Cain, Abel, Crouching Sin, and the Gospel

Way way way back in the beginning, Adam and Eve had two sons.  Cain, their firstborn was a farmer.  Abel was a keeper of the flocks.  Somewhere along the way, Cain brought an offering of crops to the Lord.  Abel brought an offering of firstlings from his flock.  Abel’s offering was accepted by the Lord, and Cain’s offering was rejected.  Cain became angry and jealous.

Recognizing the temptation Cain was facing, the Lord said to him, “Why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?  And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at your door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:6-7).

We know from the rest of the story that Cain did not master the “sin crouching at his door”, but was mastered by it.  So Cain rose up and killed his brother Abel.

Fast forward to today.  Sin is still crouching at our door.  Sin is still seeking to master us.  The stark contrast between us and Cain and the struggle with sin is what the gospel is all about.  Cain was clearly instructed that he must “master” the sin crouching at his door.

But it is not that way for us.  By the grace of the gospel, we are not called to “master” sin.  Rather, Christ through His death and resurrection has “mastered” sin for us.  There is an interesting connection with the word “master” between God’s instruction to Cain and His promise to us in Romans chapter 6.

Look at God’s instruction to Cain.  “You must master it” (Gen 4:7).  The responsibility was all on Cain’s shoulders.  Now look at His promise to us; to those who have placed their faith in Christ.  “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin … Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts … For sin shall not be master over you” (Rom 6:6,11,12,14).

Rather than calling on us to master our sin, Christ has promised that our sin shall not be master over us.  Sin’s dominion and power have already been taken away.  What a powerful promise!  What a powerful reversal of Cain’s problem with crouching sin!

But the removal of sin’s mastery over us does not eliminate our own temptations with sin.  What it does change is our approach to it.  Cain had no power or promise to overcome his crouching sin.  He only had the will-power and self-effort that he could drum up.

We, on the other hand, have the resurrection power of Christ living in us.  When sin comes knocking, we do not have to answer the door.  We are not compelled to open the door.  We do not need to invite him in.  For the believer, sin cannot crash the door down.  He must be invited in, and you have the power to say to crouching sin, “No thanks, just move along, there is no one here that you are compatible with.  There is no one here wishing to serve you.  You are no longer my master.”

When crouching sin comes knocking, what will your answer be?

Joseph and the Christ to Come

The life of Joseph, son of Jacob, is another picture of the gospel in the Old Testament.  Over the course of his life, recorded in Genesis 37 and following, the parallels between Joseph and Jesus Christ are unmistakable.  But first, a quick summary of the facts of Joseph’s life.

Joseph was one of Jacob’s twelve sons.  His brothers hated him.  They sold him into slavery to travelers on their way to Egypt.  There Joseph endured adversity, false claims against him, and prison.  But God exalted Joseph in the end, and he rose to second-in-power over all of Egypt.  Joseph’s high position allowed him to be a “savior” to his brothers and all of Egypt during a time of great famine.

Now the lessons.  Let’s compare the lives and ministries of Joseph and Jesus.  First, they were both deeply loved by their fathers.  Remember the coat of many colors?  An expression of Jacob’s love for Joseph.  In comparison, the gospels are replete with references to Jesus as “God’s beloved Son” (i.e. at Jesus baptism, Colossians 1:11).

In contrast to their fathers’ love, they were both hated by their “brothers”.  In Joseph’s case, it was his literal brothers.  They hated him enough to consider killing him before they sold him into slavery.  This hate was accompanied by rejection.  His brothers rejected Joseph’s dreams.  They grew weary of him mentioning them.

Jesus was also rejected and hated by his “brothers”.  In this case, his “brothers” were the Jewish nation.  “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (Jn 1:11).  Not only was Christ rejected, but He was hated as well.  “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have guilt; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.  But they have done this in order that the word may be fulfilled that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.’ ” (Jn 15:24-25).

Both Joseph and Jesus were falsely accused and punished.  Joseph, in the episode of Potiphar’s wife and being sent to prison.  Jesus, at His various trials, beatings, and ultimately His crucifixion during the passion week.

But with both figures, God was about to turn all this hate, rejection, false accusations, and evil into good for the nations.  As Joseph said to his brothers near the end of the story when all was revealed, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20).

Let’s look at the good that resulted in both Joseph and Christ.  Joseph literally saved his brothers.  Because Joseph rose to a position of power in Egypt, he was able to bring his whole family to Egypt for protection from the serious and spreading famine.

Likewise, Jesus saved His “brothers” as well.  The early church was almost entirely Jewish.  To the Jewish multitude gathered on the day of Pentecost, Peter said, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

But Joseph and Jesus did not just save their brothers.  Their salvation extended to all people.  Joseph’s wisdom and planning prompted Egypt to store up their crops during the seven good years in preparation for the upcoming famine.  Joseph saved the Egyptians (could be thought of as the Gentile world) as well as his brothers.

Likewise, Jesus’ salvation extends far beyond His Jewish brothers.  Those of us “who are far off” (referring to the Gentiles) are also saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The blessing of Joseph’s salvation reached all of Egypt.  The blessing of Jesus’ salvation reaches all over the world.

This “all over the world” is so beautifully pictured in John’s vision of heaven.  “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’ ” (Rev 7:9-10).

The Gospel Among the Dry Bones

As we have seen over the last several posts, God has given us a glimpse of the coming gospel, the coming new covenant, the coming Christ in the pages of the Old Testament.  But God also pulls the curtain back a little farther in places, and delivers clear and straightforward promises about what the coming message of good news will be like.  In Ezekiel chapter 36, we see one piece of the future new covenant; the promise of a new heart and a new Spirit.

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ez 36:26-27).  What a promise!

In the very next chapter, God gives the prophet Ezekiel a stunning visual of what this new breath of life in God’s people will look like.  God brought Ezekiel out to a valley that was full of dry bones; “very dry” according to chapter 37 verse 2.  God asked Ezekiel if these bones could live again.  Ezekiel, wise to God’s ways, replied that God only knows.

God asked Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, promising the bones that they would come to life; connected by sinews, growing over with flesh, covered by skin, and full of breath.  So in verse 7, “I [Ezekiel] prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (Ez 37:7).

Soon the bones were covered in sinew, flesh, and skin.  But they still had no breath in them.  Then God said to Ezekiel, ” ‘Prophesy and say to the breath, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.” ‘  So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ez 37:9-10).

Ezekiel prophesied.  The wind of God’s Spirit blew through the valley of dry bones.  And an army of people came to life.  A few verses forward God explains what happened when the bones came to life.  “And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life” (Ez 37:14).

The wind that brought the bones to life was God’s Spirit.  And it is a foreshadowing of the same wind that will bring life to us.  “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit … And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting … And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 3:8, Acts 2:2,4).

God’s Spirit has brought life to us; a life of peace, joy, love, wisdom, confidence, and compassion.  And God has place us in a world of people who, even though they look like they are moving, in a spiritual sense, they are dead.  They are lifeless and confused.  They are like dry bones in the valley.

The culture of death and confusion so prevalent today is a result of a world of “dry bones”.  These bones are not the enemy.  They are prisoners of the Enemy, just as we were before Christ came into our lives.  And there is no government program, no rise of capitalism, or rise of socialism, or climate improvement, or international engagement, nor any progressive or conservative public policy that will bring these dry bones to life.

Two thousand years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the answer to a valley of dry bones is the same as it has ever been.  We need the Spirit of Christ to blow through, in a rushing wind, and bring life to this valley of dry bones.  It is our only hope for life, truly abundant and full.  This is God’s offer of life in Christ to us.  This is what it will be like and look like!

The Gospel and the Fiery Furnace

Here is a familiar story from Daniel chapter 3.  Three Jewish exiles had risen to places of administrative prominence in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.  Their names?  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  And their day of testing is a gospel lesson in faith.  Let’s summarize the story.

King Nebuchadnezzar had constructed a golden image of himself on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  The image was 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide.  Pretty imposing.  On the day of dedication for the image, all the government officials were gathered before the image and instructed that “at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe, and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up” (Dan 3:5).  The punishment for non-compliance was being “tossed into a furnace of blazing fire” (Dan 3:6).

Jumping ahead in the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bow and worship the image when the music sounded.  Their insolence was reported to the king.  The king called them out and proceeded to give them a second chance to comply.

But the men did not need a second chance as they explained to the king.  “If it be so, our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan 3:17-18).

Well, Nebuchadnezzar flew off the handle, ordered the furnace cranked up seven times hotter than normal, and had the men bound and thrown inside.  Let’s stop the story right here for a second and look again at the incredible statement of faith from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

In essence, they are saying, “We have faith to believe that God can deliver us from the furnace, but even if He does not, we are all in.”  Staring at what appears to be certain death, this is quite a claim.  Notice that their faith is not tied to their physical rescue, but to the God who is in control.  They affirm that even if God does not deliver them from the fire, they will not worship other gods.  With or without physical deliverance, their faith is in the one true God alone.  Again, their faith is not dependent on an outcome.  It is dependent on a person; the character and person of God Himself.

But God does deliver them from the fire.  When the king peered into the furnace, “Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, ‘Look!  I see four men loosed and walking about in the middle of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!’ ” (Dan 3:25).  The fourth person may have been Jesus Himself coming to the rescue of His chosen ones in response to their faith.

After all, that is how He came to you and me.  Jesus’s offer of salvation is available to all.  Everyone is invited to come to Jesus.  But the invitation must be accepted by faith.  We must respond to His invitation with a “Yes, I believe.  My faith is in Christ alone.  I am all in.”

The faith that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrated in the Old Testament is the same saving faith required of us to join Christ’s family.  The gospel message in the fiery furnace is the message of Jesus’ rescue of those who place their faith in Him.

What is Enough?

The next Old Testament passage for our purview is found in chapters 32 and 33 of the book of Genesis. The story line involves Jacob returning to the land of his youth following many years of serving his uncle, Laban. By now Jacob is a wealthy nomad. But his deceitful past is waiting for him along the journey.

You may recall that Jacob, as a young man, cheated his brother Esau out of their father’s blessing. When his deceit was discovered, Jacob feared for his life – Esau promised to kill Jacob (Gen 27:41) – and he fled to Haran where Laban lived. Jacob spent many years working in the service of his future father-in-law. Now, returning home to the land of his fathers with his growing family and flocks, Jacob knew he must face his brother Esau once again.

So Jacob sends a message to Esau that he is on his way. His messengers return with news that Esau is coming to meet Jacob – with 400 men in tow. The news is distressing to Jacob and his fears of what Esau might do to him in revenge are reignited. So Jacob divides his people and his flocks and herds and camels into two companies. That way, if Esau attacks one, the other group can escape.

As the day approaches, Jacob considers what size gift will be appropriate (or “large enough” may be a better word) to stem Esau’s wrath. Jacob sets aside 200 female goats and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 milking camels and their colts, 40 cows and 10 bulls, and 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys. This is his gift that he plans to present to Esau.

But even with this huge offering, Jacob still is left with the burning question, “Is this enough to buy my brother’s acceptance and forgiveness?” He has a plan to find out if it is enough.

He instructs his servants to organize this gift into three groups. When the first group approaches Esau’s party, the servants are to say to Esau, “These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a present sent to my lord Esau. And behold Jacob is also behind us” (Gen 32:18). Jacob’s hope is that after 3 droves of gifts, Esau will be softened up to accept him. Jacob says to his servant, “Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me” (Gen 32:20).

“Perhaps” is the key word here. Jacob is uncertain if his gift will be enough. Is there a “perhaps” in your life? An uncertainty that you have brought enough to the Savior to earn His love, acceptance, or forgiveness?

Let’s fast forward to our situation in the New Testament. We have wronged a holy God. We have sinned against Him. What would be enough for us to earn His love, acceptance, and forgiveness? We are in the same place with God as Jacob was with Esau. If we think there is something we can do to buy our pardon before God, we will live in fear, never knowing if we have given enough. Do you see this parallel with Jacob and his fear, “Is this enough?”

But thanks be to God, that no gift on our part is required to come into His blessed presence. Oh, there is something required. But it is not a gift or penance or sacrifice on our part. The only requirement to earn God’s acceptance is faith. We must believe, accept, and embrace that He is willing and able to forgive us. And those hands of faith must be totally empty. Because there is nothing we can bring to the table to earn God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness. It is absolutely free; a gift of grace.

And this idea of “perhaps” and uncertainty is not just in regard to our initial salvation. It can also steal our joy in our ongoing relationship with Jesus. Am I working hard enough? Am I keeping enough rules? Am I … you fill in the blank with your unique situation.

As you dwell on this question, remember that there is no “enough” required from us because Jesus did it all. Our role? Abide in Christ and all he has done on our behalf. This is enough.