December 2013/January 2014 - Vol. 71
A young woman in college was heard to say, “But I have not yet decided what my life is going to be about.” Such a sentiment is common these days. With that view of life, the young woman might find a Redeemer helpful only if she were not able to accomplish whatever she decided she wanted – provided the Redeemer offered to help.
Some Christian preachers present the gospel message in much the same way: “What do you want? Turn to Christ, and he will give it to you.” But Christ himself did not present his message in that framework. He knew the Creator of the human race and knew that human beings had been created for a purpose. And he knew they were in a predicament because they could not attain that purpose, whether they had yet realized it or not.
But how do we discover the purpose of human existence? How do we find out what God intended when he created the human race? In Matthew, we find an account of an incident in the life of Christ that shows how he would have gone about answering such a question:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking,Here we see Christ cornered by some opponents. They raise with him a current issue of considerable importance. In his day, some Jewish teachers held that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. Others held that there were only a small number of valid reasons. Jesus was being asked to choose between these views. Our concern here is not with the actual issue of divorce, but with the way Jesus approaches the question.
Jesus begins and ends his discussion by using a phrase “the beginning” which is drawn from Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The phrase refers to the creation. Jesus is saying that if we want to understand how questions about marriage should be handled, we have to go back to the beginning to understand God’s original purposes. When we know how he intended it to function, difficulties can be re-paired without making matters worse.
My cousin once came across a splintered piece of wood that appeared to be a remnant from some old piece of furniture. Being innovative, he cut off one end of the wood above the split and used it to prop open the door in his room. He was pleased with himself for having done something useful with it, until his father found it. His father recognized that the piece of wood was a leg for a table waiting to be repaired.
His father was angry because my cousin had made it impossible to glue the leg back to-gether. Because he did not know what the piece of wood was for or how it was supposed to function, my cousin only made matters worse when he altered it and used it for a different purpose. His failure illustrates the reason Christ pointed people back to creation in order to know how to deal with the most fundamental human problems.
In this account in Matthew, Christ shows the way to find out God’s original intentions for marriage. He cites a passage from the first chapter of Genesis, then a passage from the second chapter of Genesis, puts them together, and draws a conclusion from them about divorce, namely, that God never intended a marriage to end in divorce. When his opponents counter with a passage from a later book in Scripture (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) that seems based on the acceptability of divorce, Jesus replies that the Deuteronomy passage has to be understood in the light of the earlier account in Genesis. The later passage only teaches us a procedure for dealing with the situation once marriages have failed.
In explaining the redemption, Christian writers have traditionally taken this same approach. They have begun by looking at Genesis to understand God’s purpose for the human race and the nature of its predicament. That not only gives them an understanding of the reason for the redemption but also a perspective from which to interpret the later Old Testament writings, especially those that contain the old covenant law.
The means of redemption the old covenant law provided were for a situation that was not in accord with God’s purposes. They were only temporary measures for use until God was ready to begin the process of restoring human beings to the original purpose for which the human race was created. In the next two chapters we will consider the traditional Christian approach to Genesis and the way it reveals God’s original intention.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are the prologue to all of Scripture and tell us what happened “in the beginning”. Modern commentaries sometimes make these first chapters seem like an odd collection of Mesopotamian myths that somehow made their way into the Israelite Scriptures. Whatever their historical origin, however, these first chapters of Genesis are deliberately presented to teach us truths that hold the key to all that follows. They give us essential background to God’s work of redemption, which begins with the call of Abraham in chapter 12.
To understand what Genesis tells us about the purpose of the creation of the human race and why the race ended up unable to fulfill that purpose, we are going to use a typological interpretation. This involves a comparison of two events (or people or institutions), one earlier and one later, which Scripture presents as being brought about by God and which correspond to one another in some way. Looking at the events in relationship to one another helps us to understand more about one or the other or both in the plan and purpose of God. Most commonly a typological interpretation involves understanding passages in the Old Testament in the light of events in the New Testament. Such an approach, of course, involves accepting the truth of the New Testament understanding of the Old Testament.
Some truths in Genesis cannot be seen simply by using a historical discussion of the text in its original setting but only appear as we look at it in light of what comes later. We will not raise the question of the historicity of the first chapters of Genesis: whether the people described in Genesis actually existed or the events described actually happened, and if so how they might relate to what secular historians tell us. Nor will we consider the various approaches to the interpretation of these chapters. For reasons of space, the approach employed here will have to go unjustified. We will simply look at what these chapters teach about the predicament of the human race, especially as their teaching was understood by the New Testament and later Christian writers.
The Son of
The creation of Human (Adam) as the first human being is the creation of the human race. In the beginning, therefore, what happened to him happened to the whole human race. Moreover, Genesis, and much of the rest of Scripture, understands the call and significant features of the first father of any grouping to be passed on to his descendants. Therefore, what we read about Adam’s life concerns not just himself personally but also the race that came from him, that inherited his nature and call.
Most modern readers can clearly see that in creating Adam God was creating the human race. Less clear is the fact that he created Adam to be his son. The genealogy of Christ in the Gospel of Luke ends the series of the ancestors of Christ with “…Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). The same truth is stated in Genesis 1:26 when it speaks about human beings as made in “the image and likeness” of God. The very phrase itself is used to indicate sonship, as we can see in Genesis 5:3 which speaks about Adam becoming “the father of a son [Seth] in his own likeness and after his image”. As Seth was in the image and likeness of Adam because he was the son of Adam, Adam was in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) because he was the son of God.
God created a son for himself “from the earth” who would be like his heavenly father. He would represent God as the ruler of material creation, having dominion over all living things (Genesis 1:26). In the course of time, Adam would give rise to a race that individually and corporately would be the son of God.
While modern readers often miss God’s fatherly role in the first chapters of Genesis, Jewish readers in the time of Christ were less likely to do so. They knew that the responsibilities of a father towards a son were, in the words of the rabbis, to “circumcise him, redeem him, teach him torah, teach him a trade, and get him a wife”. In other words, a father was to establish his son in life so that he could maintain and continue the family. Circumcision and redemption of the first-born did not come into existence until later when the old covenant was established, and they were specific to the old covenant. The other three responsibilities of a father were performed for Adam by God in the account in Genesis.
God created a woman as a helper fit for Adam (Genesis 2:18). The two were to be one flesh (2:24) and so to multiply and fill the earth (1:28). He created a place for Adam to live, the Garden of Eden (2:8-19), and gave him the work of keeping the garden in order to provide for himself and his family (2:15). Finally God instructed Adam in how to live, giving him a commandment (2:16-17). At the end of the process, Adam was to be established in life so he could live as God’s son.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.Adam’s home was to be the Garden of God in Eden. English speakers often call it “paradise,” the anglicized Greek word used to translate “garden.” In paradise, God formed material creation in a special way for the human race.
A living being is closely connected to its environment in regard to the kind of life it can live. Polar bears are no more adapted to life in the tropics than elephants are to life in the arctic. The description of the dwelling place God created for the human race tells us something about the kind of life God created us to live. Here we can see what the world must be like to be a true home for the human race.
First, paradise is called “the garden of the Lord” or “of God” (Isaiah 51:3; Ezekiel 28:13; 31:8-9). It is the garden of God in the sense that God planted it himself. In an even more important sense, it is the garden of God because it belongs to God and is the place where his presence may be found, as the temple in Jerusalem could be called “the house of God”. Genesis 3:8 tells us that God “walked in the garden”.
The meaning of Eden as the garden of God is presented more clearly in Ezekiel 28, a chapter that is commonly accepted as containing another description of paradise. This prophecy about the king of Tyre describes his downfall as being like the downfall of Adam from paradise. Here paradise is described as a mountain, the holy mountain of God (Ezekiel 28:14). It was like Sinai (or Zion), the mountain where God dwelled, the earthly place filled with his personal presence. It is even described as a sanctuary that could be profaned (Ezekiel 28:16). Paradise was a place where humans had access to God and where God and the human race could live together in friendship.
Second, paradise has been termed the “garden of delight”. Delight was the perpetual con-dition for which God created the human race, not pain or frustration or grief or depression. “Delight” is not simply “pleasure,” although pleasure is often involved in it. The word “pleasure” is usually associated with sensual enjoyment of the sort involved in a good meal or sexual intercourse. Nonetheless, human beings delight in many things that do not primarily involve sensual pleasure. Delight comes from having a good conversation, achieving insight into a truth, building a high quality table, playing a game skillfully, hiking in beautiful scenery. Delight comes from human nature functioning in the way it should or from bringing into existence a good result. Paradise was the garden of delight, because God intended human beings to live well all the time.
Third, paradise was a place in which Adam was to work. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). The creation of work points us to what could be called the developmental aspect of creation. The material world was created good, but it did not come into its full potential by its bare creation. God intended it to be transformed into something better, and began the process himself by planting the garden.
When he created his human son, God gave him a share in the transformation
of creation by means of his work. That son was to live in God’s presence,
learn wisdom from him, and so be able to carry on the work of developing
creation according to the mind of his heavenly Father. As he “increased
and multiplied” (Genesis 1:28), the whole earth would gradually become
paradise, a temple to God’s glory, filled with sons and daughters of God,
who would also work to shape and tend creation. Through the human race,
material creation would itself achieve the purpose for which it was created.
The beginning chapters of Genesis speak about the nature of human beings as created by God. First, we find that the human race was created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). As we have seen, this indicates they were to be like God in the way Seth was like Adam. They could not, however, have been of exactly the same nature. God is not made from the earth since he created the earth along with everything else. Yet there had to be an important similarity. In the account in Genesis 2, this similarity shows up in the fact that God speaks with Adam and Adam can reply to God. Also God allows Adam to name the animals, an indication that Adam would rule over them with understanding.
Many Christian teachers have used the word “rationality” to describe the most important aspect of the similarity in nature between God and the human race. In this context it means that human beings can recognize what things are, know what is true and right and good, and consequently direct their actions in accord with what they see to be worthwhile. They are not blindly directed by their own tendencies, instincts, and responses to internal and external stimuli. They are not simply animals. They are at least “rational” animals.
As a result of their rationality, human beings can know God’s mind and therefore shape their lives and material creation in accord with God’s wisdom. “Like father, like son,” they can act like him and on his behalf, the way a son should. Human beings are fitted to know God and the things of God, and to be given responsibility for parts of his creation.
All of us share that rationality. We can understand that some things are worth doing and others are to be avoided, and direct our actions accordingly. But we also are aware that we and other human beings do not always do what we believe would be good to do, or even what we want to do. Perhaps we just ate too much once again. Perhaps we just lost our temper without a good reason. More seriously, we may have on our conscience some sexual misdeeds, some acts of cruelty, some theft or embezzlement, some negligence leading to a car accident that seriously injured someone else.
Even if our conscience is clean, we know that we are surrounded by others who do such things. We are part of a race that may be “rational” but does much evil. And most of us have the conviction that it will not stop. We can predict with a certainty similar to that by which we know the sun will rise that the morning paper will bring more news of human evil. The human beings we know seem to be like the little boy on the verge of walking. He could get up and totter a bit, but something had not yet developed so that he could get all the way across the room on his own two legs.
Scripture’s description of the first human beings indicates an important difference from us, however. Adam and Eve are not described as doing such evil things at the outset. If they did not, they must have had some inner capability or orientation that enabled them to be free from doing evil and to live in a way that was fitting for sons and daughters of God. This seems to be part of what was meant by being created in the image and likeness of God.
This ability to “walk” in a morally successful way is symbolically portrayed in the description of the unfallen king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28. This passage implies that the first human being in paradise had a covering, like the garment that the high priest wore in the temple (Exodus 28:17-20). Adam is understood to have worn priestly robes, the clothing which allowed a priest to come into the presence of God in an acceptable way. This image probably indicates that Adam was created in a morally good, holy way and that he lived and acted in a way pleasing to God. The good way he lived was a kind of garment that covered him and that enabled him to come into God’s presence freely.
In teaching about the restoration of the human race in Christ, the New Testament uses the same kind of language, and interprets it in a way that gives us a similar insight into the state of human beings as they were created. Life in Christ is described as a re-creation and as a renewal of the image of God in the human race (Colossians 3:9-14; Ephesians 4:22-24). Passages with such phrases also speak about putting on the “new nature” as if it were a kind of garment. Re-created human beings are likewise described in phrases used to describe priests, like “holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4).
When such passages go on to describe the qualities of the restored image and the new clothing, they make clear that the newness involves living a righteous, godly, loving life and leaving behind pagan immorality or unrighteousness. It involves what we might call “good character” or consistently living a “moral life”. Since humanity restored after the image of God has good character, the first human being created after the image of God must have had good character as well.
Some of the early Christian writers, the Church Fathers, basing themselves on certain Scripture passages like Second Corinthians 3–4, expressed these same truths in a different way. They said that as a result of their good relationship with God, Adam and Eve were covered or filled with a “glory” that we lack. Because we tend to understand “glory” as meaning only “radiance” or “brilliance,” we can easily miss the meaning of what they are saying. The word does include such a meaning in Scripture and Christian writings, but even more it carries the meaning of power and greatness.
A king is glorious by the splendor of his court, but more so in achieving victory. Lightning is glorious by illuminating the countryside, but more so by cutting down the great trees in its path. The glory of God himself is his “shining out” in majesty, but is most convincingly shown in the greatness of his power in creation. The outward splendor, in fact, comes from the inward power.
The word “glory” can be used to speak about actions that show power and greatness, but also the inner strength and mastery that produces such actions. It can even be a synonym for “nature” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:40-43). God’s glory is his nature, especially as manifested to us in his actions. “Glory” can therefore be used to refer to something inside hu-man beings that gives them the ability to act in certain desirable ways.
John Chrysostom describes the glory of Adam and Eve at their creation by saying that they “did not know, after all, that they were naked, clad as they were in ineffable glory, which adorned them better than any clothing” (Homilies on Genesis, 16,14). When he speaks of the covering of Adam and Eve in such a way, he probably does not mean that they were simply covered with an exterior splendor, although that is included. By “glory” Chrysostom probably also meant the internal power given to human beings that enabled them to live in a more godlike way, or perhaps he meant the ongoing presence within them of the grace or operations of God that produced such an ability.
This glory was manifested outwardly in their human bodies, as it was in Christ’s body when he was transfigured. It therefore was visible and acted as a kind of covering. The glory that Chrysostom describes was the same thing as the priestly garments in the de-scription in Ezekiel – a covering and also an inner state.
In traditional Christian understanding, this glory gave Adam and Eve the power to live in a morally good way. It also resulted in freedom from physical sickness and weakness. Such human glory, glory that is true and not empty, was recognized as a reflection of the glory of God who gives human beings whatever strength of character and moral greatness they have (2 Corinthians 3:18).
There has been much discussion by Christian teachers about the state of human nature as God originally created it. For our purposes, we only need to see that Adam and Eve were created different from us in that they had an inner capacity that would allow them to actually live the way God wanted the human race to live. The various ways of speaking about Adam and Eve all point to this conclusion. They were in the image and likeness of God. They had priestly garments. They were filled and covered with glory.
This does not mean that Adam and Eve had reached the full perfection human beings could attain. As we will see, the presence of the two trees in the garden probably indicates that God intended to develop their nature. But the first human beings had some clear advantages over us. They were able to live free from the futility and frustration so common in our lives, which seems to be rooted in an interior weakness that they did not share.
The Two Trees
The two trees are only mentioned. The various aspects of the account have so far told us truths about human life as it was created. The two trees, on the other hand, point to the future. Adam and Eve do not eat their fruit. One, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was put off limits by God. Only at the end of the story do we find that the other had never been touched (Genesis 3:22). Yet the two trees are important because they were put there by God to make changes in the human race.
Let us begin with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The name itself provides the first clue to its significance. It has something to do with providing knowledge of good and evil, as the tree of life has something to do with providing life. The dialogue between the serpent and Eve reveals another truth about the knowledge of good and evil that modern readers sometimes miss: such knowledge makes people wise (Gen 3:6). This tree could even be renamed the tree of wisdom to bring out more of its significance.
According to the Scriptures, “wisdom” is one of the greatest goods that the human race can possess. Wisdom is not the same as intelligence or cleverness. A human being can have a high intelligence quotient and still not be very wise. Wisdom, at least practical wisdom, is manifested in knowing how to act. It involves the possession of moral truth, knowledge of the difference between what is truly good and what is not. Wisdom is therefore is knowledge of how to live in a good way. It is in short, much the same as the knowledge of good and evil.
All human beings who have reached a level of maturity are supposed to possess some degree of such wisdom or knowledge. In Isaiah 7:15, the ability to “refuse the evil and choose the good” indicates that a child has grown up to a certain degree, perhaps has reached what we would call “the age of reason.” In Second Samuel 14:17 and First Kings 3:9, the king’s ability to act as a good judge is described as the ability to “discern good and evil”. In Hebrews 5:14, the “mature” are described as “those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” If such passages indicate the meaning of “the knowledge of good and evil”, then the tree conferred some level of maturity in wisdom, perhaps an increasing level the more someone ate of it.
Wisdom or the knowledge of good and evil is one of the keys to human blessedness. If human beings do not live morally but instead do evil things, they can only destroy their own happiness and that of others. Jesus summed up the wisdom God seeks to teach the human race in the two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. Human beings need to honor God as the Lord of the universe and live in a way pleasing to him. They also need to care for their neighbors as themselves, consistently seeking the welfare of others. If instead they kill and steal and lie, or worship demons and follow demonic teachings, they will make society a place of misery. Or if they let themselves be ruled by their desires instead of by what God has taught about what is good and evil, they will at least make their own lives miserable.
This all raises the question of why God forbade the first human beings to eat fruit that imparted something as good as wisdom. We will return to that in the next chapter. Here it is enough to see that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, like everything else God created, was good or at least potentially good (Genesis 1:31). It was created to provide wisdom, and that points to God’s intention for the human race to develop beyond what he originally created.
Along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the tree of life. It was a tree that gives life, but what sort of life? Adam and Eve were already alive and since they never ate the fruit of the tree, they did not need it to stay alive. The passage at the end of Genesis provides more information. If Adam were to eat of the tree of life, he would live forever. The fruit would impart some kind of immortality, enabling human beings to overcome a limitation they had as a result of the way they were created. Sooner or later they would die, at least physically, unless they ate of the tree of life.
Some human beings seem to desire life indefinitely, almost at any cost. Most of us, espe-cially as we grow older, do not show great enthusiasm for prolonging this same sort of existence century after century. We might be interested in a different sort of life, but not this kind drawn out to infinity. The tree, therefore, probably did not just offer more of the same.
Here again the New Testament provides us with additional understanding. As we will see in later chapters, it presents the life God has in mind for human beings as something higher, more “spiritualized”, than the kind we know. A more spiritual life does not mean that we will cease to be material or become less material. But it means that we will be capable of more, especially in relating to God and spiritual things. A more spiritual life also seems to mean that we will pass eternity in a better way than we could now, without tiring of life or growing bored.
If God’s intention is to give the human race a higher and better kind of life, then there is a very good chance that the tree of life was the original means to such a change. Many Christian teachers have taken such a view and have held that eating of the tree of life would not only prevent death but would raise human beings to a new kind of life. Perhaps this change would have occurred instantaneously, perhaps gradually. Perhaps God’s plan was for the future of the race to be one of unending growth to a fuller and fuller participation in God’s glory by regularly eating the fruit of the tree.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life are mentioned together. That probably indicates that they are connected. The Book of Proverbs says that wisdom “is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (Proverbs 3:18), and it has wisdom say “he who finds me finds life” (Proverbs 8:35). This perhaps indicates that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the way to the tree of life. The book of Sirach seems to teach as much when it says, “The knowledge of the Lord’s commandments is life-giving dis-cipline, and those who do what is pleasing to him enjoy the fruit of the tree of immortality” (Sirach 19:19).
In a Second Century Christian writing, the Epistle of Diognetus, we read, “Indeed, there is a deep meaning in the passage of Scripture which tells how God in the beginning planted a tree of knowledge and a tree of life in the midst of paradise, to show that life is attained through knowledge…And so the two trees were planted close together” (sec. 12). As knowledge of the gospel and Christian teaching leads to spiritual life, so the tree of knowledge of good and evil may have been intended to lead to the better life the tree of life would provide. However the connection between them is to be understood, the two trees standing together in the middle of the garden indicate that God intended something better for human beings than they had by their original creation.
The Purpose of Redemption
I once had the experience of getting lost in an unfamiliar city. When I asked a stranger how to get back to the place where I first had lost my way, he asked me where I wanted to go. After I told him, the man said, “Well, I could tell you how to get back to the place where you got lost, but I can do something better than that. If you go around that corner, you will find a highway that will take you directly where you want to go.”
This incident illustrates two ways of viewing human redemption. Many of us see redemption as primarily a repair job, simply the removal of a problem caused by sin, usually by taking care of the guilt of sin. We see it as returning to the point where the problem began. But it is more accurate to see redemption as the way of getting us onto a new road that brings us to the purpose for which the human race was created.
The first chapters of Genesis present a series of images: a garden, a life without pain, two trees, the naming of animals, and more. As we understand the meaning of the story, especially as we see it in the way the early Christians did, one important truth stands out. The first human beings were created for a life different than we live now. They were created to be sons and daughters of God with natures filled with glory, priests who stand in God’s presence and serve him, inhabitants of a delight-full, life-fostering material creation. They were created to be in harmony with God and nature and inwardly capable of help-ing to bring creation to the full excellence God intended.
Most peoples on earth have stories about a lost paradise and a happier past. The human race seems to be haunted by a truth that it cannot avoid: this life is not the life God made us for. Human life was meant to be different at the beginning. It is still meant to be different. The Redeemer, Jesus Christ, did not come simply to remove the difficulties human beings experience. He came to put the human race back on the road to fulfilling God’s original purpose.
Steve Clark is a founder and former president of the Sword of the Spirit, a noted author of numerous books and articles, and a frequent speaker. This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of Steve Clark’s Book, Redeemer: Understanding the Meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, copyright © 1992, 2009. Used with permission..
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