A Tale of Two Trees

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Galatians 2:20

There is a strange and inexplicable theological error that has plagued the church of Jesus Christ since its inception: A one-sided understanding of Jesus’ accomplishment on the cross.

A simple question illustrates the problem. How often have you heard the words “Jesus died for me/you/us”? Compare that with the amount of times that you have heard people saying “Jesus lives for me/you/us”. There is usually no comparison. Christians have an odd habit of celebrating the death of Christ and its implications, rather than the resurrection and life of Christ with its implications. We prefer to wear crosses around our necks, not empty tombs. And we ignore the fact that the cross once was a tree. It symbolises that which once was alive, whereas the empty tomb symbolises that which once was dead! Indeed, nothing illustrates the curse and wages of sin better than a dead tree, especially if it spreads its infection and causes others to die. This is why we read “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Christ became that curse, and through his resurrection he broke it. Our ancestors ate from the forbidden tree – the tree of death – and caused the other tree to become forbidden. Through Christ, however, we once again have access to the tree of life. Christ’s life was not only given. It was also received!

Perhaps our misunderstanding in this regard has to do with the fact that we appreciate the idea of forgiveness, but that we are reluctant to consider the idea of a changed life. Whatever the reason, the Bible is clear that the Christian life is a life lived by the risen Christ inside of us. And so the secret of Christianity is to be found in our union with Jesus Christ. Paul refers to this as a mystery that has been revealed in the words “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

To try and live the Christian life by self-effort is the most futile exercise ever. The sinful flesh can conquer itself no more than Beelzebub can drive out Beelzebub. It is a simple impossibility. This is why God sent his beloved Son to the world. Not to only die in our place, but to live in our place. Christianity is more than someone paying for your sins. It is to experience the power of an exchanged life on a daily basis!

A Determined Heart

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. Matthew 6:21 – 23

The sentences above are well known and often quoted by Christians. Unfortunately, we frequently ignore the sequence above and quote them as separate statements, implying that each sentence has its own message.

A careful reading of Jesus’ words reveals that we are dealing with one statement, not two. The second and third sentences comments on the first and expands its meaning.

Read together, they proclaim a single, simple truth: Our hearts are not free. They follow our treasure. Put differently, our commitment and passion in life are determined by those things that we deem valuable. This “value attribution”, as psychologists and students of human behaviour call it, determines the way in which we look at the world. It creates a “paradigm” or “interpretive grid” which functions like a mental filter, inviting some facts in and blocking others out. Ultimately it determines our behaviour, and so the old cliché rings true: “Seeing is being.” In the words of the Bible: The condition of your eye determines the whereabouts of your body.

Contemporary psychology and motivational theory have latched on to this idea, hence the jargon above. But the one thing these disciplines cannot do is to reveal the actual location of the treasure. This Jesus does. In case you hadn’t noticed, the verses above are preceded by a striking disclosure: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.“

The News is Good Enough

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 2 Corinthians 4:1-4

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul devotes much time to explaining what it means to be a minister of the New Covenant. This Covenant, he says, far surpasses the Old Covenant. It has an intrinsic power and glory that is magnificent and indescribable.

The verses above build on this teaching and lead to a profound conclusion: The New Covenant message is so glorious that it does not need any human interference to increase its appeal. It cannot be marketed or promoted. It does not require sponsorships or endorsements. A glib sales pitch by a smooth talking, dynamic individual is a waste of time.

And so the gospel is best presented plainly, Paul explains, directed at the conscience and not the emotions. This is why the best candidate for delivering it is a weak and unimpressive one. A few verses on we read “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” To the same Corinthians Paul wrote that God chooses people who are not wise, influential or of noble birth.

The marketing revolution of the past few decades has taught us to package and promote our products, causing some of us to forget the basic lesson above. Spicing up our gospel presentation may appear to attract more souls, but in the long run it may very well obscure the glory of the gospel rather than reveal it.