The serpent was disgusting, his slithering form a transparent mask, his voice a whining caricature of human sound. But he was no fool. His attack would be subtle beyond words and Gabriel feared for the man and the woman.
Eve was walking near the center of the garden where the Tree of Life grew. Its leaves were a beautiful dark green, its fruit delicious beyond the imagining of it. But it was not the Tree of Life that had caught her attention. She was staring at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, her curiosity a passing thing, with no evil desire to mar her interest. It was simply not important other than the recognition that her Father had asked her not to eat from that Tree on pain of death. Not that death meant anything to her, but to displease her Father was punishment enough.
She would have walked on, her entourage of forest creatures keeping pace and providing company for this impromptu tour of her kingdom, but then she noticed the serpent coiled around the trunk of the tree.
She should not be alone. Gabriel thought. Where is her head, her man? He should protect her, together they might overcome the tempter. Divide and conquer, the oldest strategy, the surest results. No, the serpent was no fool. But God had allowed this encounter and the choice would be hers to make and later, also the man.
The serpent spoke and Eve stopped, her eyes growing wide. “You have spoken,” she said.
“It is so,” came back the reply, the unblinking eyes betraying nothing.
“Has Adam given you a name?” Eve asked with kind concern, already accepting the strangeness of this conversation as part of the wonderful creation of her Father.
“No, I need no name for I will decide my own identity.”
“This is most strange.”
A questioning look came into Eve’s eyes for a moment and the serpent decided to press his attack at once before too many questions were asked.
“Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”
The question was an accusation, the accusation sweeping and deceptive, making God look unrealistic to forbid them to eat from all of the trees in the garden. The serpent was already planting doubt in the wisdom and love of the Creator, though this first attack was designed to be easily overcome.
Eve noticed the black pulp of the forbidden fruit staining the serpent’s mouth and she was immediately concerned. The serpent had entwined himself upon the lower branches of the tree and was reaching for another fruit.
He should not be there, Eve thought to herself. He should not be eating from the forbidden tree. Did he not know the will of the Father?
Concerned, she responded, “we may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, ‘You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death.’”
The serpent noticed the additional words Eve had spoken out of concern for what he was doing. God had not mentioned anything about touching the tree. Already one person’s disobedience was threatening the safety and peace of others. Already worry was taking root and additions to the law were being added as a further safeguard from disobedience. Lucifer was learning key strategies that he would use time and again in the temptation of this race of men. He decided to press on in the confusion of the moment with a direct approach.
“No! You will not die!” It was a direct contradiction of God’s clear command but the serpent rushed on, hoping to cover his brashness with further argument. “God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.”
It was the art of deception in its purest form. He had told her the truth but not the whole truth. It was true that if she ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she would learn of things she had never dreamt of before. But that was not the issue. The question was one of surviving the knowledge, surviving the disobedience.
He had caught her interest and the seeds of doubt grew quickly in the virgin soil. He had cast doubt not only on the clear word of God but also on God’s character.
Was God trying to keep some good thing from them? Was this fruit something that her man as King of the earth was entitled to have? Should she try it first to make sure it was all right and then give some to Adam?
The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it.
She gave some also to her husband who had come up behind her. He held the fruit in his hand, looked into her eyes and realized what she had done.
“We will be like God,” she said in response to the question in his eyes.
“You see,” Benjamin said, “God created a truce of sorts, putting off his final judgment of death in order to provide a context for the battle with the Evil One for the souls of man.”
“A context?” Gamaliel said.
“Yes. A time and place for God to fight back. Ultimately, every man and woman must make an accounting for their lives but, in the meantime, certain things must be accomplished. The Master Plan must go forward and the Evil One must be defeated. God would not give up his creation or his people to the Evil One without a fight.”
Gamaliel nodded his head in agreement and Benjamin picked up the thread of the story. They were both facing the room and speaking directly to the family and visitors gathered around the table. Gamaliel studied each face carefully.
Most of them seemed to be intrigued with the discussion despite the uneasy feeling of not knowing for sure when they were talking of truth or heresy. He felt it too. He was no longer a reliable witness for them and they knew it, judging from some of the looks they cast his way from time to time. Still, no one seemed willing to interfere. At least, not yet.
The children had long ago fallen asleep; their heads pillowed in their arms or laying in their mother’s laps, but the rest were wide awake and seemed to be enthralled with the ancient story. Gamaliel looked back at Benjamin who had continued his narrative.
“It was not only Adam and Eve who were called out before their Maker to give an accounting of themselves. The serpent, too, was cursed by God.”
This time Benjamin recited the ancient curse from memory,
Because you have done this,
‘Be accursed beyond all cattle, all wild beasts.
You shall crawl on your belly and eat dust every day of your life.
I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman,
your offspring and her offspring.
Gamaliel had spent countless hours with the other Rabbis arguing over this verse and its meaning. Who was God referring to in this passage that would crush the head of the serpent? And who exactly were the offspring of the serpent?
Some thought the Maschiach would be the one to crush the serpent’s head and considered this to be the earliest Messianic prophecy, but others were not as convinced. They believed that it was the nation of Isra´el that this verse spoke of and that the offspring of the serpent were all of the evil nations of the earth that set themselves against the Holy One and his people.
Gamaliel tended to favor the latter approach since the ancient story of Genesis continued to talk about the sons of God and the sons of man at war with each other, from Cain and Abel to the constant battles between Isra´el and her heathen neighbors. He decided to see what Benjamin had to say about this debate.
“No doubt you believe, Benjamin, that this Holy Warrior who would defeat the Great Serpent is your Maschiach, Yeshua of Nazaret?” Gamaliel said. “Others believe that it is Isra´el, herself, that God speaks of here.”
The challenge was clear, and the nods of agreement from the others around the room indicated that it was a key question.
“To be sure, the warrior spoken of here in this earliest of prophecies is both Isra´el and the Maschiach, and yet not Isra´el but rather the Maschiach.” Benjamin’s enigmatic answer was a tribute to the rabbinical style of argument. But his intention was not to be obscure, only accurate.
“It depends on who the real enemy is and what the battle is really about. It is best to remember that this battle belongs to the Lord. He will fight the Evil One and He will overcome by the blood of the Lamb.”
Benjamin took every opportunity to point the discussion toward his Maschiach. He would not allow the discussion to deteriorate into merely an interesting theological discussion. Gamaliel let it go for now, though he felt that Benjamin was reinterpreting the entire history of his people in light of this one Rabbi, Yeshua. It was going too far.
“Our first parents created an unholy alliance with the Evil One. They traded faith and trust in God for doubt and unbelief. It was safer to decide things for themselves than to trust in the love of a Father who, according to the serpent, was holding back good things from them. Although they had not intended to choose the serpent over their Father, they chose the same path as the Evil One and so created the unholy alliance with him that would be their downfall.”
“That unholy alliance was not broken with the setting up of this truce but it was made difficult to maintain. It would be constantly challenged. The Devil knows that he has no authority on the earth that he cannot deceive man into giving to him. Therefore, the curse upon the serpent was to create enmity between the two allies and predict his final doom at the hands of one of the offspring of the very woman he had deceived.”
“For a time, from Mosheh to today, the purpose of God was to create a holy nation, a cultural and theological context for the coming of the Maschiach. Otherwise who would understand his coming, or the reason for his appearing, or the meaning of his death as a sacrifice for sin? But with his coming, it is no longer necessary for God’s people to be a political entity among the nations.”
“The true battle was and always will be a battle for dominion of the human heart, whether Jew or Gentile. That is the ancient battle, the battle that began at the beginning of time and the one that the Maschiach, ultimately, not Isra´el, must win.”
“The more you babble on,” Gamaliel said with a forced smile, remembering another unpleasant conversation, “the more you sound like Saul. He saw the gentiles as you do, as brothers and fellow wanderers on the earth.”
“I receive that as a great compliment, grandfather, even if undeserved.”
Benjamin was nothing like that young firebrand. Saul was a thorn in his flesh, a wound in his soul and Gamaliel had not been able to bring that young man to mind without pain for most of his adult life. Now Benjamin was part of it. Bitterness rose up in his heart and his throat stung with the taste of bile. Well, there was nothing to be done except conclude the Passover as quickly as possible. It was time to get right to the point.
“So in your opinion,” Gamaliel said, “the Mosaic Covenant which birthed our nation is no longer necessary and God’s people must now revert back to the original Avrahamic Covenant of Promise which includes all men, Jews and Gentiles alike?” The murmured protests of the others, Jubal’s louder than the rest, threatened to drown out the conversation altogether. Gamaliel lifted his hand, but for a long moment there was no response, and then, slowly, the room quieted down. Benjamin looked at him intently.
“Yes, grandfather, exactly, but not entirely,” Benjamin said with rabbinical accuracy. “With the coming of the Maschiach, even the Avrahamic Covenant of Promise is now being fulfilled and the blessing of redemption is now being preached to the ends of the earth.”
“That is why the Maschiach instituted a new covenant with his own blood, and now a new nation has been born out of all the nations of the earth, a new body made up of many bodies. For not all Isra´el is truly Isra´el in their heart and, therefore, a new Isra´el has been born, the church, the “called-out ones” from every nation and tribe and tongue.”
“There has always been a grafting in of Gentiles and a cutting off of disobedient Jews from Isra´el throughout her history. But now there is an ax laid to the tree and judgment has come upon our nation as a nation. A new shoot has grown up, a new rule has been inaugurated that is the ancient rule, new forms, new wineskins that better reflect new truths and new realities.”
Benjamin looked up at his grandfather and then around the room as he made the announcement. “The truce is almost over; the Unholy Alliance has been broken. It only remains to spread the news as quickly as possible before the end comes.”
There was an involuntary gasp from someone in the room. The rest began to grumble again at the bold talk, not willing to believe the harsh words.
Jubal could not seem to sit still. It was not his place to interrupt or to give his opinions but he seemed hardly capable of containing himself.
But Gamaliel could not think of anything more than his great loss, his beloved city, his nation, his people. He had served them for so long with all of his heart. Judgment has come upon our nation. That much was true.
Gamaliel looked up at his family, his brothers and their wives and children, at his guests and finally his eyes came to rest on Onkelos. He now could guess, at least in part, what had happened to his friend while in Egypt. He nodded gravely and Onkelos encouraged him with a smile in return. It was time to tell them. He didn’t want to look at Ruth or Benjamin for he loved them most. But it was time.
“It is only right,” he said and then paused until the grumbling came to a stop, “that I tell you this news now for Benjamin is entirely correct, at least about one thing. Judgment has come upon our nation. Yerushalayim, the Temple, are about to be destroyed, the sacrifices ended….”
While the room became deathly still, he told them what Onkelos had found out in Egypt. “It is true, it is true,” he repeated to the dazed looks around him. It was no longer simply a theological discussion. All of it was true.
“You needed to know,” Gamaliel said.
The silence became reverent awe as one by one they realized that Benjamin may very well be right. Even so, Gamaliel could see some of them fighting it, denying it in their hearts, murmuring protests and bewildered questions and he didn’t blame them a bit.
Jubal stood up suddenly, startling everyone. He spoke through tightly clenched teeth. “I have no more stomach for this, this…” He waved his arm toward Benjamin and Gamaliel but could only manage a hoarse, inarticulate choke.
“Jubal,” Benjamin said. “I understand –“
“No.” Jubal cut him off. “Don’t say another word.”
He stood there for a moment in silence, his fists on his hips, his head hanging down, shaking slowly from one side to the other. He made his decision and looked up to pierce Benjamin with his righteous agony.
“You must leave the city tonight.” He could not say the name of his old friend, his new enemy. “It may already be too late. I don’t know. Leave or you will forfeit your life.”
“And you, old man, take care.” There was no respect in his voice, only a warning. Of them all, Gamaliel should have known better than to allow this discussion to go on. “You have no friend in Ya´acov.” Everyone knew to whom he was referring.
But Jubal had not waited to gauge the effects of his words. He was almost at the door before they realized he was leaving.
Benjamin was stopped by Jubal’s abruptly raised hand, palm outward to forestall any argument. He did not turn around, he did not say a word, but took a deep shuddering breath, dropped his hand and walked out the door.
Only Gamaliel had been able to see his face as he left the room and the tears that betrayed him.
Gamaliel’s heart was heavy with the knowledge that young Jubal was only one of many who thought the same. What would become of these zealous young warriors who could see no other way than violence? What would become of the priests and teachers of the Law who taught the people and attended to their hurts and needs? What would happen to Yerushalayim, to Isra´el, to their nation?
For a moment he listened to the quiet murmuring that had started again. Jubal’s warning about Ya´acov did not surprise him. That was nothing new. The news about Benjamin was another matter. He looked at Benjamin with a question in his eye but Benjamin motioned him to continue. It was a risk to go on but the celebration was almost over and then they could discuss these things in private.
“It is difficult to let go of the thing most precious to your heart,” Gamaliel said. “Young Jubal has made a strong point. He will live or die fighting for his nation, for the city he loves.” Moisture threatened the corners of his eyes. “But we know that he will die, sooner or later, he will die.” He took a deep breath, letting it out in one continuous stream of air. “I am afraid that our nation will not survive the wrath of Rome. Not this time.”
The room became quiet once again while Gamaliel hung his head in grief. “Has God, then, abandoned Isra´el and Yerushalayim, his Holy City?” Gamaliel said. It was nothing more than an anguished whisper but they all heard it.
Ruth entered the discussion once more with a touch of reserve but with great compassion in her voice. “I, too, love the Holy City, grandfather. But is it not possible that what we love is no longer in the thing which we hold on to? To receive once again the object of our love, perhaps we need to let go and grab hold of God himself?”
Gamaliel looked up at Ruth with a curious look in his eye. Ruth held his eyes for a moment and then looked away. Gamaliel felt like he was being worked into a corner from which there was no escape by two expert herd dogs.
“Yes, grandfather, it is so,” Benjamin said. “Adonai Elohim has not abandoned the people of Isra´el, only the national structure, the forms and rituals, the political and religious organizations, but never the people.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “That is what Jubal has forgotten.”
“But for all that a city with a holy history,” Gamaliel cut in. He didn’t want to admit it but Benjamin’s words hurt even though he was probably right.
“Yes, grandfather, and that must never be forgotten. But we are here talking about the future of our people not her past. Perhaps it is in letting go of the forms and structures that we will rediscover what it truly means to be God’s people once again.”
It was this letting go and rediscovering God that was so much at the heart of Yeshua’ teaching to his people. Gabriel was with him every moment from his birth to his death and even at his rebirth. He was present whenever Yeshua taught. He listened avidly to every word, every parable, every look and gesture. He had no shame in admitting it. For all of his great knowledge he was only beginning to understand. He was only a babe in the woods when it came to the drama of redemption, but he hungered to know more, to understand more.
Of one thing he was convinced. God had not abandoned his people. The Son of God had come to Isra´el to preach the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the arrival of the King, himself. Within Isra´el and within the theological and cultural context of her history with God, he would make himself known to the whole world. His people simply needed to respond anew to the trumpet call of their God. They needed to break from their traditions, their sin and pride and humbly follow him wherever he leads them just as they had followed him out of Egypt and into the desert. It took faith. It always takes faith.
The divine purpose of Isra´el, though sullied and stymied and blunted throughout her history by her stubborn rebellion, was gloriously fulfilled in the coming of her King to his bridegroom.
The Isra´el that he saw was glorious and strong in battle, embodied in the faithful remnant of each generation, as often as not including gentiles grafted into the body, or people with shady histories, redeemed by his grace.
The Isra´el that he saw, embattled from within even more than from without, was a beautiful bride in full flower with the coming of her King. Perhaps a bit shy, perhaps a bit confused, but definitely responding to his Presence, his patient teaching, his demonstrations of affection and love.
Now that the redemption has begun to spread throughout the world, the bride is more beautiful than ever. Her name has been changed but she remains the same, the chosen of God, the Isra´el of God, now the Church of God.
The problem with people is that they refuse to see with the eyes of heaven.
“Halt, who goes there?”
Immediately he cleared his throat to speak again, not wanting that frightened squawk to be repeated. But he hesitated, peering into the night. He was half-standing, his body half-turned toward the safety of the guards. He felt naked, vulnerable. And I don’t even have a sword.
The guards were looking at him. He straightened up, brushing his palms against his robe to rid them of their nervous sweat, and turned back to the thing he had seen. Someone had come out of Gamaliel’s house and disappeared into the shadows.
He cleared his throat again, but softly so that they would not hear.
“Halt, I speak for Ya´acov, the High Priest. Who goes there? Identify yourself.”
He could see the shape clearly now as the cloud cover parted for a moment and allowed moonlight to illuminate the plaza, throwing every shadow into sharp relief. It seemed human but it was bigger than anything Akbar had ever seen before.
It did not move but Akbar could feel a presence there, a solid presence more real than reality itself. Then it was gone as the clouds returned and the moonlight filtered away. Akbar could not decide whether he was scared or excited. He slumped back against the wall and slid to the ground while the guards looked at him strangely. The waiting can play nasty tricks with the mind.
Maybe that’s all it was. Akbar didn’t believe it for a moment.
“But you still have not answered the original question,” Gamaliel reminded his grandson, wanting to change the subject back to something less painful. “Why must there be the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins?”
“It is not just the shedding of blood,” Benjamin said, “but the death that it signifies, that is meant here, for life is in the blood. The judgment on sin is death, it must be death, it cannot be otherwise than death!”
“Why is that?”
“Because our God is a Holy God and cannot abide sin and evil in any way. And we ought to be thankful. Evil is a disease that grows and devours and seeks to destroy. There is no middle ground with evil. It is not passive; it is not neutral or benign. It may begin with little things but it does not stay little. It may begin in silence but it does not stay quiet. It grows in darkness and lies in wait to attack in unexpected ways. For now it is kept in check by the grace of God. It may be tolerated for a higher purpose, but it is always an abomination to God who is the Father of everything good.”
“But more important than all the rest, more important than the misery and grief that it brings upon mankind, at heart evil is relational. It separates us from the Tree of Life; it separates us from the source of life, the love of our Father in heaven. There is no life without God, since he is the creator and fountain of life. To choose against God is to choose against life. Death is the natural result of that choice. It is the uneasy truce of grace that deceives us into thinking otherwise.”
Benjamin was an orator at heart. How Gamaliel wished that he could be filled with this certain faith, this inspired truth, this peace beyond understanding that seemed to radiate from his grandson. Am I really jealous of young Benjamin?
Benjamin continued his teaching. “Death is the natural result of sin and rebellion toward God. The fact that we are so accustomed to living in sin, getting away with our rebellion and not facing the full force of God’s judgment on a daily basis is because of the temporary truce that he has established. It dulls us into thinking that God’s judgment on sin, when it finally does come, is unusually harsh.” Benjamin dipped a piece of bread into the paste of bitter herbs and chewed it thoughtfully, his face wincing at the strong taste.
“But it is we who are misled, and lulled into a false sense of security by the grace of God. We see the sun come up every morning, and enjoy the fruits of our labor, the benefits and blessings of life and we fail to notice that all of this is the most strange and unnatural and terrible existence imaginable. For we live with our natures withered and dead within. We live as the created without the fundamental sustenance of life in relationship with the Creator. We have become comfortable living with a serpent in our bosom.”
“Then God, himself,” Gamaliel said, “must be in terrible anguish as he bears the sin of the world and supports it each day with his natural blessings even though it is an abomination to him.”
“So, it will come to an end?”
“At the appointed time, when the Evil One has been vanquished and the salvation of his people has been completed, he will bring all things to an end.”
“But if Yeshua is your Maschiach, and the Evil One has been crushed, the time for the end must be near?”
Benjamin took a deep breath. “Yes, Bubba, it is near. The good news of salvation must go out to the ends of the earth, and God’s chosen will be gathered in, both Jew and Gentile, and then the end will come.”
“For Isra´el or for the whole earth?”
“There is no more distinction between Isra´el and the rest of the earth, Bubba,” Benjamin said.
Gamaliel was quiet for a moment as he mulled that over in his mind. But he was not quite ready to end the discussion even though the hour was late and his audience was growing tired. Already a few of them were dozing in their places.
The wine hadn’t helped although strangely it seemed to have had no affect on Benjamin or himself.
It wasn’t just that they were made of dust that intrigued him but that they were also made of spirit, both body and spirit, where he and his brothers were pure in spirit and could not imagine otherwise. It must be the same for man, to know that the angels were only spirit but to have no real concept of what that means.
Yes, and even more, to know that he who sits enthroned above the heavens is also different and yet the same. He who is One yet Three, together yet distinct in one Divine Nature. Who could fathom that truth, whether men or angels, both of whom experience their natures singularly?
But it is also true that there is a sameness in these three races of sentient beings – man, angels, and God. The two rooted in the third. They each reflect the Divine Personality, the Divine Image, in different and unique ways – character, personality, self-awareness, intelligence, desire, dreams, laughter, even temptations.
Yes, even temptations!
What a wonder that is, that he would risk his gloryand his Holiness, for the love of his creation by allowing temptation. And with temptation came the possibility and, as it turned out, the act of rebellion. Temptation was nothing more than the fallen side of choice. Before the Great Deception, temptation came in the guise of desire but it was still just a matter of choice. After the fall, when man’s nature was already compromised, choice would degrade itself into temptation and prey upon the sinful nature of the sons of man.
With the choosing of rebellion, God removed himself and his glory from the Presence of Man. But the fact that he continues to endure the sin and rebellion of mankind each day puts at risk his glorious Holiness. It was love that made him risk his reputation for perfect justice. It was love that made him postpone his justice so that he could prepare an appeal. It was love that took the risk upon his own holy head for the sake of his children. It was a glorious risk that valued above all the freely-given love of his children. It was a risk that would ultimately cost him the highest price that love can pay.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Gabriel could not keep his joy quiet and it poured out of his soul like a fountain overflowing.
Yes, they both knew the power of temptation, men and angels alike. A temptation rooted in the very image they reflected, rooted in the glory they shared with one another and with the Godhead – the ability to choose. The ability to love or not to love. The ability to trust and believe or doubt and fear. An ability now warped by the rebellion, at least in man, but created nonetheless. A reflection of the image of God, himself, who loves freely and with all his heart.
That is what he desires. For them to see another way, and not even know its final destination in that moment of temptation, whether good or bad for them, and still choose to follow him, to obey him, to trust him.
He calls this choice, love. Gabriel knew the human word. It had another angelic name that sounded like a symphony of praise and reverent awe that could bring tears even to the tearless eyes of the heartiest of seraphim that surrounded his throne.
For all of his power God could not create love. That was not its nature. It cannot be forced upon sentient beings as if they were only lap dogs full of unthinking adoration regardless of who their master was. No, it was an intelligent, purposeful love, mature but childlike, that knows and trusts the other, that the Father desired.
He could not create that love, only the opportunity for it to grow and develop. Adam and Eve loved their Father and communed with him in the cool of the evening, but it was an immature, untested love, perfect in nature but not yet fully developed, not fully tested. If they had chosen well, they would have moved on in the growth and development of their relationship with the Father. But since they had chosen instead to rebel, another way would have to be found.
From the beginning God had decided that to create with the inherent existence of choice and the possibility of evil, as well as love, was better than not to create at all. Love was worth any price and, in the end, it would be God himself who would pay the ultimate price on behalf of his creation.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
This, now, is my testimony. The witness of one who has seen, who has understood, at least in part. These are my words written by my own hand for all mankind to read and believe, or not, as the case may be.
I, Gabriel, the archangel of the Most High God, bear witness. I, myself, have been tempted by the Evil One. I have felt his icy breath upon my neck but I chose well and in the choosing I discovered love. Now that I have tasted that sweet nectar, I have no taste for anything else. I freely admit that my soul thrills in it, revels in it, delights in it. And now I could not, I will not, do anything else but follow Him, my beloved Master, my Lord.
“It is time. I will wait no longer.”
He circled around slowly like a wolf stalking his prey. His power emanated from his eyes, reaching out like a dark mist ready to choke and destroy. His eyes were locked in sync with the eyes of Gabriel. Their swords were drawn, neither giving quarter, but the truth lurked in the corners of Gabriel´s mind. He could not win. Lucifer was too strong.
The last days had been a whirlwind of treachery and battle. Already a third of the angels had gone over. Now Lucifer had chosen Gabriel as his next victim. To convert him or destroy him.
And Heaven was silent.
That was the greatest mystery of all. As if the Almighty had something more important to do, something impossible to create, a new beginning to introduce into existence. Gabriel had heard the rumors. But this felt like an ending not a beginning. He did not know what to do.
A low, guttural wheeze came from Lucifer as he regained his breath. “I gave you a choice. I did not give you an eternity to make it,” he said. “But then again, you always were indecisive and weak.” His taunts bothered Gabriel not at all. He only needed an opening.
Gabriel lowered his sword just a bit and let Lucifer circle more to his side, drawing the attack. But even then, he barely avoided the edge of Lucifer’s sword as he attacked from his blind side. Gabriel parried, jumping out of reach and then back in close with an attack of his own. The ringing of steel as their swords met echoed throughout the heavens but they were alone, no crowds to cheer them on, a desperate and lonely battle that Gabriel was now sure that he would lose.
But not before he drew blood. His sword flashed in low to cut Lucifer´s feet out from under him, but his brother was already in the air and slashing down at Gabriel´s exposed neck. Gabriel fell back and then flipped his feet over his head to land, crouched and ready for the next attack.
Lucifer was more powerful than any other, for his position in the heavenly realms was second only to the Almighty himself. He was the keeper of the glory of the throne of God and in that was his downfall. He wanted the glory for himself. That seed of desire had grown into the treachery of rebellion and Heaven found itself at war.
Gabriel could not win and Lucifer knew it. The swordplay itself was part of the deeper battle within. Gabriel had a decision to make, a side to take. The battle provided the pressure to decide without thinking, to act based on doubt and fear, or just self-preservation. The silence of Heaven did not help matters. There was nowhere to turn for help. It was his decision to make, and his alone.
But even in the sweat of battle, Gabriel knew that there was no decision to make. There was no choice. That, too, was part of Lucifer´s deception. He promised freedom. He promised power. Neither was of any interest to Gabriel.
He gritted his teeth and charged back into danger. He wanted to get in close and do some damage before he met his end. His sword flashed and with lightning speed he thrust and parried with such energy and power that Lucifer was taken by surprise and gave way. Gabriel would not let up and was after him in a moment.
Lucifer´s eyes narrowed, anger and impatience flashing from under dark brows. He seemed to grow even more menacing, as if he had been holding back, and bore down on Gabriel without mercy. With a sudden thrust and slash of his dark sword, Lucifer cut Gabriel to the quick and his sword arm was useless. Gabriel backed up quickly, one hand over his wound, his sword dragging. Lucifer smiled and began to circle once again, still wary of some last attempt by Gabriel.
Gabriel was ready. There was nothing left to do. His soul cried out into the void of Heaven, seeking his Father but there was nothing. For a moment, the black darkness of despair swept over him. It engulfed him and left him cold and unfeeling. There was no point. Why was he fighting so hard? Nobody cared. He was alone. Heaven was silent. There was nothing left for him to fight for. There was no point in being destroyed because of his loyalty. Why should he suffer because Heaven would not fight? He was utterly and entirely alone.
“No-o-o.” The cry exploded from his throat with the force of his anguish. “No. I will not turn.” He stood up straighter and looked Lucifer in the eye. Alone or not, abandoned or not, his heart belonged to his Father. He would be destroyed before he would turn.
Lucifer´s gaze was intent, penetrating, curious.
Why didn´t he attack? Gabriel thought. A glimmer of hope began to crowd out the despair. Something else was going on. He was sure of it. Again his heart cried out, but again, there was nothing. Nothing……except a still, small voice in the depths of his soul. He stilled his breathing so as to hear better, but the voice made no sense.
“Your trumpet plays best without a sword in your hand,” the voice whispered.
Gabriel did not understand but he knew that voice. He dropped his sword and reached over his shoulder to take his trumpet. He winced as the wound in his arm reminded him of his peril.
Lucifer looked at him bemused. “There is no one to call. Your trumpet will do you no good. You are alone, no one will come.”
“Then you won´t mind if I play one last song, will you?” Gabriel said quietly. The idea had come to him that instant. He didn´t know what he would play, but the desire to play his trumpet and sing for his Father, the Majesty upon the Throne, was strong within him.
“Close your eyes,” the voice came to him stronger now. “Pay him no mind.”
Gabriel obeyed, closed his eyes and waited for Lucifer to attack. After a moment he slowed his breathing, took a deep breath, and straightened his back.
“Play what is in your heart,” the voice said. “Find the song you were created to sing.”
Gabriel put the trumpet to his lips but hesitated, and then stopped. The pain in his arm seemed to intensify, his strength failing him. He could hardly lift the trumpet to his lips. His breathing became shallow, his eyes were still closed, his heart squeezing with dread as he felt a presence close in behind him. Then he felt the icy breath of Lucifer on his neck and heard him whispering softly, with unholy insistence.
He tore his mind away, keeping his eyes tightly closed and put his trumpet to his lips once again. He could not think, he could hardly catch his breath much less come up with a song, but he could obey.
“Breath deeply and relax,” the voice said. “We will begin together.” The sound of heavenly music filled the air around them and Lucifer´s whispers stopped and his cold presence no longer dominated the back of Gabriel´s neck and mind.
Gabriel took his trumpet and breathed out a sound, a beginning, a seeking out of the deepest desires of his heart. His trumpet rose stronger with yearning and then dropped to a whisper of longing. And then began the song.
Lord, I worship you.
I glorify your holy name
The sun and moon and stars
Your wonders, I proclaim.
This was the desire of his heart. To worship the Majesty. That was enough. It was more than enough.
Lord, I worship you.
You alone are worthy, Lord.
King of all the earth.
Lord I worship you.
His heart filled with a wondrous joy. It was so natural, so much a part of him that his song took flight by itself.
To your Majesty, I will ever lift my voice
And in you I will rejoice for all you´ve done for me.
To your Majesty, I´ll lift up holy hands.
In your presence I will stand through all eternity.
And in that moment, he was in the presence of his Father, in the throne room of the Almighty, filled with the light of his Glory. Gabriel´s eyes were open now and his trumpet took on a life of its own and filled the throne room with its beautiful sound.
Then he sang again, his heart swelling with a strange emotion. And the seraphim sang softly with him.
To your Majesty, I will ever lift my voice
And in you I will rejoice for all you´ve done for me.
To your Majesty, I´ll lift up holy hands.
In your presence I will stand through all eternity.
And again, his trumpet filled the halls of heaven with sound, quieter now, as the seraphim sang the heart of his song one last time.
Lord, I worship you.
Gabriel took a deep breath, content and aglow with a strange feeling of utter bliss. The voice within came gently again and filled his mind with wonder, describing what he was feeling, this new sensation, this new glory.
He looked toward the throne and the Majesty smiled and said, “It is so.” But the name of it in the heavenly tongue can not be described other than to say that the seraphim began to weep when they heard it spoken.
Finally, after a long pause, Gabriel spoke the question in his heart.
“And what of Lucifer?” He looked around for the dark shadow that had hounded him for so long.
“He has been cast down,” said the Majesty.
“Is it over, then?” Gabriel asked.
“No.” the Majesty spoke again. “It has only just begun.”
“How will it all end?” Gabriel asked one last time.
There was no answer, only silence. Gabriel had the distinct impression that the Majesty had put certain plans in motion but it was not the time to speak of them. Gabriel was at peace. All was as it should be. He glanced down at his wound which had been completely healed. He picked up his sword which was still lying at his feet, sheathed it and stood up. The Majesty motioned for him to stand on the right side of the throne. He saw Michael, his younger brother, on the left side, his wings spread out. Gabriel took his place and spread out his wings as well, almost touching the wingtips of Michael, creating a canopy behind the Majestic King of Heaven and now of Earth as well.
It will end as it has begun, Gabriel decided, with the Majesty upon the throne and the power of Lucifer broken. How, and when, and at what cost is another matter altogether.
“It is time. We will wait no longer.”
Word was passed back and the guards scrambled to their feet. The sound of rustling robes and tightening belts and the scrape of weapons drawn sounded eerie in the night. It was a disembodied sound, muffled and distant, separated from reality by the blanket of darkness.
“I will go to the door and demand entrance. If they do not open at once, use your shoulders and break down the door,” Akbar instructed, pointing at two burly guards.
He was still afraid of what was out there but his fear was no match for his pride and his hatred. The Special Forces had been working on Akbar for hours, goading and cajoling him to take action. He could wait no longer.
He grabbed the captain of the guard by the arm and propelled him forward, a human shield, to protect him from his fears.
Gabriel watched as Shalamar took his place in the rafters again and noted the signal that everything was ready. There was nothing more that he could do, so he turned his attention back to his thoughts and was transported back to the beginning of time, and before.
The temptation had come in a different form and had a unique effect on mankind. From the very beginning he had sensed that this first man and woman were different. They would not be like the rest of their race. They were the first, the template, the originals of many more to come. This, in itself, was a glorious gift.
The angels did not know this experience of birthing new life. This was a way of imaging the Godhead that was new and unique to this race of men. They had become, not the creators of new life, but co-participants, midwives, carriers and protectors of new life.
How marvelous it was, and how entirely strange.
This gift of life had been given to both, equally, but with different functions. Man and woman, each one, had been created in the image of God and only together, in unity, in oneness of spirit and flesh did this gift function.
God had written the truth of his nature into the very fabric of the world but here, in this man and woman and how they knew each other, he saw a reflection of glory that was stunning in its creativeness. Distinct from the Godhead, created not Creator, still it was a glorious reflection nonetheless.
But the gift was also a curse when spurned. There was a unity in this race of men that the angels did not experience in the same way. Angelic unity was reflected only in terms of loyalty and relationship, but not in essence, and certainly not in flesh. Each temptation for them was individual and unique, each one tailored to their station and the nature of their position.
Why it was allowed at all, Gabriel only understood much later after he had rejected the temptation to taste of a glory that was not his to savor. But the fall of one had no effect on the outcome of the temptation for another. Influence and loyalty did play a part, but since they did not have the gift of birthing life, they could not directly pass on the evil cancer to others.
Not so the sons of man. When rebellion entered the world, their spiritual natures, dependent as they were on their conscious relationship with the Creator, withered and died. But because of the truce and the battle for the souls of men, the gift of birthing life was allowed them, with its terrible consequences. Still-born, unmoving, withered spirits were birthed into the world within bodies of flesh. The corporate nature of man was both its blessing and its curse. The evil cancer of rebellion and sin was passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter.
Unfair! Unjust! were the cries of men throughout the ages when confronted with this truth. But they cannot escape their corporate responsibility, their communal existence. More than that, they also confirm, with their daily dalliances with Evil, that they prefer the darkness over the light. They confirm the original choice with their own choices every day.
They are prone to evil. They do not enjoy the evil itself, so much as the authority to be in charge of their own fate, to make their own decisions without interference from above.
No one commands them to be their own masters. No one commands them to turn away from God, to ignore him in their daily pursuit of survival and domination. No one commands them to violate their own integrity for mundane gains and pleasures.
Ultimately, that would be the test for each one. The test of integrity. Do their actions match their words? Forget the law of God for a moment; forget what others believe to be right and wrong. Each one of them has a code written on their hearts, affected by their culture and circumstances, to be sure, but a code nonetheless, by which they judge themselves. It is by their own code that they will be judged.
The heart of each man condemns him because he knows that he has not obeyed even what he, himself, believes to be good and right. Each one has tasted of the fruit. Each one has personal, intimate knowledge of both good and evil, though that knowledge is partial and distorted. Mankind, himself, makes a distinction between the one and the other, recognizing the existence and the necessity of morality.
Now the question remains – what will he do with that knowledge? Will he choose the good he knows or the good he believes to be good and reject the evil? Will he do so consistently or only when it is convenient?
All men are the same. There are differences in degree but not in kind. Man is not a sinner because he sins, rather he sins because he is a sinner. It is the heart of man, the nature of man, that God is ultimately concerned with. Sin has its consequences for we live in a just universe but it is the heart of man that condemns him.
The problem is that man often thinks of his own rebellious nature as something that he has no control over, that he has no say in, as if he has no choice in the matter. It is so and it is not so. It is true that the ultimate healing of their natures is now in the hands of God but it is also true that they can make real decisions, real choices, every day. They can decide to fight the evil within.
Man may be a sinner by nature, but who can say that he does not embrace that lifestyle of personal authority? Who can say that he does not choose daily to be master of his own life, to make his own decisions? Who can say that he chooses the good for more than passing convenience or refuses the evil at great risk to himself? Who can say that he truly abhors the serpent within? Who truly struggles? Who truly enters the battle, whether he wins or not, against the disobedience within? Who can say that his integrity is intact, that he is in the right, that he has a claim against God? Not even one.
Man needs to be saved from himself, from his own daily, willful sinfulness. That was why he, as the messenger of God, had told Joseph in a dream that the child in Mary’s womb would save the people from their sin. Not from their enemies, not from the Romans, but from their own sin and rebellion against God.
It was not merely a battle of good versus evil, a battle many are engaged in every day on one side or the other, whether followers of God or not. It was a battle of self authority versus the authority of God in every aspect of life. It was not merely a battle for good because it is good, or against evil because it is evil, as worthy as that might be. The true battle is relational. That is the first battle and it is the last.
Who has authority over their lives? To whom will they give their allegiance? For Gabriel, his allegiance to his Father was rooted in his love for him. It was a rock upon which he stood and nothing could touch him there. It was not a blind allegiance but rather an open-eyed, intelligent trust that only the Almighty God himself deserved. For he was eternally good. He was forever faithful. He was worthy of all praise and worthy of all of the trust and faith of his people.
No, sin is not merely ignorance or mistaken judgment or a lack of information or proper upbringing and environment, but rather a fundamental rebellion towards God to the degree that man lives his life without him and makes his decisions without reference to him. Sin is a lack of trust, a lack of love, a lack of faith in the character and love of God for his people.
Sin hurts God deeply for it strikes at the heart of his reputation for holiness, for goodness, for purity, for faithfulness, for love. Yes, love. The most important of all. Sin hurts in a way that only a father or mother can know when the child they have given birth to, have cared for, have loved from the beginning and will continue to love, has turned on them, rejecting them and their love, hell-bent on following the road to destruction.
But it is even more than that. It is more than a question of love. There is also a question of authority. For the Almighty God cannot deny who and what he is – the Ruler of the Universe, the Master, the Judge of all mankind – even if they are his children.
The fact of life, whether man is aware of it or not – and they are aware of it on some basic level – is that the earth and all that live upon it belong to God. Their lack of faith in God does not change the truth that God is still the Creator and they are still the created. The fundamental fact of life, the ultimate reality, is that every person on the face of the earth is embroiled in a battle against God that they cannot hope to win. If they persist in their rebellion, they will face punishment. Those who come to their senses can still be restored. God is God and mankind will recognize his authority sooner or later. Either as a Father or as a Judge. That is their decision to make. Without that battle won, every other battle is meaningless.
There were moments when he saw it all so clearly. It was the Spirit of Wisdom that was teaching him the true catechism of life to prepare him for the dark days that lay ahead.
He had been there that terrible day, and he would always remember it with grief. The day when he had been commanded to take them by the arm and throw them out of Paradise.
He had stood there, with a grim and forbidding countenance, his glory unveiled and his flaming sword unsheathed. The message was clear. Stay away, you are no longer to enter the Presence of the Holy One.
How could they know that this, too, was grace even as it was judgment? If they remained in the garden, eating from the tree of Life, feeding on the strength of His Presence, their evil would never be exposed and overcome – it would only grow stronger, unhindered.
God would not, could not support evil any more than necessary to accomplish His Plan. It would be tolerated for a time – that already was an amazing thing – but it would be kept in check and yet not kept in check. It would be hindered when necessary and exposed when necessary. It would be stamped out and it would be allowed to flourish, but only when and if necessary to accomplish the Plan.
He knew that another Way back into the garden was being prepared. But first blood would flow, the purchase price would be paid, the punishment of death would be transferred, and the way would be opened once more.
First it would be foreshadowed in the Temple on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the altar and then it would come to pass in the fullness of time.
The memories of that terrible day still grieved him, as did his memories of a more holy Lucifer, but it would not affect his firm and immediate obedience to his Master. If he, Gabriel, grieved in that moment, how much more must be the grief of the One who loved His children so much that he was willing to lay down His life for them? He is a God filled with grief for His children.
A God who weeps.
Although mankind doubted that truth every time evil or pain or death touched their lives, Gabriel knew it to be so. He had witnessed it over and over again. The Almighty God is a God who weeps with those who weep. There was no shame in it, only love.
If man only knew the healing that could be found in those tears, under those wings, weeping together with the Almighty God, their Father.
The Temptations of the Cross by Bert Amsing
Copyright 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.