Can you imagine the Wal-Mart floral department offering a bouquet of thorns? Does the Garden Center ever advertise Acacia thorn bushes? Do carpenters choose two-by-fours made of thorn wood?
Except for our botanist friends, few people find thorns captivating. They are not beautiful. And they don’t seem very useful, though they do burn extremely well.
The negative associations of thorns are what make their appearance in the Bible so intriguing, for God weaves these very thorns into the revelation of His grace. He gives them a star role in the unfolding drama of His judgment and unbelievable mercy.
“Thorns and thistles” (a Hebrew phrase referring to the entire class of thorns) were not in the original creation (Genesis 3:18). When man sinned, God cursed the ground with thorns—a negative, hurtful, even repulsive element that intruded into the original creation’s perfection.
Every pricked finger, every overgrown field, every ugly thornbush, reminds us of the frustrating pain of sin and its hideous blotch on the canvas of God’s masterpiece. Thorns have all the natural charm of Magic Marker on a Monet painting.
At first glance, the perfection of the pre-Fall world seems forever lost because of unsightly thorns. But God has woven these thorns into a beautiful plan.
The Burning Thornbush
God wove thorns into His beautiful plan for fallen man.
Thorns appear next in the Bible as the burning bush.1
Both Jesus and Stephen use a special Greek word to describe this bush’s thorny nature. Stephen describes the scene in Exodus with these words: “in the flame of a burning thorn bush” (Acts 7:30, NASB). Jesus says the same thing in Luke 20:37.
So why did God choose to appear inside thorns at this dreadful mountain, where He later gave the Law—a law that serves only to remind us of our failure (Galatians 3:10–4:25; Hebrews 12:18–24)?
When God later visited that same holy mountain to give the Law, it was so deadly that any human or beast that merely touched the mountain would be killed (Exodus 19:12). So why didn’t the thorns—that combustible remnant of the Curse—explode in flame when the Holy One, in fire, first appeared to Moses?2
The whole event at the burning bush is almost a parody of the Curse in Eden. The One who appeared in the Garden and pronounced the curse of thorns now reappears in the midst of thorns, promising deliverance. Ultimately, He promises a land flowing with milk and honey. How can these things be?
A Thornwood Tabernacle
The enigma of the thorns continues in God’s revelation. The next time we meet thorns, God instructs Moses to build a tabernacle.
The raw material of that tabernacle is Acacia wood (Exodus 26:29), a small tree or bush whose branches are covered with long thorns. God then directs that they cover this thorn wood with gold (Exodus 26:29).
Now, why would God take a cursed element of the Fall and beautify it with gold? How can thorns, fit only for fire, become the glorious dwelling place of the fiery pillar of God’s presence?
The Field of Thorns
The last place Israel encamps before they enter the Promised Land was called Abel-Shittim, which means “the Field of Thorns” (Numbers 25:1; Joshua 2:1). Israel was living in the Field of Thorns because the lawgiver Moses had not fully obeyed the law (Deuteronomy 32:49–51). He must perish without entering the Promised Land.
Disobedient Moses could only gaze from afar, pining for that land, pleading with God in vain to go in.
The people of Moses thus languish in the Field of Thorns, longing for that promised Prophet, who was like Moses, but better—that utterly perfect prophet, priest, and king who would accomplish all things that other men from dust failed to do.
In the Old Testament, God foreshadows that One who will come after Moses. His Hebrew name is Joshua, “Yahweh saves.” Greeks would translate his name as Iesous (Jesus). God the Father points to this connection between Joshua and Jesus when He commands, “You shall call His name Jesus (Iesous), for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is that promised Prophet like Moses, but much more than a prophet. He is the One to lead God’s people into Paradise.
An Unlikely Crown
Thorns reappear in the climax of God’s drama of redemption.
Thorns find a role in the climax of this divinely crafted plan of redemption. Jesus, tortured in anticipation of crucifixion, was mocked while wearing a crown of thorns. The “thorns and thistles” of Eden’s Curse now became this mocking crown.
God first promised His people redemption when He appeared in the midst of thorns at the Mountain of the Law (Mount Sinai). To fulfill that promise, Jesus appeared in thorns again, but this time bearing the curse of Mount Sinai’s law. He wore the crown we earned by our rebellion in Adam and by the years of ratifying Adam’s choice as we sin every day.
The beauty of thorns is that they remind each of us of God’s lavish—almost foolishly lavish (1 Corinthians 1:23)—grace upon us. He died for us, absolutely guilty sinners, whose sin caused those thorns to so mar God’s creation and Christ’s brow.
Adam and Eve attempted to usurp God’s place as the only lawgiver in Zion. God would have been just to hang them on their tree of rebellion—like the rebellious kings of Canaan who were cursed by God for all Israel to see (Joshua 10:26).
But God had a different plan. God the Son stepped out of eternity. He took human flesh on Himself, lived under the law in perfect obedience, and then suffered all the punishment due Adam, and all of those who would ever come to Jesus.
God the Son wore the thorns. On behalf of rebellious mankind, He allowed Himself to be stripped naked and hung on that tree, cursed by God. Just like those kings of Canaan who were hung by Joshua, Jesus was hung and then His body was placed in a garden cave, with a stone over its mouth (Joshua 10:27)! But death could not hold Jesus.
God intends to transform us, the descendants of the rebels in Eden, entangled as we are with thorns. He will turn us into a kingdom of priests. In fact, we ultimately are a new temple, the heavenly temple, where the holy, fiery, triune God dwells with His redeemed people forever (2 Corinthians 6:16).
The story of the Bible is this. Adam comes naked to a live tree and spiritually murders the entire human race by a single act of disobedience. Jesus comes to a dead tree and allows Himself to be stripped naked. Then, in the ultimate act of obedience—His very death after a lifetime of full and total obedience to God—He makes alive all those who would ever by God’s grace repent of their sins and trust in Him alone for salvation.
As Eve had encouraged her husband in his rebellion against God, Jesus’s love for His bride, the church, motivates and enables her to obey God from her heart. Adam took from his wife food which kills. Jesus, by His death, provides all grace, enabling us to partake of eternal life.
Through Christ, thorns take on a whole new meaning because they focus our thoughts on God’s plan of redemption, worked out through the centuries. While Adam’s sin disrupted the beauty of God’s creation, the Son of God came to earth to set things right, which brings beauty even to thorns.