The Power of ‘Instead’

Dear Friends:

Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
which will not be destroyed.
(Isa 55:13, NIV)

This is one of my favorite verses of Scripture for Christmas. It speaks plainly of the grace of Jesus Christ to answer the curse that followed Adam’s disobedience.

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.
(Gen 3:17b-19)

Thorns prick, cut and tear. A thornbush is a formidable obstacle to passage. Briers catch and entangle. They are metaphors for sin and selfishness.

Isaiah does not speak of coexistence with these vicious plants. He says, “Instead . . .” denoting substitution. Mature trees will crowd out the offending plants. You find thornbushes and briers along the edges of forests not inside them.

There is power in that word, “Instead.” It is the power of Christ as Creator and Lord to take us from death to life.  Philip Brooks caught the idea in the last verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

It takes a while for the growth to occur. Patience is necessary. The pine and myrtle trees start with a mere seed and grow from there. It takes intention to plant and nurture the new life. Sometimes it takes a fire to crack open the seed pod and release it to grow. The saplings initially have to battle with the thorns and briers for nutrients and light. But their inherent instinct is to grow toward the sun. As they focus on its light, they mature and on that course they gain stature and victory. That victory is assured because Jesus is the root and the trunk from which we grow (Isa 11:1; Jn 15:5).

Jesus was born into this world, helpless and small. He had to be protected against the slashing swords and piercing spears of Herod’s troops. “The child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40). He continued to grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Lk 2:52).

There came a point when even thorns woven with malice into a crown of shaming derision and pressed painfully into Jesus’ skull could not stop him (Jn 19:2). He went to the Cross in our place and showed sin and selfishness for the scraggly mess that they are, ineffective to destroy him against the glory of the Father which brought him to new life and us with him (Rom 6:4). The power of grace defeats the mastery of thorny sins over us (Rom 6:14).

Jesus has cleared the way for us to live and grow. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17). It is “only God, who makes things grow” (1 Cor 3:6).

This is the true message of Christmas and we miss it when we let Jesus get no nearer to us than a porcelain manger on the table and an ornament on the tree. We will never grow past the thornbushes and briers if we do that. We have to receive him as our very life and grow with him. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human will, or human relationship, but born of God” (Jn 1:14). He came to deal with the thorns. He came to remove the curse of our sin. “Let every heart prepare him room.

Joy to the world! the Lord has come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
. . .
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

(Isaac Watts, 1719)

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


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