The Lost God of Jesus

There was a time in the history of Judaism when the main source document of their religion appears to have been lost or mislaid. As a result, the leaders and their people drifted from the roots and standards of their faith – becoming involved in idolatrous worship. Scholars seem to disagree as to how long the ‘Book of the Law’ was missing – but its finding by the priest Hilkiah is recorded in the Jewish scriptures as being in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign (622 BC). After its discovery, a national reformation took place in Judah.

The whole history of Judaism and, indeed thereafter, Christianity, appear to have consisted of periods of reformation then decline, reformation then decline in constant, ever-increasing circles.

It also becomes clear that reformation, in any generation, is almost always partial. Something is always lost or left behind. This is seen most clearly, in more modern times, in what many consider to be the partial ‘reformation’ ushered in by Luther, Calvin and others at the time of ‘The Reformation’ of the 1500s in Europe. Many believe the ‘reforms’ of the ‘Reformers’ failed to address many of the supposed errors and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not arguing for or against that here – simply noting what some believe to be true.

Consider then a religious movement, Judaism, which dates back to the Bronze Age, having grown out of polytheistic Canaanite religions with the eventual claim to know and serve the only true God. Consider its birth and growing pains, decline and reformation down to the time of Jesus. Before the arrival of Jesus, there was a gap of some four hundred years, known as the ‘Intertestamental Period’, from the ministry of Malachi (c. 420 BC) to the appearance of John the Baptist in the early 1st century AD, when the is no record of God having spoken in a way that was considered worthy of being recorded as ‘scripture’. Most Jews believed prophecy ceased at the beginning of this time. 

In Jesus’ day, the religious experts of Judaism seem to have differed significantly on theological matters – the Sadducees emphasized the Torah (the first five books of what we call the Old Testament), while the Pharisees accepted a broader collection. This difference led, for instance, to disagreements on the doctrine of the afterlife/resurrection (Acts 23:8) – the Sadducees, as we know, denied the possibility of resurrection. 

All of the above is noted to ask a question. If the truth can be lost, if God can be misrepresented, if it is possible that no one now bears accurately the image of the Divine Source, if The Creator of all things, who has been given the name ‘God’, has been misrepresented, his identity lost, buried under mounds of religious misunderstanding, how can all that be restored to humanity in order that they can ‘see’ and ‘know’ who this ‘Creator God’ really is?

Of course the answer to that question, I have always believed, along with millions of others, is that the one true God, among a plethora of lesser gods, sent Jesus who, according to the writer of the book of Hebrews is ‘The radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being …’ (Hebrews 1:3 NIV).

For many in his day this Jesus appeared to be himself a ‘reformer’ – set on purifying Judaism from centuries perhaps millennia of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of its God. Certainly, he had no compunction in stating again and again when referencing the Jewish scriptures and traditions – ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say …’. He says this at least nine times in Matthew alone. I believe the significance of this is very often overlooked or indeed deliberately avoided. So, as I have said I think many within the religious establishment of his day saw Jesus, at least in the early days of his ministry, as a radical reformer. However, as his statements became more outlandish to their ears they changed their tune. His teaching on one occasion resulted in this outburst directed at a would-be follower whom Jesus had healed – 

Then they reviled him and said, “You are His disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses; as for this fellow, we do not know where He is from.

John 9 28&29 

A short time before this encounter we read – ‘Some of the Pharisees said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.”‘ (John 9:16) How could a blatant lawbreaker, according to their tradition, be from God – impossible!

I think we very often downplay the gravity of such statements and brush them off as of no consequence, saying – ‘Oh, that’s just the Pharisees – legalists sticks in the mud.’ But that is to ignore the gravitas these leaders enjoyed in their time and within their religious tradition. They knew the Jewish scriptures and traditions back to front – and this man, in their considered estimation, did not – he was an imposter. Indeed, Jewish theologians hold to this view even today. Who are we to believe?

And Jesus cannot be from God for this reason, according to the religious leaders of his generation, he was setting aside the traditions and requirements of Jewish law and custom. He is in reality, very often, reinterpreting traditional Judaism rooted, as it is, in the Jewish scriptures. It is as much as him saying – ‘you have this all wrong – this is not at all what God is like at all!’ In fact, at one point he goes so far as to say to them that their god is not the God he represents but Satan himself (see John 8:44). This Satan, also known as The Devil, The Accuser or Prince of Darkness, a powerful evil spirit, is antagonistic to everything Jesus stands for – but not, apparently, to the religious leaders of his day. This then is how far Judaism had fallen – to the extent that is now led by forces who are the antithesis of the true God. Again, I think we gloss over this and fail to grasp the full significance of this. 

So here is the question. How far back had this erroneous view of the Divine Being gone? A hundred years – 500 years or an indeterminate period of time? Indeed, did anyone, until Jesus, fully understand and represent the truth about the true God – the Divine source of everything? 

While we do not have the space or time to look at this in any detail, there is no doubt that the Divine Source and Creator of all things we call God, was never, before Jesus, fully revealed. Indeed, he was often grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. One example of this assertion must suffice. Writing to the early church the Apostle Paul says concerning his ‘knowledge in the mystery of Christ’ – ‘In other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.’ (Ephesians 3:5) The beginning of this previously unknown revelation clearly has its source in Jesus as he indeed clearly suggests in an answer to the Pharisees – ‘You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.’ (John 8:19) and to his disciples – ‘If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.’ (John 14:7) But who is the God and Father of Jesus as opposed to the god of the Jewish religious establishment?

In all of this, it is, I suspect, of vital importance to see the aspects of the god of the Old Testament scriptures which are emphasised by Jesus, which are not, and which remain firmly in the background. This would again be a significant study in its own right and can only be touched on at a surface level here.

The most common name of God in the early Hebrew scriptures is El or Elohim. In Genesis 1:1 we read – ‘In the beginning Elohim created …’ This title is then repeatedly used in the following verses. Of course, there are others – prominent among the most revered being – Adonai, Jah and Shaddai.

Almost all our English translations translate Genesis 1:1 by using the term God (Elohim) as the creator of all things. However, the authors of the Amplified Bible clarify this translation by pointing out – 

This is originally a plural form based on el (root meaning: strength), which itself is used to refer to God in compounds like El Shaddai (Almighty God). The word el is also used to refer to false gods, so the context determines whether Elohim means “God” or is better understood as “gods” (Elohim).

This plurality of the Elohim is confirmed by the writer of Genesis when he says – 

And God saith, Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness ..

Genesis 1:26 (Young’s Literal Translation)

In passing it is interesting to note how the author of the Amplified Bible translates this text –  

Then God said, “Let Us (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) make man in Our image ..

To me, this translation is somewhat disingenuous, given that the doctrine of the Trinity was not formulated till The Council of Nicaea in 325AD! So it is, at least, a retrospective interpretation of what the text means.

Encyclopedia Britannica notes – 

Though Elohim is plural in form, it is understood in the singular sense. Thus, in Genesis the words, “In the beginning, God (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth,” Elohim is monotheistic in connotation, though its grammatical structure seems polytheistic. The Israelites probably borrowed the Canaanite plural noun Elohim and made it singular in meaning in their cultic practices and theological reflections.

All would not agree, however, as there are other scholarly opinions today as to the actual meaning of this term – but we will leave that contentious debate for another day!

 Although there are a multiplicity of names for God in the Old Testament one of the most widely used, occurring nearly 300 times, is Jehovah Sabaoth’ – translated as meaning ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies.’ Some translate ‘Sabaoth’ as ‘The Ruler of the multitudes.’ 

This title of address first makes its first appearance in 1 Samuel 1:3 when Hannah is praying for a son. When she appeals to God, she does not cry out to a loving Father God but to the warrior and commander of the armies in the heavens. However, there is even a hint in the Old Testament that God was not satisfied with being addressed in such terms. On one occasion, through a prophet, he declares to his people – ‘I thought you would call me Father’ (Jeremiah 3:19).

The title Jehovah Sabaoth’ is used only once in the New Testament – in James 5:4. There is also a reference in Romans 9:29 but this is a quote from the prophet Isaiah. This term never falls from the lips of Jesus nor is it used by him to refer to God which, given its prominence in the Old Testament, is somewhat shocking.

How many times then, we might ask, is God addressed as ‘Father’ in the Old Testament? The answer is equally as shocking – only twice and that from the lips of one man – Isaiah (Isaiah 63:16 & Isaiah 64:8). Even the concept of God as a father is only used a further 13 times in the entire Old Testament.

And yet, among the first recorded words of Jesus are a reference to his ‘Father’. This happened at the moment he was found by his parents as a young lad after he had gone missing for a short time. The best translation of his reply (apparently), when questioned as to what he had been doing in the temple of that occasion, is – ‘Why were you looking for me? Do you not know that I am bound to be involved in the affairs of my Father?’ Thereafter, Jesus is recorded as addressing God as ‘Father’ over 165 times! Among his last words were – ‘Father, forgive them …’ and ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit …’ (Luke 23).

Not only is this the way Jesus addressed God – but it is the way he teaches us to address him – ‘When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven …’ (Luke 11:2)

And it was this constant reference to God as his Father that eventually set the religious leaders of the day on their murderous course which resulted in the crucifixion and death of Jesus – 

Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him because He not only broke the Sabbath but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

John 5:18

Interestingly the fact that Isaiah had said – ‘O Lord, You are our Father’ (Isaiah 64:8) appears not to have mattered.

So the way Jesus represents God appears to be in stark contrast with the way the god of the Old Testament is often revealed and presented. Jesus does not address or present God by his most commonly used Old Testament title – ‘Jehovah Sabaoth’ – the ‘Lord of Heaven’s Armies’ or ‘The Ruler of the multitudes’ but as a gracious, loving, tender and merciful Father. And he encourages us to do the same!

However, the contrast between the God and Father of Jesus and the god of violence, genocide and callous retribution at times presented in what we call the ‘Old Testament’ is most alarming and disconcerting and a problem Christians have struggled with, made excuses for or even tried to ignore as if it never existed from the very moment people started to follow Jesus. Even his own disciples could not work it out and great minds ever since have failed, as far as I can establish at any rate, to fully harmonize and reconcile these conflicting representations of God. This issue is all the more stark today for many believers who are questioning their long-held beliefs – and for many who, to use the modern term, are ‘deconstructing’ their faith. And it is no use shouting at, condemning or ignoring such people as, for the most part, as far as I can see, they/we are genuinely trying to find a God and a faith we can honestly and sincerely subscribe to. So, although the answer to this question may be beyond our ability to fully understand or adequately reconcile – still, I believe, those of us who claim to follow Jesus and worship his Father must be honest and open enough to admit to and at least attempt, in some measure, to address the apparent contradictions we see here.

To be continued .. 

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