H. G. Wells in one of his books tells of a man, near to mental and spiritual collapse under the stress and strain of things, who was told by a nerve specialist that his only hope lay in fellowship with God. The man’s amazed answer was that he would as soon think of cooling his throat with the Milky Way or shaking hands with the stars as having fellowship with God. That is parallel to the Orthodox Jewish idea of God in the days of Jesus.
What was the Jewish conception of God? It can be summed up in one word: “holy,” meaning “different,” “separate,” “set apart.” By implication their God was unapproachable (see Jacob, Gen 32:30; Moses, Exod 33:20; Gideon, Judg 6:22; Manoah, Judg 13:22). Not only was God dangerously unapproachable, but His holiness affected His relationship with the sinner (see Ps 104:35; Isa 1:28; 13:9; Amos 9:10). There was a rabbinic saying: “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world.” Therefore, in Judaism men tended to think of God as the sworn enemy of the sinner. Further, God’s holiness and transcendence removed Him from human contact altogether. They even delegated to the archangels the duty of presenting the prayers of the faithful to God.
Similarly, the Greeks considered it an insult to God to involve Him in the world or in the human situation at all. The entry of Jesus into the world is the proof that God is involved in, and identified with, the human situation. In Jesus the God who was afar off has indeed been brought near.
So, what was the good news about God that Jesus brought to the Jewish nation and the world? That good news consists of four truths about God:
I. JESUS CAME TO TELL US OF AN INVITING GOD
One of the great characteristic words of Jesus is the word “Come!” He invited men to follow Him in discipleship (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17). He invited His own men to share His solitary prayer and communion with God (Mark 6:31). He invited the weary and heavy-laden to come to Him for rest and help (Matt 11:28). He likened His own invitation to the invitation for a marriage feast (Matt 22:4; cf. Matt 25:34). Continually on Jesus’ lips there was an invitation. Further, the rending of the veil in the temple is symbolic of Jesus coming with an invitation to approach the God to whose presence there are no longer any barriers.
H. V. Manson in A Traveler in Rome tells of seeing a woman in the Church of St. Clemente. He watched a poor, old, ragged woman like a little black ghost who came shuffling in wearing carpet slippers. “She was like a bundle of old dry leaves wrapped round with cobweb. First she knelt, approached the crucifix, and bending forward, kissed the feet, and placed her cheek against them, whispering all the time. She seemed to be holding a conversation with the crucifix, pausing as if for a reply, and speaking again. I fancied from her manner that she was in the habit of talking to Christ like this, perhaps telling Him her anxieties, and maybe the events in the tenement where she lived.” Here is a simple person conversing with God, just as Jesus invited us to do.
II. JESUS BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS OF A FORGIVING GOD
This invitation was not only for those who were spiritually devout, but to sinners. Around Him, the tax collectors and the sinners and the women of the streets gathered (Luke 15:1). He ate with them (Matt 9:10), so that the righteous orthodox of His day called him the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34; cf. 5:32), and that He had come to seek and save the lost (Matt 18:11). He said there would be a celebration in heaven over one sinner who repented (Luke 15:7, 10).
There is a world of difference here. The Orthodox Jews who kept the law avoided sinners. People who were sinners would never dare to approach them, even if they wished to. This is a far cry from the God who can only be approached by those who have clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:4), and whose aim is to obliterate the sinner.
Jesus came with the message of a God whose love not even sin could destroy, and whose heart’s desire was that men should accept the offer of forgiveness, and being forgiven learn to mend their ways.
III. JESUS BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS OF A SEEKING GOD
This is a God who did not wait for the sinner to come back, but who went out to seek and search for him, and appeal to him to come back (Luke 15:1–10). In Christianity, it is God who comes to man. God, then, is the Great Disturber, and His pursuit is relentless.
There is a famous poem that captures the drama of God in pursuit of man. The author, Francis Thompson, was from London. Before the age of thirty, he had been, on various occasions, a medical student, a dope fiend, a newsboy, a vendor of matches, a vagrant amidst the rubbish and garbage at Covent Garden, and a poet. Three years before his death he wrote The Hound of Heaven. It is a story of escapism, the avoidance of confrontation with Divinity, a running from the Hound of Heaven. Thompson describes his flight from God:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years; . . .
I hid from Him, Adrown Titanic glooms of chasm’ed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
When Jesus said that God would go out and seek the sinner, as He did, to Thompson, that was something sublime, and something new—the good news of God.
IV. JESUS BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS OF A GOD OF INDIVIDUAL LOVE
It is not humanity that God loves; it is humans. Other thinkers have called God by various names—the Supreme God, the First Cause, the Life Force. All these descriptions of God have one characteristic: they are impersonal. But Jesus always spoke of a God who is a person. In all reverence we may draw a certain conclusion from that. No person can live in isolation; personality and isolation are mutually contradictory. Every person needs other persons to be complete. It is in communication and fellowship with other persons that personality is realized. We therefore come to the astonishing conclusion that God needs people—that in some mysterious sense, creation was for God a necessity, and that somehow God needs the world and people to complete Himself. That is why God loves people with an everlasting love, and that is why God would go to any lengths of sacrifice to bring them back to Himself.
There is truth there—the truth that God needs man, because God is a Person—and from that truth springs the forgiving, seeking, individual love of God. But that is something of which no one had dreamed till Jesus brought to men the good news of God.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.