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The Christadelphian | June 2010

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial No access to harmony
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “The unforgettable exhortation” | David Burges
  • The sons of Korah 4 — A spiritual rebellion | Jonathan Cope
  • Forgiveness: sin sinks, like a stone | Sam Alexander
  • “Jesus … shall so come” | Geoff Henstock
  • A living sacrifice | Dudley Fifield
  • The robe of righteousness | Sally Wright
  • Ezekiel — prophet to the exiles 6 — This is Jerusalem | Andrew E. Walker
  • Heritage College, Melbourne | Paul Waite
  • Jesus — Son of Man | Norman Fitchett
  • Signs of the times The British election
  • Israel and their land No fishing!
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Forgiveness: sin sinks, like a stone

SOMETIMES we can feel that we have really let God down — that this time we’ve sinned so badly we honestly don’t know if God can help us now. Or maybe we feel as if we’ve sinned so many times in the same old way. This can lead to shame and despondency.

But are we ever really beyond God’s forgiveness? Of course we know that this is never the case. Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a sheer cliff, towering above the crashing waves below. Breathe in the awful majesty of the scene: the gloomy storm clouds gathering above you, the salty scent of ocean spray, the dull roar of restless sea. You hold in your hand a large stone. This stone is all that you have ever hated about yourself, and everything in your heart that you wish you could change — just to hold it in your hand feels like a giant millstone hung from your neck. It is every sin against God that you have ever done, and every chance to do good that you have left undone — it is every evil thought, and every bitter word. How good would it feel to be rid of that stone, to see it cast into the depths of that violent sea below, to see it disappear emphatically and for ever? If only God would have compassion on us, and free us from the burden of our sins!

Sin sinks

The illustration above is based on the closing words of the book of Micah, which vividly describe the prophet’s wonder at the remarkable extent of the mercy of God:

“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18,19)

The picture drawn by Micah is that of a God so completely forgiving towards His people Israel that He would cast their sins into the depths of the sea, never to be seen or heard from again. [1] In fact, the metaphor of sin (which is often represented by a stone) sinking in water is one of the beautiful golden threads that run throughout the Bible. It illustrates the ultimate and inevitable fate of sin, on both a national and a personal level — sin sinks like a stone and never comes back.

The aim of this short article is to trace this story through the following examples: [2]

  • The image of Egypt swept aside by the Red Sea.
  • Jeremiah’s vision of Babylon, cast into the Euphrates.
  • The all too literal casting into the sea of Tyre.
  • Jesus’ warning about the sinner with the millstone around his neck.
  • John’s vision of Rome, also cast into the sea.

With these brief thoughts as a foundation, we can then come to consider the sinking of our sins in the waters of baptism, explained so cogently by Paul in his letters to Rome and Colossae. We shall then be moved to wonder at the extent and finality of the boundless forgiveness of our Father — for as surely as Egypt, Babylon and Tyre have sunk to the bottom of the ocean never to return, so too our sins pass away for ever in forgiveness, “cast into the depths of the sea”.

Egypt, in the Red Sea

The first appearance of this imagery appears in Exodus 15, following the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Egypt is an archetypal symbol of sin in the Bible (e.g., Hebrews 11:25,26), and so we note with interest the poetical description given by Moses in Exodus 15:

“Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea. The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone.” (verses 4,5)

This passage supplies our first example of sin, here represented by the Egyptian army sinking like a stone to the bottom of water. And that this divine choice of simile was no accident is confirmed for us by the Levites after the exile in Nehemiah 9:

“Their persecutors thou threwest into the deeps, as a stone into the mighty waters.” (verse 11)

The power of the simile is clear: as surely as a stone that sinks to the bottom of a sea remains sunk, so too was the power of sin in Egypt emphatically sunk in the Red Sea. The “chosen captains” of Pharaoh would never see land again.

Babylon, in the Euphrates

The second example of this simile is found in Jeremiah 51, foretelling the impending overthrow of Babylon by the Medes and Persians. Like Egypt, Babylon too is an archetypal symbol of sin in the Bible. In particular, the judgements of God upon Babylon described in Jeremiah 51 were due to “all their evil that they had done in Zion” (verse 24). So again we read with interest the instructions given by Jeremiah to Seraiah regarding his prophecy:

“And it shall be, when thou hast made an end of reading this book, that thou shalt bind a stone to it, and cast it into the midst of Euphrates: and thou shalt say, Thus shall Babylon sink, and shall not rise from the evil that I will bring upon her: and they shall be weary.” (verses 63,64)

Note the particular emphasis given here to the finality of the judgement against sinful Babylon, that would “not rise” again. As surely as a stone that has sunk will never rise, so too was the power of sin in Babylon to remain for ever in “the midst of Euphrates”.

Tyre, in the Mediterranean

This theme is further developed by the vividly enacted parable of the destruction of Tyre, as foretold in Ezekiel 26. Again we see a nation judged for its sin before God (Ezekiel 26:2; see also 28:2), and again we read a now familiar metaphor:

“And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise: and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stones and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water.” (Ezekiel 26:12)

History tells us how this verse was all too literally fulfilled by Alexander the Great, who in 332 BC built a causeway out to the island citadel of Tyre using the stones from the old mainland city. This too reinforces our theme: sin sinks like a stone, just as sinful Tyre was literally laid stone by stone into the Mediterranean. Of course, the fact that thousands of Tyrians had to die to teach us this lesson should be a solemn warning of its significance, should we choose to follow in their ungodly footsteps.

The offender, in the sea

Jesus himself also uses the same illustration in his warning for those who offend God’s children:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

Once more we see the connection between sin and a stone sinking to the bottom of the sea, as this is what Jesus teaches would be a fitting fate for any who might dare to cause one of his disciples to stumble. But this time we also have a detail about the size of the stone, which was a “millstone”. This extra detail adds significant extra weight to our idea of the eternal destruction of sin, the emphasis being that a stone as big as a millstone is surely even more certain than a regular stone to remain on the sea floor for ever. The same lesson is taught even more strongly: sin sinks like a stone and never comes back.

Rome, in the sea

Our theme continues right up to the last book of the Bible, concluding with John’s vision in Revelation. In a remarkable chapter describing the fall of Rome we read:

“A mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.” (Revelation 18:21)

Like Egypt, Babylon, Tyre and the sinner from Matthew 18, Rome too will be judged for its sin before God (verse 5). Out of interest, consider the fascinating way in which this chapter pieces together imagery from each of the examples that we have looked at so far:

  • Like Egypt: Rome symbolically shares its name, and the sinking of Rome like a stone will be the climax of its plagues (cp. Exodus 7-15 and Revelation 11:8; 18:4).
  • Like Babylon: Rome symbolically shares its name, and the nations have become drunk from the wine in her cup (cp. Jeremiah 51:7 and Revelation 18:3,6).
  • Like Tyre: Rome is a merchant city, mourned by sailors, where music will no longer be heard (cp. Ezekiel 28:4,5; 26:13,16,17 and Revelation 18:11-19,22).
  • Like the sinner who offends one of God’s little children: Rome will not just sink like a stone, but like a millstone (cp. Matthew 18:6 and Revelation 18:21).

The destruction of sinful Rome will be like a stone sinking to the bottom of the sea. We see the same emphasis on the finality of this destruction, as the stone that sinks is again likened to a millstone that “shall be found no more at all”. The message of the simile is clear: sin sinks like a stone and its sinking is eternal.

Us, in the waters of baptism

At this point, we have a problem: the lesson of the examples we have considered so far is that the ultimate and inevitable fate of sin is to sink for ever like a stone in water — but how does that relate to our sins? Does the fact that we are sinners too mean to say that we are doomed to be eternally sunk, like Egypt, Babylon, Tyre and Rome?

The answer to this question is a resounding yes — as the other concept in scripture that has to do with this idea of ‘sinking sin’ is of course the metaphor of baptism. It is true that the ultimate fate of sin is eternal destruction, like a stone forever sunk to the bottom of the sea, but the good news is that if we sink our sin with Christ, we can rise again to newness of life, symbolically leaving our old way of life behind. The Apostle Paul explains:

“We are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life … Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:4,6,7)

As Paul also says:

“Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” (Colossians 2:12,13)

The same figure of ‘sinking sin’ is also applied to our sins in baptism, when we put to death our old way of life in the flesh and symbolically sink our old, ‘stony’ hearts to the bottom of the baptismal bath (cf. Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26; 2 Corinthians 3:3). But of course that is really only half the story, for in baptism we are also “raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father” to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Although the fate of our sins is eternal destruction, the hope that we share in Christ is eternal life.

Forgiveness

So what does all of this have to do with forgiveness?

As we noted at the outset of this article, sometimes we can doubt that God is going to forgive us due to the perceived gravity or frequency of our sins. But time and again we have seen the absolute destruction of sin in the simile of the stone: sin sinks like a stone, and once it sinks it stays sunk and never comes back. Will the Egyptians ever come back from the bottom of the Red Sea? Or Babylon from the Euphrates? Or Tyre from the Mediterranean? Or the sinner with the millstone hung around his neck from the depths of the sea? Will Rome ever rise from the sea, once destroyed by God?

The answer is no, and the point is that neither do we need to worry about the forgiveness of our sins that are tied to our old, fleshly way of life. By God’s grace they are sunk for ever through our baptisms. When God sees us, He does not see us as sinners any more; rather, He sees us as His children, reborn in baptism to follow after His Son. This is the wonder of forgiveness: that God does not judge us according to what we deserve, but according to whether we genuinely, sincerely decide to try to follow Christ. After taking away our past sins when we submit to baptism into Christ, God promises to continue graciously forgiving sins committed by disciples, when they repent and seek His face. Therefore it need not matter how much we deserve to die as sinners, or how ‘bad’ our last sins were, or even how many times we have fallen in the same old way — what matters is our attitude, and our steadfast commitment to continue in the covenant of our baptism.

Yet therein also lies a great trap, and we need to be careful: for if we truly have left our old way of life behind, then our new life in Christ needs to reflect this; if we truly have asked God to cast our old, sinful life into the depths of the sea, then best to leave the diving gear in the cupboard. As Paul says: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:2). Baptism is only the beginning of our new life in Christ, of which continual repentance from sins forms a vitally important part.

Closing thoughts

We began this short article by imagining the wonderful relief that we would feel to see our sins cast like a stone into the depths of the sea. Yet this is exactly the figure that the Bible does use to describe the remarkable extent of the forgiveness of God. The relief that we might have imagined on the cliff top is exactly the relief that we can feel when we consider the forgiveness of our sins.

The lesson of sin sinking like a stone — like a millstone — is that the extent of God’s forgiveness is absolute. As surely as the Bible speaks of the irreversible destruction of Egypt, Babylon, Tyre and Rome, so too does it speak of the finality of the destruction of our sins through forgiveness. In our baptism, God has forgiven us, absolutely — our sins have been sunk — and if we sincerely try to continue in the covenant of our baptisms and to follow after Jesus, then this is not going to change. As the prophet Micah says:

“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger forever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18,19)

Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift!

Sam Alexander

[1] The Jews use this passage from Micah as the basis for their custom of Tashlich: many Jews meet during Rosh Hashanah to cast pieces of bread, representing their sins from the previous year, into a river or the sea.

[2] Not to be considered in this article, but also of interest, is the story of Elisha and the axe head that sank and rose again in the River Jordan in 2 Kings 6.

 

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