Tree of Salvation

Some Sundays the sermon is so thick that I realize it is hard for folks to track.  Sunday was the case for some and maybe most.  Hopefully this week’s blog will give you the space to re-read the message and be able to process it in a way that is not only informative but also relevant to your daily world.  So to set the stage let’s do a short recap.

The context of this series begins with the creation story and in particular God’s activities in the good creation, the animation of man, the planting of a garden and living in it.  After this God gave the man vocation when God said “tend and cultivate.”  Then God gave permission to “eat of the trees of the garden.”  But God also established one prohibition – “You shall not eat of the tree in the middle of the garden (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) or touch for on the day that you do you shall die.”  Then God saw that man had no equal partner so God created woman and the two of them became one.  They dwelt in the garden, the tended and cultivated it, they enjoyed the fruit of the trees, and they were naked but did not feel ashamed by this.  But then the plot of Genesis thickens – a character in the story described as a talking serpent strikes up a conversation with Eve (and probably Adam) in which the seed of distrust is planted.  The couple came to distrust that God meant what God said in the command “do not touch or eat.”  Their distrust led to disobedience because they decided that the fruit looked good, touched and ate.  And their disobedience led to disharmony with God, with each other and with creation.  The consequences – estrangement, brokenness, sin, evil and death enter into the world and we continue to perpetuate it even now.

But God did not and does not desire for estrangement and brokenness to rule humanity.  God does not desire that death linger over us until the day it wins.  God’s mighty acts through Jesus Christ were and are for the singular purpose of reconciliation.  Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 5 and verse 10 states:  “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

Blaise Pascal in his work that would be titled Pensées wrote:  “Jesus Christ did nothing but teach men that they only loved themselves; that they were slaves, blind, sick, unhappy and sinful; that he had come to deliver them, bring them light, sanctify and heal them; that this would come about through their hating themselves and following him to misery and death on the Cross…”

God’s work through Jesus Christ is a portrait of God’s actions towards us and the response God desires from us.  This was accomplished on the cross of Calvary, the tree of salvation.

empty cross  (image from fineartamerica.com)

The gospel writers are all in unison regarding Jesus’ death upon a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  But each of them has a particular point of view.  Matthew’s description tells us about the burden of the cross.  Physically Jesus could not carry the cross all the way to Golgotha.  He falls under the weight of it and the Roman soldiers press into service a man named Simon of Cyrene.  He is given Jesus’ cross to carry the rest of the way.  Metaphorically the cross beam represents the full collection of human brokenness – our sin, our evil, our estrangement past, present, and future.  It was a crushing weight spiritually for Jesus to bear.  But he did and in this act of self-sacrificing love, God overcame our estrangement – God did for us what we could not do for ourselves.  This is the major distinction of Christianity from the rest of the world’s major religions.  We believe that we cannot merit, work for or earn God’s favor.  We are incapable of making restitution for our offenses no matter how good we try to be.  God paid our debt; God liberates each soul; God makes us righteous.  God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  One classical theologian says that the offended made restitution for each offender.  This is hard for us to grasp because it does not fit into our image of justice – we believe that the offender is always responsible for making restitution to the one offended.  But in God’s economy that is not possible – broken humanity (the offenders) are incapable of satisfying divine justice (the offended).  Only God in God’s self could accomplish this.

Here is how we have interpreted this.  The New Testament utilizes 4 images to describe God’s work in Jesus Christ on the tree of salvation.  But keep these two things in mind for the rest of this discussion.

1)  These images interpret what God actually did; they try to make sense of that single 24 hour day where Jesus was tried, beaten, tortured, mocked, nailed to a tree, and died.

2) It is not accidental that the New Testament writers used several images to interpret the meaning of Jesus’s death.  No single image is adequate by itself.  Each has their limitations and needs the others in an attempt to grasp the total picture.

That being said, let’s look at the 4 dominate images utilizing valuable insights from Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.’s text Christian Doctrines.

Image 1 is the financial image.  The scene is a slave market or a prison camp where all of humanity are captives.  God in Jesus Christ steps up and pays the price to purchase the freedom of each slave.  We are prisoners; Jesus is our redeemer.  The ransom price is his life for ours and he willingly lays down his life for each of us.

Here is the main question that lifts up the inadequacy of this image in describing the full work of God’s reconciliation.  To whom is the ransom paid to “redeem us?”

1)  God?  If sin makes us God’s enemies, why would Jesus be the one to save us from God’s righteous hostility?  How can the Son of God become the enemy of God?

2)  Satan?  If we are captives of the devil why would God give Jesus as payment to the devil for our freedom?  It is a strange notion that God would owe Satan anything at all.

The fruit of this image though is that it spoke to a community of people who understood the financial aspect of redemption; it was part of the Mosaic law dealing with property, family and slaves.  It was transactional law and language that made sense to them – its language we still use today.  One of our hymns contains the words “Jesus paid it all…”

The second image is the military one.  The scene is a battlefield where God and Satan are at war for the possession of people whom Satan has stolen from the kingdom of light (God’s kingdom) and carried them off into the kingdom of darkness.  A warrior of God invades Satan’s kingdom to liberate the captives and bring them back to God’s kingdom.  The battle is real; it is deadly.  It is fought on Good Friday and God’s warrior is killed by the kingdom of darkness.  But on Easter morning God’s warrior is resurrected and in the process triumphantly frees the captives.  Jesus is “Christus Victor” who delivers us from Satan’s kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom of light and life.

However there are inadequacies to this image as well.  It seems too mythological for us to grasp.  It can be offensive to people who are sensitive to violence and the devastating consequences of modern warfare.  Finally, it is meant to be something that changes us inside as well, to be transforming.

But the objective of the image is to help us understand that the work of God in Christ is intended to express the seriousness both of our predicament and of God’s love. We cannot free ourselves from the evil forces that dominate us; but God cares enough about each of us to enter into a costly struggle to reconcile with each of us.

The third image is a place of worship with a bloody altar where sacrifices are made.  Guilty people who deserve God’s wrathful punishment stand before this altar.  A priest comes forward who is the mediator between God and the people.  He makes a sacrifice to atone for people’s sin; blood is shed; a life is offered up.  BUT on Good Friday a priest who is different from all the rest steps forward to offer a blood sacrifice– no animal or bird is sacrificed.  Instead the priest offers his life as the sacrifice – his blood is shed to make peace between the people and God. “The Lamb of God is slain to take away the sins of the world.”  This is the dominate atonement image in Christian writing and theology.

There are a couple of objections to this image.  First while animal sacrifices were normative in New Testament culture, it is not normative for us; actually most of us would consider it repulsive.  Second, many reject the idea that the shedding of innocent blood can be done to cover the sins of the guilty.

But what the author intends to point out is our guilt and need for forgiveness, our estrangement from God and need for reconciliation.  The shed blood of Jesus emphasizes in a shockingly realistic way his unlimited love for us and the sacrifice he was willing to make to help and heal us.  Thus talk of Jesus’s sacrifice is empty religiosity if we do not cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, and care for those who like orphans and widows cannot help themselves.  Sacrifice serves to redefine our attitudes and actions for God’s purposes.

The final New Testament image is the legal image.  The scene is a courtroom with God, the just judge sitting on the judgment seat.  We the people who have broken the law, stand before God to be tried and judged.  Satan is our accuser and he easily wins his case against each of us because we have no defense against our sins, our brokenness, and our estrangement.  We hear the call for a guilty verdict and the punishment – death.  But a righteous man who obeyed the law perfectly stands beside the accused and voluntarily takes the death penalty on himself; he suffers the consequences of our guilt and sentence is carried out on Good Friday.  Those who were enemies of the law (and thus of the just judge also) are now acquitted and reconciled; order is restored.  No longer living in fear of the just judge, the condemned are free to go out to begin a new life.

The inadequacies of this image make it incapable of standing alone as a singular way of understanding the tree of salvation.  First, does Christ “taking the rap” for us mean that we are now free to go on living however we please?  Second, can the guilt of humanity be transferred to the innocent Son of God?  Third, is it fair for God to accept Christ’ offer and to punish him for our sins?  Fourth, if the Father and the Son will and do the same thing then how is it possible for the Son to offer himself in self-giving love in opposition to the Father’s wrathful justice?

AGAIN – while this image has its limitation it should invoke in us an appreciation for how desperate our situation is before God and the unreserved love of Christ for us.

No matter how we define, interpret or talk about the tree of salvation, it isn’t intended to be a purely academic exercise.  Our encounter with God’s reconciling work through Jesus Christ is intended to tells us about ourselves, what this work does for us and to us.  Here are four ways in which we can respond to the tree of salvation:

1)  The tree of salvation should convict us of our sinfulness – the cross of Jesus doesn’t just expose the sins of those who denied, betrayed, plotted against, and capitulated – it exposes our sins here and now.  Our response should be a journey of transformation from the people we were to the person God envisions us to become.

2)  The tree of salvation enables us to live as forgiven sinners.  We are forgiven debtors who no longer have to spend our lives with tormented consciences, desperately trying to work off our guilt and shame.  There is no longer a need to try to convince ourselves that we are not so bad after all – to be forgiven enables us to put what we have done and what we have been behind us so that we might be free for a new beginning with God, other and ourselves.  “For there is no more condemnation for those who are found in Christ Jesus.”

3)  The tree of salvation means the death of sinners.  The cross was not a place where Jesus died alone; all of us died on the cross of Christ.  We died to our distrustful and disobedient brokenness that kept us estranged from God, each other, and our true selves.  And in death is rebirth – that we might discard our old inhumanity to pursue the image of God in us; the image that gives us genuine life, vocation, and purpose.

4)  Finally, the tree of salvation changes our relationship with others.  If the cross truly enables us to understand and live by the good news that our debts are forgiven, AND if it means that our old selves are really killed in order that new selves may be born, THEN we are not only reconciled with God but also with fellow human beings.  There is no such thing as reconciliation with God without reconciliation with others.  The truth of this is expressed when we search for ways to heal broken relationships, restore order, and liberate the oppressed for the good of everyone on both sides or all sides.

These images are rich, they have their advantages and their limitations.  But they all show how complex it is to try to understand the work of God in Jesus Christ that provided a means for our salvation.

No matter how we have tried to define, describe or interpret the tree of salvation, it always comes back to the same basic issue – God did for us, what we could not and cannot do for ourselves.  God reconciled us to God’s self and offers this as a gift that can liberate us from sin and death.  The tree of salvation gives you and me the choice to once again pick God – just as God has picked you and me, God desires for us to pick him!

WHY?  Because God did not and does not desire for estrangement and brokenness to rule humanity.  God does not desire that death linger over us until the day it wins.  God desires for us to accept His reconciling work through Jesus Christ and the tree of salvation.

So has the tree of salvation impacted your life?  How?

Blessings for the journey.

About Jim Hoffman

Pastor, teacher, leader, novice blogger, wanna be author and Christian conversationalist. Passionate about environmental architecture - creating spaces where people can foster new or growing relationships with each other and God. Currently leads a faith community on Ward Parkway in Kansas City and happily married to Margaret. Blessed with four adult children and two grandsons.
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