The other day, we looked the knowledge and experience of God as a relationship. Today, we’re going to see how this plays out in the life of Jesus.
It should come as no surprise that the second-person — relational or personal — perspective of God is the primary way knowing God is expressed in the life of Jesus. He was, after all, Jewish, and the Abrahamic traditions are all dominantly relational. Jesus would have been raised with those stories of Abraham dining with God and Jacob wrestling with God, of God entering into contracts, acting on behalf of, and speaking to the people. And so, Jesus came by his relational understanding of God naturally simply by virtue of his culture of origin, irrespective of what else we may believe about him.
One of the places we see this relational characteristic is in the vivid, personal metaphors and parables Jesus uses to talk about God. Jesus describes God as a lord calling in his accounts, a righteous judge, someone roused from their bed by a neighbour in the middle of the night, and a woman who has lost a prized possession. And since we humans know no other life than a life lived in relationship with others, and since humanity doesn’t really change, these metaphors continue to resonate with us and our experiences two thousand years later.
Probably the most important of these analogies in Jesus’ teaching was his revelation of God as Father. On its own, this teaching does not make Jesus unique — patriarchal imagery for God was not uncommon within either his tradition or the broader Ancient Near Eastern and Classical Mediterranean worlds. But what is remarkable about his description of God as Father is that for him it is entirely a positive metaphor. The Father of Jesus is far from the tyrannical Roman paterfamilias who exercised full legal right, including the right of life and death, over even his adult children. Instead, the divine Father-figure Jesus describes is generous, giving, loving. He cares more about the safety of his children than about his own honour. This is most famously seen in the story of the Prodigal Son, in which a son who demanded and subsequently wasted his share of the family fortune returns home prepared to work as a slave in his father’s household. As recorded in Luke’s Gospel:
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Lk 15.20ff)
The image of God as Father for Jesus is therefore all about abundant, overflowing, and selfless love in action. Jesus did not just speak of God as a father, but of his father, and not just as his father but as his Abba, his dad. It is therefore less an image of power and authority than it is one of intimacy. God’s fatherhood for Jesus is not about domination, but about love. Moreover, what Jesus knows and experiences of God is not just for him, but is open to everyone by grace; as he says after his resurrection, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn 20.17).
And so, the second-person perspective of God pervades Jesus’ teaching.
But, of course, the Christian tradition maintains that Jesus is not just a teacher or moral example for us: Jesus does not just teach us about God, but also manifests God to us. As the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Heb. 1.1-2). God is not just personal for Christians, but incarnated as a specific human person. This isn’t an extreme or even conservative position — even a self-identified “liberal” theologian like Marcus Borg wrote: “One of the defining characteristics of Christianity is that we find the revelation of God primarily in a person, an affirmation unique among the major religions of the world” (The Heart of Christianity, 80).
So great is this Christian insistence on meeting God in the man Jesus that this second-person perspective, and specifically this christocentric perspective, has been the lens through which all other kinds of experience have been understood. As we will see in future posts, union with God is, for Christians, always union with God in Christ. And finding God in the interconnectedness of all things is, for Christians, always an encounter with the divine Logos who is that very same Jesus.
Christian faith is and has always been primarily about this personal encounter with God in the man Jesus. He is the one in whom we meet and see God, to whom, to pick up on Ken Wilber’s language, we “must bow and surrender,” from whom our egos cannot hide, he whom we “must love until it hurts, love to infinity, love until there is no me left anywhere,” and he who “can and does release, forgive, heal, and make whole” (Integral Spirituality, 159).
And so, in both the example of his life and in the ways Christianity has understood his unique “godmanhood,” Jesus represents for Christians the fullest expression of the second-person — relational and personal — knowledge and experience of God.
In the next posts, we’ll explore the other perspectives and how they are similarly manifested in Jesus’ life.