by Mark Gutman
The Old Testament seems to be widely thought of as a collection of ugly tales and rules and threats. I’ve read many writings that offhandedly or matter-of-factly mention how awful the God of the Old Testament is and how much nicer the New Testament God is. Such comments often leave me wondering if the writers of those observations have used the Bible’s binoculars. Let me explain.
Hebrews 1:1, 2, TNIV, tells us that “in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . .” What message has come from or through the Son? Jesus told the disciples, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But John 14:9 is one of the most ignored verses in the Bible. Although it gets read and quoted a lot, the meaning sails right over people’s heads. It could be said that God spoke, but few are listening. We’ve been distracted.
Distraction is a common problem. When I point to a ball for my dog to fetch, the dog looks at my finger instead of the ball. I’m not surprised; after all, he’s just a dog. But I’d be very puzzled if a human being dealt with binoculars the way my dog looks at my finger. Imagine that I overheard someone wishing he could get a closer look at a certain bird in a tree, and I handed the person a pair of binoculars. I’d be disappointed if the person were enthralled over how lovely the binoculars were, but then resumed staring at the bird without the binoculars and complaining that he couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was. I’d explain to the person that the binoculars were to be looked through (not at) to help see the distant object better.
Jesus came to show what God is like, to act as a type of binoculars so we could get a better view of someone at a distance. “Had God the Father come to our world and dwelt among us, veiling His glory and humbling Himself, that humanity might look upon Him, the history that we have of the life of Christ would not have been changed in unfolding its record of His own condescending grace. In every act of Jesus, in every lesson of His instruction, we are to see and hear and recognize God. In sight, in hearing, in effect, it is the voice and movements of the Father. . . .” Ellen White, That I May Know Him, p.338. This is an expanded paraphrase of John 14:9. Jesus is just like God. If Jesus was friendly, forgiving, sympathetic, etc., so is God.
But that idea does not get any more publicity than John 14:9. The one in heaven with the reputation as friend is Jesus. Check the hymn titles in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. Fill in the blanks. “What a Friend We Have in ___ _.” “I Will Sing of _____ Love.” “_____ Loves Me.” And if you go beyond the titles, the words of the songs have the same focus. “I’ve Found a Friend” is focusing on Jesus, not on the Father. The words of the songs are very true, but many never go beyond Jesus to say that God is just as much our friend. While “everyone knows” that Jesus is our friend, people still think of God as the serious, no-nonsense type; Jesus is considered more the sort who might come to your social and help everyone have a good time.
Our children learn early to talk to Jesus, that Jesus is their friend, that Jesus loves them. The story is told, probably apocryphal, of a children’s Sunday School teacher who asked the children what he was describing: “it has a red, bushy tail and lives in the forest and buries acorns for the winter months.” Under prodding, one child finally reluctantly answered, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus.” Jesus is featured prominently, but God shows up (from my childhood memories) in songs such as “Watch your eyes, watch your eyes, what they see.” Why? “There’s a Father up above, and he’s looking down in love.” The idea still comes across of God as an inspector, or policeman, so you’d better not get out of line. Childhood memories for most religious people are positive of Jesus and negative of God.
As adults, we still find Jesus presented as the friend, who makes God act a little friendlier to us. For praying, we frequently hear that texts such as John 14:13, 14 mean that if we don’t say “in Jesus’ name” somewhere in our prayers, God will probably not listen to them. We also learn that such texts as 1 John 2:1 mean that we wouldn’t stand a chance with a righteous God if we didn’t have Jesus as the mediator between us and God.
Here’s a word association exercise. Choose a name (Jesus, or the Father) to put after each of these words: sympathetic . . . awesome . . . just . . . gentle . . . meek . . . stern. Do you find yourself applying the first, fourth, and fifth words just to Jesus? Haven’t the binoculars helped us get a better picture of God?
Praying in Jesus’ name should mean that because of what Jesus taught and demonstrated about God, we have the confidence to pray to God as an accepting friend rather than someone who will strike us with a lightning bolt (now or later) if we offend him. The disciples belonged to a tradition much like the old medical tradition where nurses bowed to doctors rather than working with them as friends (I’m referring to the description in Better by Mistake, by Alinda Tugend, p. 136). The idea that God was as friendly as Jesus required a major change of thinking for the disciples.
And regarding mediation, Jesus said in John 16:26, TNIV, “I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf,” to which the disciples replied, “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech (v. 29).” Most folks don’t notice the word “not” in Jesus’ sentence. Goodspeed translates those words of Jesus as “I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you.” Though I’ve pulled out a few words from the John 16 conversation between Jesus and the disciples, Jesus was repeating John 14:9 from a different angle, sort of an “if you don’t need someone to intercede with me, you don’t need me to intercede with God.”
Do you remember the insurance company that got everyone’s attention with its TV commercials with the duck? AFLAC finally had to change directions with their commercials because they discovered that while 85% of people were aware of the company because of the duck, they didn’t know what the company did! People weren’t seeing past the duck to appreciate the benefits that AFLAC was offering (or selling). God has spoken to us by a Son, and we certainly notice the Son, but we seem to have ignored what the Son was trying to tell us about God. We can talk a lot about how wonderful the Son is but we seem to be still uncomfortable about God.
There’s nothing wrong with presenting Jesus as our friend, or with singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but we need to pay attention to what he was telling us about the Father. We can feel the same warm feelings about the Father that we can about Jesus because they act and think the same way. Let’s look through the binoculars God has given us in Jesus to get a better look at the Father.