By Ben Swift
Theologian Karl Barth who when asked after a lifetime of theological research and contemplation, “What have you learned?” answered, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But does this seemingly simple response provide a satisfactory answer? It certainly feels like we need something beyond the playful words of a man simply wishing to give a light-hearted response rather than wading in too deep? But maybe Barth’s answer is more profound than we think. If we delve below the surface just a little, we just might find that God has been revealing this simple answer from cover to cover; a message of Grace.
Lately, while reading the Bible, I’ve been amazed at the places God has revealed his love for his little image bearers, places that lie at the heart of stories I’ve heard a hundred times over and yet, somehow, bringing out truths that have been patiently waiting for the next layer of the onion to be peeled back. Perhaps this is what all Christians experience throughout their journeys from milk to solid food?
When Martin Luther first encountered ‘Grace’ while reading the book of Romans, an encounter that sparked the Protestant Reformation, I wonder if he realised that God’s message of Grace could be traced right back to the beginning? While Paul makes it clear in his letters that God offers people his profound gift of Grace through what Christ has achieved on the cross, there are perhaps less obvious pictures of God’s Grace being painted through the ancient brush strokes of Old Testament writings.
To understand this, let’s take a journey through the pages of biblical history, to the story of Cain and Abel.
The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:4-7)
While we might be tempted to wonder if our lives align more closely with Abel’s than with Cain’s in God’s sight, the truth is that sin not only desires to have us all, but entwines itself through the entire heart of humanity and no one in their own power is capable of mastering it.
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” (Romans 3:10)
Having lashed out in an act of sibling rivalry that continues to stifle peace amongst people and nations to this very day, Cain spills the blood of his brother; his poisoned heart pumping sin through his veins.
This famous act of violence through which Cain becomes the instrument of death is not the focal point of this story. Interestingly, it is at this point, after slaying his brother, that Cain fears separation from his Creator and protection from death, the same consequence of sin that his underserving brother suffered at his hands.
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” (Genesis 4:13)
And isn’t this the same for all of us? Who can bear the thought of being separated from the only one capable of protecting us from death? Surely no human being with self-awareness is immune to the constant reality of evil and death in the world. Isn’t it true that we struggle ceaselessly in our pursuit for safety, comfort and the avoidance of growing old? Like a mirror, Cain reflects both our need for God and our inability to present him with a righteous life pleasing to him.
There is only one solution and surprisingly it’s Cain’s story that first shows us the way.
Just as Luther recognised that Grace is our only hope, Cain knew that his only hope of a guaranteed protection from death’s ultimate sting was God’s Grace and so he pleads with him.
“Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Genesis 4:14)
God’s response to Cain is one that sets the scene for his message of Grace, a promise that re-emerges time and again throughout the Scriptures; a promise that we are called to live under.
Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. (Genesis 4:15)
Cain’s story has much to teach us about ourselves and about God’s great love. Humanity, both individually and collectively, longs for peace but continues to struggle with sibling rivalry. Our hearts remain war zones as our offerings before God continue to be tainted by the sin that crouches at our door. But God, in his mercy, offers us hope in his Grace. In bearing the mark of Cain, a mark sealed in the precious blood of Christ, we can live under the promise of God’s protection from ultimate death and one day enter his eternal rest.