A Human Face
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:18
There is a significant difference in the faces of God presented in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In the Old Testament, God is mostly mysterious, unpredictable, and intangible. God appears in dreams, as a pillar of cloud, and as a burning bush that is not consumed. God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but aloof and inaccessible except to a select few. In the Jewish Temple, the Holy of Holies – the innermost shrine where God was believed to reside – could not be entered by anyone except the High Priest, and then only once a year. Although God’s grace manifested throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the exiling of the Jewish people from their bonds of slavery in Egypt, God is presented as being mostly unapproachable and capricious, at least for the common folks.
The New Testament presents an entirely different face of God, taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In anticipation of the birth of Jesus, the coming child was referred to as Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Unlike the God often portrayed in the Old Testament, Jesus had a distinct affinity for regular people and particularly for the outcasts, sick, lame, foreigners, widows, and children. He reserved his stiffest criticism for the religious leaders who piously set themselves and their God apart from being accessible to everyone. Jesus called common fishermen and despised tax collectors to be among his chosen disciples. He associated with prostitutes and lepers. He healed, taught, and fed everyone who came to him with a sincere desire to know and experience God with us.
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus came to make God known. There would be no more struggling to understand the cryptic teachings of the priests and the prophets as go-betweens, mediating between God and God’s people. In Jesus, God was present for all to be touched and witnessed, to be healed, and to experience. Instead of saying, “Obey my commandments,” Jesus said, “Follow me.” In other words, “Do as I do.” Loving and caring for others, tending to those on the fringes of society, welcoming the stranger – God, through Jesus, displayed concrete actions that people could observe and emulate. Jesus modeled non-violence in a decidedly violent world. He preached a message of abundance to a world where food, shelter, and other necessities were hoarded by a few to the detriment of many. He shared a message of love for all to a world sharply divided along lines of race, religion, and nationality. Thankfully, he shared parables that are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago because most of these divisive realities are still with us today.
John 1:17 says, “The law indeed was given through Moses (Old Testament); grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Verse 18 names Jesus as God’s Son, “who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The authors of the Old Testament described a God whose mercy and justice was mediated through a set of rules governing human behavior. In the New Testament, God is revealed as a human being, allowing us to learn how to be with God, to be with others, and finally to be with ourselves. God is love, and it is in that love that we find God. Ultimately, we can only find the essence of our being in God. Becoming that love is what Jesus modeled for us. Jesus was God in a human body – fully human and fully spirit. When we realize that we too are a manifestation of this unity of body and spirit, we gain the ability to truly follow Jesus not just as God’s creation, but as co-creators with God in healing our broken world, even as we heal our own broken lives. The human face of God in Jesus calls to us: “Follow me.”
Note: this is the 21st in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.