As a disclaimer/hat-tip, the thoughts I’m about to process began from some things I’m reading in Brian McClaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. In one of the early chapters, he reflects on some of the issues and controversies raised by Jesus being referred to as the “Son of God”–including some of the concerns it raises in our culture about the presumed “male-“ness of God, or reinforcing the male-dominant theme many have taken from the Scripture–all of which could be debated and discussed into the ground as to what it actually means.
As much as I have discussed gender issues in the church here on this blog–believe it or not, that’s not where this is going today. 🙂 Those previous posts speak for themselves, and because our language includes both male and female in the species called “man” (and because Jesus had to be either male or female, not both), I don’t try to read sexism into God being referred to as a “He”, or Jesus being a Son. It is what it is, and I have too much respect for the Scripture to try to re-write it for political correctness, even if it causes offense. Truth is, if nothing in the Bible offends you, ever, you probably haven’t read the whole thing through. That’s why we tend to ignore or write off the parts we don’t like. 🙂
Anyway…back on topic. What has really captured my interest is when McClaren gets past the sexism discussion and reveals what “Son of God” likely meant in the context of Bible days, and to the first readers and hearers of the term. The phrase “son of” didn’t just mean biological offspring. It meant “carrying the essence of”, or “the expression of” or “emanating from”, almost the same as we refer to a child as the “spitting image” of either parent.
In other words, the meaning behind Jesus the “Son of God” wasn’t just a reference to Jesus’ genetics or lineage. In Jesus, God the Father was revealing Himself. If you want to know what God is like…look at Jesus, the very essence of Him. (There are many other Scriptures that confirm this idea.)
Yeah, yeah, the theology buffs all said. We know all that part. So….?
If you really think about this, the ramifications are staggering, and potentially mind-boggling. If Jesus contains in Himself the expression of God–if by watching Jesus we can see what God is really like–then the gospels really serve as an anchor point for interpreting the rest of Scripture, both before and after.
Think about this. If you read the Old Testament, there are many parts where God seems to function and act as a God of wrath and judgment. (There are parts where His mercy is made plain also, but we seem to recollect mainly the “angry God” portions.) We are troubled when we read that God commanded Israel to wipe out entire cities of people. We see where God allowed foreign nations to invade and plunder His people Israel because they persisted in their idolatry. We see huge signs of His wrath and judgment.
Then Jesus comes on the scene–Jesus, who is the Son of God, the essence of God. Even the Jews are fooled. Based on their own past experiences and interpretations of their own Scriptures, they expect the Messiah to be this political/military hero who beats the Romans to a pulp and rescues the Jews. Instead, He comes as an embracing, loving, peaceful man who has more to say about the Jewish authorities than the Romans, who never once tries to stir political resistance, who washes His followers’ feet, and who refuses to defend Himself, eventually yielding Himself to a criminal’s death. He welcomes sinners and has dinner with them. He lets women of questionable reputation wash His feet with their tears. He talks to Samaritans, heals on the Sabbath, eats without washing His hands, forgives adulteresses, and a whole lot of other things you would never expect from a God of wrath and judgment. And it makes no sense, even to our minds today. This is the God of the Old Testament, who angrily punished people for their sins? This is what He’s really like?
But that’s what the Bible says. That’s what “Son of God” means. (See what I mean by “mind-boggling”?)
How could this be? Did God change His mind? Did He go to counseling to deal with His anger issues sometime between Malachi and Matthew? How could this Jesus be the essence of an Old Testament God of wrath?
I’m not saying we can just do the math on this; it is definitely a puzzlement. But we can’t escape the ramifications of this. If Jesus is the essence of God, and expresses what God is really like, we may have to re-think some of our presumptions about the “angry” God of the Old Testament. We have to face the fact that even though God brought judgment, He still did it as a God of love. He didn’t change His nature. Love and wrath are not opposites, just like a parent doesn’t stop loving a child when he/she gets angry with them. The same God who judged the Jews is the same God who died for them–and for all of us. Yes, it’s the same God. We might not understand it, we might not even like it (and probably we don’t, because it’s liable to mess with our mindsets, which is never comfortable). But if we’re going to take Jesus seriously, and the Bible seriously…we must accept it. This kind, merciful, embracing expression of God found in Jesus was the true heart behind all the wrath we see in the chapters before–and all the wrath that is predicted to come in the chapters afterward, for that matter.
When we start grappling with the reality of this, it might not make it easier to accept, but perhaps it will lend perspective, and even bring a bit of balance to our own views. For example, if we are the type of Christian who justifies war with Old Testament references, we might not be so quick to assume that “God is on our side.” If we take the more liberal approach that God is ever-tolerant, would never hurt anyone, and would never approve of war, we must consider that a God of love must sometimes feel it necessary to act severely toward those He loves. But I think the key to that balance is that Jesus modeled love, and so love is the essence of God. Which means that love had to be involved in every severe act God did, or will do one day. Not love by our definition–love by His.
Not saying I have this all figured out. But it makes ya’ think, doesn’t it? 🙂