There is no man who would not be pleased with eternal blessedness; and yet, without the impulse of the Spirit, no man aspires to it. Since, then, the natural desire of happiness in man no more proves the freedom of the will, than the tendency in metals and stones to attain the perfection of their nature, let us consider, in other respects, whether the will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil, or whether it retains some portion uninjured, and productive of good desires. — John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 2, chapter 2, section 26
Calvin is here arguing for man’s depravity and inability to seek God in himself. But reflecting on his analogy between men and stones, I believe there is a broader principle we can draw here about what it means to be human.
Stones and metals are typological symbols of humanity in the Bible, and precious stones and metals are pictures of mature and glorified humanity. For example, consider the stones on the high priest’s shoulders and breastpiece, which symbolized the tribes of Israel. We ourselves are living stones in the house of God (1 Pet. 2:5). Much of the furniture and structure of the tabernacle and temple were either made of, or coated in, precious metals; such utensils and vessels, as well as the tabernacle and temple themselves, are symbolic of God’s people gathered around his throne and serving him (e.g., Rom. 9:23, 2 Tim. 2:20-21). And when Jesus appears in all his glory and power, he is a metal man (Daniel 10, Rev. 1, 2).
Applying this, it seems that, even apart from sin, God intended to bring mankind from a state of nakedness and immaturity to a state of investiture, glory and maturity; and this through the potentially painful means of God’s forging us. This process of maturation is hinted at in Genesis 2:10-15. In the rivers flowing out of Eden, we see a picture of Adam’s garden-tending and keeping extending out into the whole world. (This imagery of water-life flowing out to the world is repeated in Ezekiel’s visionary temple and in Revelation 22.) In Genesis 2’s calling attention to gold and precious stones there is a hint that Adam was called to refine these and perhaps bring them back to beautify and glorify the garden; the treasure of the nations is meant to be brought into God’s house (e.g., Ps. 68:18,29; Rev. 21:24-26). But just as Adam and his offspring were called to refine and glorify creation, God would be refining and glorifying them. As Calvin observes, it is no more possible for us to attain maturity and glory by ourselves apart from God’s craftsmanship, than it is for metals and gemstones to attain beauty apart from a master craftsman. The fall did not cause gold and gems to become encrusted with earth and stone; it only caused them to resist man more intensely, as God’s curse-prosecuting agents.
We see this process reflected subtly in God’s creating Eve. On each day of creation, God brought his creation from something “good” to a newer and greater good. Yet even apart from sin, there was something “not good” (Gen. 2:18) in God’s creation, something that required Adam to be put into a deathlike sleep, to be cut open, and to have a part of himself cut away. Yet what he receives in exchange is glorious (1 Cor. 11:7), so that everything is “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
This helps us understand what is meant by saying that Jesus was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10, 5:9). He progressed from glory to glory, from good to very good. He was refined, tested and proved. There was something not good in that his bride had forsaken him. He had to die and have his own side pierced in order for her to be re-created and resurrected with him.
Likewise the church, and we as individual believers, experience this process of maturation and refining. Our sin is our greatest barrier to maturity and glory. But even where sin is resisted by the power of the Spirit, God will still be using the heat of his forge and the blows of his hammer to refine and mature us, to increase our capacity for serving him. In this way we will be made more like Jesus, the glorious metal man.