hen Jesus considered how people regarded the commandments of God, He said, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Did what He had to say about God have that distinctive mark of being a departure from previously held ideas?
Predominantly Jews thought of God as holy—totally different and separated from humans. His purity is so intense and severe that it will not tolerate any contamination. Approaching the holy Presence was punishable by death (Ex. 19:11-13). Though Moses is described as the man who conferred with God face to face (33:11), when Moses asked to see God’s glory he was told that he would not be able to survive seeing God in all His glory, and so God would show him only His retreating glory (vv.18-23). From generation to generation Jews thought of God as the Most High God who was so fearfully unapproachable that they dared not even take His Name even though God had given it to Moses and was written in their Scripture.
Into this Jewish world, Jesus entered. His life spoke for God. “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father… No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:14, 18, NET). In Moses’ day anyone straying onto the mount of God’s presence was punished with death, but in Christ ordinary folks got to gaze on His holiness and jostle God and they lived to tell of it, and His enemies even got to “manhandle” Him without being struck dead immediately (1 John 1: 1-4).
In Moses’ day anyone straying onto the mount of God’s presence was punished with death, but in Christ ordinary folks got to gaze on His holiness and jostle God and they lived to tell of it.
While the essential thrust of Christ’s teaching was about growing aware of the Kingdom of God being “next door” (“at hand”, KJV) to where we are in life and about the need to bring ourselves into alignment with the rule of God while we still have the choice, He did what He could to dispel the ignorance and/or the misconceptions about God.
One definitive statement about God that Jesus made is that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In line with this, Jesus taught that what God was interested in is the state of the heart-life of people. He emphasised that scrupulously keeping the letter of the law was not the kind of morality that God wanted. People shouldn’t break the laws of God in their hearts. Not enough that a person desists from murder, but he mustn’t even harbour hatred in his heart. It wasn’t enough that a person didn’t commit adultery, he shouldn’t even have lust in his heart (Matt. 5: 21-32).
Jesus also ridiculed the Jews for their practice of showing off how religious they were by conducting their devotional life in public view. He said that whenever anyone did that, the only thing the person really wanted was human approval and he would surely get it. But if a man wanted God’s approval then he had to do all his praying, fasting and charity only for God’s exclusive viewing pleasure (6: 1-18).
Perfect in Mercy
Another definitive statement of Christ’s is that the “Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). He then links the idea of perfection to the fact that God is not discriminatory in His benevolence (vv.44-47). The common blessings of sunshine and rain come to all irrespective of whether people are good or evil. When Luke recorded the same teaching, he replaced the statement about God’s perfection with “Your Father is merciful” and notes that God is kind to all (Luke 6: 35-36), even to those who are ungrateful and wicked.
The words “perfect” and “merciful” are not similes. We may be sure that Jesus talked of God’s perfection. But we may be equally sure that Jesus talked of God’s mercifulness in this context, because Luke was a meticulous historian. This suggests, no, more than suggests, it affirms and asserts that the perfection of God is His mercifulness. Mercy is the essential characteristic of divinity.
While regarding God as perfect would have come to the Jews naturally, thinking of the essence of divine perfection being mercy would not have occurred to them even remotely. They were used to thinking of God as the demanding perfectionist. They grew up with the idea that the slightest infraction of God’s laws would bring down the wrath of God because that is how their priests represented God to them. The sacrifices that they brought to atone for their sins were rejected for the slightest “defect”. No one associates mercy with the kind of God who would reject even attempts at reconciliation. It was against this backdrop of priestly teaching and conduct that Jesus shook the foundations of Jewish thought by saying the Father is merciful.
When talking to the Pharisee Nicodemus Jesus said, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, NET).
God Who Incarnated
One parable that Jesus told depicts God as sending His Son to deal with rebellious people. In the story, a king sends servants to collect his dues from people. When they abuse and attack his servants, the king finally sends his son in the hope that they will honour the son. The son of the king is not shown as coming with armies to defend him or fight the enemies. The story ends with the son getting killed. When the priests heard this story, they understood it as a story about themselves (Matt. 21:33-45). It was in effect the most complete parable about the incarnation.
The Jews didn’t believe in incarnations, but the Greeks did. However, in their mythological stories incarnations happened again and again. They turned up on earth to verify whether or not people who were reputed to be cruel to the downtrodden were really so. When the incarnations were tormented, they would reveal themselves to be gods and destroy the tormentors. Such incarnations would happen periodically. The life and teaching of Jesus made it clear that God did not have to keep on doing something. Once is enough for His plan to be made effective and His purpose to be achieved.
The second difference is that the incarnations were only gods in disguise. They never became human. However, when God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, He did not don a disguise. He became human. He hungered, thirsted, and was wearied. He hurt, bled, and wept. He cared, comforted and rejoiced. He had human experiences, felt human emotions and He died. Jesus was not pretending to be human. He was human. God became human.
The third difference is that all avatars and mythological incarnations are said to have come to destroy evil. They never had a plan of salvation to redeem the wicked from wickedness. Their solution was that the gods would become furious, descend in human shape, prove the guilt of the cruel, and in the end destroy the bad ones with one mighty act of annihilation. Jesus, on the other hand, came to save. “God did not send His son to condemn the world, but to save the world” (John 3: 17).
When Jesus taught about God, people did not picture God as one demanding perfection and growing violently angry with imperfection. They got the picture that God was forgiving. Jesus told stories of how God rejoiced when people came back to Him (Luke 15: 1-10), because God was like a father waiting for his prodigal, wayward son to return home (vv.11-32).
When Jesus taught people they met God for the very first time. All their previously held ideas were wrong. They could relate to God.
In the story of the prodigal, the son left home disrespecting the father by asking for his inheritance while the father was living. He moved as far away as possible from the father. Squandered what he had received from his father. When everything was gone, he recalled how well he was taken care of in his father’s home. When he retraced his steps to return home, he found the father on the lookout waiting to have him back. That is how Jesus depicted God: ready and waiting to forgive those who would return to Him.
Matthew commented that the “common people heard Him gladly”. They were amazed by what He taught and the way He taught it authoritatively (Matt. 7:29). When Jesus taught people they met God for the very first time. All their previously held ideas were wrong. They could relate to God. They knew He would accept them instead of finding fault with them. They knew He would forgive them readily because He was their Father.
For the most part Jesus referred to God as “my Father”. It wasn’t to only disciples that He talked about His Father (see 12:50). He talked about God being Father so casually that this was the biggest lesson Jesus taught about God. It is important to note that Jesus didn’t use the formal word “father” when He addressed God directly. No one else had talked to God in such intimate terms as to call God Abba.
The word abba wasn’t the formal word for father. It was the word a little child would use to address his father. And, when people grow up using one name for a parent, it remains the word they use even when older. My children still address me as “papa”. They have never addressed me as “father”. (I think it is only in literature that adults are shown using formal words sometimes when addressing their parents. It isn’t normal).
Jesus had grown up talking to His Heavenly Father calling Him Abba. When He taught people to pray, Jesus said that people were to address God as Abba. This was a lesson too revolutionary to ignore. Paul, the great scholar of the New Testament Church thought that it was so remarkable that while writing in Greek, he preserved the Aramaic word Abba right in the middle of the Greek text (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
Even though He didn’t say it in so many words, through His life and teaching Jesus did do an exercise of saying, “You’ve heard it said that God is angry, judgemental and unforgiving, but I say to you, He is not at all like that. He is perfect in mercy, approachable and touchable, and forgiving, because He is your Abba.”