09/25/15

Tree of Life

photo credit: The British Museum

photo credit: The British Museum

Besides its presence in the books of Genesis and Revelation in the Bible, the idea of a tree of life is present in various religions and mythologies. It existed in Persian mythology, as the Gaokerena world tree, which had healing properties when eaten and gave immortality to the resurrected bodies of the dead. To ancient Egyptians, the Tree of Life represented the chain of events that brought creation into existence. In Chinese mythology, a carved Tree of Life depicts a phoenix or a dragon—which represented immortality. In the Book of Mormon, the tree of life symbolizes the love of God. In the Norse religion the tree of life is Yggdrasil, the world tree.

There is a sacred tree motif in ancient Near East art, but no literature of the time that clearly links it with the tree of life. The Assyrian relief in the above photo was originally in the throne room of the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883-859 BC. His reign over Assyria would have been concurrent to that of Ahab in Israel (873-853 BC) and Jehoshaphat in Judah (873-853 BC). Ashurnasirpal is pictured twice, on each side of a Sacred Tree. The figure of the king on the left is gesturing to the Sacred Tree, a symbol of fertility and abundance given by the gods. The figure of the king on the right gestures to a god within a winged disk above the Tree, possibly Shamash, the god of sun and justice or Ashur, the national god. For more information on this stone relief, try the link here to the British Museum.

So what makes the Bible’s use of the sacred tree, the tree of life unique? In Genesis, it was in the midst of Eden, the garden where humanity had fellowship with God (Genesis 3:8). Adam and Eve sinned by disregarding God’s command to not eat from another tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to be like God, knowing good and evil independent of His counsel and command. This rebellion ruptured their fellowship with God and He banished them from Eden. Banishment also prevented them from eating from the tree of life and becoming immortal (Genesis 3:22). So death and separation from God became consequences of their sin.

According to E. B. Smick in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, the tree of life can symbolize Adam and Eve’s continued relationship with God. Access to it is contingent upon their maintaining obedience to God’s commands. “The most significant thing about the tree of life theologically is that when our first parents broke their relationship with God through disobedience they were driven from the Garden ‘lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’” (Genesis 3:22).

Adam and Eve were on probation in the Garden. They were not yet permanent (regenerated) spiritual children of God. The tree of life from this perspective is a type of Christ, through whom eternal life is possible. The uniqueness of how the tree of life is portrayed in Scripture signifies how the person and work of Christ restores access to it.

Partaking of the tree of life implies not only continued probation (negative obedience) but also a positive commitment analogous to what believers do in the Lord’s Supper and what the OT saints did at the sacrifices.

In his commentary on Genesis, Gordon Wenham noted how trees as a symbol of life corresponded to items in or near the center of Israelite worship throughout the Old Testament. Genesis 3:22 of course noted that this tree conferred life on those who ate it. Proverbs described wisdom (3:18), the fruit of the righteous (11:30), a desire fulfilled (13:12), and a gentle tongue as a tree of life. In other words, they gave fullness of life to their owners.

Trees, because they remain green throughout the summer drought, are seen as symbolic of the life of God (e.g., Psalm 1:3; Jeremiah 17:8). In Genesis 21:33 Abraham prayed by a tamarisk tree he planted. It seems likely that the golden candlestick in the tabernacle was a stylized tree of life (Exodus 25:31-40). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery also affirmed this symbolism: “It is very likely that this lamp symbolized the tree of life in the garden of Eden.”  Lamps in general also had a symbolic connection to the tree of life. The lamp in the shrine at Shiloh is called “the lamp of God” in 1 Samuel 3:3. In Psalm 119 the Word of God is exalted as “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

This imagery continues into the New Testament, where Jesus said in John 8:12 that he was the light of the world; that whoever followed him would not walk in darkness, but would have “the light of life”—eternal life. When the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven in Revelation 21, lamps are no longer needed, because “its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23).

The gift of life offered by the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is now offered in the person of the Word incarnate. By believing in Jesus, humans partake of the eternal life he offers (John 3:16). Or, more vividly, by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, they gain eternal life and will be raised on the last day (John 6:54).

In Revelation, humanity is granted access once again to the tree of life and may freely eat of it (Revelation 2:7; 22:2). So Revelation depicts a reversal of the damage done at the beginning by the sin of Adam and Eve. Fellowship and relationship with God is restored. Revelation 22:2 also suggests the leaves of the tree of life have a sacramental role or purpose in that they are for “the healing of the nations.” The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery commented how “The Bible’s story of salvation history begins and ends with references to symbolic trees.”

The tree of life in Genesis then represents the relationship humanity initially had with God, but lost through their rebellion. This loss was not to be a permanent one, as it was also a type of Christ—a representation of the planned restoration of relationship with God through the finished work of Christ. It is not until this side of the completed of the work of Christ that we could see how he restored relationship with God, in effect becoming the lamp and light of life.

220px-YggdrasilThe biblical tree of life is then much more than a world tree that supports the heavens, upholds the world, and connects both with the underworld, as in the Yggdrasil of Germanic and Norse mythology. It is greater than just being a symbol of fertility and abundance given by the gods in Assyrian mythology; or a plant easily stolen from the King of Uruk by a snake at the end of his quest in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh learned that: “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.” The Christian quest for the tree of life is one that has the promise of fulfillment one day in Christ. As an anonymous female Puritan wrote:

Faith is the grace, and the only grace, whereby we are justified before God, by it we eate of the Tree of Life, (Jesus Christ) and live forever: It is therefore the fittest grace of all, to satisfie Conscience in this weighty matter, and to make up conclusions from, about our eternall estate. This Satan knows full well, and therefore when he would flatter a man to Hell, he perswades him, that his faith is right good, when indeed there is no such matter; and when he would overthrow all hope of Heaven in a man, and drag him into despaire, he perswades him, that his faith, though never so good, is but a feigned and counterfeit thing, and the poore soul, is ready to say, Amen.

This is the fourth reflection I’ve done on excerpts from Evidence for Heaven, written by an anonymous Puritan female author. Edward Calamy was credited as the author, but he himself acknowledged it was actually written by a female member of his church.

07/24/15

Sincere Love to God

© elvinstar | stockfresh.com

© elvinstar | stockfresh.com

Sincere Love to God is a constant growing love, and an everlasting love, it holds out in all times and seasons, and variety of conditions, prosperity and adversity, praise and persecution, health and sickness, plenty and poverty, liberty and bonds, yea, in death it self, and after death through all eternity; death doth not terminate this grace, but perfect it. (Anonymous)

One of the graces that demonstrate the sure, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in us is Love. Where God dwells by his Spirit, there is sincere love to God and sincere love to others, for God’s sake.  As the apostle John said: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Because this love is a special work of the Holy Spirit, it works for good in all things—regardless of how bad these things may be in themselves. All things work together for good in those who love God (Romans 8:28). There is always a redemptive purpose to be found in what happens to God’s people.

The person who sincerely loves God has a sure argument that they are greatly loved by God: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). But someone might ask, isn’t that love in us a special work of the Spirit of God? Surely it is. “But sincere Love to God, strongly argues special Love in God towards him that hath it, therefore sincere Love to God must needs be a special work of the Spirit of God in whomsoever it is.” The following Scriptures clearly support the claim that sincere love for others, for God’s sake, is a real testimony of the person’s union with Christ.

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (1 John 3:23-24)

Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12)

Without sincere love, all profession of faith in religion is but a gilded hypocrisy. Where love is, God dwells. But where it is not, the devil dwells. More love means a greater likeness to God; less of it means a greater likeness to the devil. Experience shows that those individuals who have great gifts and responsibilities and little or no love, will show more of the devil’s nature than God’s—and will act more like the devil than god when they have power.

Love is the sweetest flower in all the garden of God, but it is a flower which the Devil cannot endure the smell of, because he is not capable of it, and knows that where Love dwells, he must vanish; and therefore it is his main design to destroy Love, if possible, in all sorts and sects, and to root it up and banish it from the hearts of all men; The Devil is well content, that men should pray, preach, read, hear Sermons, and make a faire shew outwardly, provided this spring not from Love, nor tendeth not to the increase of Love, to God nor man; but if he see Love be the root and fruit of mens services, then he goes cunningly, and Serpent-like to work, to make breaches in this wall, that he may get in and destroy this flower, he deviseth wayes to divide men’s judgments, to the end he may destroy this affection of Love out of their hearts; if he prevaile not this way then he will raise up jealousies to destroy Love and Charity, yea sometimes render the best of graces, the worst of vices; and as in tempting a Carnal man, he sometimes stiles lust, Love, so in tempting a spiritual man, he sometimes stiles sincere Love, lust; and by these wiles makes a breach on Charity, to the end he may get into the garden of God, and root up this sweet grace of Love.

Someone might ask how he or she can know, one way or the other, whether his or her love of God is sound and sincere.  The author said they must examine themselves to see if they find a true testimony of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in them. The properties of this sincere love to God are these:

Sincere love to God is seated in the heart. It carries the whole heart and soul to God—both the inner and the outer person. What God requires and commands is in His Word, namely that we should love God with our whole heart and soul. By the whole heart is meant every faculty of the soul; the whole inner person. So there cannot be a division between God and the world, between God and sin—as the hearts of all hypocrites are.

Sincere love is carried to God and fastened upon Him. There we cleave to Him in affection; more than anything else. From a due consideration of his perfection, we account Him to be our chief happiness. We rejoice in him above all things. We fear his displeasure more than all others. We depend upon him for all things, and aim for his glory in all things.

Sincere love to God is guided by faith, not by sight. As Peter said: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him” (1 Peter 1:8).  We also see this in Job, who continued to love God and obey him, as we see in Job 23:8-11. This plainly shows that his love was guided by faith and not by sight.

Sincere love to God is a strong love. It will compel a person to obey even to the death. It will constrain the person to do or suffer anything that God sees fit to impose upon them without replying “in tongue or in heart” against God. “It will make a man serve God with all his might.” It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Sincere love to God is an endearing affection. It endears Christ to the person above all things; so that they will part willingly with all others things rather than Christ, even to laying down their lives. This is illustrated for us in the parables of the Hidden Treasure and Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46) and in all the trials of the saints in Hebrews 11.

This is now the third reflection I’ve done on excerpts from Evidence for Heaven, written by an anonymous Puritan female author. Edmund Calamy was credited as the author, but he himself acknowledged it was actually written by a female member of his church. After writing the first two reflections (Evidence for Heaven and More Evidence for Heaven), I planned to stop. But then in another meditation from Day by Day with the English Puritans, I read the above quoted passage on Love as the sweetest flower in the Garden of God and again believed her thoughts needed to reach a wider audience.  I’m thinking there will be more reflections to come.

 

05/15/15

More Evidence for Heaven

© Allan Swart | 123RF.com

© Allan Swart | 123RF.com

The anonymous female author of Evidence for Heaven (see another article titled: Evidence for Heaven) began her treatise with a catechism-like question: “How can I come to be truly, and infallibly assured of my salvation?” Her simple answer was by knowing you are united with Christ: “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The follow up question, again mirroring a catechism, was how could you be certain? Her answer was to diligently examine yourself to see whether or not you have the Spirit of Christ.  “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9).

To be assured of your union with Christ, the author said you must diligently search and examine yourself for the operation of the Holy Spirit in your soul. He would be evident in the special sanctifying graces working in the hearts of the Elect. Among those special graces is faith—justifying faith. “Faith is the grace, and the only grace, whereby we are justified before God, by it we eat of the Tree of Life, (Jesus Christ) and live for ever.”

Satan knows this and would flatter the person to Hell by persuading them that their faith is good and true when actually it is what Christ described in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-8; 18-23). Conversely, when Satan seeks to overthrow all hope of Heaven, he seeks to convince the person that their faith is a counterfeit, pretended one. Therefore, it concerns all persons to thoroughly try their faith to see if it is a feigned or unfeigned faith, a temporary or justifying faith.

And when searching your soul for this grace of faith, value the truth of it more than the strength of it. Christ absolutely requires the truth of belief, but not the strength of belief. “He will not suffer that soul that hath but the least grain of true faith to miscarry.” But, what is this faith and how is it different from a temporary faith?

Justifying faith is a special work of the Spirit of God upon the Soul, causing a man to lay hold on the special promises of Mercy, and Salvation by Christ, and all other promises, which are, in him, yea, and in him, Amen, and rest upon him that hath promised, for the accomplishment of his word.

This Faith may be distinguished from other kinds of faith by the following properties. It is bred, fed, and nourished by the word preached. It is grounded on the written Word. It gives firm, absolute and unlimited assent to the whole Word of God. This Faith is seated in the heart. It is not merely head-assenting, it is heart-consenting. It is unfeigned, where a hypocrite’s faith is feigned. “This Faith is a Christ-receiving faith.” It embraces Christ as Savior and Lord—in all his offices as Prophet, Priest and King.

This Faith is a working Faith. As James says, Faith without works is dead (James 2:17).  It purifies and cleanses, not only the outer person, but the heart as well. It spurs you on to obedience—active, passive, sincere, universal and constant.  It makes you wait patiently on God, for Him to accomplish all the good he promised in his Word—by whatever means he has ordained.

It makes the person open-hearted and open-handed towards others—ready to do good to all in misery, but especially to the Godly. They do this not for their own glory, but for the honor of Christ and the Gospel. It makes a person industrious, laboring to keep a good conscience in all things; to walk inoffensively towards God and towards others in all things. This Faith is always accompanied by true repentance. “He that truly believes, unfeignedly repents.” It is always accompanied with new obedience.

This Faith is a world overcoming Faith. It is a flesh overcoming and a Devil-overcoming Faith. Although a true believer, “may be put to the worse” many times, and foiled by one or another of these enemies, in the end they overcome them all: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). It is permanent and persevering. It holds on to death, and it is never totally lost. “A true believer, as he lives in the faith, so he dyes in the faith.”

These words plainly evidence, that justifying faith is persevering faith, it holds out unto the death and ends in fruition, it can never be totally nor finally lost; and this indeed is it’s distinguishing property, and it is the property of every renewing grace; every renewing grace holds out unto the end; that grace which weares the Crown of Glory is persevereing (Revelations 2:10).

Sadly, it is not always so in appearance, but it is in truth. A true believer may at times seem both to himself and to others to have lost his faith and his other graces. However, as Job said: “The root of the matter is found in him”; it is found in his inward parts (Job 19:28; 38:36). A true believer may, for a time, lose his or her comfort of their grace and the power of acting on their grace. Yet they never totally lose the habit of renewing grace. “These gifts of God are without repentance.”

Wouldest thou then know, whether thy faith be sound and saving, and such as consequently demonstrates the holy Spirits saving habitation in thy soule; try and examine thy saith, by these properties and Scripture-Characters of a true justifying faith, and if it hold correspondency with them, know for thy comfort, that it is such as really demonstrates the holy Spirits saving habitation, and special operation in thy soul, thy Union with Christ, and eternal salvation by him, whatsoever Satan or thine own conscience abused by Satan, may at any time hereafter say to the contrary, and give the Lord the praise.

This anonymous author then goes on to speak of even more graces that demonstrate the assurance of your salvation. There is love, repentance, obedience, poverty of spirit, death to sin, being a new creature in Christ, being chastised by the Father, suffering as a Christian, and more.

As she concluded her treatise, she said she had traveled through the Holy Scriptures and searched to see what she might find therein that might entitle her to “the inheritance of the Saints of Light.” She noticed a variety of places in Scripture that were helpful for this purpose. Some of these she studied industriously, according to her poor ability and as God helped her. She committed what she found to writing for her present and future benefit and as a legacy to her children. Having done so, she committed this work and its reader “to the blessing of God, through Christ.”

If you or someone you know struggles with the assurance of their salvation, I’d encourage you to spend some time reading through and studying what she has shared in Evidence for Heaven.

05/1/15

Evidence for Heaven

© Allan Swart | 123RF.com

© Allan Swart | 123RF.com

“Faith is the grace, and the only grace, whereby we are justified before God, by it we eat of the Tree of Life, (Jesus Christ) and live for ever.” (Edmund Calamy)

The above quote introduced “Evidence of Heaven,” the February 22nd daily meditation for Day by Day with the English Puritans. In typical Puritan fashion, the full title of the original work was: “Evidence for Heaven: Containing Infallible Signs and Real Demonstrations of our Union with Christ and Assurance of Salvation.” Day by Day listed Edmund Calamy as the author, and a Google search found a link to a digitized copy of the original work here. Evidence for Heaven was attributed to the Puritan preacher, but Calamy himself said its true author was an anonymous female member of his church.

While the author’s anonymity will seem odd to moderns, it was unusual for a ‘gentlewoman’ in 1657 to write and then publish something she wrote. As Clamay said in his introduction: “I hope no man will condemn this Book, because written by a Woman but rather admire the goodnesse, love, and power of God, who is able to do such great things, by such weak instruments.” He added that it was her “great desire” that her name be concealed. If anyone were to reap a spiritual advantage by reading it, “she hath obtained the height of her ambition.”

In the Preface, the author said it was her intention to “lay down some rules” by which a person that wants to have some assurance, or “Evidence for Heaven” can know that they have been chosen (predestined) to eternal life. They must seek it in Christ and in union with Christ, which is the only true touchstone we have to try ourselves. If they were to go to someone else or from person to person—like a bee goes from flower to flower—to find assurance of their salvation, the world would say: “We have heard of the fame thereof, but know not what it is.” Even God’s people would say, “We thirst after it, but know not where to find it.”

Her counsel was to go to Scripture: “it will tell thee in the Word.” She urged her readers to frequent the Word preached; to read the Word printed; to seek evidence in renewing grace; to seek it in the narrow way. “These are the paths wherein the flock of Christ have gone before us, and which they have trodden out unto us; follow their foot steps, if thou wouldest attain assurance.” And this search must be done diligently, orderly, humbly and perseveringly.

First is the need for diligence. As it says in 2 Peter 1:10, we are to be “all the more diligent” to confirm our calling and election. We should seek assurance as a treasure laid hidden deep in the bowels of Scripture. As Solomon taught us to strive for wisdom and understanding, we should: “seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).  We should labor for it as those who work in the silver-mines.

Second is the need for the right order; we must follow the vein. We must begin with the branches of regeneration and justification for they issue out of predestination, which is the root of salvation. When Jesus instructed Nicodemus about his spiritual estate, he did not send him to Heaven “to read the records of the celestial court.” Rather, he sent him to search his own heart and life—to consider whether he was regenerate and born again. If someone wants good evidence of the love of God and their own salvation, they must begin with the workings of God in and upon themselves.

That he that would get assurance of his Election, must seek it in the workings of God, in, and upon himself; he must consider, how his justification is evidenced by his sanctification, and his election by both. Sanctification is Gods work in us, justification is Gods work upon us, both together are certain pledges of his good will towards us

Third, the person who seeks assurance should do it humbly; with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Although it is possible for a child of God to know their estate, it is very difficult. A seeker of assurance must seek it with a holy fear and jealousy—humbly on their knees.

Fourthly, they must seek it perseveringly; never giving over until they have received. Never giving over until they find what they seek. They must follow the example of the Bride searching for her beloved (Song of Solomon 5:6f). They should persist like the Canaanite woman, who did not rest until she got her answer (Matthew 15:22-28). The Scripture exhorts all Christians to labor for assurance; to be diligent to confirm their calling and election (2 Peter 1:10).

They should make every effort to supplement their faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

Assurance is a thing of incomparable worth, a thing which no man knoweth, but he that hath is, a thing that no man prizeth so much, as he that wants it; in a word, it is a thing of such incomparable worth, that a man cannot buy it at too deare a rate: Could a man but know its goodnesse, and taste its sweetnesse, he would think no labour too much to attain it, no sinne too sweet to part with for it, no sufferings too much to preserve it, no care and industry too much to increase it; for it is (indeed) next grace, the most precious and delectable love token, that we can possible receive from Jesus Christ the Bridegroom of our souls, in his bodily absence. And if this will not persuade thee, Reader, to seek after it, I leave thee to him to persuade, who persuaded Japhet to dwell in the tents of Shem; what God hath bin pleased to impart unto me on this Subject, I have committed to writing, more than this, I dare not do, for going out of my sphere, and lesse then this, I could not do, least I should be blamed of my Heavenly Father, for hiding my Talent in a napkin, and burying divine love in a dunghill; if ever this little draught of Evidence, which I penned for my own use, and hope to leave to my Children for theirs, should by any providence come abroad to publique view, my desire and hope is. That this little draught of Evidence may (through Gods Blessing) be helpful to some of Christ’s Lambs, to some poor souls, which thirst after assurance on Scriptures-grounds, and invite others of profounder judgments, and greater abilities, to search the Scriptures, by them to make discovery of the way to get this precious and invaluable Jewel of sound assurance.

There are still people today who struggle with doubt regarding their salvation. They would do well to spend time reading the thoughts of this anonymous gentlewoman, a member of the congregation of Alderman-bury. Our anonymous author suffered from an affliction for over thirty years that kept her, in great measure, from public and private spiritual helps which others enjoyed. And yet she could write of the assurance of salvation with confidence that speaks to us over 350 years after it was published.