WHAT DOES GOD LOOK LIKE? (1)

 

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I suppose we’ve all grown up with some or other picture of God: the bearded man in the sky with a frown on his face? Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God?’ (1741) (see footnote**) The kindly and harmless Father Christmas in the sky? ‘The man upstairs?’ I grew up in a nominally Christian home: as a young teen I recall being impressed by God, I was aware of his holiness and yet also sensed that in his goodness he somehow ‘had time for me.’ To escape judgment I used to recite the Lord’s Prayer last thing at night in case he came for me and I had sinned (I wasn’t guilty of any coarse stuff but had a tender conscience about subtler things). I was pretty much a parent-pleaser (by excelling at school) and somehow imagined that God the Father was someone to be made happy at all times. If I failed, I just had to ‘try harder.’ These images of God, usually false, have obviously affected the way we relate to God, others and ourselves. Hence the all-important question, ‘what does God really look like?’ [We’ve already indicated some perceptions of the ‘Christian God’: in this blog we won’t be considering non-Christian deities, past and present]

Before referencing the Scriptural revelation of God in answer to our question, it may be worth highlighting some contemporary debate – inside and outside of traditional Church parameters. Here’s a brief resume of materials I’ve collected over the last few years:

  • Teacher, author and copywriter Keith Giles, living in California, fellowshipping with a house church group that gives 100% of their offerings to the poor. Giles maintains that many Christians still hold fast to the idea that the Father of Jesus, especially as depicted in the OT, is often that of a wrathful, impatient, angry and even bloodthirsty God. This in contrast to Jesus the Son, who is decidedly softer and more gentle in personality. People try and reconcile Father and Son by referring to the Trinity, three distinct persons yet making up the one substance we call the true God. Giles insists Christians are off-base when they attribute two different personalities to the Father and the Son. To him the Scriptures repeatedly affirm that Jesus is what the Father looks like, i.e. the Father looks like Jesus. I.o.w. the Father is not the wrathful, angry, petty and violent God we often think he is – in fact, Jesus reveals an ‘Abba’ (father) who looks just like himself in heart and character.
  • American teacher, blogger and multiple author, Frank Viola, who has abandoned hierarchical institutional ‘Church’ structures for ‘organic church.’ ‘Someone may object that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are the subjects of the Bible. But remember that the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and He has come to manifest and glorify Christ. Biblically speaking, there is no God outside of Jesus Christ. God is known in and through His Son.’
  • Brian Zahnd, the lead-pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He is a prolific writer and writes from a fairly recent radical transformation of his life and theology. He writes about ‘The Faceless White Giant’ he grew up with. This is an angry God who terrified him. As a young man he liked Jesus but was scared of his ‘dad.’ George MacDonald (Scottish minister, author and poet, 1824-1905) helped him: ‘I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ.’ This he sees in contrast to Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Angry God’ toward sinners: hence his book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.’ 
  • Jason Micheli of Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia. He puts it tersely, ‘If you can’t say it about Jesus, don’t say it about God.’
  • American author and blogger, Josh Lawson. ‘Behold, the game-changer! Any picture of God that does not align with the Man from Nazareth is false.’
  • American blogger, Becky Johnson. “‘God,’ as a name can be used in any fashion we wish until we come to see Him through Christ.”
  • Renowned British theologian, NT scholar and author, Tom Wright. In his The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion he says, ‘I suspect, in fact, that we have been misled by the easy assumption that while the Son and perhaps the Spirit are out and about on their various tasks, the Father is, as it were, waiting back at the office, calmly in charge of the world. But if the Christology of the New Testament means anything, it means that we only learn the deepest truths about God himself by looking at Jesus.’
  • Probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Swiss-German Karl Barth. He put it like this: ‘Any deviation, any attempt to evade Jesus Christ in favour of another supposed revelation of God, or any denial of the fullness of God’s presence in him, will cause us to fall into darkness and confusion.’
  • Bobby Grow of The Evangelical Calvinist, citing Barth, takes it one step further. He submits that ‘for the Christian there is no God without the humanity of Christ.’ Christians don’t KNOW God without God in his humanity in Christ. Christians don’t have an abstract conception of God that they’ve developed prior to meeting God concretely in the face of Jesus Christ. Barth is clear, we have no other conception of God available to us except for the conception that God is always already ‘the God-Man for us.’

Does all this make any difference at a personal, pastoral and societal level? Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance, as a chaplain during World War 2, came across a young soldier, scarcely twenty years old and mortally wounded. ‘Padre, is God really like Jesus?’ Torrance reassured him, ‘He is the only God that there is, the God who has come to us in Jesus, shown his face to us, and poured out his love to us as our Saviour.’ As he prayed and commended him to the Lord, the young man passed away in peace.

Small wonder that children, in their simplicity and absolute trust, were attracted to Jesus! While our Lord’s adult disciples shooed them away, Jesus rebuked them, called children to him, touched them, took them in his arms, blessed them and made them happy!

 

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Hopefully what we have shared thus far simplifies our Christian apologetics and daily interaction at home, work, in the market-place and in our places of learning. The fact that God looks like Jesus is indeed ‘good news!’ God has a human face, people can relate to him in personal friendship and intimacy. This reality has the power to change not only families but also the Church and the world!

We would not be doing our subject justice without referring to its Biblical foundations. We’ll take a look at these in Part 2 –  please stay tuned!

Footnotes:

** Does God become angry? It would seem so, from Scriptures in the OT and NT. Did Jesus become angry? On at least two occasions: when he cleared the temple from the materialistic business dealers (Jn. 2:12); when he wept tears of anger at death claiming his friend Lazarus – yet another victim! (Jn. 11:33-35). [PS, let’s not under-estimate philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards’ massive intellect and spiritual stature! He was not your typical hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher as some imagine – he was in fact a softly-spoken, highly logical and sensitive persuader]

 

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‘REVIVAL’ – SOME QUESTIONS & SUBMISSIONS [PART 2]

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Before proceeding, I believe many well-meaning evangelical Christians crave ‘revival’ at the expense of the Reviver. Some pray for revival so that they may conveniently escape the troubles besetting their society and avoid the challenges of daily Jesus-following. ** See footnote.

So what might ‘revival’ look like today, in this post-Christian era??

Certainly today’s Church and societal ethos is radically different to that of bygone years. The commonalities of past revivals like prayer, repentance, the Cross, transformation and mission will probably recur in contemporary situations, to a lesser or greater degree or in different forms. E.g, we’re definitely not living in the Scottish Hebridean society of the 1940’s. Mary Morrison, converted in that revival, related how as children, from their earliest days in the home and at school were steeped in sabbath observance, Bible-memorization and the Westminster Confession of the Church of Scotland. The islanders’ biggest temptation was going to the village dances and over-indulging in alcohol. By contrast, members of western churches are often biblically illiterate and exposed to very shallow and populistic preaching. In addition postmodern family-life is bombarded by public and social media dispensing amoral values.

Our local house churches recently grappled with the subject of revival, covering past revivals and then examining two very practical Bible passages. Both passages assume ‘life in Christ’ through a faith-union with him. In the NT this inward life of Christ is both vertical and horizontal (cf. 1 Jn. 1). Having focused largely on the vertical, we also need to examine the horizontal.

The first passage is James 5:13-20 (written only 20-30 years following Jesus’ earthly life and ministry). The apostle is addressing scattered churches which had become comfortable with a private ‘religion’ failing in social obligations. James exhorts his readers to true body-life: 5:15-16 (MSG), ‘Believing prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven – healed inside and out. Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed… if you know of people who have wandered from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction…’ Thus the life of faith demands mutual confession (a need for wisdom here), mutual sharing of pain and joy, concern about each other’s total well-being and prayer for one another. Of course we know these things but don’t regularly practise them! I recall visiting a highly-effective cell church in Abidjan, Coite de Voire – across the front sanctuary wall was written, Now That You Know These Things, You Will Be Blessed If You Do Them!’ (Jn. 13:17). That congregation was known throughout the city (and many parts of the world) for its care and concern for needy and broken people.

Now Hebrews 10:19-27 (Hebrews was written before the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD). If James addressed ‘practical religion,’ the unknown author of the Hebrews letter addressed people ‘too religious’ in terms of OT Judaistic sacrificial ritual. They needed to grasp the once-for-all-sufficiency of Christ as their great High Priest, who constantly interceded for them. Having reminded them of this ‘new and living way’ in Christ bringing assurance and hope, he underlines the importance of their social responsibilities: v. 22ff (NIV), ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds… Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ ‘Consider’ implies ‘giving careful thought to.’ ‘Spur one another on’ in the original meant ‘incite.’ At the moment we have many poverty-stricken South Africans inciting people to violence against local  government – as believers one can sympathise with them but not condone the violence. By contrast, in our assemblies, we should be ‘inciting’ one another to love and good deeds. The word ‘love’ today is largely understood in sentimental and erotic terms – the Bible speaks of a cruciform-love that serves [Francis Schaeffer spoke of ‘practical, observable love,’ exemplified in servanthood: cf. Jn. 13]. It all boils down to fostering a caring community versus western individualism! In order to pursue these ideals believers must meet regularly, not to be pulpit-bashed, but to ‘encourage one another’ in the light of Christ’s return. There are no ‘lone rangers’ in God’s family – close and regular koinonia is not a nice idea but a divine necessity. The young Church certainly got it right: ‘They (including the 3,000 baptized converts at Pentecost) committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42/MSG). ***

My submission: let’s not wait for a general revival, let’s live it daily, through the Christ-life within, connecting with other serious Jesus-followers all over the world! American author Wayne Jacobsen was radically renewed when God led him and his wife out of the traditional pastorate, connecting with serious Jesus-followers world-wide. You can find my own story in my blog site’s About. American Frank Viola is another out-of-the-box pioneer. His latest book ‘Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom’ is impacting many around the world. Two couples in our house group are using it in their family-prayers with much benefit. You see, institutional churches often stifle the life out of their members through boring routine, restrictive structures, a clergy-laity divide, denominational isolation and exhausting church programs. Moving outside of the organized Church is nothing new. Think of John Wesley and his field-preaching and home class-meetings (one bishop argued that no one could be converted outside of a church sanctuary) – that awakening led, amongst other things, to the change of a nation (think of the abolition of the slave-trade). Years ago, Billy Graham saw the potential of the 1970’s Jesus Revolution, but these Jesus-freaks freaked out most main-stream churches. I’ve been privileged to visit China several times and research the Chinese house church movement at post-graduate level. Some years ago it was estimated that these house groups totalled approximately 100 million plus believers. American sociologist Josh Packard’s survey of the American Church found that some 34 million believers have become ‘dones,’ not because they had backslidden but because of their commitment to Christ. ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’ (Jn. 5:17/NRSV).

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[Early Church Symbol]

In summary, we can still learn much from the parable of the lost sheep (Lk. 15:1-7): the shepherd left the 99 in safety to go after that one sheep that was lost. The more we get involved with the struggles of those around us, the more we shall see the living Lord at work, intervening and bringing change. Genuinely loving people is the currency of the kingdom. Agape love alone will change the world, usually one life at a time. ‘

By way of personal application, may I humbly make two suggestions to individual Jesus-followers and their groups:

  1. Instead of just rushing ahead with well-intentioned plans, consider listening carefully for the voice of the Father. This was the way of Abram, Elijah, John the Baptizer and Jesus. He will speak and show you the way.
  2. Begin in your own home, as did Joshua, Daniel, and the young Church. At the renewal of the covenant by God’s ancient people at Shechem, Joshua declared publicly: “‘Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD!’ (Josh 24:14-16/NIV).

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Footnotes:

** I suspect this is true in South Africa. This may include the national Angus Buchan prayer rallies, without detracting from much good accomplished by this man of God.

*** I urge you to get hold of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s booklet, The Life Together. You will never look at fellowship in the same way again.

**** With respect, I don’t go all the way with Jacobsen’s theology and ecclesiology, but God certainly is using him to bring healing to disillusioned and bruised ex church-goers all over the world. His network is also doing outstanding work among a marginalized tribe in Kenya, empowering crop-growing, small business enterprises, etc.

‘REVIVAL’: SOME QUESTIONS & SUBMISSIONS [PART 1]

Prayer For Revival Clipart

 

I have many questions about ‘revival,’ don’t you? What is it, and what is it not? (many  insist they have ‘revival,’ others that it lies ‘just around the corner’) What has it looked like in the past? Are there different kinds of revivals? What is it that eventually ‘be-devils’ even genuine revivals? What are the things common to most true revivals, amid their diversity? What would revival look like today, in our post-Christian era? (I’ve seen little written on this issue, hopefully we can agree on some pointers going forward). Surely all serious believers long for a greater sense of God’s presence in his Church and in society? (at the same time doesn’t the Church need a ‘revelation’ of what we already have and are in Christ? Cf. Eph. 1).

So what is ‘revival’? Can we agree on what it’s not? On the one hand, neither ‘soul-winning’ campaigns, nor cheap ‘prosperity gospel’ platforms, nor purely social campaigns around valid societal issues. What is ‘revival?’ A simple definition, based on biblical and historical evidence, would be an ‘awakening’ of slumbering believers to God, his holiness and his cross-shaped love. E.g. I have listened to Duncan Campbell’s sermons during the Hebrides revival of 1949 and heard Mary Peckham’s testimony (way back as a young adult in the early 1960’s in my home-city) – they both  mentioned an overwhelming sense of God’s manifest presence, poured out on praying people and the subsequent transformation of society.

How has revival been manifested historically? May I suggest we limit ourselves to the 19th and 20th century ‘awakenings’ – most of us are aware of the great 18th century revivals in England and North America under Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards:

  • As a South African I’m fairly familiar with a revival outbreak in the Western Cape town of Worcester, 1860-1864, under the leadership of the renowned Dr. Andrew Murray. For some years a small group of intercessors had gathered in the town to intercede for its citizens, one of them beating a regular path to a nearby prayer ‘koppie’ (hill) overlooking Worcester. One evening, while Dr. Murray was preaching in the main sanctuary, a group of about sixty young people were singing and praying in a nearby hall. They heard the sound of a strong wind, and all of sudden everyone was on their knees praying and crying, totally unawares of an elder and Dr. Murray himself calling them to order. The result? Fifty young people immediately volunteered to serve the Lord wherever he should call them; farming communities were transformed through prayer around the kitchen table; Dr. Murray began to mobilise missionaries to different parts of the world, including  Malawi in Central Africa (my wife’s forebears were part of that missionary thrust). [BTW, as a result of Dr. Murray’s teachings, there was a missions awakening in my home city in the 1980’s, resulting in local churches sending career-missionaries into Africa and many parts of the world]
  • Then there was the famous Welsh revival of 1904-1905, under the leadership of a young Bible College student, Evan Roberts, who had given himself to prayer for his native Wales. The first impact was on the youth who crowded out church buildings. There was minimal oratory from Roberts but his face visibly shone with the glory of God. People cried out for mercy, sang, prayed and repented. Collieries were transformed, even the underground ponies were left confused by the miners’ loving attitudes and lack of cursing. Pubs and jails were emptied. I recall as a young boy hearing the aged and white-haired Rev. David Matthews, converted during that revival, preach in a little Baptist church down the road from where I stayed. He could recite the NT by heart and wrote ‘I Saw the Welsh Revival,’ of which I have a treasured copy. God gave Evan Roberts a vision of the figure 100,000 – it is estimated that at least that many were converted during those few years.
  • Something different happened at the Los Angeles Azusa Street revival of 1906. God’s instruments included William Seymour and Frank Bartleman [I remember my son driving me down the famous Azusa Street to do some post-grad research at Fuller Seminary]. This revival didn’t impact LA as much as sparking a global outbreak of Pentecostalism centering on ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ and ‘tongues.’
  • A ‘rushing wind’ also accompanied an outpouring of God’s Spirit in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1907. Presbyterian missionaries like William Blair and others had unwittingly fallen into racial prejudice, and confessed this to the people. In turn the local believers confessed their dislike of these foreign missionaries, especially their sense of superiority. Many were awakened and converted, even amid terrible persecution by the Japanese occupiers and idol worshipers. Sadly, today the North Korean underground church is one of the most persecuted in the world.
  • I’ve already mentioned the Hebrides revival of 1949. Two old ladies persistently prayed for the their fellow-believers, one blind and the other crippled by arthritis. Young men met in a barn to pray and repent around Ps. 24. Many homes were affected, young people flocked to the gatherings in the cottages and public spaces. The sense of God’s holiness and presence was overwhelming. Villages were transformed and even hardened fishermen around the coastline were affected.
  • A particular aspect of the East African revival in Rwanda and parts of Uganda during the years 1929-1970’s, has always fascinated me. As a young believer, searching for something deeper in my relationship with the Lord and confused by some who taught a kind of holiness perfectionism, I was greatly helped by Norman Grubb’s little booklet, ‘Continuous Revival,’ based on his exposure to this move of God’s Spirit in E. Africa. Under the Rwandan Medical Mission, local revivals took place from time to time, touching many, including the renowned Festo Kivengere, author of I Love Idi Amin.’ People practised regular confession, restitution and neighbourly love. The Cross was central, bringing personal conviction of sin, brokenness, confession, cleansing, and then ‘cups running over.’ BTW, these things seem common to most revivals of the past.

Andrew Murray once observed that while most believers may not witness a general or national revival, we can pursue daily, personal revival. The apostle John helps us here in 1 Jn. 1: it’s about a constant ‘walking in the light,’ with God and one another. True revival is both vertical and horizontal. In his Gospel, ch. 15, John taught the importance of the indwelling Christ, our daily abiding in him, with resultant on-going fruit for all to see.

What are some of the dangers besetting spiritual revival movements? I suggest a few:

  • Lapsing into to self-effort, ‘control’ if you like. I tried to find out what happened to Evan Roberts after he went into self-imposed exile with the Penn-Lewis’s. Obviously there must have been some level of physical and emotional burn-out. One writer has suggested that things went wrong when Evan started taking responsibility for the revival’s results rather than leaving them in God’s hands. After starting off so charitably, he apparently became harsh and condemning in his preaching. Did he also fall into introversion? There is always the danger of an unhealthy, rigid introspection among believers. My old Scottish college principal used to say, ‘A healthy person doesn’t walk around all day with a thermometer in his mouth!’
  • Lapsing into legalism of different sorts. E.g. obsession with externals like dress, certain phenomena and leaders rather than the message. This goes right back to Jonathan Edwards’ time. It’s very much with us today.
  • Lapsing into imbalance. A pastor-friend of mine told me years ago of Dr. Maxwell’s dictum (head of Prairie Bible Institute, Canada, whose student-body experienced a powerful prayer-awakening), ‘The hardest thing in the world is to keep balanced!’ I’m thinking of balance between teaching and emotions, head and heart, the objective and the subjective. Let’s face it, God’s heightened presence during revival times cannot be contained by mere mortals for ever – sooner or later life itself has to go on. I think we see this progression in the Acts of the Apostles.

May I ask you to please re-visit this topic, continued in Part 2, where we’ll be asking the all-important question, ‘What might revival look like today?’ Will Jesus and the Bible surprise us?