By Harris Franklin Rall
The heart of a man's faith is what he thinks about God; from this everything else follows. That is true of Jesus; once grasp his simple but wonderful thought of God and all his teachings become plain. The men of his day thought him dangerous because he put aside rule and ritual and simply bade men love; but that was because he believed in such a God. When he urged men to pray and not faint, when he bade them face the world without fear, it was because he believed in a God who cared for all men and who ruled all the world. Only one chapter is given here to the special theme of Jesus' teaching about God, but that truth in fact will underlie the whole course. Indeed, we have here the test of all Christian teaching: Does it agree with the character of God as Jesus revealed him in his life and word?
The Idea Of God In Israel
In Jesus' Day.—The highest gift that life can bestow on us is a warm, strong faith in God. That was the need of the men of Jesus' day. There was a great deal of religion but not much of God, and so there was not much love or peace or strength. Religion was a round of hard duties, a task rather than an inspiration. The world was very near and very real. Men loved it and feared it, and the love of the world and the fear of the world alike kept them in bondage. God himself seemed far away. They knew that he had once been with his people, that he had led them forth from Egypt and given them their land. Some time in the future they expected to see his power again. Meanwhile he had left men his laws. Religion was not fellowship with God, but the study and keeping of these laws.
The God of the Prophets.—Far richer and stronger had been the faith of the prophets. "Hear, 0 Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah," so the creed began. These prophets believed in one God. He was the Creator; he had "measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span." He was the God of history as well as of nature; he it was who had called forth a Cyrus, "to subdue nations before him." He was a God of mercy toward his people, "a just God and a Saviour." "In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old." He was a God of righteousness, this God of the prophets; his concern was not for sacrifices and offerings, but that "justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."
The God Of Jesus
Jesus and the Prophets.—All this living faith of the prophets we find again in the message of Jesus. God was a living presence. Jesus saw the hard, wicked world as clearly as anyone—more clearly, indeed, than others. But it was a different world for him because in all and above all he saw God. The glowing sky, the sudden tempest, the wayside flower, the little birds, all spoke to him of God. It was the vision of God that had made the prophets; their work began when they "saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up." But Jesus saw this Lord not merely in the glory of the temple, but in all the world's life. He was not merely the God before whom the flaming spirits cried, "Holy, holy, holy," he was the God near at hand to help even the little child, and without whom not even the sparrow fell.
The King Is Father
There are two phrases in which we may sum up Jesus' teaching about God, and the first is this: The King is Father. With that thought he begins the prayer that he taught his disciples: "Our Father who art in heaven." He who is in heaven, who rules over all, is Father.
Fatherhood in the Old Testament.—This message of God's Fatherhood is Jesus' first great advance over all that went before. It is true that Jehovah is sometimes called Father in the Old Testament, but we see the difference when we look more closely. In the Old Testament God is first of all a King. True, this King is fatherly toward his people; he pities those that fear him as a father pities his children; but his real character is that of king. The real faith of a people comes to expression in its hymns and prayers. Where is there a Christian that does not say "Father" when he prays? But in the psalms, the Old Testament prayer book, you look in vain for a single passage where the worshiper calls upon Jehovah as Father. (Psalm 103. 13; 68. 5; 89. 27, 28 are only apparent exceptions.) There is one other notable fact: with perhaps one exception, when Jehovah is spoken of as Father in the Old Testament, it is in relation to the people as a whole or to their representative, the king. The common man did not think of God as his own Father.
The God of Mercy.—What does this Fatherhood mean? First of all it means undeserved mercy. The religion of the law is the religion that earns: men get just what they deserve. So Judaism thought; God was a lawgiver and an even-handed judge. There was a double danger under such teaching: that the "sinner" should give up everything in despair, and that the "saint" should become proud and self-righteous. For all this there is no room with Jesus. God is not a taskmaster paying wages: he is the Father whose mercy goes out to all his children. It is what God is that determines his gifts to men, not what men are. And not all the evil of men can change God's love. That is the message of Matthew 5. 43-48. Jesus had noted the hard ways of men, which they called justice. That is not God's way, he said. Look out upon this world. His sun shines upon the evil and the good; his gracious rain falls upon the just and the unjust.
But it is the parable of the eleventh-hour laborers that gives the death-blow to this Jewish idea of a bargain religion and a God who is merely a paymaster (Matthew 20. 1-16). A certain landowner sends his steward into the market place of the village to hire laborers, and the agreement is that each shall receive a denarius, or about seventeen cents. During the day he hires still other men, some, indeed, only an hour before the day's close. The master himself pays off the men. He begins with those last hired, who, to their surprise, receive their denarius, though they have worked but an hour. But when the master comes to those who have worked all day, he gives them the same. To their protest he answers: "Cannot I do what I will with my own? Are you to be angry because I am good, because I choose to give to these men more than they have earned?"
This parable is an argument, and it seeks to prove one point: God deals with men on the principle of mercy, not of hard justice. With this parable Jesus swept away the whole religion of law and labor, of earning and getting. God is not that kind of a God. With this word Jesus gave a new hope to the hopeless, and drew sinners and outcasts to himself. The old theologians used to say that God must always be just, that he might when he would be merciful; but they were not true in this to the teaching of Jesus. God is Father, and mercy is the law of fatherhood. God will always be merciful, as he will ever be just.
An Individual Love.—This is one side of Fatherhood, an unbounded and undeserved love for all men. The other side is this: God loves men individually. His Fatherhood is not a general good will. It is not his love for mankind as a whole, or for some race, or for his church. He cares for each single man, as the shepherd does for the single sheep that may be astray. The humblest child is precious in his sight; woe to him who makes one such child to stumble! God has his loving purpose for every human life. There is not one thing that concerns a man that God is not interested in; the hairs of your head are numbered (Matthew 10. 29-31). But if God be such a God, loving each man, then religion is man answering that love with like love. It is man entering into fellowship with the Father as a true son, loving him, talking with him, making God's will the great concern of his life. And so religion becomes a personal relation. "This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God."
Three Great Truths.—Here, then, are three great truths that flow from Jesus' teaching about the Father. (1) Individualism: God knows the single man, and cares for him. (2) Universalism: if God cares for each man, then he cares for all men. He is not limited to one nation, whether Jew or Anglo-Saxon, nor to certain elect. (3) Religion becomes a personal relation: the rule of God is to be carried out in family and industry and state, but the heart of it all is man's fellowship with God. Confessing the creed, performing the rite, belonging to the nation or the church, none of these can take the place of this personal relation of the child with the Father.
The Father Is King
Love Upon the Throne.—The Father is King; that is the second phrase in which to sum up Jesus' teaching about God. It is not enough for men to believe in the love of God. Does this love sit upon the world's throne, or is there another power that men must fear? That was the weakness in men's faith in Jesus' day, as it is in ours; men feared and loved other things besides God. Back of Jesus' joyous message about the Father was the abiding assurance of his Father's power. It is easy to say, as we do each Sunday, "I believe in God the Father Almighty;" but do we really believe that the Power Almighty is a Father, and that our Father is Almighty Power? So Jesus believed.1 There was evil in the world, but God would surely carry out his purpose for each individual and for his world. So Jesus rejoiced not merely in God's love but in his power. He says: "I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth."
The Fear of God.—If the Father is really King, then we must fear him. In his own strong word Jesus puts the truth: "I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body. . . . But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, who after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell" (Luke 12. 4, 5; compare Matthew 10. 28). This is not, of course, fear in the ordinary human sense. It has, rather, the meaning of reverence and awe. It belongs not simply to the sinner, but to the saint who utterly trusts and loves. It was in Jesus' own soul. It is awakened as much by the thought of God's infinite and holy love as by the thought of his power. To such reverence and awe Jesus summoned men. They were to pray, "Hallowed be thy name." They were not to swear at all. The trifling Sadducees with their frivolous question he rebukes with the word: "Ye know not . . . the power of God."
The Source of Strength and Peace.—Such reverential fear is the foundation of strong character. The reason is plain. (1) The fear of God and obedience to his will give men purpose in life and power. Life gains unity. Lesser aims and petty interests lose their influence. Man is strong because he has a great and commanding end. (2) The fear of God delivers a man from all other fears. Fear and trust belong together, as Jesus showed. He begins by saying, "Fear him"; he ends with the words, "Fear not" (Matthew 10. 28, 31). It is the fear of God that delivers us from all other fears. The great reason why men are so anxious and worried is because they have not had the real vision of God's power.
Superstition and Worry.—Worry was not simply a failing in the eyes of Jesus; it was a sin. The heart of worry is an unwillingness to trust God or to leave our lives to his will. The root of worry is paganism, an unbelief in God, perhaps more often a belief that God rules but part of the world, while the rest belongs to chance or powers of evil. Closely allied to this are the lingering superstitions that may be found even in our day. What is the meaning of the little superstitions about lucky pennies, the number thirteen, knocking on wood, and picking up pins for good luck? Is it not the feeling that at least a part of this world is not under the rule of God and his ordered action, but of some "chance" or power of evil? How widespread this is, even among educated people, was shown some years ago by a writer who declared that in response to personal queries nearly three fourths of the teaching force of Harvard University confessed that "they had little habits and customs indicating that, whether consciously or subconsciously, they were under superstition's influence." Of nearly nine hundred students examined in the University of California, one hundred and thirty-eight believed wholly or partly in the Friday superstition, and one hundred and thirty in the idea of misfortune associated with the number thirteen. A simple thoroughgoing faith in a power that is good and that rules absolutely all life is the highest gift that can come to a man, a gift that brings quiet of mind and strength and joy.
The Holiness Of God
Holiness in Jesus' Day.—We have spoken of the love of God and the power of God, but thus far have not considered the holiness of God. It is significant that there is only one passage in which Jesus is reported as using the adjective "holy" with God (John 17. 11). Now, Jesus believed as strongly in the holiness of God as did those about him; but the reason that he and the early church used it so little seems to be that the word had acquired a meaning which they did not accept. It had come to mean something formal and ritual both for men and God. Holiness meant separation from defilement. In men it meant mainly a scrupulous observance of the many rules of ceremonial cleanness. One of the great requirements was to keep away from all "sinners," the contact with whom would defile. In a similar way, the holiness of God meant his separation from sinful men.
Love—Jesus' Ideal of Holiness.—It was a new and greater ideal of holiness that Jesus brought. It was the holiness of love, so wonderful, so pure, so boundless, as to transcend all that men had ever conceived. He himself exhibited that holiness in his life. It was not a holiness that separated from men, but one that drew near. Jesus prefers to use the name "love" for this rather than "holiness"; it is, however, none the less holiness with which we are dealing when we speak of God's love. It is only necessary to see clearly what kind of love this Father love is which Jesus proclaimed.
Not all love is holy love. Sometimes love is unholy because it is impure, sometimes because it is foolish or weak. Such mistaken sentiment is often shown by parents and friends, and makes for moral harm and so for unrighteousness. The love of the Father, infinite and gracious and undeserved, is not the weak love of sentiment that men have sometimes thought it. It is a love that touches men to save men. Its least gifts go to all, the gifts of sun and rain. Its great gift, the gift of life, goes only to those who surrender themselves to it and enter the fellowship of God. But that fellowship is a moral fellowship. It demands obedience, it lifts a man from sin. It is God's way of overcoming evil. The greatest power for righteousness in this world is not the threat of the law; it is this mercy of God as the power to destroy sin. God's love is pure holiness.
The Idea of Love and the Sense of Sin.—One question more needs to be answered. With this place given to mercy as supreme in God, are we not sacrificing the sense of sin and the fact of judgment? To this we must answer emphatically, No! First of all, this teacher of love, this Christ of mercy, has done more to deepen the sense of sin than all proclaimers of law and punishment. Not till we have studied Jesus do we see what sin really is. It is not the breaking of some little rule. It is not the failure of some sacrifice. It is man standing out against the love of such a God. He may do that in various ways, as we see from the Gospels. He may refuse to receive that love. "How often would I have gathered you together," says Jesus, "and ye would not." He may show the hard, unloving, selfish spirit in his own life, as did those who criticized Jesus for receiving sinners; these Jesus portrayed in the little parable of the elder brother (Luke 15. 25-32). Or else there may be definite refusal of God's loving purpose, and a life of opposition, such as was seen in the enmity to Jesus that culminated in the cross. In every case it is in the white light of God's love that we see the real blackness of sin.
Love and Judgment.—And there is place for judgment in this message of love. That follows from the very nature of the case. Such judgment is not torment which God inflicts upon the sinner; it is the sinner's own deed in shutting himself out from the love of God. If God's love meant merely the gift of health or other earthly good, it might be different; but it means a personal fellowship which God offers to man. From that personal fellowship man may shut himself out by selfishness and disobedience. And, though the love of God will follow him, we can see no reason why man may not shut himself out finally. If it be life eternal to know God, then such disobedience is death. Jesus himself does not discuss the doctrine of punishment and the future life, but he makes clear the principle of judgment. Sin has its consequences as well as righteousness. "These shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life."
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Matthew 5. 43-48; 6. 9; 20. 1-16; 10. 28-31.
Read carefully the first three Scripture references and the whole discussion of "The King is Father." Recall other sayings or parables in which Jesus brings out this doctrine. Going back to his life, recall how he illustrated it there.
Read the discussion of "The Father is King," and the last reference. Again refer to Jesus' life. Note his spirit of obedience, his reverence In prayer (Matthew 4. 4, 7, 10; 11. 25; 26. 39).
Study the unity of holiness and love. Here again it is the life and spirit of Jesus that will best show us, if we are perplexed, alike the unity of these two and the full meaning of each.
Discuss the following practical questions: The meaning of God's fatherhood for a man's faith and life; the meaning of God's holiness; how the idea of God's holiness suffers when we leave out his love; how the idea of love suffers when holiness is omitted.