There are different images of God in the Bible. How do we know what God really is like? What is the standard by which we evaluate different images of God in the Bible? Is there a revelation from God that trumps all others?
Even though Moses spoke to God face to face (Ex 33:11) we find in John’s gospel that no one has ever seen God (John 1:18; 5:37). In contrast to this, Jesus is emphasized as being one with the father and that everyone who sees Jesus sees the Father (John 10:30; 12:45; 14:9). Thus, when reading the Gospel of John, the impression arises that in the Old Testament no one has clearly recognized God’s character, but in and through Jesus’ work and life he reveals God’s true character.
Paul hints at a similar idea in 2 Cor 3:14-15 (NET):
3:14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 3:15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds.
Paul makes it clear that this cover can only be removed when we look to Christ and turn to Him (2 Cor 3:14, 16, 18). The glory of God is visible in Jesus alone, who is God’s image (2 Cor 4:4).
Paul and John agree: in Jesus alone is clearly seen what God is really like. This thought appears again and again in the New Testament.
In Hebrews 1:1-3, Jesus is referred to as “the exact imprint of God’s nature” (ESV). F. F. Bruce explains that the term “exact imprint” probably came from the field of coinage. Jesus “is the very image of the essence of God—the impress of his being. Just as the image and superscription on a coin exactly correspond to the device on the die, so the Son of God “bears the very stamp of his nature” (RSV).24 The Greek word charaktēr, occurring here only in the New Testament, expresses this truth even more emphatically than eikōn, which is used elsewhere to denote Christ as the “image” of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15).” (Bruce, 1990:48)
Radmacher summarizes it like this: “In this context, the word means that Christ is the exact representation of God’s nature. Since God’s essence, nature, and being are invisible, the Son reveals God to us, for He is an exact visible likeness of God” (Radmacher 2009: Heb 1:3)
Adolf Schlatter concludes from Heb 1:3:
“Therefore he [Jesus] is greater than the prophets; for God’s revelation is not merely through him or to him; he is it, wherefore also his word is above the word of all other messengers of God. And because he alone is one with God’s glory and being, therefore all things are given to him and him alone for an inheritance, and therefore they are also created through him; for God is manifested in him” (1954:192).
Col 1:15-20 is very probably a hymn of the first Christians and thus a confession of their Christology. Here, too, Jesus is understood as the image of the invisible God. Patzia explains that the Greek word for “image” in verse 15 is εἰκών(eikōn). It communicates that Jesus made God visible and revealed him perfectly. Through Jesus the invisible God became visible to people (2011: Col 1:15). Col 1:19 and 2:9 add that God dwelt in Jesus in all his fullness. In doing so, Jesus reveals not just a part of God, but him in all his fullness.
N. T. Wright tries to describe the idea behind the text like this:
If there is somebody sitting in the next room, I can’t see them because there’s a wall in the way. But if there is a mirror out in the hallway, I may be able to look out of my door and see, in the mirror, the mirror-image of the person in the next room. In the same way, Jesus is the mirror-image of the God who is there but who we normally can’t see. We may be aware of his presence; many people, many religions, many systems of philosophy have admitted there is ‘something or somebody there’. But with Jesus we find ourselves looking at the true God himself. (Wright, 2004:151)
In 2 Cor 4:4 we speak of the fact that the God of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so that they cannot see “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is God’s image”. Here, too, Jesus is understood by Paul as an image (εἰκών eikōn) of God. In verse 6, Paul makes it clearer by declaring that we know God’s glory in the face of Jesus.
John 1:18 makes clear that no one has ever seen God, but that Jesus revealed God to us. Cavey explains that the word “exegesis” and the Greek word for “revealed” (ἐξηγέομαι exēgeomai) have the same root and therefore describes Jesus as God’s ultimate interpretation and description of himself (Cavey 2017: 57). Unger confirms this reading and adds that Jesus is the only true revealer of God (“the unique revealer of the Father”) (2014: John 1:18).
John defines God as love (ἀγάπη agapē) (1 John 4:8). This agape love is God’s essence. Love is now a word which many people understand and define very differently. We don’t have to guess how God fills the word love. God revealed his love, his being, to us humans in his Son (v.9). But not only in general through the life of his Son, but especially in the fact that Jesus solved our sin problem for us on the cross. On the cross, God’s being, his character, his love become visible for all people to see.
Is Jesus the highest revelation from God?
Jesus revealed God’s nature to us. But how is his revelation higher or more important than what was revealed by God in the Old Testament? Isn’t everything in the Bible equally important? In John 5:36 Jesus says that his testimony is greater than that of John the Baptist. In Mt 11:11 John is referred to as the greatest of all human beings born so far. This makes John greater than any of the other Old Testament prophets, but Jesus’ testimony is greater than John’s. The same idea can be found in the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain (Lk 9:28-36). Moses, who stands for the Old Testament law, and Elijah, who stands for the prophets, appear on the mountain and God speaks to the disciples and commands them to listen to Jesus, his son (v.35). With this God lifts his Son Jesus above the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus explains that the Torah refers to him (Jn 5:39) and thus rises above the Torah. The same thought is communicated in Hebrews, in which Jesus is compared to the Torah, Moses, Melchizedek and the sacrifices and is shown to be above and surpass them all. Jesus proclaimed that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals the Father (Mt 11:27). It can be assumed that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically here when he says that no one, which includes all persons of the Old Testament, knows the Father. Presumably, he is indicating that he knows God much better than all people who can only partially recognize God and for that reason alone can fully reveal the Father.
The essence of God is love
If Jesus is really the supreme revelation of God’s nature, then we must ask how Jesus revealed God’s character to us.
In his teaching, Jesus placed love at the center (Mt 22: 36-40), which fits in with the fact that John describes God as agape love (1 John 4:8). Bonhoeffer put it this way: “Love… is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ”(1995: 53). If agape love is really the essence of God and thus also of Jesus, then all of Jesus’ works were born out of this love and motivated by it. With this, Jesus shows us how agape love practically looks like in daily life and thus gives us an example that we can follow.
The sermon on the mount is a practical guide how love is lived out in daily life. Jesus demonstrated God’s love by teaching love for enemies (Mt 5:44) and exemplifying it (Lk 23:34). He taught his disciples to forgive at all times (Mt 18:21-22) and he did forgive them when they failed (Jn 21:15-17). He was humble (Mk 10:45; John 13:2-7; Phil 2:5-11), rejected violence (Matt 5:9 + 38f; 26:52-54; John 18:36) and was full of mercy (Mk 6:34). Jesus did not have large possessions (Lk 9:58) and through this taught and exemplified that it is not good to hang on to objects and money with your heart (Lk 12:15). Jesus revealed God to us as the God of agape love. If we want to know how God is, then we have to look to Jesus! Jesus alone reveals to us how God really is.
God is (agape) love! (1 John 4,8)
Bonhoeffer, D. (2015). Ethik. (I. Tödt, H. E. Tödt, E. Feil, & C. Green, Eds.) (Sonderausgabe, Vol. 6). Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus.
Bruce, F. F. (1990). The Epistle to the Hebrews (Rev. ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Cavey, B. (2017). REUNION. Harrisonburg: Herald Press.
Ramsey, M. (1969). God, Christ, and the Word: A Study in Contemporary Theology. London: SCM.
Schlatter, A. (1954). Die Briefe des Petrus, Judas, Jakobus, der Brief an die Hebräer: Ausgelegt für Bibelleser (Vol. 9). Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt.
Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (S. 151). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
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