Thursday, November 30, 2006

On the feast of St. Andrew...

Out of the gate, I bid you all a happy, joyous St. Andrew’s Day! Walk your Westie, give your Scotty a good scratch behind his ears, and then drink in the crisp fall air. ( The haggis and single malt are optional).

Comparatively speaking, the Bible doesn’t say much about St. Andrew. It tells us basically that: he was a disciple of John the Baptist, he was one of the first recorded Disciples of Christ, and he led St. Peter to Jesus. St. Andrew was numbered among the 12 Apostles, specifically within the “inner ring” with Peter, John and James. As an Apostle, he was witness to Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring on the Day of Pentecost.

Church history (Eusebius) records St. Andrew’s missionary journeys through Asia Minor, and the modern day regions of Bulgaria and Romania. Ultimately, he received his martyr’s crown on the 30th of November in A.D. 60 (Hence the Feast Day).

Unlike his brother Peter, Andrew seemed to possess a quiet and earnest spirit. Though some may be inspired by Peter’s bold statements or John’s devotion, I’m personally inspired by Andrew’s evangelistic heart. It was Andrew who said “Come and see…” It was also Andrew who brought the Boy with the fish sandwiches to Jesus. Andrew was also the Disciple who led the God-fearing Greeks to Jesus at the Feast.

Today, may we all have that same quiet spirit.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Discerning Heat from Light

The following is an eassy done back in early 2003. It was written at a time when I was still a Pastor with an oldline Pentecostal Church (Church of God, Cleveland, TN). My original purpose was to call pentecostals to examine their pentecostal experiences in the clear light of Scripture. The article was originally published at Todd Strandberg's site:


Pentecostals have hoed a row that’s been littered with alienation, misunderstanding, excess, heresy, scandal, self-inflicted wounds and bad press. Yet somehow, that old ship that set sail from the mountains of Carolina/Tennessee, picking up passengers at Azusa Street still sails on. Today, Pentecostals may be found on all of the populated continents of the earth and given time, will likely take root in Antarctica. How do those rugged people do it? Pure Pentecostalism, I believe, exists within the community of orthodoxy ( Non-Trinitarians not withstanding) but using a phrase like "pure Pentecostalism" can be likened to holding onto a fist-full of wind. Pentecostal congregations are a diverse lot, even within their own Denomination. Churches within the Assemblies of God are a prime example of this (Due to their congregational autonomy). Where some are solidly biblical in both theology and approach, others turn on a dime to chase every, and any doctrinal tumbleweed that blows through town.
To synthesize this balanced approach, we will have to define first, our terms in the strictest sense, and hold their outworking to the plumb line of Scripture. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful benefits of scripture; not only does it provide a clear demarcation between truth and error, it provides a level surface on which to build. If the house is built on the solid, immobile foundation of the word, it will stand up to time and tide. In other words, we won’t have to continually revisit and retool to suit the whims of successive generations. My intent is to supply more than just a list of "grievances". Solutions and suggestions are provided along with a roadmap on reaching those solutions.
"What is a Pentecostal?" Simply stated, a Pentecostal is one who believes that the Holy Spirit of God continues to move as He did in the Apostolic Church. The Pentecostal looks to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to live a life that’s God-pleasing and purpose fulfilling. Within the Pentecostal zeitgeist, the gifts received on that 50th day following Christ’s resurrection remain with the Body of Christ until He returns for His bride. This again, is a "nutshell" definition. The degree of separation between pentecostals and nonpentecostals is much narrower than both persuasions would realize, boiling down to a debate over just which gifts of the Spirit have ceased to operate, and how the Spirit fills and empowers the Follower of Jesus. Within the Pentecostal view however, there are some very serious watershed division that literally determine the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. "Oneness Pentecostalism" is a dire departure from historic Christian orthodoxy in its refutation of the tri-unity of the Godhead. This school shouldn’t be included under the pale of orthodoxy, regardless of whatever PR spin they apply to their public image. Their sheer numbers, combined with their simpaticos on the Trinity Broadcasting Network would give the impression that their doctrinal errors have been mitigated and that they’ve been given full acceptance. Unfortunately for historic Pentecostalism, this paints an inaccurate image, one that portrays pentecostals as a group that plays fast and loose with theology and doctrine.
" Problematic Pentecostalism." The previous statement ( fast and loose) hits home far too often, and far too close for comfort. Generally speaking, pentecostals have often been hoisted on their own petards over issues that would have been avoided if the saint had simply exercised Christian discernment. I wish to stress that I’m speaking in generalities, addressing Pentecostalism as a whole.
The substitution of experience for sound doctrine is perhaps the greatest problem that faces today’s Pentecostal churches. Sound biblical doctrine is treated at best as a "necessary evil", or its simply ignored out of hand. This problem is exacerbated by two factors, inadequate theological/doctrinal depth within members of the Pentecostal clergy/laity, and a prevailing disdain for serious study. These factors create a self-perpetuating spiral of spiritual ignorance that opens the door for grave spiritual error and apostasy. The results of this doctrinal shallowness ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous but since we (believers in Christ Jesus) are all de facto spokesmen for the historic faith and the Kingdom of God, there’s nothing funny about the situation.
This doctrinal shallowness allows folk to accept the toxic teaching propagated by the likes of Hinn, Hickey and Copeland without an iota of critical examination. A legion of pentecostals sit like bobble-head dolls, nodding with approval any time these contemporary Gnostics open their mouths, and their teaching then propagates like a computer virus as well-meaning Sunday school teachers and pastors ape the message to waiting ears. Shallowness also allows what I’ve defined as 1"Mountain folk religion" to wend its way into the Pentecostal zeitgeist, destroying any and all credibility as apologists.
Consider the results of doctrinal shallowness carried to its ultimate end. Oneness Pentecostalism essentially sprung from a prophecy delivered at a camp meeting early in the last century. Had there been enough "Bereans" in attendance that prophecy would have been weighed in the balance of scripture and it would have been judged as a false prophecy and the error wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Then there’s the case of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. His pronouncements from the pulpit were accepted out of hand and we saw with horrible clarity, the results on our TV’s.
"Over the Top Arminianism." I’m not picking a Calvinist fight with my Arminian brothers! My personal theology is a synthesis formed between the poles of these two theological worldviews and frankly, I’ve found problematic issues in both as they’re taken to their extremes. There seems to be a phobia among pentecostals that has many believing that they’re no more than a heartbeat away from loosing their salvation and being dispatched onto the HOV lane to perdition. I’ve witnessed both cases of folk "getting saved" every Sunday, and individuals receiving multiple baptisms over a two-year period. Personally, I see this as a process that cheapens both the gift of salvation and the sacrament of Baptism. In every case where I took the time to pray with the penitent, that individual simply needed to confess a sin before God and accept the grace of His forgiveness.
This mindset prevents believers from venturing a few steps away from the altar of repentance and duct tapes them into a spiritual bassinet. Have you ever wondered just how we can have folk in our churches who’ve been saved for decades yet remain "Babes in Christ"? It’s because they’re trapped in this mindset and until they embrace the liberty of the believer, they’ll not mature beyond the sinner’s prayer.
" Towards Bibliocentric Pentecostalism." There’s no "hidden revelation" or inside trick to curing these aliments that seek to undermine the Pentecostal worldview. My thesis is based on no other revelation than the revealed canon of Scripture. The prescription is a matter of public record and may be found within the pages of God’s word. This isn’t esoteric inside information that’s only available to the super saint; any believer can read, absorb and model this behavior.
Luke spoke of the Bereans in Acts Chapter 17:"And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These The Bereans were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so"( Acts 17:10-11 KJV).
Dwight L. Moody coined the phrase, " The straight stick of scripture", which conveyed the idea that pronouncements should be held to the standard of the Bible for accuracy and clarity. Our understanding of the world may change from generation to generation. Conventional wisdom ( or pop-ignorance) too has its own unique generational perspective. Holy Scripture is eternal and unchanging. Rooted in eternity past and projecting into eternity future, it is unchanging and unyielding to generational fickleness. What light does Scripture shed on the Pentecostal experience, or Spiritual Gifts? How are these gifts seen in operation, or dispensation? These, and other questions are answered clearly by St. Paul in his epistles, and by St. Peter in his dissertations in Acts.
"The Divine Purpose seen in Perpetuity." The purpose of Pentecost often seems lost on many who would call themselves Pentecostal. For some, it’s a mere rush; much like a thrill ride. Altar-centered activity becomes their measure for the move of God in a service and the decibels equate to anointing. You can witness this though the comments of these folk.
Consider a worship service where a sense of reverence has permeated the venue. The speaker’s message has resonated deep within the hearts of hearers and a sense of conviction is now welling towards the surface. As the service is closing, many throughout pray earnestly, seeking for the grace and strength to move closer to the heart of God. Many who are outside of the family of the forgiven repent and seek our Lord’s gift of salvation. In the end, hearts are steeled, souls are strengthened and silent tears may even be shed. The gifts of the Spirit were operating with power in this scenario as evidenced by the clear, powerful proclamation of God’s word. Yet because no "message" was delivered and interpreted, no one "ran the aisles" or "fell under the power", the majority of Thrill Riders would have dismissed that service as being dead! Ironically, the description above could be applied not only to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, but to the entire program of apostolic preaching.
For others still, the purpose of Pentecost has been reduced to a mere "fix". These are the individuals who will cross a continent to see the latest curious manifestation to roll onto the Pentecostal or Charismatic stage. Chances are, you may know folk who’ll trek hours to see a revivalist from Paul Crouch’s TBN lineup in some regional venue. Or, you may know of individuals who’ve made the pilgrimage to Toronto or Brownsville to "see" the purported revivals that took place in those locales.
Both of these take the Pentecostal experience and the move of the Spirit, and reduce them to the level of a day at the amusement park, or a peek at a train wreck! The Holy Spirit of our God hasn’t been given as an entertainment outlet or to be a means of wringing adrenaline from our pancreas. So what then, is the purpose of the Gifts of the Spirit and the objective of the Pentecostal experience?
"Purposes Revealed." The arrival of the Spirit and the spiritual gifts, along with the objectives of the Pentecostal experience are intrinsically related and essentially can’t be separated. Jesus spoke clearly of the coming Spirit and His mission in John 16. At it’s essential core, the mission of the Holy Spirit is to draw all humanity into a relationship with their creator. Amplified, that mission includes convicting us of our abject spiritual poverty and moral bankruptcy, and convincing us of our absolute need for a savior who offers divine forgiveness and perfect love. Looking further, the Spirit comforts the repentant heart and breathes grace and assurance of Divine forgiveness. Yet in the midst of comfort, that same Spirit may also act as a sharp stick, scolding and admonishing us. I’m thoroughly convinced that when we hear our consciences speaking to our centers, it’s a result of being goaded by the Spirit.
The essential core of the Pentecostal experience is equally clear. Essentially, the objective of this experience is to empower us to be bearers of the Gospel and participants in the Holy Spirit’s mission in the physical universe.
St. Peter is the supreme example of this statement. Consider Peter; brash, impulsive, and rushing in where angels fear to tread. When the iron was on the anvil, he disavowed his associations with the Christ, and cursed those who insinuated the contrary. Yet when this Galilean everyman received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on that day of Pentecost, he was filled with a new-found power that allowed him to become a channel of God’s grace, mercy and peace. Stained-glass hagiography aside, Peter was a "Regular Guy" with the full compliment of normal hopes, dreams, desires and passions. His living legacies may be found seated in any pew of any church the world over. We all know "Peter’s"; those plain-spoken men who work hard, honest days with their calloused hands. We’ve seen these same men manifest the love of Christ to those in their worlds. As was the case of Peter, this empowerment is clearly the result of the Holy Spirit operating in the lives of these men (and women).
"The Promise and the indwelling presence." The debate continues within orthodox, evangelical circles as to the validity of the contemporary Pentecostal experience. Positions and passions are varied but for a Biblio-historic view, let’s consider the following passages from St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.
Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and all who are far off – for All whom our Lord will call." Acts 2:38-39 (NIV)
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and Arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them "Did you Receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" Acts 19:1-2 (NIV)
Receiving the "Gift of the Spirit", according to Luke’s account in Acts would appear to be normative by the account of Luke. In 2:38, Peter makes the clear, declarative statement that all who repent of their sins and call on the name of the Christ for forgiveness will receive that Gift of the Spirit. He further implies that the promise is open-ended, crossing generational, ethnic and chronological barriers.
We find ourselves thrust some 15 years into the future with Acts 19:1-2, where Apollos asks believers in Corinth if they’d received the Holy Spirit. A continued reading reveals that they weren’t familiar with the gift but when they availed themselves, the gift was received. "Cessation or Perpetuity?" This is the point of debate between pentecostals and nonpentecostals; do the "Gift of the Spirit" and the accompanying Spiritual Gifts exist in perpetuity, or did they cease at the closure of the apostolic age? Sincere, orthodox children of God exist on both sides of the debate and I would be both arrogant and wrong to use this question as a litmus test of one’s faith in God. Unfortunately though, there are those in both camps that sling arrows and accusations at the other, keeping phrases like "Apostate", or "Blasphemer of the Holy Ghost" in their quivers. This behavior only alienates and destroys. " Questions for the Cessationist." We need to establish the fact that there are several "Gifts of the Spirit".
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
1 Cor. 12:7-11 (NKJV)

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Rom. 12:6-8 (NKJV)

Often, both sides seem to loose touch of the fact that Tongues, Interpretations and Prophecies aren’t the sole Gifts of the Spirit. A reading of I Corinthians 12:8-10 lists a multitude of gifts: Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Miraculous Powers, Healing, Prophecy, the Discerning of Spirits, Tongues and the Interpretation of Tongues. We see this list amplified and expanded in Romans 12:6-8, where we see: Prophecy, Service, Teaching, Encouragement (or Exhortation), Leadership, Giving, and Mercy. If we’re to say that the "Gifts of the Spirit" ceased at the close of the apostolic age, how do we reconcile the fact that the many or most of these gifts are operating within healthy, Biblio-centric churches? Too, what church could ever expect to be salt and light in their community without the presence of these gifts in their midst?
"The Prescription for Balance." The Pentecostal experience MUST exist under the bright light of God’s word if it’s to remain biblio-centric and relevant to the move of God! The extrabiblical forays into frothy-mouthed kookiness and fanaticism have not only hijacked the Pentecostal worldview, but have deprived the bulk of the church of a major source of blessing as well. There is a struggle for the soul of the Pentecostal worldview, and its outcome will guide the future of Pentecostal groups and opinions. If biblio-centricity is lost, these groups will be at best, marginalized to the point total insignificance and at worst, become a bulwark of apostate zeitgeist. The outcome rests in the hands of those who’d call themselves Pentecostal. " Against the plumb line of Scripture." Scripture sets the precedent and provides the instructions for operation of Gifts of the Spirit and as the case of any doctrine or teaching of Scripture, it’s non-negotiable; we tinker with them at our own spiritual peril.
A clearer understanding is especially needed in the area of what some will refer to as "sign" gifts. A "Message in Tongues" is not a communiqué from God through the Spirit ( or Mary, in the case of some Charismatic Catholics). Simply put, its quite the opposite. According to I Corinthians 14, one who is speaking in tongues is communicating with the Lord, not channeling for Him. Typically, this error occurs when one assumes to have received the Gift of Interpretations. The "message" will typically be one of where the Lord places His "Good Cosmoskeeping Seal" on the worship service, or one that stirs up the congregation. Typically too, this is the result of doctrinal ignorance but sometimes, those wanting to stir up a service that’s perceived as being dead purposefully do it. This is disingenuous and just plain wrong! "Manifestations" are another area that demands examination. By manifestations, I’m speaking of those things that are rife within Pentecostal circles and range from the sublime to the ridiculous. They range from extra-biblical at best, to downright unscriptural at their worst. Pentecostals must stop excusing bizarre, disorderly conduct the like of that seen in Toronto. The God who created the cosmos at the sub-atomic level is a God of propriety and good order, not a Lord of bedlam and chaos. When someone starts shouting in the middle of a speaker’s message, the only thing being manifested is spiritual ignorance or just plain bad manners. Consider for a moment… When the pastor or teacher is delivering a sermon, a bona fide gift of the Spirit is in Operation and saints are being encouraged and equipped. Should we expect an orderly God to randomly manifest his presence in a way that degrades this equipping process? "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way" I Cor. 14:40 (NIV)
Gifts are for service, and must be sought after. Each Spiritual Gift serves to build and strengthen the church, both on a local and universal level. Unfortunately though, a majority who claim to be spirit-filled can’t tell you what gift or gifts they’re received. Oh sure, at one point in their lives, they may have spoken in other tongues at the altar, but that’s the end of their story. If we’re to believe that tongues are the initial evidence of the Spirit’s indwelling ( A point that’s also wide open for debate), we should reasonably expect secondary and subsequent evidence of some other form of gifting. We do no service for the kingdom by simply reveling in an experience we may have had decades ago. Rather, we should seek out the gifts (and avenues) or service that we might be a greater blessing to the world around us.
Conclusions A biblically synthesized approach to the Pentecostal experience will not only place the church on a sound doctrinal footing, it will also invigorate the ministry of God’s Church on Planet Earth! I challenge anyone who’d call themselves Pentecostal or Charismatic to consider this, repent of error or ignorance, then avail themselves to the working of God’s Holy Spirit in their everyday lives. I also challenge any non-pentecostal believer to look beyond the what is being foisted off on the church as a move of God, and consider for a moment that our Lord still gifts and equips his faithful children. Tarnished, old silverware is anything but attractive. Yet with silver polish and loving labor, the old silver pieces are returned to their original luster. With God’s word, the tarnish of misunderstanding, ignorance or outright hucksterism can be removed from the Pentecostal experience, revealing the beautiful gift our God gave His church.
End Notes

1. "Mountain folk religion" An entire article could be devoted to this subject but for the purposes of brevity and clarity, I’ll provide a concise definition. Essentially, this is a belief system that’s a sticky mélange of Christian terminology, false/erroneous doctrines and spiritism. The phenomenon has far more to do with North American neo-animist superstition than historical Christianity. Look for an article on this in the future.

Pictures in the Trees

PART I: Pictures in the Trees
THESIS: God has used the simple things of His creation, such as plants and trees, to provide pictures of His Love, Provision, and Righteousness.

Pictures in the Trees

Can you see God in the ordinary things that surround us, or the handiwork of the Divine Artist in those things that are all around us? When you look at look at an intricate seashell, can you see the traces of the hand that spoke the first one into existence? Or when you look at a great river like the Potomac, can you see the elements of Hydrogen and oxygen spilling off of the lips that spoke it into existence? Some of these may take a big imagination to visualize but remember; we worship and serve a Big God who among His many attributes also has a great imagination. It may be a stretch to see some of these pictures, but the Father, through His word, has created imagery that doesn’t take a tall imagination to see.

God is certainly no vegetarian (He’s Spirit, he doesn’t require food), but a systematic look through His word reveals that it is full of vegetation. It’s in there; everything from burning bushes that aren't consummed to trees with medicinal leaves. We’ll also find things in and on these plants that range from fruit that's been specifically forbidden, to trees containing the bodies of criminals. The hand of God here is much more evident and we could even safely propose that the Father has chosen these objects to give us a sense of His character and attributes, He’s done and where He’s leading us.

There are “pictures in the trees” if you’ll have it. We can look and observe God’s provisions, God’s promises and views of God’s judgment and man’s redemption. Let’s take this knowledge and take a step into the world of “Biblical Botany”.

I. Pictures of Sustaining Providence and Provision

A. A Picture of physical provision (Genesis 1 & 2)

Days before the Father breathed life into the dirt-man Adam, He filled the earth with trees. On the morning after speaking into existence the islands and continents and other inorganic components of His new earth, God spoke and once more matter spilled from His lips. Only this time, the particles would coalesce into organic materials. His words wove carbon atoms into intricate Glucose chains, then vegetation exploded into existence. Trees rose from the rich nutritive soil, along with other vegetative creations. In a moment, great stands of forest, mighty oaks, graceful willows, succulent aloes and trees bearing luscious fruit came into existence. And God saw that these new creations were “good”. Their goodness transcended the fact that they had beauty or aesthetic values. The Father, filled with joy, proclaimed they were perfect in every sense of the word. You can almost see smiles light up the faces of the Godhead as He made the declaration.

Trees weren’t the crown jewels of the Father’s creation, that honor went to Adam. As the breath of God entered his nostrils, Adam became a living soul. He had the exclusive claim above all of the creation as being made “In the Image and likeness of God”. Though he bore the marks of their maker, he was a physical being who would need routine, life-sustaining nourishment if he was to be an active steward of God in this lush garden. God’s generous provision immediately met the need; the trees of the garden would be integral to his diet, along with the other lush seed-bearing plants of Eden.

It’s difficult to determine the length of time that elapsed between verse 15 and verse 18 of the second chapter of Genesis. Was in mere moments or multiple days? That’s a tough call. What we do know is that the Father saw his supreme creation in His garden and declared that he needed a companion. None of the creatures in the garden, wonderful as they were, were suitable. It was clear Adam needed more that a Scottish terrier or a West highland to play fetch. So, the father placed him in a deep sleep, reached in and created the original “sidekick”, Eve. Now, the two stood there together before the Father as he reiterated the house rules for Adam, and explained them for the first time to Eve. They had full kitchen privileges. With the exception of one tree, they were free to feast from whichever tree or plant they saw in Eden.

Long before Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” or St. Paul’s letter to the church in Phillippi, Adam knew of the Father’s generous provision. Like the sparrows and starlings, he ate from the bountiful table of God. He knew firsthand, that God would and did “Supply all of his needs”, according to His riches and glory.

With this spread of lush bounty and goodness set out for Adam and his bride Eve, we might conclude that the Father was just another overindulgent parent. The trees would paint a far different picture. Yes, God’s provision was both astounding and overflowing in the garden. Yet amidst this, we see an omniscient and powerful one who was wrapped in powerful authority.

B. A Picture of God’s authority (Gen 2:18; Gen 3).

Let’s walk into the center of Eden to see a picture of God’s ultimate authority seen adorning the branches of one particular tree. Genesis tells us that the Tree of the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” stood in the midst of the garden, near the “Tree of Life”. The Father made himself clear; the fruit of this tree of knowledge was off Adam’s menu. For an indeterminate length of time, Adam and his wife Eve were able to abide by this simple rule… Don’t eat the fruit found on the “tree of knowledge”. This would all change when the serpent made his move and targeted Eve.

Eve was no match for the serpent as she became fixated on the fruit in front of her. She had become confused to the point where she began to misquote the Father’s command concerning the Tree. The rest is a matter of biblical record as she and Adam rebelled, disobeyed, and began to die. I don’t know who was first to realize that they weren’t dressed for the party, or just dressed for that matter. They dove for the cover of the undergrowth and hid from God. To cover their nakedness, an animal was slaughtered and skinned to provide suitable coverings. The couple saw and smelled death in all of its graphic force for the first time. Perhaps Adam and Eve doubted the Father after seeing the lifeless, skinned carcasses and realizing that they were not in the same state. But they WERE dying, and though it would take nearly a thousand years for his death to be realized, Adam and his wife reaped the consequences of their disobedience.

This tree gives us a stark picture of the Father’s prerogative to demand obedience and to punish those who trespass against His commands. The wage for disobedience or sin was, and remains, death. “God will not be mocked”, St. Paul, tells us in Galatians 6:7. The Father is deadly serious and does not make vain threats. It is a sad fact that many have mistaken the Father’s patience and longsuffering for slackness. We hear a similar message nearly every day; “A loving God surely wouldn’t send someone to hell.” In this sense, little has changed since St. Peter cited this fact in his epistle.

Even after the disobedience that led to their expulsion from Eden, God made provision for their sustenance, in allowing them access to the fruits and vegetables of the earth. The provision was still there, though the couple would have to battle the fallen earth to draw out its bounty. Though they’d committed a capital offense, and were under a death sentence, they weren’t driven to a barren wasteland to starve. The Father’s provision is still seen in the trees surrounding the couple. We might even note the reborn trees awaiting Noah, as witnessed by the tender olive branch

C. A Picture of the Father’s abiding Presence (Psalm 1:3; Jude 12)

As God began to paint again on the human canvas, he called Abram out of the relatively lush Fertile Crescent to a land which He was giving to him as an inheritance. His family, along with those of succeeding generations would find themselves in an arid land that was largely absent of trees with the exceptions of oasises and the strip of vegetation along the banks of the Jordan. So, to see a tree away from the life-giving water of an oasis or a wadi was a rare sight and to see a lush healthy tree was rarer still.
This sight was so rare that David, in Psalm 1:3 used this simile of a lush tree to describe the blessed state of the one who walks in the counsel of God. Think about this picture for a moment. In a world that’s parched, cruel and colorless, God’s children are lavished with abundant provision and lavish grace. We stand out (or should stand out) in stark contrast to the world around us. Jude’s letter offers both credence and contrast to this picture (Jude 12) when he compares the godless to barren dead trees that have been ripped from the ground, left to decay in the wasteland. Where the redeemed stand out against the background of our world, the unredeemed in there current state simply melt into the scenery.

As we look onward, we see other pictures in the trees, Pictures both bloody and beautiful

II. Pictures of Retribution and Redemption

A. A Picture of Holy and Righteous Justice (Deuteronomy 21:23)

The children who grew up in the sterile, barren deserts of the Sinai eventually found themselves east of the Jordan River in a place that approximated modern Jordan. Forty years had passed since their parents broke faith with God. Moses, who was fast approaching his 120th Birthday, was performing a handoff of sorts to Israel and her next generation of leaders. Israel was to be not only devout in the service to their God, they were to be society of but civil and criminal laws. Their Criminal codes a number of capital offenses that demanded the death of the offender. There were to be no kangaroo courts, pleas or pardons; no one languished on death row for decades awaiting their fates. Justice was swift and final. Upon execution of the sentence, Israel was instructed to hang the deceased “upon a tree”, as seen in Deuteronomy 21:23.

Theatrical death not withstanding, we are a society that insulates ourselves from death. The majority of Americans will not die in the presence of their families, our accident victims are hidden from interlopers, and the last lawful public execution took place nearly seventy years ago. For Israel, the deaths of her criminals were in plain view. There were no professional executioners on the public payroll, the townsfolk executed sentence upon the condemned and then hung their bodies in plain sight. To a sheltered American, the view outside of a typical Israelite town would be horrific. In plain view were bloodied stones, piled or strewn about. The next thing to catch the eye was a battered corpse hanging from a tree.

The picture of God in this tree, though shocking to our “refined western sensibilities”, is quite clear. The holy and righteous justice of our God seen here is absolute. Evil was not to be tolerated in the midst of Israel just in the same way that it would not stand in the midst of God. In the removal of the corpse from the tree, we have a “future view” of sorts. There is a dreadful day coming for who chose a way other than the Lord’s path. The Almighty will banish the lost away from His presence, and the presence of His redeemed ones. “Depart from me”, He will say, then He (and we), will not be compelled to view the lawbreakers.

Stare contemplatively at this snapshot and another picture will come into focus, a picture of extreme mercy. Like a sign saying “Bridge Out”, or “Danger High Voltage”, the body of an offender gave a clear warning of the price for rebellion against the Command of God. The corpse wasn’t swaying in the breeze saying “Come on, who’s next”, it was lifted above the street level, screaming “PLEASE, don’t let this happen to you”.
Speaking to the Church at Corinth about idolatry, St. Paul made a keen observation stating “These things became our examples…“ (Speaking of the punishment meted out from on high on idolatrous Israel). Paul’s language here gives us a sense that the response of the Father exists as just such a warning.

B. A Picture of Perfect Redemptive Justice (Galatians 3:13-14)

Push aside these visceral images, and another picture of our God is framed. One will find the perfect Mercy of God standing alongside of His perfect Justice. The Westminster catechism tells us humanity was created by God, for God and to enjoy His fellowship forever. Humanity had become thoroughly corrupted by sin and was banished from His presence. A paradox? No, it was the opportunity to see yet another portrait come into focus. Under the law, humanity had been sentenced to death through the sin of Adam. It would take “another Adam” to satisfy that sentence. Because the ultimate could only be satisfied by the perfect, God allowed His only son to step into human form and release us from that death debt. The one who knew no sin, took on flesh and blood to become the perfect offering for sin past, present and future. For three agonizing hours, Jesus became “Cursed” upon the tree of the cross for our sakes.
Our debt was paid on that horrible tree. Because He paid our debt, Christ can lawfully stand before the Father and vouch for his redeemed. We no longer have to hide in the shrubs, cowering in our nakedness before God. We can approach the throne knowing that we’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfection. When the father looks in the direction of his servants, He sees his son staring back.

III. Pictures Eternal Care and Communion

To this point, we’ve been looking backwards at the trees, in a sense, and seeing imagery that has demonstrated the character and actions of our Lord. In doing this, we’ve only seen part of the forest. God’s word provides us with not just past and present views, it also allows us to catch glimpses of the future, albeit through smoky glass.

A. A view of Eternal Provision (Ezekiel 47:12)

The Lord spoke to and through the Prophet Ezekiel in ways that were perhaps beyond that of any other of His prophets. The messages could range from the inspiring to the frightening. This prophet saw the frightening vision of the Spirit of the Most High departing the temple and heading east. The Lord blessed Ezekiel with the vision of His presence returning to His people, Israel. In this intricately detailed vision, Ezekiel was shown a restored Israel whose wonders are too numerous to discuss in our limited timeframe. If you are expecting to hear about the trees in this restored land, you’ll not be disappointed.
The forty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel’s prophecy provides us with imagery that clearly speaks to the provision of our God, with its healing waters and trees that are in a state of perpetual bloom. One either side of a healing river, are trees that will be, according to the prophet, a perpetual source of nourishment and “medicine” in this yet-discovered country. Eternal food, eternal care, all found within these great trees.
There is a reason our Lord has told his disciples not to fret over the future; He has already secured that future! It’s essential to save for a “rainy day”, or to set aside for our retirements, this is just common sense stewardship. It’s an entirely different thing altogether to worry about what hasn’t even occurred yet! The market will revert to a bear cycle, housing starts will decline, and we’ll undergo another recession… Accept it and get on with it. Child of God, these things have no effect on our eternal inheritance. This provision is laid up in a place without “moth or rust”. These trees grow in a country that knows neither drought or crop failure! The “futures of God’s future” are the soundest investment in all the cosmos.

CONCLUSION: It would take days to thoroughly tour all of the exhibits found in the Smithsonian Institution and in the same sense, we‘re not going to see all of the leafy pictures of our God in these few minutes. Consider the pictures we did see. Placed in a big coffee table book, we would soon see the overarching theme of God’s Love for humanity. In His love, the Most High conceived us in eternity past, provides for us in the moment, and has planned an astounding future for us. All of this is rooted in a love that is bigger than our imaginations, deeper than our most hidden hopes and higher than any conceivable aspiration.