Keep On Dialing
Colossians 1.15 The Christ is the visible
likeness of the invisible God.
An old saying, "Like father, like
son" always hits me between the eyes when I meet my own son. It's not only
that he looks rather like me: it's also that I see in him my own
personality, my own body language, and even similar spoken phrases.
Having said that, he also shares much of his mother. I
don't have to look hard to see her in him. I look very much like my
mother. Despite that, I recall a friend of my father's remarking that he
was constantly catching glimpses of my father in me.
This is, need I say it, not what Paul was getting
at when he wrote that the Messiah is like the invisible God. He was
using metaphor to suggest that just as one can catch glimpses of each
parent in a child, so also one can glimpse God in the Messiah. Note that
Paul didn't say to the Colossians that they could see God through Jesus
the man. His point was a theological one about the Jewish Messiah -
expressed with typical verbosity and lack of clarity.
Many theologians write as though Paul is an authority on
Jesus of Nazareth. They portray him as having special knowledge.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. We have no
evidence that he knew Jesus personally. If he had, I think we can assume
that he would have mentioned it. As it is, his only knowledge appears to
have been through meeting Peter and James and perhaps others who had
first-hand knowledge of Jesus.
Nor, need I say it, did Paul know God first-hand in the
same way that we know other people. None of us knows God in that way. God
the creator by definition cannot be known or described - except in terms
of the creation. Which is why we use pictures from the world as we know
All this is, I suppose, fairly elementary. A problem
arises because we become used to talking about God using traditional
metaphors and images. In so doing, we seldom reflect that they don't
describe any thing or person. They attempt to express the inexpressible in
ways that mean something to us.
Fortunately, Christianity is not essentially about God.
It is about Jesus - a real person like you or me, who really walked this
earth, who really lived and who died as we all do. The Christ/Messiah
title was applied to him by Paul. This was only natural, since Paul
thought as a first-century Jew. Similarly, Paul applied the "Son" title to
Jesus, using a religious metaphor typical to both Roman and Greek culture.
Christians are unique in their allegiance to Jesus. That
they use vivid images and metaphors in their God-talk is not
unique. The method is shared by almost every other religion world-wide.
Jesus belongs only to Christianity. But God belongs to every religion.
The "likeness of the invisible God" is for many no
longer a viable way of thinking about Jesus the man. In the West, we are
rapidly moving into an era which is described as "secular" or "of this
world". The result is that the old models are failing.
What is to be done? How do we avoid throwing out the
baby with the bathwater? There will always be new images and metaphors for
God because life provides a rich resource. But how are we to relate to
Jesus if the ancient titles like "Son of God" and "Messiah" no longer ring
Part of the tension many Christians feel today is the
difficulty of finding new ways of talking about Jesus. Current responses
include a new vision of the Jesus of history. We are attempting to go back
to the historical person and to invest him with meaning in terms
appropriate to our increasingly global culture and age.
But even more important at present is a willingness to
be like a telephone line. The line stretches out from the old and familiar
off into the distance. We're not quite sure where it will end and who will
answer when we make the first call.
Meanwhile, we have to keep on dialing.