“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.” (Ephesians 5:25-26)
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’” (Genesis 4:6-7)
I hope the title to my last post isn’t giving you problems. While there are contemporary church counterparts to ancient tabernacle and temple furnishings and fixtures—most churches have an altar, for example—I’m not advocating for installing a laver or washing basin in every sanctuary.
Even the contemporary altars are a far cry from the blood and entrails that accompanied the sacrifices offered in Solomon’s and Moses’ day. The laver which was used by the priests corresponds to the “washing with water through the word” in Paul’s letter.
This “washing” is now intended for every believer since we are all part of “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5). The primary “priestly” responsibility of each disciple is “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.”
This entails ongoing transformation. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:1-2)
Second, a brief word on the quote from Ephesians. You may suspect this is a proof-text for a pet teaching, but I believe it’s merely an apt statement of a larger principle at work, alluded to by the quote from Romans 12.
We must be cleansed from sin through the blood of Christ. This removes the stain of sin. This happened at the bronze altar. But if we’re cleansed and then we simply revert to, in Paul’s words, “the pattern of this world,” then we will simply return to sin in the way we attempt to live the Christian life. God never intended that we keep returning to the altar for the same sin. (“Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?”) Cleansing is meant to yield righteous life and ministry.
Then there’s the word cleansing. It’s an established metaphor for redemption; no one thinks that pouring literal blood over a person cleanses them. Earlier in the same letter, Paul says this: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph 1:7).
So Paul’s use of cleansing in Ephesians 5 is a different type, still a metaphor, but closer to the everyday meaning of cleansing, for which we use water all the time. But this cleansing is showing us, “through the word,” how to do right.
I think you’ll find this has a long pedigree, going all the way back to Genesis—the book of beginnings— and therefore even pre-dating the tabernacle and temple practices.
When Adam and Eve sinned in eating the fruit—they thought they would become “like God, knowing good and evil”—their minds were in fact immediately darkened. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Gen 3:7).
Knowing something about their condition (“they realized they were naked”) didn’t make them wiser. It only made them realize they had done something to displease God, which is why they hid from him. (Sign #2 of a darkened mind: Where exactly do you think you can hide from God?)
We know about the curses that fell on mankind as a result of the fall. But we don’t usually recall the instructive aspects of God’s correction of Adam and Eve, the prototypical “washing through the word.”
First, God called attention to the radical change in their spiritual condition. “Where are you?” God asked, to jar them into realizing they were trying to hide from their Creator, the one who had set them in this paradise with but one serious prohibition: Don’t do what you have just done.
Continuing in the same vein, “Who told you you were naked?” There had been a shift in sources, from God to “the pattern of this world,” which is man’s wisdom, independent of the commands of God.
But finally, and graciously, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Garments “of skin” necessitated the shedding of blood. I wouldn’t be surprised, though the text is silent, if the slaughter took place in full view of Adam and Eve. Just as the blood and entrails of the later temple sacrifices underscored dealing with sin is serious business, the “garments of skin” were meant to leave a lasting impression.
But that didn’t happen with one of their offspring, Cain. He brought “some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord;” Abel slaughtered “some of the firstborn of the flock. “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Gen 4:3-5).
The next verses, quoted at the top of the post, are gracious instruction, another “washing through the word.” But I’m pretty sure there was no conversation like this coming from God:
OK, look, market projections are showing there’s a growing interest in the Cain Study Bible. I think we can carve out a nice niche for it. So if you just sit tight, once we’ve scared up enough papyrus for the first printing, we can get through this lull in the market. This COVID-19 pandemic has been a body blow. We’ve had to shut the Red Sea Water Park (Water slides included in the price of admission!), the Mount Sinai Bookstore is on reduced hours and the Adam and Eve Fig Leaf Collection® just isn’t moving. Be patient and try not to take it out on your brother. It’s bad for business. (OK, there’s a couple of anachronisms. Even Shakespeare used poetic license.)
Not quite. But God obviously doesn’t know how to knock’em over like they do on the sawdust trail. Look at the elements of God’s gracious offer of reconciliation, to himself (“will you not be accepted?”) as well as nipping in the bud the potentially destructive envy of his brother.
First, revealing to Cain his awareness of Cain’s anger but already headed toward uncovering the reasons for it: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” Cf. “Come now, let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa 1:18).
But how? “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” What was wrong was something he should have remembered from his parents: Without the shedding of blood there is no approaching God. The covering the Lord made for them was “garments of skin.”
You want to know why there is so much acrimony and strife, so much “biting and devouring” (Gal 5:15) in the body of Christ? Look no further than the example of Cain: he had a problem with God and he took it out on his brother.
It never should have happened. There was the offer of acceptance by God (“If you do what is right . . “) followed by the warning that the rejection of this offer would escalate into something worse (“sin is crouching at your door . .”)
God does not force us to do right, so no pastor or minister should think he can. But we can instruct on how to “do what is right.” And that’s why the laver has to return to a more prominent spot in “the tabernacle,” which is now the people of God.