When I was a young man, a religious leader told me that one of his family members, who had attended the same church I had grown up in, had been a strong lumberjack before a tree struck him, injuring his brain. This spiritual man expressed no empathy when describing this tragedy that left a family member mentally handicapped; instead, he told me that he believed the accident was God’s punishment for sin and lack of fidelity. It wasn’t the hazards of logging but God who caused this tragedy.
Another of my Bible teachers often engaged in theological tirades, demonstrating an obsession with God sending fire or lightning bolts to strike evildoers, as He did in Old Testament times. I understand that those who suffer injustice have a legitimate cry for redress, but I sensed in his outbursts a longing for an authoritative God who would execute strict and immediate justice. Over the years, this misinformed ethic of punishment drove me to search for a more believable God.
I admit that the kind of inspiration gleaned from the Bible depends on which passages one reads, and we all tend to cherry-pick. Some verses describe God loving sinners and Jesus directing us to turn the other cheek, while others describe God’s anger and swift action to vanquish His enemies. Instead of choosing a cafeteria-style Christianity, I pledged to consider the Bible as a whole in my quest to determine who God is.
James and John were spirited disciples of Jesus, who like the religious leaders I introduced above, preferred to call judgment upon the mean-spirited Samaritans. And why not? After all, Elijah the prophet had called down fire on the captains who were disrespectful (2 Kings 1:9–12). While instilling holy fear would go a long way toward gaining proper respect, Jesus did not seem pleased when James and John quoted 2 Kings. In Luke 9:54–55, Jesus denounced sending fire from heaven to consume His opponents.
As time went on, John became less certain that calling down fire reflects God’s will. Elijah called fire from heaven as a sign of God’s power, but in a provocative reversal, John made this the key text used by the devil to legitimize his campaign. “Fire comes down from heaven in the sight of all” (1 Kings 18:23–24), but this was not the true God but a false one (Revelation 13:13-14). In fact, John warned that Christianity may misrepresent God. In John’s Apocalypse, the anti-Christ power, the Jezebel, and the beast are surprisingly revealed to be different than we anticipated. The anti-Christ is neither a despotic atheistic leader nor an anti-Christian state but something very much Christian in name, though not in character. It’s a distorted Christianity.
Matthew 17 presents Jesus as radiant when conversing with Moses and Elijah on the mountain. What did they talk about? The plagues of Egypt and the deaths of the firstborns? Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven? The slaughter of the Baal worshipers? Strangely, Jesus seemed comfortable speaking to these condoners of fire and plague. He did not throw the Old Testament under the bus to save God’s reputation but affirmed the stories about floods and fire from the sky. I’d give anything to have been a fly on the wall listening to that conversation. Peter, James, and John heard the voice of God from the dazzling cloud, just as Moses and Elijah had long before (Exodus 34:5-7; 1Kings 19:11-12). Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus to settle the issue for us; they tell us to hear and obey the voice of Jesus.
The problem we face is twofold. We anticipate not only a punitive, angry God but also a distant God who seems absent or indefinitely silent. These are two very real concerns, and they are both addressed by Jesus. Jesus is the answer, and the disciples were inspired by His testimony. As they walked with Jesus, they saw tears flooding His eyes whenever He gave scathing rebukes. They got a glimpse into God’s kingdom and His true character, as Jesus spoke to them as friends—face to face—and revealed God to them. As they came down from that glorious mountain experience with Jesus, they were confronted with the reality of this fallen world through their encounter with the demonized boy (Matthew 17:14–21). Jesus’ approach to taking authority over evil is not Elijah calling down fire from heaven but Elijah’s earnest and effectual prayer (Matthew 17:20–21; James 5:15–20).
So, what sort of testimony are we giving about God’s character? Jesus is revealed as the One altogether lovely, full of grace and truth. His character—His love, mercy, and compassion—is beautifully enchanting and charming but sadly missed by so many claiming to be redeemed. The God who is apparently absent from our world is deeply involved, though in a most surprising way. This involvement is so breathtakingly beautiful that it utterly opposes anything that hinders God’s love from flowing into the world. God will rightly deal with the evil that works against His loving intentions, but we should not assume that God will initiate such violence to make peace in the world. Jesus’ unexpected departure and selfless death was the subject of Moses and Elijah’s conversation (Luke 9:30–31). The One who takes on suffering and evil on our behalf has been revealed in the God who was “crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4).
Jesus is the answer, though I admit that it’s hard to believe that God is really this good. I find myself crying from the depths of my heart, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief! Lord, take away the veil that lays over my heart in my reading of the Old Testament!” (adapted from Mark 9:24 & 2 Corinthians 3:16). We Christians are so used to thinking about God in certain ways, believing we have checked off the right doctrinal boxes and have all the right answers. Faith is not a theological opinion about God that we carry around. It’s a journey toward understanding what God is really like. It is terribly insufficient to claim certainty about God by keeping a collection of Bible texts in neat little boxes.
As C.S. Lewis wrote,
My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The incarnation is the supreme example. It leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.Grief Observed, p. 66
Jesus has come to destroy some of our cherished beliefs about God because our images of Him are inadequate. In fact, I believe it’s a grave error to erect our own images of God. Jesus repeatedly shatters these false pictures through His supreme example, but He does not destroy the Old Testament to do so. Moses and Elijah had shattering revelations of God. Who among us has a perfect view of God that never changes? It seems impossible that any of us has it all right; I’m sure I don’t. In fact, we all must change because in the end, we will become like the God we worship and admire. And as we behold the image of Jesus we are “being transformed into the same image” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Reading the Bible as a conversation with Jesus is the best form of exegesis possible. The central question is whether we trust our own understanding or seek to understand through the testimony and faithfulness of Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.