And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16-17
As we celebrate our freedom on this Fourth of July, may it actually be a celebration of the God who authored freedom for our joy. God’s design for people has always been that they live in delightful, responsible freedom before him and thus experience true life.
Here is a question that I love to put to Bible study classes: What was the first command that God gave to Adam?
Most people who know their Bibles will instinctively recall the negative command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “You shall not eat from that tree!” But this answer is incorrect.
God’s first command to man was this: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden!” The first command was a positive permission to go and freely enjoy! “Look, son. I have made lots and lots of delightful trees with all kinds of delightful fruits. Have at it!”
Isn’t that wonderful?
In case you are wondering, the Hebrew grammar behind our English translation supports that this was indeed the first command. God does not speak passively about eating from every tree and then change tenses to command a prohibition. No, both the command to eat and the command not to eat are in the same tense. They are grammatically parallel with the positive command coming first. Also, we know that this command in chapter 2 actually came before the Creation Mandate in chapter 1 (“Be fruitful and multiply.”) because only Adam is present for this command in chapter 2. So the command to freely enjoy really was the first one given to mankind.
What does this observation tell us about God? How does this affect our thinking about his authority and his commands? Why do we tend to remember the negative command over the positive one?
First, this observation tells us that God has always had delightful freedom in his heart for people. It is a first-level intention for us. We should not think of him as the one who is out to limit our freedom and our joy but as the one who is out to promote our freedom and our joy. The apostle John says, “His commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). They are given for our benefit and fulfillment. Such a perspective on God is life-altering for the person who embraces it.
Second, when we add the prohibition to the equation, it shows us that delightful freedom is also responsible freedom. Having the negative command in the mix was no knock on the joyful freedom of the garden. One tree was off limits in the midst of a hundred that were not. But the presence of a boundary does add the dimension of responsibility to our understanding of freedom. Freedom has never been about doing whatever we want without any limits. It has always been about living in submission and obedience to the Lord.
I believe the reason we tend to remember the negative command before the positive one is that we tend to think of freedom as an autonomous privilege to go do whatever we want, so it sticks in our craw whenever that privilege is limited. But freedom has never been equal with total license. Such an approach to life always results in death. On the contrary, freedom has always been about choosing responsible behavior under God’s authority.
This purpose of God for people is evident not only in creation, but also in redemption. The problem with sin is that it enslaves people with false notions of freedom to things that cannot bring joy. So in-line with God’s first-level intention for people, Jesus came to restore a true sense of freedom to humanity. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
There it is again: “Walk in delightful, responsible freedom.”
So this Fourth of July, let us celebrate that this whole idea of delightful, responsible freedom upon which America was founded comes from our Creator and Redeemer. Let us hold this type of freedom forth, not only as a national ideal but as a biblical ideal, not just as a patriotic priority but as a moral priority, not only as the practical philosophy for a healthy country but as the daily principle for a healthy Christian.
May we who represent Jesus truly walk in the freedom God has always desired for us and, in doing so, point others to the One who authored freedom in the first place.