Especially for Pastors :: October 2013

The Gospel and the Garden
by Kendra Diehl

My dear friend, Lynn, and I are not cut from the same cloth. While we both grew up in the late twentieth century in the Midwest United States, our home life and perspectives on life were worlds apart. I grew up in a Christian home, hers was atheist. She is a sophisticated thinker and I am a creative feeler. She loves studying art history, and I’m content to admire it in the gallery. She’s an attorney, and I serve in the church. I labeled her a “flaming atheist” and she considered me a “flamboyant Christian.” Our many differences have made for robust conversations and the privilege to engage in deep and robust conversation is something we do have in common.

One day Lynn asked me about the small silver cross that hung on the chain around my neck. She thought the cross was a good luck charm or a superstitious trinket to ward off evil spirits. I explained to her that I wore this cross to identify myself as a follower of Jesus Christ. I then shared the Good News as I had learned it in the Four Spiritual Laws, the image of Jesus being our bridge so we can cross over from a life of sin to life in God and the hope we have because Jesus saved us from our sin so we can have peace with God. At first Lynn looked confused, but it quickly grew to shock and offense. She knew about the Bible through the study of art, but did not understand what I meant when I said “sin.” She disagreed with me that sin is a universal problem, and she was quite adamant that I had no business labeling her motives, choices or actions as sin. She believed Jesus had been nothing more than a great teacher, and as an atheist she claimed to be content with the temporality of life.

Lynn and I continued to have robust conversations but the topic of my faith in God and her stern belief to the contrary caused tension. She had no context to understand what I considered Good News nor did she see it as good.

Then one day while reading Genesis, I saw something I had never realized before—that the beginning of the Good News is in the beginning of the Good Book. A light began to shine on my enculturated, twentieth century mind as I saw a bigger pattern in Scripture concerning the character of God, our relationship with God and one another, of sin and the consequences of sin, the expulsion from the garden, the need for a Savior, and why God would want to be that Savior. I had been telling Lynn the Good News from the middle of the story. No wonder she was puzzled and repelled by it. It didn’t make sense to start in the middle. She needed to hear the whole story in order to understand why God would do such a thing as give himself for the world.

The Middle of the Gospel
When the United States was considered a Christian nation, it made some sense to start the Gospel story in Matthew. Many Americans knew the story well enough to fill in the blanks, or at least we assumed so. We knew the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses and Pharaoh, Jacob and Esau. Little boys carried slingshots, pretending to slay Goliath, and young girls wanted to be as pretty as Esther. If John 10:11 was read aloud, Psalm 23 might quickly come to mind, while others might imagine the Cross at Golgotha, where the good shepherd really did lay down his life for his sheep. Although the foundation of Scriptural knowledge was thin-set for some, it was none-the-less troweled into America’s history and culture. The Church cannot assume this any longer.

Today, the middle of the Gospel story, the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah is as likely to fall into the realm of myth, fantasy or religious folklore as to be understood as the climax of all Scriptural truth. In the book  Unchristian, Author David Kinnaman writes,

In trying to communicate the gospel to the masses, the message was eventually reduced to a partial story: humans are sinful and need Jesus in order to go to heaven. This made Christianity lose some of its life because the full description of God’s activity – such as his creation, his plans for restoration, his sovereignty – was left out. It was ultimate reduction, “renounce your sins and place your hope in Jesus.” This phrase is not wrong per se. But it is insufficient, particularly as our culture becomes more and more pluralistic.(1)

This had been my approach with Lynn. I began to realize that it is the good news at the beginning of the book that prepares us to receive the Good News of Jesus and the sometimes offensive news that humanity was never meant to go it alone.

The Beginning of the Gospel
The beginning of the Bible reveals God’s plan for the world and his desire for a relationship with humankind, which he created in his image. The safe, intimate union God had with Adam and Eve was reflected in the relationship Adam and Eve originally had with one another as husband and wife: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2::5). They were fully exposed before God and one another, …literally hanging out naked in a garden with God and feeling fine.

In Genesis chapter three we witness the heart and character of God in the presence of his beloved yet rebellious, sinful and now broken creation. God longed to be with his broken people. He came, calling out in the cool of the day, to listen to them. He wanted to honor them (even in their sinful state), and care for their needs while they were still in sin. He sought to rescue them at the expense of his own desire and plan.

The contrast between Genesis 2:25 (naked and unashamed) and Genesis 3:7 is severe. No longer were Adam and Eve joyfully exposed. Rather, they scrambled for any wilting cover they could weave together before ducking into the underbrush. They hoped to avert God’s attention as he came walking through the garden that he had entrusted to their care. Hiding from God, yet in his plain view, God calls for them—the omnipotent God honored Adam and Eve with the opportunity to respond to his beckon. Then he patiently asks them questions about the situation, of which he surely already knew the answers. One at a time, God gives Adam and Eve the opportunity to be heard. To Adam he asks, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” And of Eve God asks, “What is this that you have done?” While Adam and Eve sought to dishonor one another by diverting responsibility and casting blame for their choices and actions, God listens patiently to their retorts. Shame, hiding and blame were the first human responses to sin. In contrast, God’s interaction with his rebellious and fearful beloved was invitational, honoring, patient and nurturing.

The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin were catastrophic, and the Lord God prepared them for life in a world, now under the weight of sin and death. The cursed ground will no longer easily submit to Adam’s care. Eve will experience great pain in childbearing. Relational harmony and equality between male and female is corrupted, and these eternal beings who were created to be in an unending, loving relationship with God will now experience depravity, separation and death (Genesis 3:14-19).

How it must have grieved the heart of God to cover his broken image, which Adam and Eve now bore. But he tenderly met them in their sinful, fallen condition and cared for their need: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). What tender, loving kindness the all-powerful God demonstrated toward the people who had dishonored and stained his glorious image through their disobedience and rebellion.

Adam and Eve must now leave the garden in which they walked with God. In Genesis 3:22-23 God states his concern for Adam and Eve and his reason for expelling them from the garden: “”hen the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever,’ — therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.”

As the light began to shine on Genesis 2 and 3 for me that day, it was now a 1,000 watt bulb. I had never noticed God’s true motivation for removing Adam and Eve from the garden. From reading Genesis 3:22-23 it became clear that God removed Adam and Eve from the garden in order to save them before they could eat from the Tree of Life (which God had previously invited them to enjoy). God knew that to eat of this tree again would bind their eternal lives to the brokenness and shame of their sin. They had to go.

It was because of the goodness, grace, love and protection of God toward his disobedient creation that Adam and Eve were driven from the garden. God removed them in order to save them. Exile from paradise was a consequence of sin, not a punishment for sin. It is here, under the human shame of expulsion, the weight of sin’s consequences and the loss of intimacy and trust, that the deep love of God becomes clear. God, the loving creator, will do whatever it takes to bring his people back into an intimate relationship with him. He yearns to restore their bodies, minds and souls, and to re-ignite their eternal destiny to be with him even at the cost of his own life.

The heart and character of God in Genesis 1-3 is the same heart and character seen and experienced in Christ Jesus. Immanuel walks the dusty roads of the world to bring his light into the darkness. He calls his people out of darkness and back “into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), defeating death through his own death and resurrection. While we reject God and his ways, Jesus makes a way. While we cower in fear and shame, he calls for us. While we point fingers and blame others, he offers us dignity. While we are naked and ashamed, he clothes us. And while we must be banished from paradise, he creates a plan of redemption to restore all things. Only God himself could bring the restoration of love and relationship that humanity and all creation groans for.

As Lynn heard the beginning of the Gospel story, she came to understand the middle of the Gospel story. She felt the weight of her own internal longing for abundant life and union with God as his beloved, and she accepted God’s gift of restoration through Jesus Christ. As Lynn grew in her understanding of Scripture under the influence of the Holy Spirit, she came to understand sin as rebellious living outside of God’s masterful and beautiful design., Now she chooses to live as God teaches in his Word. As a beloved child of God who is being recreated in Christ’s image, she longs for the eternal intimacy God created all people for.

The Fullness of the Gospel
The Church is God’s storyteller, the people of his restoration, and the light of the world. We are commissioned to go tell, love, and make disciples. In an era where Bible stories are fading into history, we are invited to be amazed again by the full Gospel message. Our world needs to hear the whole story so that when we tell them about Jesus, the climax of the story, they can be amazed at the love, power, and restoration God offers to all.

1 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters: Baker Books (Grand Rapids, MI, 2007), 89.

Kendra Diehl, has committed her life to teaching and discipling others to know the Triune God and His Word. She is a Bible teacher, retreat and Bible study leader, and has taught and ministered throughout North America for over 25 years. Kendra is a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and holds a Master’s of Divinity degree from The Master’s Institute. Kendra is the Director, Spiritual & Character Formation at The Master’s Institute where she continues to live out her passion of teaching, discipling and equipping others to lead in the cause of Christ.