The Phenomenon of Christian Belief
by G.W.H. Lampe (ed.)
Chapter 2 The God of Jesus by Mark Santer
Mark Santer is Fellow and Dean of Clare College.
Having been overwhelmed by other nations, Israel had two choices: either acknowledge that their gods had done the overwhelming, and thus deny YHWH; or assert that YHWH himself had overwhelmed his own people, and thus deny the power of the gods of Babylon. And to deny their power was to deny their effective existence. It was, paradoxically, the experience of the absence of their God that drove Israel to the confession of his universal power and presence.
Mark Santer is Fellow and Dean of Clare College.
Christian belief is a traditional belief. When we say this, we mean more than just that it is old. We mean that if our beliefs are to qualify as Christian at all, they must inescapably be referred to tradition, to the beliefs of past Christians.
Now if we look at this tradition, at the beliefs of past Christians, we find that they in their turn have always felt bound to refer their beliefs to one particular piece of the tradition and to one particular generation of past believers -- the generation of the apostles. Christians of all subsequent generations have always tried -- even if one may think that they have not always succeeded -- to treat the beliefs of that first generation as somehow normative for subsequent beliefs.
This belief in the primacy of that first generation and its beliefs takes a number of forms. One of them is the doctrine of the authoritative character of the particular writings which we call the New Testament. The reason why these books are authoritative is that they are the precipitate of the beliefs of those first believers. Writings, however edifying, which were not believed to have their origin in that first generation were deliberately excluded from Scripture, because they lacked this apostolic authority. Another form which belief in the primacy of that first generation has taken is the notion that revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. Testimony is paid to this belief both by classical Roman Catholic theology, when it tries to show that the apostles knew all about the Bodily Assumption into heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and also by new-fangled theologians when they try to claim Jesus as the first Christian atheist; There is a deep conviction in the Christian consciousness that beliefs which have since been formulated can be accepted as authoritative only if they can reasonably be seen as an explication of the known beliefs of Jesus and the apostles. If this were not so, there would never have been such a fuss about the work of New Testament criticism.
But is that really the point at which the story begins? Is the New Testament really the only fountainhead of our faith? Many people clearly think so. Their belief is expressed and encouraged by the way New Testaments are printed on their own as if they were all the Bible that one really needs. Again, liturgical practice encourages this belief: many of us hardly hear anything read in Church except the Scriptures of the New Testament. It is the New Testament which, for all practical purposes, actually functions as our Bible. Christianity is regarded as beginning with Christ. He is the so-called Founder of Christianity.
But if we look at the beliefs of Jesus and the apostles as they are mirrored in the New Testament, we find that they see themselves as standing not so much at the beginning as at the culmination of a tradition of faith. Just as subsequent generations of Christians inescapably refer themselves to Jesus and the apostles, so too Jesus and the apostles refer themselves to the beliefs of old Israel and to their precipitate in what we now call the Old Testament. For them these writings are Scripture, authoritative documents of their own faith. We see Jesus and his apostles as our ancestors in faith; they saw Abraham and Moses as theirs. For all the discontinuity between the two testaments, there is immeasurably more continuity. There is a continuity of faith, which believes itself to be grounded in the continuity of the One who is believed in. That is the heart of the matter: the belief of the apostles, who were Jews to a man, that it was their own God, the God of Israel, who had now revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. The Epistle to the Hebrews expresses this feeling of continuity and culmination like this: ‘God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.’(Hebrews 1:1f.)
So the Old Testament is not just ‘background’ material for the earnest bible student, in the way that the Dead Sea Scrolls or the writings of the first century Jew Josephus are. It is not just a quarry for investigating the thought-forms of the New Testament. Nor is it just ‘introduction’: what the reader needs to know before he starts on Chapter One of the real story. No: the Old Testament is Volume I of a two-volume story, and each is indispensable for the proper understanding of the other. That is why the practice of printing and distributing New Testaments on their own is so dangerous. People read them, and think they know what they are about.
If then we desire to believe in the God of Jesus, we immediately find that what is asked of us is that we should believe in the God of Israel. For there is no God of Jesus except this God of Israel. The fact that we want to stand in the tradition of the apostles binds us to the tradition in which they stood: the tradition of the law and the prophets.
It is time now to ask more about this tradition. Who is -- or was -- this God of Israel? Translate this question into Hebrew, and it comes out in the form ‘What is his name?’
Names play an important part in the Bible. In Hebrew names have obvious meaning and associations, and people were aware of them. They were more than the merely distinguishing labels which our names usually are. Names did not merely mark off A from B; they really said something about the nature of those who bore them. To take a familiar New Testament example: Jesus renames Simon as Cephas or Peter, ‘Cephas’ and ‘Peter’ being Aramaic and Greek respectively for ‘rock’. And, to take a recurrent Old Testament example, the stories of the patriarchs are full of incidents which turn on the meaning of their names.
This is first of all a cultural phenomenon. In many fairly primitive societies a man’s name is a kind of extension of himself. To ask for someone’s name is more than to ask for his identifying label; it is to ask who he really is. Possession of a man’s name gives one, so to speak, internal and not merely external knowledge about him. It therefore gives one some kind of a hold over him. That is why in some societies people have a real name which is kept secret, and are known in ordinary conversation by periphrases or substitute names. It is too dangerous to divulge one’s real name. Your enemies may make use of it, for instance by writing it on bits of paper and setting fire to them.
The ancient Israelites did not have this practice of giving themselves secret names. But they did regard the relationship between a man and his name as being so close as almost to be a relationship of identity. An example is God’s promise to Abraham: ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great.’(Gen. 12:2.) Here ‘making Abraham’s name great’ clearly means little more than ‘making Abraham great’.
But it was not only men who had names in the ancient Near East. So too did the gods. And it was equally, if not more, important to know their names. Knowing them, you knew something of the composition of the unseen world on which the life of men depended. Knowing the names of these powers, you could address them and hope for an answer; you could plead with them, and ask them to be kind. Magical texts are full of the names of the unseen powers, for it is the names that give one the power over them. A faint echo of this survives in the conjuror’s ‘Abracadabra’ or in the ‘Open Sesame!’ of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. If you know the words, you can get the genie out of the bottle. But woe betide you if you don’t know the words to get him back in again!
I said just now that in the world of old Israel the relationship between a man and his name was so close as almost to be one of identity. Strictly it is not a relationship of identity. Rather it is one of representation. The name represents Its bearer -- and in a stronger sense than that word usually suggests. It does more than represent; it re-presents. The name is a mediation of presence. This is of great importance when one comes to think about the gods. For if the name re-presents its bearer, then (in the biblical phrase) to ‘call upon the name’ of a god is in some sense to make him present. He is not identical with his name; but where his name is uttered, there is a mediation of his presence.
Thus the name of a god has a very similar function to that of an image. The images of ancient gods, objects of wood or metal or stone, represented and represented the deities whose they were. Despite the polemic of the Israelite prophets, the nations were not so foolish as really to believe that the images were themselves gods. What they did believe was that in the images the deities made themselves present. And the holiest and most ancient images, like the famous image of Artemis at Ephesus, were not man made; they were given by heaven itself. The names and the images of the gods were thus points of communication with the beings they represented. The name functioned as a kind of audible image, the image proper as a visible or tangible one.
Both forms of image, the audible and the visible, played an important role in the religion of the peoples among whom ancient Israel lived. For that very reason, and in conscious reaction, the name and the image played an important even if largely negative role in the religion of Israel itself.
Israel was forbidden to make any image of its god. This imageless worship was one of the things about Judaism which caused astonishment in the ancient world. Both of Jerusalem’s Roman conquerors, Pompey in 63 BC. and Titus in AD.70, entered the Holy of Holies of the temple, presumably to see for themselves what the mystery was at the heart of the Jews’ religion -- and found nothing. For the God of Israel, alone among the gods of the ancient world, had no visible image in his temple.
He had no image; and while he certainly had a name, it was (as we shall see) a name of a peculiar kind. The utterance of the Name was the only form of representation of the deity that was allowed. No visible image; only the audible one which comes into being by being pronounced, and then dies away into silence. Furthermore, by the time of Jesus even the utterance of the Name was allowed only on a very few occasions, by the priests in the liturgy of the temple.
There is one part of the Old Testament in particular where there is reflection on this question of divine images and names. This is in the traditions connected with Moses and with the story of the self-revelation of Israel’s God at Mount Sinai. Take for instance a passage in Deuteronomy in which Moses is recalling the events of Mount Sinai, and notice how it handles the motif of the audible in contrast to the visible self-manifestation of God. Moses is addressing Israel: ‘And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven; and there was darkness, cloud, and thick darkness. And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there God’s self-revelation. That (as we shall shortly see) is was only a voice.’(Deut. 4:11f.) All they heard was a voice -- the voice of identical with his utterance of his own Name.
The close connection between the giving of this Name -- the audible image -- and the rejection of the visible or tangible image is clear from another passage, one which is at the very heart of the Sinai material. I refer to the opening sentences of the Ten Commandments. ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.’(Exod. 20:2-5.)
To get to the point of this, you must remember one thing: that every time one sees the word LORD printed in capital letters in our English bibles, what in fact stands in the Hebrew is the divine name YHWH. This tradition of substituting LORD, or its Hebrew equivalent, for YHWH goes back to the custom of the synagogues. The Name was regarded as so sacred that wherever the reader came upon it in his reading of the Scriptures, he substituted for it the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’.
Thus the Ten Commandments really begin: ‘I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ The God of Israel is uttering his Name, revealing himself through that representation of himself which consists in his Name. The nature which the Name reveals in this way is such that the first two commandments necessarily follow from it. First, the Name makes an exclusive claim on the allegiance of those who invoke it: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ Secondly, since this Name is the all-sufficient image or representation of the God whose name it is, any other image one may try to make of him will only derogate from this. All other images are therefore excluded: ‘You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven, or earth, or in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.’
The force of all this will come out more clearly if we look at the passage where the Name is first revealed to Moses -- the passage about the Burning Bush.
Moses is in the wilderness of Sinai looking after the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. He comes to the mountain of God, that very same mountain where God later reveals himself to the whole people of Israel. He hears a voice calling him out of a bush which is strangely aflame and yet not burnt. ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. . . . Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’(Exod. 3:6, 10.)
Then comes the crucial question. Moses asks, ‘If I come to the children of Israel and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you", and they ask me, "What is his name?" What am I to say to them?’(Exod. 3:13.) The people will ask, ‘What is his name?’ By that they will mean: ‘Who is he?’ -- and all that that implies. ‘What is his character? What is he good for? How can we invoke him? Only if we know who he is will we be able to know when we can rely on him -- and (for the same reason) when we can better call upon others. Tell us who he is, and we shall know whom we are dealing with. We shall know the words which bind even deity. We shall know how to summon the great genie. What is his name?’
The Name has been asked for, and it is given. Three times, each time put differently. First: ‘God said to Moses, "I AM AS I AM".’ Second: ‘Say this to the children of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you".’ And third: ‘Say this to the children of Israel, "YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name for ever, and thus am I to be remembered throughout all generations". ‘(Exod. 3:14f.) It is of course the third form of the answer which gives the Name itself: YHWH. The other two forms, I AM and the more extended I AM AS I AM, are exegesis, explanation. They show what the faith of Israel understood to be the meaning of ‘YHWH.
How are we to understand it: this I AM, or I AM AS I AM? First let us briefly notice three points.
(1) The meaning of I AM AS I AM is not the banality ‘I’m me’ (as the usual translation ‘I am who I am’ may misleadingly suggest). Nor is it a petulant ‘Shan’t tell.’ Yet again (and more important), neither does it strictly mean ‘I am the existent one.’ For the phrase is not so much concerned with God’s mere existence as with his practical presence. Not so much ‘Does he exist?’ as ‘Is he there?’ So a useful alternative to the rendering ‘I am’ is ‘I am there’ or ‘I am present.
(2) The Hebrew tense system is such that these words can legitimately and properly be referred, as they were in later Jewish interpretation, to past, present, or future, or to all three at once: ‘I was’, ‘I am’, and ‘I shall be.’ The author of the Revelation of John in the New Testament tries to represent this in Greek when he has God declare, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the sovereign Lord of all.’(Rev. 1:8)
(3) The shorter version of the Name (I AM) is qualified by the longer (I AM AS I AM); but this is not a qualification which limits its meaning. Rather it insists that it cannot be limited. And almost any English relative can legitimately be used to translate the connecting relative in Hebrew: ‘I am as I am’, ‘I am who I am’, ‘I am where I am.’ The qualifying phrase thus sets the bare I AM free from all limitation: I AM AS I AM.
‘What is his name?’ the people will ask. Has their question been answered? In one sense, yes. A name has been given. But in another sense the answer is a refusal to give one -- or at any rate, it is a refusal to give an answer of the kind presupposed by the question. The question asks for the name because, having it, one will know whom one is dealing with; one will have some hold over him whose name it is. But this name is itself a refusal to give this kind of an answer. It is a categorical refusal to be held down. It is an answer which, in one sense, leaves the questioner in as great an ignorance as he started in. No man knows who this God is. For who is he? He who is as he is. There is the transcendence, the freedom, the incomprehensibility of God.
But the No of the Name is nothing but the reverse side of an astonishing Yes. God’s refusal to be bound to guarantees is the corollary of his freedom to bind himself to promises. Guarantees have limits: in such and such circumstances I undertake to do such and such. The promise given in the Name is as boundless as the freedom which it also expresses: I AM THERE and I WILL BE THERE, AS I WILL BE THERE. How will he be known to be there? In the making and keeping of this promise, as it clothes itself in particular promises. We see this happening in this very passage. Immediately after pronouncing the Name, the voice of God continues: ‘Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, "YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, I have surely observed you and what has been done to you m Egypt; and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey !"’ (Exod. 3:16f.) Thus the promise is particularized, but in the freedom of the Name there is always room for more. Wherever his people are, there their God will be with them. That promise stands. How he will be with them, whether in terror or in mercy, that is for him to determine. No man has him in his power. But that he will be with them as their God, that he promises.
The promise of presence: that is the meaning of the Name. This understanding of the nature of Israel’s God is expressed again and again in the Exodus stories. It is expressed by that symbol of the divine presence, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, which accompanies the people on their way through the desert. It is expressed again when Moses says to God, ‘How shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from all other people that are on the face of the earth?’(Exod. 33:16) Finally there is the promise spelt out (and notice how the promise is grounded in the Name): ‘If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then . . . I will set my abode among you, . . . and I will walk among you. And I will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am YHWH your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright.’(Lev. 26:3, 11ff.)
Once we have understood something of the meaning of the Name we can see still better why its announcement at the beginning of the Ten Commandments is immediately followed by the prohibition both of images and of the worship of any other gods.
First: images. If the Name is the all-sufficient representation of him whom it reveals precisely as the one who is present, then to ask for any other image or re-presentation is in fact to disbelieve in the Name. It is to doubt the promise of presence. That is why images are forbidden in Israel. That too is why, in contrast to other gods, this God has one name only. Not only are visible images excluded. So too are all audible images except this one. Marduk, the god of Babylon, for instance, had fifty names, each one to capture some aspect of his being which might not have been caught by the other forty-nine. The God of Israel has one name only, which declares itself to be all-sufficient. To ask for any others would be to disbelieve the one.
Secondly: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This is not, strictly speaking, an enunciation of monotheism. In fact for the greater part of their history ancient Israel believed that other gods existed -- for other nations. But for them there was to be one God only, and to him they must look for everything. For to look to others would be to suppose that there were limits to the limitless promise. It would be to disbelieve the Name.
The Name is the promise of presence. As we saw just now, this is a promise that utters itself in promises, that allows itself to be particularized. The Old Testament is filled with such particular promises: promises of freedom, of land, of children, promises of kings who will rule injustice, promises of peace, and of life from death. All are particularizations of ‘I will be there as I will be there’; of ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people.’ It is only in the particular and the concrete that this general concept manifests itself, only in the particular that it can be experienced and known as true.
That is why, all the way through, there is such an emphasis on the particular. To take an example from the passage we were discussing (the Burning Bush), God does not only announce his Name, that he is YHWH, I AM. He clothes it in a promise of particular presence: ‘I have seen the affliction of my people . . . and I have come down to deliver them.’(Exod. 3.7 f.) Furthermore this promised presence of the future is explicitly linked with the experienced presence of the past: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’(Exod. 3:6.) So again at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, a phrase which re-echoes throughout the Old Testament, ‘I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’(Exod. 20:2.) It is still the same in the latest book of all, the book of Daniel. When Daniel has been saved from the den of lions, the great King Darius issues a decree that ‘in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel . . . him who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.’(Dan. 6:26f.) All the way through he reveals his presence in particulars: the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God who delivered from Egypt, the God who saved Daniel from the lions.
Here then is belief in a god who commits himself to the revelation of his power and his presence in the concrete and the particular. It is precisely because of this that the agony of his absence arises, when the evidence of the particular fails. We see this happening in the life of the individual -- Job, for instance, the righteous man who keeps the commandments of God and yet from whose life all sign of the divine presence has failed. ‘Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him; on the left hand I seek him, but I cannot behold him; I turn to the right hand, but I cannot see him.’(Job 23:8f.) The problem also arises in the life of the nation, most acutely in the sixth century ac when all the characteristic marks of God’s presence and favor have been removed; king, temple and land have all been taken away.
This is the point where belief in the Name is put to its severest test. If you have a tolerant kind of a religion, it is not too difficult to cope with this kind of situation. The vicissitudes of human life are a mirror of the conflicts of heaven. If there’s a drought, then the god of summer heat has got the upper hand over the god of rain and fertility; and when the rains return, then the roles have been reversed. So too if the King of Babylon or Assyria comes and reduces you to political subjection, making your king his vassal, this too is reflected on the heavenly plane. Your gods have been conquered by his and have become their vassals. Precisely this understanding of the state of affairs was expressed by the way in which the kings of Assyria used to set up the images and altars of their gods in the temples of the kings and cities they had conquered. One god’s defeat was another one’s victory.
But if you have one God only, who makes exclusive claims upon you, what are you to do when the signs of his power and presence are removed? This question arises especially when his Name declares him as him who is present. You don’t have the option of fitting him into some larger pantheon, for that is to deny the all-sufficient Name, and so to deny him. You have only two alternatives: either to apostatize outright, and so to deny him explicitly; or else to hang on to him even in the dark, and to try to discover his presence in his absence. This is the work of the great prophets of Israel: that they took the Name of their God so seriously that they discerned his presence and his power in the very removal of the signs which he himself had given of his presence and his power. It was not the gods of Assyria and Babylon who were overwhelming him, taking away his gifts of king, temple and land. He was removing them himself, destroying the signs of his own grace. Through the prophets Israel came to discern the hand that once had led them in the hand which now struck them. ‘He has bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe; and he has slain all the pride of our eyes in the tent of the daughter of Zion; he has poured out his fury like fire. . . . The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces.’(Lam. 2:4, 7.)
I should like to emphasize two things about this much-misunderstood notion of the wrath of God. First, it is a fundamentally hopeful doctrine. It declares that you can fall into the hands of no alien power. Even when you are carried into exile, out of the land of promise, the hands that carry you are still those which once brought you into the land -- and which have power to bring you back, according to the nature disclosed in the Name. ‘I am YHWH and there is no other, I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I am YHWH who do all these things.’(Isa. 45:7.)
Secondly, this is the point at which Israel’s faith becomes truly monotheistic. In early days, as we have seen, Israel was forbidden to worship other gods. But that said nothing about the gods themselves; in fact, each nation was believed to have its own god. But now that Israel had been overwhelmed by these nations, one could only do one of two things: either acknowledge that their gods had done the overwhelming, and thus deny YHWH; or assert that YHWH himself had overwhelmed his people, and thus deny the power of the gods of Babylon. And to deny their power was to deny their effective existence. It was, paradoxically, the experience of the absence of their God that drove Israel to the confession of his universal power and presence. The prophet who above all asserts this is the so-called second Isaiah, who worked in exile in Babylon. Significantly, it is among his words that one finds this striking saying: ‘Truly, thou art a God that hidest thyself O God of Israel, the Savior.’(Isa. 45:15.)
Here then is something about the tradition of faith which lies behind Jesus. Jesus’ God was this God of Israel, who had made himself known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in promising them land and posterity, and in keeping his promises; who had revealed his power and his presence in delivering serfs from bondage and in giving them a good land to live in; whose presence was perceived by the prophets in the removal of the signs of his presence; and who had then restored his people to their land and to their city of Jerusalem, and thus shown that his promises still stood --.’O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.’(Ps. 136:1.)
But always there was a gap between promise and fulfillment, a gap of which men became increasingly aware. Quite apart from the unfulfilled overplus of the particular promises, there was the limitless promise of the Name itself. None of the particular promises, however marvelously fulfilled, could ever exhaust that ultimate promise which springs from the very nature of God himself: ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’; ‘I AM AS I AM.’
The experience of this gap between promise and fulfillment was of course a form of the experience of God’s absence. Out of it came a fierce longing for a fulfillment of the promises which would somehow be final, for a day when the gap between promise and fulfillment would be closed for good, and when their God would indeed and for ever make himself known as their God. This was a hope and a longing for an unremoveable fulfillment of the promise of presence, which is the promise of the Name. This looking for the ‘hallowing of the Name’(Ezek. 36:23.) is Israel’s fundamental hope -- a hope correlative to YHWH’s fundamental promise -- a hope which is classically expressed in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy Name be hallowed, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, As in heaven so on earth.’
Just like the promise, this fundamental hope was articulated in particular hopes -- hopes for a more or less cataclysmic interruption of history, when God would establish his kingdom of justice and of peace upon earth, when Israel would be saved from enemies without and sinners within, to serve their God with singleness of heart. One of these hopes was often the hope for a Messiah, an anointed king who would be God’s agent in establishing this kingdom. But all these particular hopes -- for a Messiah, for liberty, for peace and righteousness on earth -- all are particularizations of this fundamental hope, that God will ‘hallow his Name’.
If anything characterizes the spiritual climate of the Jews of Jesus’ time, it is this hope and longing for the kingdom of God. God had made himself known to their fathers, and they longed the more for his kingdom in the future because he somehow seemed far distant in the present. The experience of God’s present withdrawal expressed itself in many ways -- for instance in the belief that prophecy was now silent, that there were no longer men who could say with an immediate authority, ‘Thus says the LORD.’ And the conviction arose that God in his immeasurable holiness and transcendence had no immediate dealings with the world, but that his action and presence were mediated by a host of angels and other beings. One spoke no longer of God directly, but of ‘heaven’, or ‘the power’, or ‘the word’, or ‘the Name’. And the Name itself might no longer be pronounced, except by priests on specified occasions in the service of the temple -- and then, according to one report, they were to mumble lest the people actually hear it.
What, when God thus appeared to have withdrawn himself, were the faithful to do? Keep the commandments, and hope and wait. One feels this atmosphere in the opening chapters of the Gospel according to Luke, with its picture of pious Israelites like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, keeping the commandments -- and waiting.
This was the world in which Jesus was born. And what does he have to say? ‘The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is upon you.’(Mark 1:15.) God is no longer faraway. His power and his presence are near. He is on the very point of making himself known in that final way which will transcend all that is past. His promises -- all of them -- are about to be fulfilled. There is no point at which Jesus makes his belief in the nearness of God clearer than in his teaching on prayer -- and in his own practice of prayer. He addressed God simply as ‘Abba’ (Father), and instructed his disciples to do the same. No complicated or grand allocutions such as the heathen make, because they don’t know who God is and have to try to catch him somehow. No, the disciples of Jesus are the true sons of Israel. They know who God is and are to address him simply as their Father who is present to hear them. Any more would be unbelief. In this teaching on prayer, Jesus is reiterating the ancient faith in the Name -- God is present to hallow his Name: I AM THERE and WILL BE THERE. Jesus staked his life on this belief -- the belief that the God of Moses was still there to be his God, the God and Father of Jesus.
Now, in Jesus, this belief in God’s presence and power was once more put to the test and tried in the fire of affliction. In what sense was God present at the crucifixion? What more God-forsaken scene than Golgotha: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’(Matt. 27:46.) What sign here of God’s power to stand by his children? We hear the mockery of the priests: ‘He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.’(Matt. 27.43 f.)
Once more, in this abandonment, a new dimension is revealed to the power and presence of God. It was, according to St. Paul, precisely in the Cross that God’s power was revealed. Jesus staked his life on his belief in God’s power to fulfill the promise of his presence -- and (according to the apostles) he won. What was the sign of his victory? Nothing less than resurrection from death. But this is a victory which can only be won through loss. Resurrection is something which can follow only on death. Here is power made known once again through weakness, presence revealed once more in absence. That, at least, is what the apostles believed and preached: that the faith of Jesus had been justified; that the God of Israel had indeed revealed himself once more -- as the God of Jesus. ‘God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in those last days spoken unto us by his Son.’(Heb. 1:1.) And so to the list of Old Testament characterizations they add another. Not only ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, ‘the God who brought Israel out of Egypt’, ‘the God who saved Daniel from the lions’, but also -- characteristic and recurring phrase -- ’the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the God of Israel had again revealed his power and his presence. He was now the God ‘who raised Jesus from the dead’. (Gal.1.1.1)
I should like to end with two New Testament texts, both of which refer to God’s self-revelation through Jesus, and which, taken together, sum up that continuity I have been trying to point to. The first comes from the Song of Zechariah: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.’(Luke 1:68.)The second is from the First Letter of Peter: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’(I Peter 1:3.) The God of Israel had made himself known as the God of Jesus Christ.
Christians believe in the God of Jesus, not only in the sense of belief in the God whom Jesus believed in, but also -- and yet more important -- they believe in the God who revealed his presence and power as the God of Jesus -- as ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’.