I was awakened at 3:00 A.M. hearing in my mind a message.
By John Turner
I was awakened at 3:00 A.M. hearing in my mind a message. The words applied the story of Cain and Abel to present day religious life.
Eve gives birth successively to two sons, naming the first Cain and the second Abel. Cain becomes a farmer, and Abel, a herdsman. When the two bring offerings from their respective produce, the LORD accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s. Cain is exceedingly angry, but the LORD assures him that his offering will be accepted if he does well, further warning him that sin desires to control him, but that he must rule over the sin. Instead, Cain makes an appointment to meet Abel in the field and there kills him. The LORD questions Cain regarding the whereabouts of his brother, but Cain denies responsibility for the care of his brother. The LORD then confronts Cain with his murder of Abel and sentences him to become a wanderer on the earth. Cain complains about the hardness of the punishment, and the LORD graciously marks Cain to protect him from being murdered in retaliation. Cain then leaves the presence of the LORD and becomes the father of a civilization that is increasingly characterized by violence. Eve bears a third son, Seth, whose descendants begin to worship the LORD.
What I Heard at 3:00 A.M. (Parenthetical words added later. The name Joshua in this message does not refer to an Old Testament hero by that name, but to the meaning of the Hebrew name):
“John, the story of Cain and Abel is the story of Ish-shua (Man saves) and Joshua (The LORD saves).
“The reason that Cain/Ish-shua is so angry with Abel/Joshua is that he has applied the formula, and it hasn’t worked for him the way it seems to him that it has worked for Abel/Joshua.
“This is why the world is so angry with true believers. It is why Jesus was crucified.
“This is why the world is so angry period: ‘I have done it (followed the formula), and it isn’t working for me. I am not getting what I deserve. Life is unfair, and I need to take things into my own hands to set them right.’
“But there is no formula. There is only learning to be a child of God, one who is grateful to be saved by the Lord. This is what you must be, John. It is the meaning of your name (Jo-hanan, the LORD’s grace). It is the meaning of life. You must be thankful for the gift. You must live in gratitude.”
For the original human author Moses and his audience, the wilderness generations of Israel, Genesis 4 described the beginning of religious life (bringing offerings, calling upon the name of the LORD), warning that religious life can bring powerful temptations to sin. Cain’s murder of Abel was the first religious fight. It was rooted in Cain’s conviction that he was not getting due regard, the starting place for most religious fights. I believe that the message I received relates to our modern religious life with its many hostilities.
The naming of Cain and Seth is significant: (1) Cain sounds like the Hebrew word that could be translated gained or gotten. Eve explains, “I have gained a man from the LORD.” Some translations add the explanation with the help of the LORD, but that is telling us more than the original text does. I believe that Eve thinks she has manipulated this son from the LORD. (2) Seth means He has granted. The contrast of the name Cain (I have gained) with Seth (He has granted) is key.
I believe that God supplied to me the name Ish-shua (Man saves) for Cain to represent the approach of taking matters into our own hands and the name Joshua (The LORD saves) for Abel to represent the approach of a true child of God in responding gratefully to God’s generosity. Although Abel did not live long, his grateful approach to God is carried on by Seth. I believe that the message I received calls for us to switch from the Ish-shua approach to the Joshua approach.
The text does not tell us directly why Cain’s offerings are rejected and Abel’s offerings are accepted. Three clues point to qualitative differences in the offerings of the two brothers: (1) Cain’s offering has no qualifying phrases attached to it while Abel’s offerings are said to be “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” (2) Cain’s anger that his offering is not accepted shows that he was making his offering in expectation that he has fulfilled the requirement for which he will receive some blessing in exchange. (3) God assures Cain that, if he does well, his offering will be accepted, implying that he has not done well so far.
In other words, Cain’s offering is stingy, selfish, made in expectation of gain, and is not pleasing to God. Because Cain/Ish-shua cannot think outside his own rights, he cannot see that Abel/Joshua takes a very different approach. I believe that the message I received calls for us to open our eyes to what it means to live in response to God’s grace.
The Ish-shua approach of trying to get what we think we have coming to us by taking matters into our own hands is a dead-end path. When we think we have the right to play God by making decisions about the lives or the value of other people, we always go astray. It opens up nothing of value for God or for us. The Ish-shua approach produces only hostility and alienation.
Abel/Joshua knows how to respond to God’s generosity in a way that Cain/Ish-shua cannot comprehend. The practitioner of the Joshua approach does not have to wrest a blessing either from God or from people because he or she lives daily as a child of God’s grace and can therefore be gracious to others.
Grace is the unearned gift of salvation and blessing. It is precisely what we cannot do for ourselves, what we cannot take into our own hands. No matter how badly we have messed up our lives, grace offers that we may be clothed in Christ’s righteousness and that we may gradually grow up to fit Christ’s clothes. By grace, we enter a lifelong process of being renewed in the image of God, of becoming more and more like Jesus.
Grace is a gift that we cannot earn, but we must respond to it by obediently expressing our gratitude. Grace has been lavished upon us, and our response must not be stingy. When we follow the Joshua approach, we give our best to express our gratitude to God.
Only by switching to the Joshua approach can we escape Ish-shua’s dead-end path. We must become children of God’s grace. This process involves a dying to self and a coming alive to God. When we die to self, we must surrender all notions that there are certain things that are ours by right. When we come alive to God, we receive a Sovereign who has the right to ask of us anything and everything. Fortunately, this Sovereign made us for good and will not settle for less than the absolute best for us. There is nothing that we can rightfully hold back from this Sovereign. He bought and paid for us. He owns us. But also there is nothing that our Sovereign considers too good for us. We can only give thanks and live for the praise of his glory.
Following the Joshua approach, being a grateful child of God’s grace requires that we drop all claims to formulas of merit, but we must not drop our need to respond to grace with sacrificial discipline. As children of grace, we discipline ourselves to live in obedient response to grace in all that we do, being grateful to God and gracious to people. This is possible only through the work of the holy and loving God in our hearts. God gives us grateful hearts, and all we can do is to express the gratitude. When we take the Joshua approach, resentment and hostility flee from our hearts. We can approach others in a generous, gracious, and winning way. May it be so.
The name Joshua (or Yeshua) is Hebrew. When Joshua is translated first into Greek and then into English, it becomes Jesus. The Joshua approach is also the Jesus approach. It is the way of joy, now and eternally. It is the way of the child of God. Why not give it a try? It might change the way we experience religious life and all of life.