(If you are just jumping in, it might be helpful to go back and start at the beginning since these posts are intended to build on one another.)
One of my favourite movie series is the original Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon. At the end of the second movie, the audience could leave the theatre satisfied they had seen the entire story. Yet, when the third movie ends, you discover something interesting; the action of the final movie takes place between the final two scenes of the middle film. While some might see the second film as concluding properly, only once you have watched the final chapter are you able to see the full picture of what has happened to Jason Bourne (aka, David Webb – I had to stick that in here for my brother’s sake).
This is where I propose we should start in our search to better understand who God is and how he has been revealed to us. The example above illustrates a problem many people encounter with the Old Testament; in the view of the Christian faith, it is simply incomplete without the final chapter – the New Testament. If read in isolation, much of what we read may be confusing, hard to grasp and seemingly outdated. But when it is re-read and understood through the lens of Christ, the one who came to reveal the Father, it becomes infused with meaning and can be seen to point toward what it always intended.
This is not even close to saying the Old Testament should be “thrown out” because of the introduction of the new covenant, rather, it can finally be seen for what it has been trying to say all along. Of course this was not at all clear to everyone at the time of Jesus and, in fact, resulted in the first major church split. This was a split so large it actually formed two incredibly different religions; Judaism, the Orthodox faith, and Christianity, the Heretics.
Before proceeding any further, it is important to realize one simple fact; Jesus was Jewish and never “intended” to start a new religion. His aim was to reveal YHWH to the Hebrew people in all his glory and to bring them back to the roots of what their religion was supposed to be. Jesus claimed to completely fulfill the Hebrew scriptures, yet even his closest disciples continually misunderstood what he had come to do and how he could possibly be the Messiah if he was not there to install a new, perfect Jewish nation. Their understanding of what we call the Old Testament is far superior to our own, and yet they were entirely blind to the possibility that Jesus was who he said he was. Jesus seemed continually shocked and disturbed that they could have such an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and yet completely misunderstand the point of who he was and what his mission on earth would be.
Here are a couple quick examples;
1. In John, when Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry, he has just finished washing the feet of his disciples to model for them the servants heart they will be asked to emulate once he is gone. Not only does he say they should do likewise, he connects this act and his coming death to his “glorification”. This is going to be the way he is glorified, by laying down his life for others. After setting this sacrificial example, telling his disciples to do likewise and explaining that the only way to God is through this suffering servant (Jesus), Philip turns to him and says “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus then turns and essentially says, “seriously, you’ve been with me all this time and you still don’t recognize who I am and that the Father is exactly like me.”
2. In Luke, we have the story of the transfiguration, which is basically a time when Jesus and some of his disciples go up on a mountaintop and spend quality time with some “heroes of faith” from Jewish history. After coming down and performing a few miracles, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, which will end in his crucifixion, and is trying to get some assistance from the people in a local Samaritan village. When this request was spurned, James and John turn to Jesus and say;
“‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.’”
Now, in the context of what people of that day believed, the God of the Old Testament had previously used this sort of punishment on those who rejected Israel, so it was an honest question. Jesus is quick to point out they are completely missing his reason for coming to the world, despite the fact their sacred text seemed to condone this sort of behaviour (more on that later).
3. The final example of this we’ll look at here can be found in Acts. By this time Jesus has died, risen again, has revealed himself in his resurrected form to all his disciples and is about to ascend into heaven. It is in this setting that “… they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’”. All his disciples are gathered together and collectively asking if this was the time Jesus would finally show the Romans who is boss. I mean, they had a superhero amongst them. He had come back to life!
What I see in this story is my four-year old son (he’s almost seven now) sitting in the backseat of the car on a long journey asking yet again “Are we there yet?”. Even after everything the disciples have seen and heard, and even after seeing their Messiah rise from the dead, they could not get past their views of what “The Father” was like and was supposed to do according to their understanding of the scriptures.
I think we can clearly say that even an incredibly thorough understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, without the new revelation found in Christ, does not give a very accurate view of who God is and what he is determined to accomplish. As a result of this new revelation, the Jewish and Christian visions of God are actually quite different. Christians believe Jesus was the exact representation of the Father and is the only way to see the Father and enter his kingdom. The Jewish faith does not believe Jesus was God and therefore, by default, reads the Old Testament as the completion of their biblical canon. In fact, much of the New Testament narrative revolves around what Jewish laws are still required of believers in Christ and what are non-essential. The books of John and Acts both have significant themes that showcase the ever-expanding kingdom of God from a select few, more specifically the nation of Israel, to everyone. This was a serious struggle for many followers of Christ because they still saw themselves as Jews, but were beginning to understand the Hebrew scriptures in new ways.
This leads to the first, and most basic, way to resolve the differences seen in the God of the Old & New Testaments;
Jesus came to reveal the Father and in order to properly understand the Old Testament as the story of God, we need to re-read it through the “lens” of Christ in order to see how it truly reveals God.
The reality of Jesus on the cross, laying down his own life for the sake of our freedom from slavery to sin, is the cornerstone of what has become Christian faith. The cross gives us a complete image of God, sacrificing his own life, taking on the sins of the whole world in order to destroy the works of evil and defeat death – the consequences of sin – once and for all. God himself, in Jesus Christ, took our place along with the consequences for our sin, and in doing so made a public spectacle of the Ruler of this World, who had no idea what was happening in this beautiful exchange.
This image of God, through Jesus, is what has shaped and formed the Christian faith.
This is why Judaism experienced a split and a new religion was formed.
This says something very different about God.
This says God would enter into his creation as a servant in order to redeem and free his creation from their own, self-inflicted pain, suffering, disease and disfunction.
Believing in Jesus Christ requires that our view of the God of the Old Testament must change drastically compared to the view held by the community of faith that gave birth to these scriptures. The inspired writers of the Old Testament were all Jewish and their understanding of God shaped Judaism, but once Jesus arrived on the scene, he provided a challenge. Their understanding of God could not accept that he would come as a servant and that the Kingdom of God would be facilitated through an entirely gracious act as opposed to adherence to the law. The fact God wanted to rescue all people, even Samaritans and Romans, was something that was too much to accept. This meant Jesus had to be executed despite his many miracles and especially due to his increased popularity among common people, who were viewed as having been born in sin and not worthy of “salvation”.
This observation should be enough to force any Christian believer to pause and consider that perhaps they need to take a second look at the God portrayed in the Old Testament. Further investigation is needed in order to better understand how these inspired authors were able to point to Jesus, yet do so in such a way that even the most avid Hebrew scholars of the day were completely blind to the way in which all the law and the prophets pointed to Jesus.
In fact, many of us do this all the time without even noticing because these old passages have inherited centuries of cultural understanding based on our understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of everything hoped for in Hebrew scriptures. Let’s take an obvious example in order to clearly show this;
“See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.” – Isaiah 52:13-53:13
The aim here is not to go through each verse, but to make a general point. From the Christian point of view found through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see this passage from a view completely hidden from its first listeners. We see the suffering servant as Jesus, who was “despised and rejected” by his own people and has “borne our transgressions” on the cross. He took this and “did not open his mouth”. It was his punishment that removed the barrier we placed between ourselves and a good and beautiful God. We are “like sheep [who] have gone astray”, but he was willing to suffer in order to “make many righteous”. That is a quick, and obvious, view of how Christians read this passage – and no wonder since it jumps off the page and is referenced in Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28 (if your bibles has that verse), Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32-33 & 28:26-27, Romans 10:16, 1 Peter 2:22-24 and perhaps elsewhere as well. It is obvious to Christians this prophetic book was speaking about more than what its original hearers would have understood, but it is important to remember that it also meant something to them. Without a belief that Jesus is God, they could not read this new interpretation into the text.
To the original, Jewish audience, the suffering servant was Israel. Isaiah 41:8 refers to “Israel, my servant” and refers to Israel as “my servant whom I have chosen” in Isaiah 43:10. The passage found above was written in the past tense and definitely can be understood to refer to the many trials the nation of Israel experienced throughout their history up until the time of Isaiah.
This focus on Israel is understandable and given the fact we are told in the New Testament Jesus is the “true vine”, which is another reference to Israel, we can see how Jesus fulfilled this passage – or filled it full of new meaning. Israel was the original covenant and the new covenant would be spread through all who believe Jesus was the true vine – the true Israel.
That is a quick look at just one passage, but hopefully helped show how Christians have learned to read the Old Testament through the lens of what is revealed in the New. The issue is that in some cases it is my belief we don’t take this “lens” approach far enough either because of the fact it is hard to do or due to the fact it could impact long-held beliefs.
I sincerely believe this hard work needs to be done because one of the most important aspects of our lives is our image of who God is. As I will discuss in a later post, we are shaped by our images of God, so it is important we understand what our beliefs about God say about his character. We will be disciples of, we will act like, the God we envision. People who see God as giving commands and expecting obedience will attempt to modify their behaviour to fit the expectations of this God, whereas people who see a gracious, all-loving God will be much more secure and willing to take risks due to their belief in a God who is forgiving and willing to work with imperfection.
As I read the vision of God described by these radical Jewish believers who saw Jesus as the Messiah, the true Son of God, I see a community of believers galvanized by an image of a God who is love, truth, grace and peace. They were constantly reducing the legal requirements for new believers and allowing the Holy Spirit to refresh their minds with pictures of God as gracious and compassionate, self-sacrificial, willing to enter into a mess and asking his followers to do and be the same. They called their message the Good News of this new upside-down kingdom and spread their belief that the kingdom was available to everyone, not just to a select few, but even to people who had been explicitly excluded by Hebrew law.
These early believers were not afraid to “re-interpret” the Old Testament law based on the new information they had seen revealed through Jesus Christ.
What this means is we need to seek the Spirit’s help in understanding some of the passages that cause “issues” in the Old Testament. It is my personal conviction that any passages that portray God in a light that could not be described as self-sacrificial love as displayed on the cross may require a new lens. It will require us to turn to the source of light and revelation as opposed to continuing to look at shadows, which is how Paul describes the law in Colossians. We may need to stop looking in the “mirror dimly” and start looking at the real image behind these blurry reflections.
We are told over and over again in the New Testament, the clear, perfect and 100% accurate image is Jesus Christ.
The Hebrew view of the God of the Old Testament is still reflected in Christian belief despite the revelation of Christ
Despite the fact Christians have a firm belief that Jesus showed a perfect picture of who God is, many still have an image of God shaped and framed by the Jewish perspective of God, which does not believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah. While, in many ways, we share a common foundation, as mentioned above, the difference is Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God and the exact image of him in every way. God and the Son are One. Because of this, our view of God should change, but many Christians still share similarities with this Jewish image of God;
When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me about a man who was very strong. They told me he could destroy the whole world. They told me he could lift mountains. They told me he could part the sea. It was important to keep the man happy. When we obeyed what the man had commanded, the man liked us. He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn’t like us. But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he didn’t like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us. We call these days “holidays.” On Purim, we remember how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover, we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah, we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.
– Blessed is He, we prayed
As bad as these punishments could be, they were nothing compared to the punishments meted out to us by the man himself. Then there would be famines. Then there would be floods. Then there would be furious vengeance. Hitler might have killed the Jews, but this man drowned the world …
I have very little sympathy for veal.
According to the website NoVeal.org, Young calves are taken from their mothers and chained by the neck in crates measuring just two feet wide. They cannot turn around, stretch their limbs, or even lie down comfortably. Like a yeshiva — or a madrasa, or a Catholic school. Except for the “taken from their mother” bit, the lucky little calves; my mother put me in the box and made it very clear that her love was conditional upon my remaining in the box. To make matters better, nobody is standing outside the veal’s crate telling him that there is some sort of Cow Almighty in the sky, and that Cow Almighty commands the veal to stay in the box, and that, moreover, the constraining box he finds himself in is a gift — a gift from Cow Almighty because veal are Cow’s chosen cattle, and if veal even thinks about leaving the box, or questioning the box, or even complaining about the box, well, Cow help him …
I was raised like a veal in the Orthodox Jewish town of Monsey, New York … the people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of him, too — they taught me about a woman named Sarah who would giggle, so He made her barren; … about a man named Moses, who escaped from Egypt, and who roamed through the desert for forty years in search of a Promised Land, and whom God killed just before he reached it — face-plant on the one-yard line — because Moses had sinned, once, forty years earlier. His crime? Hitting a rock …
I wonder sometimes if [I] suffer from a metaphysical form of Stockholm syndrome. Held captive by this Man for thousands of years, we now praise Him, defend Him, excuse Him, sometimes kill for Him … The people who raised me will say that I am not religious. They are mistaken. What I am is not observant. But I am painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each one more hateful and bloodthirsty than the next, as I’m doing my best to lose Him. I’m failing miserably.
I believe in God.
It’s been a real problem for me.
(Taken – and slightly re-arranged for emphasis – from “A Foreskin’s Lament” by Shalom Auslander, published by Riverhead Trade, 2008)
This is obviously an over-exaggerated depiction of one man’s struggle with his religion and we laugh and think how foolish it is for anyone to view God in such a ridiculous way. Yet, if we seriously consider how we view God, many of us will be forced to admit our views have not been that dis-similar. To many of us, God is in complete control of everything that happens, we must strive to please him and if we don’t, he may choose to send us to Africa or put us through “hell” in order to bring us back to what his perfect will is for our life.
This view of God looks much more similar to the exaggerated view depicted above than to the Christian revelation of God through Jesus on the cross.
Our view of God, and his love, needs to be modified. As we will discuss further, how we view God matters because unless we have a real revelation of God’s love and his eternal desire to free us and reconcile us to himself, we will continue to have a sense of fear in our dealings with him. We will tread on eggshells rather than becoming transparent and open with him in order to allow him access to the most hidden parts of ourselves.
In the next post, we will build on the Jewish understanding of the world and how, if we are to reconcile the two biblical portrayals of God, we must learn to read the bible first and foremost as it was intended to be heard, rather than how we have come to understand it.
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Checklist Time
12. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?