 3:21)

It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.

But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.

If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.

But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact? 

In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The God of Yes: He Is There and He Is Not Stingy

Across the street from where I grew up in East Reading, Pennsylvania, there was a vacant lot where we used to play stickball every chance we could get. We lived in a middle-class section of rowhomes, and about eight of those homes featured backyards that lined up perfectly to serve as the outfield “bleachers.” Our goal, of course, was to hit the ball into one of those yards for a home run. (We always used soft rubber balls, so cracking a window was unlikely. It only happened once.)

Most neighbors would sit out on their porches and cheer us on as the game unfolded. If ever we hit a ball into one of their yards, they would simply get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back to us, and the game would continue. Unfortunately, there was also a grizzled old dame in the bleachers—enshrouded in a bright babushka, and far too rickety to stand up straight—who would always pick up the ball, cuss at us in Pennsylvania Dutch, and then harumph her way back into the house, taking our ball with her. End of game. (It wasn’t even her window we broke that one time.)

Sadly, many people today picture God more like the crabby old lady with a foul mouth than the kindhearted neighbors who served as our cheering section. He’s in the heavenly stands with his arms folded and his hands fisted, always perturbed and glaring at us, eager to convey his divine contempt whenever we send one into his upper deck. We’re major league sinners in his book, and we always will be. If we strike out too much, he’ll send us down to the minors. Or worse. End of game.

Theologian Kosuke Koyama once said that Christians need to make a basic decision in our approach to theological questions: “[We] need to decide whether the God of Scripture is a generous God or a stingy one.”[1] The context of his statement was soteriology, but we can broaden it to include the entire sweep of Christian theology. 

When I first made that shift in my own thinking, it helped me realize how important it is that Genesis 1 and 2 precede Genesis 3. That’s a simple observation, yet it’s vital in the grand scheme of things. Life on planet earth was good—“very good” (Gen 1:31)—before it was ever bad. As such, my theology cannot start in Genesis 3; it has to start where the Bible starts. It has to start “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1). 

Specifically, to help us answer Koyama’s challenge, we can notice that 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; emphasis mine). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God. We can safely conclude, then, that generosity is a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees 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). 

Trust the story. It tells us that God gave about ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Read that sentence again. Don’t pass over it too quickly. God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotcehtey 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.

God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.”

In the end, Jesus Christ is God’s full and final “yes” to every good promise he ever made (2 Cor 1:20). As Paul put it, Jesus is God’s “yes” and “amen.” That means he really is for us (Rom 8:31), not against us.

Is this the God you know—the one who cheers you on as you’re trying to find your swing? Or is he the god who cusses you out whenever you strike out? Is he the god who benches you after making an error in the field? Is he the god who tells you to hit the showers early when you’ve had a bad inning? If so, maybe you’re on the wrong team. In fact, maybe you’re playing for Baal instead of Yahweh. Ask to be traded.

Francis Schaeffer famously said of God, “He is there and he is not silent.” To that we can add, “He is there and he is not stingy.”

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[1] Kosuke Koyama, as cited in Richard J. Mouw, “More Thoughts about Generous Orthodoxy,” NetBlogHost.com (March 29, 2011).

The Blood Covenant, Part 1: The Bond in Blood (Genesis 15:1-21)

The word “covenant” is used over 300 times in the Bible. In the ancient world, covenant making (or “cutting”) was a social arrangement of convenience or necessity, obligating two parties to show hesed one to another (i.e., mercy, kindness, loving-kindness, or covenant loyalty). At its heart, a covenant was a bond in blood; the establishment of a binding, legal relationship with no exit clause. Covenant partners died to their rights to independent living, becoming functionally one in the process.

The shock of the Bible is that God himself has entered into covenant with the human race! He swore on oath with uplifted hand to keep his word, even upon pain of death. It all started with a man by the name of “Abram.” God promised that one day someone would come through Abram’s line who would bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3), an ultimate reference to the Messiah. The bigger shock of the Bible is that to establish a covenant with humanity, God placed a death sentence on himself. What kind of God is willing to die for his people? The one whose Son wound up on a cross, where the New Covenant was cut.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.