EPIPHANY: GOD’S PORTRAIT OF HIMSELF (2)
While the biblical writers show some reluctance to depict Jesus as actually God – or to call him God – they nonetheless use terms that unquestionably make him divine. He is not only the Son of God (Matthew 16:16), but also “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person” (Hebrews 1:3).
If these Scriptures only imply the eternity and preexistence of Christ, there are others that make this explicitly clear, as in John 1:1, 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and then “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” This says that the eternal, glorious God of heaven became a man and entered into human history. This is the meaning of Epiphany, celebrated by the church since the fourth century.
But even here a distinction is drawn between God – “No one has seen God at any time” – and the Son – “who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him” (John 1:18). The New Jerusalem Bible helpfully translates “in the bosom of the Father” as “close to the Father’s heart.” In verse 18 the phrase “He has declared him” – that is, the Son has made the Father known – the Greek word for “declared” is our word exegete – that is, Christ is God’s interpreter. This gets close to the metaphor I am using, Christ is God’s portrait of himself.
Paul the apostle gets even deeper into the theology of his subject in Philippians 2:6-8. There he depicts Jesus as preexisting in “the form of God” and as “equal with God,” but he did not see this exaltation as something to be grasped or held on to, so he “humbled” or “emptied” himself and took the form of a slave, and “coming in the likeness of men.” This is the essence of Epiphany, God appearing in human history in the form of man.
But even here the apostle does not say that the preexistent God was God himself, but “in the form of God” and “equal to God.” Neither form- same nature? – nor equality means identity. Obviously one can be equal to another without being that person. He makes it clear in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” God was not Christ but in Christ.
Yet God was in Christ in a way different that he may be in the rest of us – James 3:9 says we are all made in the likeness of God – in that he “bears the impress of God’s own being” (Hebrews 1:3, NJB). He is God’s own portrait of himself. This cannot be said of any other person in all human history. It gives place to Jesus’ remarkable statement in John 14:9: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
We see God when we see Jesus with little children, as a friend of sinners and prostitutes, reaching out to lepers and all the rejects of society, and in his concern for the poor. We see God in the setting in which Jesus was born – scandal, terror, poverty, and forgiveness. We see God in the victory of the resurrection.
We also see God in what our Lord taught, such as “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
It is the essence – and the distinctive feature – of the Christian faith, that God has graciously revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. No other religion dares to make such an extravagant claim. The Christian faith is centered, not in systems or rituals, but in a Person – and that Person is a portrait of the otherwise invisible God. Little wonder that Paul would refer to Jesus as the “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
To be a Christian also means that just as Jesus is the portrait of God we are to be portraits of Jesus. When Paul urges upon us what appears impossible – “Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1) – he is urging what is natural for disciples of Jesus – we imitate God by imitating our Lord Jesus Christ.
The story was circulating on the Internet some time ago of some business men who were so eager to check out of their hotel and get to the airport for their flight home that they upset a cart of apples, causing them to scatter across the hotel lobby. They nonetheless hurried to their taxi, leaving their mischief behind. All but one, that is. He told the others to call his wife and tell her he’d be on the next flight, and he stayed behind.
He was glad he did, for the apple cart was attended by a blind girl. He found her crying. He apologized and proceeded to help her recover her apples. Some of them were now bruised. He gave her $40.00 for her loss, and spoke to her lovingly. As he walked away the blind girl asked, Are you Jesus?