What is God like?
If you read the Old Testament, you might notice there are plenty of times when God seems… less than peaceful. He destroys everyone except for Noah and his family in a flood (we talk about that here), tells the Israelites to slaughter everyone and everything upon entering the land of Canaan, and kills anyone who touches the Ark of the Covenant.
But in the Gospels, we see a Jesus who is merciful, kind, gracious, humble, and meek. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if Jesus didn’t also claim to be the very embodiment of God.
In John 10 he says, “I and the Father are one.”
Why doesn’t the God we see in Jesus look much like the God we see in the Old Testament? Is the Jesus we see in the Gospels actually a bait-and-switch God?
The idea behind the bait-and-switch is that you’re lured into a situation under false pretences. What you thought you were getting into isn’t the reality.
Maybe you heard about a great sale on a new phone but when you got to the store they were conveniently sold out of that model and tried to sell you on another, better (more expensive) option.
Maybe you clicked on an article online because the headline said a local woman discovered the secret to whiter teeth (dentists hate her!) and suddenly you have 14 different windows popping up trying to sell you everything from teeth whiter to Viagra to a subscription to US Weekly.
Maybe you found what looked to be a $20 bill on the ground only to pick it up and discover it’s actually a tract offering you three easy steps to salvation.
The whole point of a bait-and-switch is to get people hyped up on one thing (the bait) but sell them on something different than expected (the switch).
While no one would actually use the term “bait-and-switch” to describe Jesus, it’s still where our theology takes us.
The idea is that Jesus simply appeared meek, mild, humble, and non-violent while on earth because he had set aside his divinity. This theology would point to things like Philippians 2 which says,
[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore, we don’t actually see a contradiction between the God in the Old Testament and Jesus. The Old Testament God is who God really is while Jesus shows us what humans ought to look like, not what God really looks like.
This idea finds further support in places like Revelation 19 which says,
Coming out of his [Jesus] mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.
God was vengeful and willing to pour out his wrath in the Old Testament and while Jesus, during his earthly life, played the role of meek and mild, when he returns again he will take on the persona of vengeful God once again.
But there are a few problems with this theology.
First of all, it discounts what Jesus says about himself. As we mentioned before, Jesus declared in John 10 that “I and the Father are one.”
Later in John 14, Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
This isn’t the case if Jesus isn’t showing us the true character and nature of God. If Jesus is simply showing us how people should act before God (something Jesus also does), then he can’t say that in him we’ve seen God.
If anything he should be saying “If you’ve read Exodus, you’ve seen the Father.” But Jesus makes it very clear that he himself, as he was in his human form, is the best and most accurate picture of God.
The New Testament writers pick up on this as well. In Colossians 1 Paul writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
In Hebrews 1 the author says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Jesus is the image of the invisible God and the exact representation of God. That means God is who Jesus is.
Second, by deciding that all Scripture holds the same weight when it comes to describing God, it allows us to pick and choose what aspects of the Bible we want to follow.
For example, in Matthew 26 Jesus tells us, “All who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But, as noted above, this same Jesus in Revelation is shown to carry a sword he will use to strike down the nations. So how should followers of Jesus feel about the use of force and violence?
In the Gospels, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. But in the Old Testament, we’re told, “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” So how does God feel about forgiveness? How should followers of Jesus act when it comes to vengeance and mercy?
It’s important to remember that Scripture is not the final authority on God. Jesus is. The Bible helps us to know Jesus, and the Gospels are the historical, reliable account of who Jesus is. But ultimately, Jesus, not the Bible, is the exact representation of God.
In which case, it’s important for us to read the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus, rather than reading Jesus through the lens of the Bible. In the future we’ll talk more about why the Old Testament God looks different than Jesus and how to understand the book of Revelation.
The Jesus we read about in the Gospels is not some bait-and-switch God who only appears to be loving, merciful, and compassionate. The Jesus we see in the Gospels is exactly what God is like.