Advent thoughts: December 1

“I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring [Jesus]. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15—read Genesis 3:1-21).

On the same day of the first sin came the first preaching of the Gospel. God had created the world and all that exists. He had planted a garden, and in that garden he put the first man and the first woman. They were to care for the garden and all it contained, both plants and animals. They were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They were to rest every seventh day. Any of these commandments they could have broken for the first sin. Instead, they ate the fruit of a tree that had been forbidden to them. This act of rebellion against God’s clear commandment caused them to know what evil is. They feared God and tried to hide from him. They looked for someone else to blame for their sin. Being separated from God, they were spiritually dead, and eventually they would physically die.

Yet when God confronted them, they did confess their sin. Adam tried to blame Eve (and also, indirectly, God—“the woman You gave me”), and Eve tried to blame the serpent. They both pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, and the poor serpent had no finger to point. But they confessed: each of them admitted, “I ate.”

Satan had taken the form of a serpent to tempt Eve—and through her, Adam—to join him in his revolt against God. God let Satan know that the shape he had taken foretold his fate. He would crawl on the ground and eat dust—in other words, Satan was going to lose. On the other hand, God already had a plan to rescue and redeem Adam and Eve and their descendants. As Satan used a tree to defeat them, so God would use a tree to defeat Satan—the tree of the cross. Satan did not gain allies in his revolt: he gained enemies. He would cause harm to humanity, and even to God when God became human. God would suffer on the cross, but his suffering was small compared to Satan’s suffering. His suffering led to victory; Satan’s head was crushed in the victory Christ won on the cross.

Christians are called to bear fruit for the Lord. His commandments tell us why he made us. They tell us how to love and honor him, and they tell us how to love and serve one another. Without God’s redemption, though, no one can bear fruit pleasing to the Lord. We are like an orchard of bare, dead trees. We are fruitless. We are worth nothing except as fuel for the fireplace.

On one dead tree, Jesus changed all that. On the dead wood of the cross, Jesus gave life to his people. Now all those who trust in Jesus have their sins forgiven and removed. All those who trust in Jesus are clothed in his righteousness. All those who trust in Jesus bear fruit pleasing to God, and, as a result, we are certain of a place in his kingdom. We will live forever in his new creation.

Adam and Eve tried to clothe themselves with fig leaves because of their shame. God provided them instead with garments of animal skins. The death of those animals pictured the death of Jesus, because by his death and through Baptism he clothes us in his righteousness.

Adam and Eve heard the promise about Jesus, believed it, and were redeemed. We also hear this promise, believe it, and are redeemed. Nothing has changed since the beginning, expect for this: Jesus has come and has kept the promise. Thanks be to God! J.

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Of sin and sickness

At one extreme we can see that we each need to take responsibility for our own lives. We all made choices, whether good or bad, and then we have to live with the consequences of those choices. If we have problems in this world, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

At the opposite extreme, we can see that we are all victims. We are shaped by things we cannot control: by DNA, by our environment, by chemicals in us or around us. When we make mistakes, and when we have problems, we deserve compassion rather than judgment.

We all land somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes when we try to talk about responsibility, we talk past each other, addressing ourselves to the extreme position we think we are hearing rather than to what the other person is actually saying. What can be said, then, to try to find a meeting point where genuine discussion can take place, consisting more of light than of heat?

  • A sin is still a sin. When any of us does what God forbids, or fails to do what God requires, God holds us responsible. He does not allow us to blame the devil, or the way our parents raised us, or television, or video games, or whatever chemicals might have been involved.
  • Sin damages creation, including people. “The wages of sin is death,” and all the other pains and sorrows that afflict people in this world are likewise the results of sin. There is no one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering, though. Sin can be regarded as a pollution that corrupts the entire world and harms all people.
  • Life is not fair. God is just and fair, but evil is random and unfair. God limits the harm done by evil, but he permits evil to happen so people can see the difference between good and evil and prefer what is good. Moreover, if God were limited to being just and fair, the sacrifice of Jesus could not redeem and rescue sinners. God permits the injustice of evil so he can provide the greater blessings prompted by his love, his grace, and his mercy.
  • In one sense, every problem in this world is a spiritual problem. Because all problems flow from sin—from rebellion against God—the only ultimate solution for all problems is the righteousness of Christ and his redemption.
  • On the other hand, we are living in a material world. Nearly all of our problems will have a material component. In this sin-polluted world our bodies are vulnerable to accidents, injuries, diseases, allergies, poisons, and the like. In addition to the benefits of God’s grace to take away our sins, we need doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, counselors, and other professionals to help us with our problems. At times we need medicines, casts, crutches, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other material assistance to support us with our material problems.
  • Mental and emotional sicknesses, including anxiety and depression, also have material components. Among the possible causes of mental illnesses are poor nutrition, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, current stress, previous trauma, abuse, chemical imbalance, physical illness, side-affects of treatment for physical illness, guilt and shame over ongoing sins or past sins, and many more.
  • Among the appropriate responses to mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, are a physical check-up, faith-based counseling, secular counseling, medication, and hospitalization. Because these illnesses have so many different causes, no single response deals with all cases. A medication or a faith-based counselor that restores the health of one person might be unable to help another or even harmful to another.
  • Mental illness is not a choice. While it might appear that one can address another person’s eating disorder by providing him or her with food, much more is happening inside that person than a choice not to eat. People with depression do not want to feel depressed; they want to feel better. While examples can be given of mental illnesses that began with bad choices—substance abuse and addiction, for one—the person with the illness cannot and should not be expected to fix his or her problems by his or her own strength.
  • Healthy living and good choices can reduce a person’s vulnerability to many illnesses, including mental illnesses. However, they do not guarantee perfect health. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or depression can all strike a person who has made good and healthy choices for a lifetime. None of these illnesses is the result of a particular sin or of committing more sins than the healthy person without that illness.

I could go on. Much more remains to be said. Perhaps this is enough, though, to begin a useful conversation. J.

Forgive us our trespasses

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”

Salvageable adds: Repentance is not something a Christian does once in a lifetime and then never has to do again. Even the best of us sins every day. Therefore, we repent every day, and we remember how God forgives us through the work of Christ every day. The Lord’s Prayer gives us an opportunity to confess our sins, listing those we remember and also asking forgiveness for those sins we have forgotten and those we never noticed.

Along with this prayer of repentance, we make a promise in the Lord’s Prayer: we promise to forgive those who have sinned against us. As we make this promise, we remember that God goes first. Jesus purchases forgiveness for all people on the cross. Having received that forgiveness ourselves, we now share that forgiveness with other people, especially with those who have sinned against us. We do not begin the process of forgiveness, nor does God limit his forgiveness of our sins to the level of our forgiveness for other sinners. The ransom Christ paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of every person who ever lived or will live, including our sins. When we fail to share forgiveness with another sinner, we cast doubt on the extent of Christ’s ransom and God’s forgiveness. Therefore, Jesus teaches us to pray daily that we will forgive the sins that were committed against us.

Two versions of the Lord’s Prayer contain different pictures of sins. One speaks of trespasses—people going where they are not supposed to go. The other speaks of debts—something that is owed to another person. Our sins are trespasses, for we have gone where God told us not to go. Our sins are debts, and we owe God a penalty of debt we can never pay. Jesus went where he should not have gone—to a Roman cross meant for criminals, and to hell itself, where his Father abandoned him for a time. Jesus went there so we do not have to go there. Jesus paid our debt by his ransom, so we are no longer in debt to God.

Jesus went there for us and for all people. Therefore, when people trespass into our lives and fall into debt to us by their sins, we forgive them. We forgive, not from the goodness of our hearts, but from the wealth of God’s goodness. No act is more Christlike than to forgive someone who has hurt you. No witness of Christ is more dramatic than to forgive as Christ has forgiven. We forgive by the power of God’s forgiveness that has already been given to us. J.

Christ in Genesis

My writing project for 2016 was a series of studies of Christ in Genesis. I want to publish it all in one place, but now that I have time to work with it, WordPress is being uncooperative. Therefore, as one reader asked, here are links to the twenty-two pieces of the work as published.
Introduction

  1. In the Beginning
  2. In the Garden
  3. A Tale of Two Trees
  4. The Better Garment
  5. Confession and Promise
  6. Raising Cain, Raising Abel
  7. Noah, the Ark, and the Flood
  8. The Tower of Babel
  9. The Promise to Abraham
  10. Melchizedek
  11. Abraham, the Father of Faith
  12. Miracle Babies, and the Rights of the Firstborn
  13. The Sacrifice
  14. The Bride
  15. Birthright and Blessing
  16. Jacob’s Ladder
  17. Wrestling with God, and Seeing the Face of God
  18. Joseph & Bros.
  19. At the Right HandAt the Right Hand
  20. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah
  21. “Am I in the Place of God?”

 

Christ in Genesis: Raising Cain, Raising Abel

Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden and were not allowed to return. Yet they left with a promise that they would be rescued by a descendant of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head and would reconcile them to God. Adam and Eve’s children faced the same burden of sin that their parents had brought into the world, but they also inherited the same promise of forgiveness and reconciliation.

When Eve gave birth to her firstborn, a son, she uttered a sentence which consists, in Hebrew, of three words: “I-have-gotten, a-man, the-LORD.” Most translations add helping words to her sentence, rendering it as, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” Even the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek more than twenty-two centuries ago, adds the proposition “apo” in front of the Name of the Lord. A few Bible scholars believe that adding words to this sentence is a mistake. For example, Martin Luther taught that Eve had said, “I have gotten a man, the LORD.” Luther believed that Eve understood the promise of her descendant, who would crush the devil’s head, would be God taking on human form, as Jesus took on human form from his mother, Mary. If indeed Eve thought that her firstborn son was the promised Savior, what a dreadful disappointment occurred when Cain instead became history’s first murderer.

When they had grown to manhood, Cain and his brother Abel both offered sacrifices to the Lord. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Much needless speculation has tried to discover the difference between the two sacrifices. The answer is found in Hebrews 11:4. Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice “by faith.” Cain evidently did not offer his sacrifice by faith. No sacrifice to God has any value if it is not offered by faith.

All the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were pictures of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, having his heal bruised as he crushed the head of the serpent. No sacrifice, other than Christ, ever purchased mercy and forgiveness from God. No human act, other than the work of Christ, can purchase God’s forgiveness. God hates the times when people go through the motions of worship or sacrifice apart from faith in him. (See Isaiah 1:14, Amos 5:21-23, and Psalm 50:7-11.) He wants these things to be done by faith. When people do these things without thinking about what they mean, God is displeased. When people do these things thinking that they are earning something from God, putting him in debt to them, God is angered.

The animals that died so Adam and Eve could be clothed were pictures of Jesus. Likewise, the firstborn animal offered by Abel—and the countless animals offered to God by his people over the centuries—were pictures of Jesus. It appears that Cain forgot this important truth. He offered a sacrifice to God, but not by faith. Therefore God did not accept the sacrifice Cain offered. The fact that Cain was angry to have his sacrifice refused shows that he expected to gain something from God by that sacrifice.

Jesus warned Cain of the dangerous temptation lurking in his anger. Cain ignored the warning. Instead, he acted in violence, murdering his brother. He thought that his crime would be secret, but no one keeps secrets from God. As God had given Adam and Eve the opportunity to confess their sin, so Jesus also asked Cain about Abel.

Cain lied to God. He said that he did not know where Abel was. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked. The answer to that question is “yes.” We are all commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a brother is a very near neighbor. We are all expected to help one another, to bear each other’s burdens. Obeying God’s commandment not to murder is not as simple as never violently taking another’s life. We are not to hurt or harm our neighbors, but we are to help them and care for them. Neglecting a neighbor in his or her need is sinful, just as violently striking him or her is sinful.

Jesus challenged Cain’s lie. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” Jesus said. Other Bible verses also describe the blood of victims as crying for justice. Because God loves each of us, God is angry when any of us are hurt by a fellow human being. All the blood of all victims in history cries for justice, and God hears those cries. On the Day of the Lord, the justice of God will be revealed. Those who have harmed their neighbors will finally receive what they deserve.

Cain knew what he deserved. He had taken away his brother’s life; now he deserved to be killed. His parents, his other brothers and sisters, his nephews and nieces all had the right to take vengeance on the killer of Abel. Yet God did not give Cain what Cain deserved. Instead, Cain was marked by God so that no one would kill him, even though he deserved to be killed.

The firstborn animal offered by Abel was a picture of Jesus. Abel himself became a picture of Jesus, innocent before God and yet killed by his brother. Jesus was rejected by his own people and sent to his death. Yet the blood of Jesus does not cry for vengeance. Instead, in his death, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.” His blood is more powerful than the blood of Abel. Our sins caused the suffering and death of Jesus, but now he washes us in his blood to redeem us as God’s people. Because of the death of Jesus, we will not receive what we deserve on the Day of the Lord. Instead, we will receive what Jesus deserves—eternal life in God’s perfect new creation.

Like Cain, we have been marked by God so we will not receive what we deserve. He has marked us with the blood of Christ; he has marked us with his own Holy Spirit. On the Last Day, Jesus will see that mark on us and claim us as his people. He has already paid to purchase us. Now and forever we belong to him.

Christ in Genesis: Confession and Promise

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” This sounds so pleasant, Jesus taking a walk in the garden. (How do we know it was Jesus? “No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known”–John 1:18.) I don’t know the history of the translation of this verse, but the original Hebrew has a different tone. The word translated “cool” is ruach, the same word that means breath or wind or spirit; and I do not think “cool” is used to translate this word anywhere else in the Bible. In the first Greek translation of Genesis (in the Septuagint), the translators chose to render the word “fear.” Jesus approached Adam and Eve in the spirit of the Day–that is, the Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s wrath at sin, Judgment Day.

No wonder Adam and Eve tried to hide from Jesus. They had sinned, dying spiritually, rebelling against God. They were guilty. They were ashamed. They tried to cover their shame with fig leaves, but human works cannot cover our sins. Jesus called them: “Where are you?” When Adam confessed his shame, Jesus asked him, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?”

The Lord gave Adam and Eve an opportunity to confess their sin–to repent. The topic of repentance can be confusing. On the one hand, God wants us to repent and calls upon us to repent. On the other hand, nothing we do earns God’s forgiveness. There is nothing you have to do for God to forgive your sins. The best resolution of this seeming contradiction is to know that, when God commands us to repent, he also gives us the ability to repent. (Compare this to Jesus telling a lame man to walk, or telling a dead man to come out of his tomb.) Repentance (like faith) is something God does in us, not something we do for God.

Adam tries a sly sort of repentance. He says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He points a finger of blame at Eve, and subtly even tries to blame God. (“If you hadn’t made this woman, we wouldn’t have this problem.”) If Adam had been thinking more quickly, he might have added, “She gave me fruit from the tree you made. Why did you make it if you didn’t want us to eat it?” Many of Adam’s descendants have tried the same sort of escape from guilt, blaming God for making sin possible.

When God questions Eve, she shows herself to be a quick learner. She also points a finger of blame, this time at the snake. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The poor serpent has no fingers to point, and Jesus does not give him the opportunity to make excuses. Knowing that the serpent is Satan in disguise, Jesus essentially says, “You chose that form for your rebellion–now accept the consequences. You are going to crawl on the ground. You are going to eat dust.” In other words, “You are the loser in this contest.”

Jesus adds that there will be enmity between the woman and Satan and between their offspring. This means more than that women generally fear snakes. It means that the devil did not gain allies in his rebellion against God. He merely broadened the battlefield. When the key battle in the war between God and evil would be fought, a descendant of Eve would win, and the devil would lose.

“He shall bruise your head.” Those words promise victory over Satan. “You shall bruise his heel.” Those words speak of the pain the Savior must bear while defeating the devil. The cross of Christ is described with these words. God is addressing the snake, but his message is for Adam and Eve. Through their descendant, God will win the war against evil, reversing the consequences of their sin. God’s words to the snake are the first preaching of the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the consequences of their sin remain. Family relationships are distorted because of sin. Work in the world is hard labor (whether physical or mental, whether challenging or boring) because of sin. Physical death is a consequence of sin. Jesus created Adam from dirt. Through physical death, Adam will return to the dirt. The ground itself is cursed because of the sin of Adam and Eve.

Yet, as God curses the snake and curses the ground, he does not curse Adam and Eve. He has promised victory through the cross; even the promise itself reverses the curse of sin. Adam and Eve did not have to wait for Christ to be born, to suffer, to die, and to rise again, before they could be spiritually alive again. Believing the promise of the coming Savior and the coming victory, they were already given saving faith. Even though their bodies would die, they already had eternal life.

 

Christ in Genesis:The Better Garment

Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, disobeying God’s command and bringing sin, evil, and death into his creation. Their first sin did not happen when their teeth touched the fruit and they bit and chewed and swallowed. Their first sin did not happen when one of them reached out a hand to pick the fruit. Their first sin was the decision to doubt God’s word, to believe that he had been less than truthful with them, and to test him by breaking his commandment.

Genesis describes the tempter as a serpent. Revelation 12:9 gives us his full identity: “the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” Satan was one of the good angels God had created, but through pride he rebelled against God. A Muslim tradition states that Satan rebelled when God told him to worship and serve Adam. I suspect that the devil’s pride and arrogance are the result of a lack of understanding. He has contempt for the love of God. He understands power and authority, but not love. He thinks that he can run the universe better than God is running it, so he is trying to take authority over creation. One of his first acts of rebellion was to invite Adam and Eve to join his rebellion.

God had commanded Adam and Eve to do several things: to be fruitful and multiply, to care for the earth and its living creatures, and to rest every seventh day as God had rested on the seventh day. Any of these commands was an opportunity for temptation to disobey. Satan chose the fruit as the easiest way to challenge Eve’s faithfulness to God’s commands. His suggestion that God had forbidden them to eat from any tree in the Garden seems ludicrous, but it shows his usual procedure. He wants to make God seem overbearing and unloving. By twisting God’s commands, Satan hopes to inspire resentment and rebellion in our minds.

The devil misquoted God’s command. He showed that he knew exactly what God had said—when Eve said, “lest we die,” Satan responded, “You will not surely die.” Even as he calls God a liar, Satan corrects Eve’s recollection of what God had said. Of course they did not physically die the day they ate the fruit; Adam lived another 930 years. There are worse things than physical death. Spiritual death is separation from God. Adam and Eve spiritually died with their first sin. Whoever is spiritually dead when he or she physically dies will be eternally dead. Whoever is spiritually alive when he or she physically dies will have eternal life. Jesus experienced spiritual death on the cross when he was forsaken by his Father; he went there so that Adam and Eve and each of their descendants would not have to go there.

Satan persuaded Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would make her and Adam more like God. They had already been created in God’s image. There was no way for them to become more like God. Eve saw that the tree was good for fruit and pleasing to the eyes. Believing that it would also make her wise, she ate and she gave some fruit to Adam and he ate. Being separated from God by their sin, they observed their nakedness and were ashamed. Therefore, they made loincloths for themselves from fig leaves.

A fig leaf loincloth will not last very long. The leaves quickly wither and crumble, leaving the maker naked again. All our efforts to fix our own lives are equally futile. We cannot hide our sins from God, even if we think we have hidden them from ourselves.

After God had confronted them about their sin, he also provided for them. In place of their fig leaf loincloths, God gave them garments of animal skins. The clo0thing that God provided was more useful than what Adam and Eve made for themselves. However, this gift from God meant that some of the animals Adam and Eve had known now were dead, just to provide them with clothing. Physical death was made real to them in this way, now that they had experienced spiritual death. The animals gave their lives to clothe Adam and Eve for their protection and for the sake of decency.

These animals that died are images of Jesus, who would also die to cover our sins. We are clothed in his righteousness, which makes us acceptable in the sight of God and protects us from evil. Throughout the Bible, clothing takes special significance, picturing a life that is pleasing to God. Jesus was stripped of his clothing on the day he died; it was claimed by the soldiers who executed him. Yet Jesus has also clothed us, surrendering his life so we could inherit his righteousness.

Christ in Genesis: A Tale of Two Trees

The Garden of Eden included an orchard of fruit-bearing trees. Perhaps there were apples, oranges, cherries, or mangoes–the Bible doesn’t say. The only trees it names are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Evidently the fruit of the Tree of Life provided its eater with unending life. I am not a biochemist and cannot explain how it did that; but, after their sin, Adam and Eve were barred from the Garden so they would not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. Although this ban seems like a punishment, it actually was a blessing. Living forever as sinners in a sin-polluted world would not have been heavenly; it would have been the opposite of heaven. By making death available to Adam and Eve and to their descendants, the Lord is able to lead his people through the valley of death and beyond it to the house of the Lord–a new creation unstained by sin and evil.

The notorious Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was named in retrospect. It had no magical ability to impart knowledge; the Bible does not say what purpose God had for this tree. Whatever its purpose was, it was not yet ready, so God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of that tree. To suggest that God was testing Adam and Eve, wanting to know if they would obey him, is ludicrous. God knows all things; being timeless, he has already seen the future. Moreover, God does not tempt people to sin. The tree was created for a good reason, but we have not been told what that reason is.

Other writers have compared the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to a large pot of soup being heated on the stove. Mother tells her three-year-old son, “Don’t touch the pot, or you’ll be burned.” Against her warning, he touches the pot, spilling its contents upon himself, and he is burned. In fact, he is so badly burned that she must rush him to the hospital for treatment. She did not heat the pot to test his obedience; she was making lunch for the family. At the hospital, though, she does not explain that to him. Treatment for his burns is more important than explanations. In the same way, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we all got burned. God has provided a way to be healed, but he has not told us why the tree was in the Garden.

Trees, like gardens, are frequently mentioned in the Bible. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 proclaims a curse on anyone who dies hanging from a tree. The first Psalm compares a righteous man to a fruitful tree. A rebellious son of David was killed while hanging from a tree. Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, but Jesus called him out of the tree. Jesus was going to hang on the tree of the cross, receiving the curse deserved by sinners, dying to grant eternal life to his people. He called Zacchaeus out of the tree because he–the ultimate Son of David–would go to a tree for Zacchaeus.

Jesus wants his people to bear good fruit. His orchard is filled with trees, but by ourselves we bear no good fruit. We have sinned, doing what we should not do, and failing to perform the good works we were created to do. Of all the trees in the orchard, only one tree bears good fruit. That tree is Jesus Christ. This one fruitful tree accepted the curse of the barren trees to reverse the condition of the orchard. Now all the trees in the orchard bear good fruit except for one dead tree in the middle of the orchard–Christ’s cross.

His cross is our tree of life. Through the cross where Christ suffered and died, we receive eternal life. Because he has given us life, we are now able to bear fruit; we are able to become the people God intended when he created us.

Jesus once told a parable about a fruitless tree. The landowner was prepared to remove the tree and change it into firewood. The gardener asked for one more year; he offered to prepare the ground around the tree with the hope that it would bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9). Each of us is that tree, and Jesus is the Gardener who pleads for us. He does all the work necessary to make us able to bear fruit so we will not be thrown into the fire. Instead, our future home is the garden of the new creation. According to Revelation 22:2, the Tree of Life will be available to us there, ensuring that we will live forever.

The difference between ham and premarital sex

Scholars have observed that in the Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), God has given 613 commandments (mitzvah) to his people. Some of these commands are affirmed by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament, but others are canceled. Students of the Bible wrestle with the difference: why are some things required by Moses but no longer required by the apostles? Why are some things forbidden by Moses but permitted by the apostles? What is the difference between ham and premarital sex?

Let’s take some test cases to examine God’s commands. One of his commands is, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Under the Law of Moses, the Sabbath was defined as the seventh day of the week, beginning at sunset Friday and ending at sunset Saturday. A few Christians go to church on Saturdays; some of them even call Sunday worship “the mark of the beast.” Some worship on the first day of the week but move the prohibition of any work to Sundays, passing “blue laws” that require certain kinds of business to be closed every Sunday. What does Scripture say? ”Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

The celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, Easter Sunday, bounces around in March or April according to a complicated formula involving the full moon. Early in Christianity, believers tried to reach a consensus on the day of that celebration. Some of them became so angry about the different formulas that they actually excommunicated each other—saying that people weren’t really part of the Church if they celebrated Easter on the wrong day. What does Scripture say? ”Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

The Law of Moses made strict stipulations about food, especially meat. Blood had to be drained from meat, so that no blood was consumed by God’s people. Only certain animals were kosher (acceptable as food), animals that chewed the cud and had a split hoof. Pigs were not kosher, nor were rabbits and rodents. Fish had to have scales; shrimp and lobster and oysters were forbidden. A few Christians try to stick to kosher food laws today, at least in part. What does Scripture say? ”Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

The first Christians, including all twelve apostles, were Jewish. They maintained Saturday worship and kosher food rules out of habit. When people of other cultures began believing in Jesus, Church leaders wondered how many Laws of Moses needed to be followed by the new believers. Must the men become circumcised? Must the families maintain kosher kitchens? Must they refrain from all work on Saturdays? Acts 15 describes the first Christian convention, as the apostles gathered to discuss these questions. They concluded that only four rules needed to be followed by the Gentiles: Abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from animals that have been strangled, and from sexual immorality.

One might expect a few more prohibitions, such as murder and theft and false witness. Evidently the Church leaders thought it obvious that these are not permitted among Christians. It seems strange, though, that three of the four prohibitions are food-related, and all three were later canceled by Paul, in spite of the fact that he took part in this meeting. Paul told congregations in Rome and in Corinth that their members could eat meat that had been offered to idols so long as no one present had a problem with that. He wrote to the Colossian Christians, “Let no one pass judgment on you in regards to food or drink….”

“The substance is Christ.” All the commands of the Law of Moses were pictures of Jesus Christ. Some of the pictures are easily seen, such as the animal sacrifices and the Passover lamb. Others require deeper study, such as resting on the seventh day of the week. Not only did God as Creator rest on the seventh day of the week, but Jesus Christ as Redeemer rested on the seventh day of Holy Week. His body rested in a tomb. His spirit rested in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Christians are free from the Law because Christ has fulfilled the Law for us. The substance—that is, Christ—has come, so we no longer need to observe the shadows. We are free.

Our freedom is not license to do whatever our sinful hearts desire. Our freedom is power to imitate Jesus. As imitators of Christ, we still love God whole-heartedly. As imitators of Christ, we love our neighbors. We respect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. We act to help our neighbors rather than hurting them or ignoring them. We are content with what God has given us, so we do not covet anything that belongs to our neighbors.

The Church convention of Acts 15 appears to have been studying Leviticus, chapters 17 and 18. All four of their prohibitions are found in those chapters. Leviticus is about purity. It provided the Israelites instruction in remaining pure, beginning with sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin, and continuing with various other rules, laws, and commandments. The Church convention chose those signs of purity that might challenge Gentiles. Anything offered to idols would seem tainted and not pure. Blood was sacred, largely because of the blood Christ shed on the cross. Sexual immorality was a sin, not only against the people involved, but against Christ and the Church, for every marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church.

Ham and shrimp were forbidden to God’s people under the Law of Moses because they were not part of the sacrificial system like the kosher animals (cattle, sheep, goats, doves, etc.). Ham and shrimp are permitted to God’s people today because we are free, thanks to Christ. Sexual immorality was forbidden to God’s people under the Law of Moses because marriage is a picture of God’s love for his people. Sexual immorality remains forbidden to God’s people today because the love of God has not changed. Some Christians have tried to distinguish the prohibitions by labeling them ceremonial law (no longer valid) and moral law (still valid). This distinction overlooks the fact that Christians are free from all of God’s Law. The burden of the Law has been lifted by Christ. The condemnation of the Law has been removed by Christ. We were dead in our sins until Christ rose and we were raised with him. Our sins are forgiven, our debts are canceled, and the demands of the law have been nailed to the cross. Christ triumphed over all our enemies, and we now share in his victory (Colossians 2:13-15).

We are free from the Law because the substance is Christ. Now our substance is imitation of Christ, which is described by the same Law that once condemned us. The Law describes how we are being transformed into the image of Christ. Therefore, sexual immorality (as well as murder, theft, and dishonesty) is avoided as something Jesus would not do. Respect for God—and for his name and his time—is expected, because this is what Jesus would do. The Law does not threaten us, but it does describe us, because it describes Jesus.

The shadow no longer matters, because Christ has come and has claimed us as his people. We rejoice to be his people and to see ourselves transformed into His image. None of us is perfect yet, but the transformation is under way. Christ makes all the difference in the world. J.