What if you’ve been thinking about God the wrong way, or worshipping him for the wrong reasons, or reading your Bible through the wrong lens, or praying for the wrong things?
We don’t like to entertain questions like these. Why should we? We already know what we need to know.
God is God. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. Absolutely sovereign. Absolutely holy. He transcends human knowledge and imagination, designing universes too large to comprehend and too small to fathom. Worship is the only logical posture for those that have embraced this reality, those who recognize how small and limited they are and have opened their arms in blissful surrender to a God who loves them enough to take on human flesh and redeem their sins with his own blood, but also too righteous and just to leave those who refuse to acknowledge the self-evident truth of their existence unpunished.
This is the theology I was raised with. Most systematic theology books present a similar picture. We start with God the Father, Yahweh, our limitless Creator, then we move to God the Son, Jesus, who took on flesh and redeemed our sins, then the Holy Spirit, the one who . . . well, we’re still figuring that out.
A few years ago I read a book by Dennis Kinlaw that presented a different approach, an approach that has forever changed the way I think about God.
He started by emphasizing how critical it is to understanding God as he is, not some construct or caricature. Our perception of God affects the way we think and act on a profound level, not just in church or around Christians.
Then he showed how the twelve men that spent three years walking and talking with Jesus did not recognize him as God. Even after all the miracles and all the teaching, Phillip approaches Jesus before the Last Supper and asks him to show them the Father.
Maybe Phillip didn’t imagine that the same God who breathed life into flesh would stoop so low as to enter it. Maybe he didn’t think that the same God that plagued Egypt and split the Red Sea would every claim to be “humble and gentle in heart.” Could the Almighty God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kneel down and wash their feet? Obviously Phillip’s perception of Yahweh was at odds with what he saw in Jesus.
But what did Jesus say? “Have you not come to know me, Phillip? If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”
John claims that no one has seen the eternal God, but Jesus, who came from the Father, has revealed him to us (John 1:18). Paul claims that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). The author of Hebrews calls Jesus the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb. 1:3).
In “Let’s Start with Jesus,” Kinlaw claims that systematic theologians since Augustine have begun their work with questions about the being of God. This places the emphasis, after we have decided we can believe that God exists, on the attributes of his being—such abstract qualities as infinity, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, unchangeableness and impassibility. Jesus clearly is leading us in a very different approach. When Jesus is sending out the seventy-two, he says, ‘No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Luke 10:22).
Jesus insists that he is a window to the inner life of God himself, not on just how God relates to his world. We as creatures only can see him from the outside. Jesus’ claim is that he knows and sees God from the inside.
When it comes to the Trinity, we always start with Jesus. The Old Testament adamantly presents a God who is one. Jesus does not argue, but he presents humanity with a new way of thinking of “one,” a “one” that is three. Believers in the Trinity will then go back to the Old Testament and see the Godhead at work. A Hasidic Jew will beg to differ. Same book, different lens.
Can we start with Jesus in other areas? What about God’s sovereignty? Questions about sovereignty have torn our church in two. Is it true that God is not willing for any to perish, or does he pre-select people for damnation? Maybe I should find some scholar to convince us that both are true. Or find some humble pastor to convince us that it’s none of our business. Just trust God. We’ll find out when we’re dead.
I disagree. I say, rather than creating a theology of sovereignty with a patchwork quilt of Bible verses, we should start with Jesus and work our way back. What can we see in the actions and character of Christ than can shed some light on the issue? Did Jesus walk down the street calling each person by name, affirming their various professions and personalities and talents, sharing his predictions of their futures? We don’t see much of that. But we see some. It’s definitely worth a closer look.
We might say that Jesus did not share the absolute sovereignty of God because he was encased in human flesh and, at some level, was held to the limitations of a human mind, bound in time and space. Didn’t he say that only the Father knew the time of the Second Coming, not the Son?
But Jesus didn’t apologize for being human. He didn’t say, “If you see me you see a sort-of vague, shadow-like, fleshy reflection of the unknowable God.” He claimed to be humanity’s access point to the Father. Our only access point.
Sometimes Christians say that when God looks at us, he doesn’t see us, but sees Christ. What if we flip that around? What if we looked toward the Father through a Jesus lens? How would that affect our theologies? How would that affect our prayers? Let’s start with Jesus.