‘If’ is such a small word. But it’s far from insignificant or inconsequential. It’s the hinge of choice. In mathematics, there’s a slightly longer word, ‘iff’—meaning if and only if.
‘If’ has always been recognised as punching far above its weight. Ancient people—regardless of their culture—saw it as associated with the spirit of Python.
In the temple precincts of Python Apollo at Delphi in Greece, doorways were adorned with an E—the Greek letter epsilon carved in wood or engraved on silver or gold. When Nero visited the shrine, he asked what the symbolism meant. However it was so archaic, even in the first century, no one in authority was actually sure. Plutarch, later to be high priest at the sanctuary, had several guesses but thought it was most likely it stood for ‘ei’, if.
As I noted in the last session, the Hebrew word for heel and for if is the same. So, when in Genesis, God told the serpent he would bruise the heel of the seed of woman, this effectively granted the spirit of Python legal right to test the moments of ‘if’ in the lives of humanity. Python can try our choices.
It did so for Jesus when He was on the threshold of public ministry. The tempter came to Him and said:
If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.
Matthew 4:3 NIV
If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
Matthew 4:5 NIV
All this I will give You, if You will bow down and worship me.
Matthew 4:9 NIV
Now in this scene, the devil is not directly identified as the spirit of Python. Yet, indirectly, it is made evident that this is exactly who is conducting the threshold tests. The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and quotes Psalm 91, saying,
‘If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
He will command His angels concerning You,
and they will lift You up in their hands,
so that You will not strike your foot against a stone.’
Now the devil, at this point, has usurped the role that Jesus was destined for. He’s acting as a well-trained rabbi, quoting a verse of Scripture, and expecting his disciple to answer with the next verse. That next verse is
You will tread on the lion and the cobra; You will trample the great lion and the serpent.
Psalm 91:13 NIV
The cobra in this verse is ‘pethen’, python, and it’s the devil’s subtle way of proclaiming his own identity as well as that of his allies. Just as Jesus was confronted by Python and just as Paul encountered this spirit at Philippi, so we too have to face it as we reach the threshold into our calling.
As the door swings on the hinge of ‘if’ and ‘if not’, what choices are we going to make?
This is Grace Drops and I’m Anne Hamilton. May you always choose the wise and godly if.
Thank you to Lorna Skinner of www.riversofmusic.co.uk for the background music.