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If you pay attention to Christian descriptions of God, they are quite varied and, frankly, at times disheartening. You may think, “If that’s what God is like, I’ll pass, please.” Whenever I’m confronted with a description of a violent/cruel/merciless God, I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” or “Would Jesus do that?” In other words, Jesus is my touchstone for the true nature of his Father, the gold standard for divinity.
This post assumes that Jesus is the clearest representation of God’s character that we will ever have. Jesus himself says in the gospel of John: “I do only those things that I see my Father do” (John 5:19) and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Finally, Hebrews 1:1-3 states that, unlike the prophets, Jesus was the exact representation of God. And it states this in contrast to the prophets: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Can things be made any more clear? Hardly! No one will argue with that until they get to the corollary.
Here’s the corollary: the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament often overrides and corrects representations of God, usually in the Old Testament but perhaps occasionally in the New Testament. If you are a fundamentalist, you were likely taught (or commanded) to take every scripture as being equally inspired by God. No progressive revelations of God allowed. So, when I demonstrate that Jesus sets the record straight, you must do acrobatics mentally, textually, and historically to explain how it’s all equally accurate stuff.
One evidence that Jesus came to set the record straight occurs in a string of statements in Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount). We hear him say repeatedly, “You have heard that it was said,” followed by a quote from the Old Testament, and finally followed by “But I say to you….” And there he is, modifying the ancient scripture. This is how he came to “fulfill” “the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17). Yes, the old statements stand, but they stand as pillars to hold up the clearer truth that Jesus brings. There are more ways to murder than by shedding blood, more ways to commit adultery than by sleeping with someone, fewer reasons to get a divorce than Moses allowed. Jesus makes it clear that what he has to say eclipses and surpasses many statements in the Old Testament.
At this, some of you will say that Jesus didn’t override the Old Testament, but only reinterpreted it. That’s not unreasonable.
A more abstract, yet more compelling argument contrasts the way Jesus behaves with the ways God is often reputed to have behaved in the Old Testament (as well as in the present, according to many Christians).
What do we find when we compare how Jesus treats people to the way traditional theology assumes God treats people? Here we find once again that Jesus presents a less violent, more merciful image. Jesus was fine with—and at times apparently enjoyed—spending time with sinners (tax collectors, sex workers, a thief on the nearby cross). True, he had a tough time with preachers and Bible scholars (pharisees and scribes). But none of his treatment of anyone approaches the violence and retribution often attributed to God. Many people allow ancient images of God to override the example Jesus relentlessly gives.
When we read the Old Testament with Jesus as our standard, we no longer need to juggle competing images of God. If the alleged behavior of God is the very thing Jesus came to save us from…then admit the representation is inaccurate. Here are some representations of God that, judged by the morality undergirding both the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ life, are bad business:
People of Babylon, you are sentenced to be destroyed. Happy is the person who pays you back according to what you have done to us. Happy is the person who grabs your babies and smashes them against the rocks. (Psalm 137:8-9)
This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ (I Samuel 15:2-3)
Many, if not most, Christians will come up with justifications for both these passages. They were necessary for one reason or another. For example, the existing cultures were so rotten that they were going to infect the entire human race. Hypothetically, perhaps. But I cannot imagine Jesus doing any of those things (at all). Either the Father and the Son have a division of labor (I, the Father, destroy life, while you, the Son, repair it), or the ancient scriptures were colored by a projection of human violence onto God. Jesus never mentioned a division of labor, but instead said, “I do only those things that I see my Father do” (John 5:19).
If I’m doing violence to your interpretation of scripture, it may be because many interpretations are unjust by doing violence to the character of God. Such interpretations relegate Jesus and his Father to a long lineage of pagan gods who are vindictive and violent. The violence is on the human side. The cross shows that. I plead with you, brothers and sisters, let Jesus be your guide to how you view God. Do not let your theory of scripture mar the purity of God. Never forget that Jesus is the exact representation of God. He’s the final word and must have the final word. Everything will be better because we’ll have a better image of God!
This post was first published on: Jan 12, 2024 at 18:36. If this article is significantly updated, the publication date beneath the title may change in order to bring current posts to the top of the directory.