One of my recurring themes in recent times has been that Jesus is the full revelation of what God is like. If I keep on beating this particular drum, it’s only because it’s a life-changing truth that no one much pointed out to me in twenty-five plus years of being a Christian.
Today I’d like to briefly consider one little verse tucked away in the eleventh chapter of the gospel of Matthew:
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:27, emphasis added)
As is probably the case for you, I must have read this verse hundreds of times over the years without ever really stopping to think about the massive implications of what Jesus is saying here. I think I somehow rationalised this statement away as a kind of cryptic self-reference to Jesus’ divinity. The truth is at once much less cryptic and a lot more shocking.
When Jesus told his listeners that no one knew the Father except the Son, he was effectively saying that anyone who claimed to have seen or “known” God up to that point was, at least to some degree, mistaken.
Just think about that for a second. Abraham, that great hero of faith and founding father of the Hebrew people: he did not know God. Moses, who saw God in a burning bush, received the ten commandments and was allowed to glimpse God’s glory with his own eyes: he did not know God. But what about David, the king after God’s own heart, who established Israel as a great nation and passionately revered Yahweh? Nah, he didn’t know God either. Even the prophets, from the mighty and much-revered Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah right on down to their minor colleagues: they did not know God.
Does this seem an outrageous claim? Well, it should.
Let’s back up a second. Was Jesus saying that none of these great men of faith even remotely knew God? It seems pretty clear to me that the answer to that question is no. But it seems equally clear that Jesus’ bold statement forces us to an inescapable conclusion: to the extent that these towering figures of biblical history did know God, they only knew him partially and imperfectly. Which is another way of saying that some of what they thought they knew about him was mistaken.
This would have been shocking to Jesus’ devoutly religious Jewish audience. The scribes and the Pharisees thought they knew God precisely because they had devoted their lives to studying the writings of their forbears, who had done great exploits for God and written it all down for their edification and instruction. Yet here comes this ex-carpenter from Nazareth in backward, rural Galilee who dares to tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree. Here’s what Jesus is, in effect, saying:
Okay dudes, I know you’ve spent a lot of time studying, and I know you’re held up as being those who really know and understand God. In fact, you’ve staked your reputations on it. But I’m here to tell you something that, in spite of your great intelligence, you’re going to find hard to swallow: Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets – in fact, all of those whom you revere and to whom you look for information and understanding about God… they did their best, but each and every one of them fell woefully short of the truth. They thought they had God all sussed out, but in reality they only glimpsed him from a distance. So if you want to know what God’s really like, they might be able to help you a little bit, but you’re going to have to accept that they didn’t really know him all that well themselves.
Then, while his hearers were still reeling from this audacious claim, Jesus delivered his outrageous punchline:
If you really want to know what God is like, you need to look somewhere else. In fact, all you need to do is look at me. I’m the only one who knows God, and the only one who can show you what he’s really like.
Once again, remember that Jesus is talking to men who have devoted their lives to knowing God. No wonder they wanted to kill him.
This is all highly relevant to us.
Jesus’ first century hearers were loaded up with preconceptions about God, all of which had been faithfully passed down from generation to generation, and many of which were documented in their sacred texts. And Jesus told them most of their ideas about God were dead wrong.
Similarly, we sophisticated post-modern westerners come with all kinds of preconceived notions about God, shaped by history, philosophy, culture, and what we have been taught to understand from scripture. Dare I suggest that, just as Jesus said to the scribes and the Pharisees, he says to us: I know you think you know what God is like, but really, you’re way off base. You need to let go of all those preconceived notions and just look at me. I’ll show you exactly what God is like.
If it were somehow possible for us to come at the four gospels with absolutely no preconceptions about God, and to build up a picture of him based purely on what we read about Jesus in their pages, I wonder how different our resulting picture of God would be from the one that we commonly but unconsciously carry around in our heads. Is it just possible that God would be a whole lot less violent, less judgemental, less scary and less retributive and, above all, a whole lot more merciful, compassionate and loving than we have imagined him to be?
One of the things I realise as I get older is that in some ways it’s much harder to unlearn ingrained beliefs than it is to take on board new ones. This is especially true when those beliefs are so firmly established in our culture and our collective psyche that we’re largely unaware of their existence. The only answer is the work of the Holy Spirit and a commitment to let go of everything that hinders and relentlessly pursue the truth.
Let me summarise, then: forget everything you thought you knew about God, and just look at Jesus. If that sounds radical and shocking, you’re probably beginning to grasp the truth.
[ Image: Isaac Torrontera ]