How do we accurately define God, and how do we truthfully describe man? What is the basis for truth?
The Scriptures and Tradition
Many have argued that the scriptures are the foundation for truth and certainly there is merit to that argument. However, these same scriptures have been used to justify some of the greatest atrocities in human history. People were tortured, burned to death and multitudes murdered all based on somebodies understanding of the scriptures!
So scriptures themselves can be used for good or evil. Jesus, Paul and believers throughout the ages faced their greatest opposition from those who knew the scriptures. Paul spoke of the letter that kills … he also spoke of the message in a completely different context – living epistles.
It is obvious then that interpretations of scriptures can be a big stumbling block, that can so easily pervert the message of the scriptures. Recognising this, men have started institutions to tell us how to interpret scriptures. The idea is that if we tap into the collective interpretation and history of interpretation of many people, we will thereby develop a tradition that is more or less fail safe.
This idea that tradition preserves the truth is completely rejected by Jesus Himself. His verdict on tradition is clear: “you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Mat 15:6) Tradition does not preserve the truth … it perverts the truth!
God has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s in the very midst of such misunderstanding that He comes to reveal Himself, to interpret His thoughts Himself, to represent Himself. I’m so glad that God reveals Himself and thereby removes every obstacle of misinterpretation.
The Context of God’s self-revelation
There were many ideas about God that were commonly held at the time of Christ. Let’s first look at the Roman and Greek philosophies about the gods.
Roman & Greek Philosophies
The thought of enmity between the gods and man, was one of the most basic concepts. The saying that the highest tree catches most of the wind and is more likely to be zapped by lightning, was used to describe man’s relationship with the gods. If a man prospered or excelled in anything he was liable to attract the attention of the gods … and that was not a good thing at all!
The two most prominent philosophies of that time was Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans described a state of being called ataraxia, which meant complete serenity, no anxiety and no physical pain. The closest humans could come to this state was death! The gods alone enjoyed ataraxia … but that necessarily meant that they were completely detached from people, from the world as a whole. If they were to have any interest in us or in this world, they would open themselves up to the pain and problems of this world and thereby loose their perfect serenity.
The Stoics believed that tranquility could only be attained through the removal of all emotion. They saw desire and emotion as the cause of pain and evil. This was even more true for the gods. For them god would cease to be god if he felt pity or wrath – their god was beyond all emotion … a heartless god.
The god of Epicureanism is uninterested, even unaware of mans existence. The god of Stoicism can’t care less, in fact he is incapable of feeling!
Now let’s look at how the Jewish concepts of God developed.
The one word that probably summarises their concept best, is the word ‘holy’. “No one is holy like the LORD” (1 Sam 2:2) Holy meant separate, different and set apart. The emphasis on this understanding of God’s holiness, resulted in the following:
God became completely ‘other’, unapproachable and inaccessible. Direct contact with Him was unthinkable! To even see God would result in immediate death. In Gen 32:30 Jacob responds with great surprise that he was able to see God and yet live.
The concept of ‘otherness’ or as theologians would call it, the transcendence of God became a major feature in the Jewish consciousness: He is beyond all we can imagine or describe; beyond creation, beyond space and time, beyond our comprehension and so most definitely beyond our reach. The thought of direct contact with Him, was absurd. Distance was at the core of this concept.
And so we see something very interesting developing. In Deut 5:24 it clearly states that God spoke directly to Moses in giving the Law: “…Surely the LORD our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he still lives.”
But by New Testament times this concept of God’s transcendence was developed so far that we are told on more than one occasion that it was actually angels that gave the law! (Acts 7:53)
Unknown & unpredictable
Another consequence of this understanding of God’s holiness, is that He becomes unknown and unpredictable. Man has absolutely no rights before Him. He can do whatever He wants to and man has no idea what it is that He wants. (Jer 18:1-10)
Lastly, but very significantly, this idea of God’s holiness meant that He is utterly against the sinner. His aim is their destruction!
Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Ps 104:35
Look, the day of the LORD is coming – cruel, with rage and burning anger to make the earth a desolation and to destroy the sinners on it. Is 13:9
God’s holiness not only meant that He separated Himself from sinners, but that He actually pursues them, to destroy them. In William Barclay’s book ‘The mind of Jesus’ he mentions a rabbinic saying: “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from this world”
Jesus’ radical revelation!
I don’t know if we realise how radical and different Jesus’ message about God and man was … and is! He did not meet the religious expectations … and still doesn’t. He did not confirm their interpretations of scriptures, but rather condemned it. Despite the fact that these people had access to sacred scriptures, despite the sacrificial system given by God, despite the prophetic glimpses He gave them, He makes this astounding statement “ …no one knows the Father except the son …” Mt 11:27
All the ages of studying the scriptures, of developing the traditions did not bring them any closer to knowing God, or knowing themselves. So God comes Himself and in the person of Jesus Christ, He demonstrates the correct interpretation of scripture. He unveils Himself and shows that the beauty and complexity of truth can only be fully expressed in a person … not a theory or a book. The most accurate translation happened when the Word became flesh!
Initiative & Likeness
Against the expectation of religion, Jesus reveals that God is not unapproachable or inaccessible. In Christ Jesus, God approaches us! God wants to be known! His holiness is not a separation from us, but a separation unto us. Jesus demonstrates that God does not want to be God with or by Himself, but with, for and in man.
Jesus does not come with a message of God’s transcendence or ‘otherness’, rather in Jesus we recognise God as flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Instead of shocking us with a vision of God’s transcendence, He surprises us with the revelation of our likeness! God’s idea of His image and likeness displayed in human life, is realised in Christ Jesus. At the core of what Jesus reveals about God, is not distance, but union. In Christ Jesus, God and man are in direct contact … more than contact, union. God is present! God is here and God is now.
Yes, God is beyond time and space. Yes, God is more than His creation. But! But, we too have our origin in an eternal realm beyond time and space. We originate in God and therefore His ‘otherness’ is strangely familiar to us. It turns out that man too is very different from the rest of creation – very ‘other’. There is a spirit dimension in man which is compatible with God! Instead of revealing God’s ‘otherness’, He unveils our ‘otherness’ and in that uncovers the greatest mystery: likeness.
Jesus removes yet another misconception about God – the idea that He is unknown and unpredictable. John sums up the mission of Christ as follows: “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 5:20
Jesus gives the final word concerning God’s attitude towards man – He is for us. He is for us consistently. God has made up His mind about man and the verdict is: favour! And His favour is utterly predictable – He is the same yesterday, today and forever. His mind has always been made up – that’s why He entered His rest. He is quietly expectant that His vision of who man truly is, will triumph.
The God we see in Jesus, the God who is willing to take our punishment upon Himself and reconcile us to Himself, this God never changes. He is still the same. What He revealed about Himself in Christ is as relevant today as it has always been, and will be how He is for all eternity. “There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle.” James 1:17
“if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” Heb 10:38 He has done it all for us to boldly come. He has demonstrated His love in the most convincing way even while we were at enmity against Him. We never have to draw back again. His love is consistent, beyond dispute!
Acts 27 tells of some severe difficulties Paul and his companions went through, including a shipwreck. Acts 28 continues the story after they made it to shore. Being cold and wet they make a fire … and a snake emerges from the wood and bites Paul! How many Christians, in a similar situation, would start questioning whether they are in the will of God, questioning the favour of God? How many will start rebuking the snake, the Devil and whatever else seems out of line with their view of a perfect world?
Paul quietly and confidently shakes off the snake. Contradiction did not make him question the favour of God, for God has already demonstrated His favour in the most convincing way by giving His own life for us. “In returning and resting you shall be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” Is 30:15.
“And the effect of righteousness will be peace [internal and external], and the result of righteousness will be quietness and confident trust forever.” Is 32:17
Destroys enemies … by making them friends!
Against the religious expectations of His time, Jesus does not reveal a God who is set on the destruction of sinners, “but God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6)
“even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:5-7)
When God became a man, He did not pursue sinners to destroy them. He did not even repel sinners … He attracted them! How different is God from the concepts we had of Him! Sinners found the company of Jesus attractive because they found value there, they discovered their true selves there, they discovered a greater reality than sin – their true design and being in Him.
God, as revealed in Christ Jesus, does not avoid our problems and pains lest it disturbs His tranquility. Unlike the Greek & Roman concepts of a god that is unconcerned or even unaware of us, this God has no greater concern, nothing of which He is more mindful, than man. Neither does He simply observe our challenges from afar, but He enters into our lives, into our conflict in the most real way possible, by becoming flesh.
He does not conquer evil by obliterating it with a display of omnipotent power. Ultimately He conquers evil, by entering right into the midst of it, becoming sin with our sinfulness and handing over His life to death. There in the midst of darkness, His life bursts forth and destroys evil in the most comprehensive way possible. At His most vulnerable, He overpowers evil.
Even our doctrines of His Omnipotence, His Omnipresence, His Omniscience, needs to be redefined in the light of what He revealed about Himself. His Omnipotence, expressed through Christ Jesus, is tender and vulnerable. Omniscience, expressed through love, is interested and involved in the smallest details of our lives. His Omnipresence, expressed through Christ, is personal and relevant. His location is here and His time is now.