I was talking recently with a friend who grew up in the Church but eventually fell away from Christian faith, and she said something deeply troubling to me: In fifteen years of church and Sunday School attendance and of being told over and over again to build a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, she had never been presented with a coherent picture of what the proper relationship between man and God really is.
I’d like to help my friend begin to think about this problem. As with many attempts to answer a theological question, I begin briefly with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. It can be divided into four main parts: After the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:1-12), Jesus begins a section on the proper relationship between people (Mt. 5:13-6:15) and closes with counsels to wisdom and discernment (Mt. 7:1-7:27). But sandwiched in between the second and fourth sections is the climax of the sermon, the section on God’s relationship with man (Mt. 6:16-6:34). In this high point of the sermon (or collection of sayings, depending on one’s opinion on the source of the text), Jesus teaches that God is to be the sole master and provider for his people, and that acts of devotion should, indeed, be founded upon devotion rather than public piety.
The Sermon’s definition of God’s relationship with man rests primarily upon the identity of God — God hates hypocrisy, so be humble; God loves you, so do not worry about wealth or food. Likewise, examining the rest of the gospel narrative to learn who God is can cast light on the question of how humans are to relate to him. The Gospel According to Matthew lays out our relationship with the Divine by developing a character sketch of Israel’s God in several key roles. Over the next five weeks, I’ll briefly present each element of the sketch not in an attempt to fully develop each character (for the full character of the living God surely cannot be contained even in this most esteemed blog), but rather to present terms that my friend and I — and perhaps some of you, too — can build upon in a discussion of who God is and how we’re to relate to him. We begin with a classic:
God as Just, Sovereign King
Perhaps the most prevalent image of God in Matthew is as a divine King and man as his subject. The gospel contains over 30 mentions of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” and both John the Baptist and Jesus repeatedly proclaim the arrival of this Kingdom, in which God rules in justice and peace. God’s Kingship takes three shapes: We meet him in his capacities as ruler, judge, and commissioner.
God rules over the entire universe. We see this in two main instances. First, He is at the helm of the world and all that is in it, as the stories of Jesus calming the storm and walking on water are meant to demonstrate (Mt. 8:23-27; 14:22-36). And second, God’s messengers constantly call his people to repentance, as they are a nation in grave apostasy. They have strayed from Yahweh’s lordship, and the invitation to return to God’s rule seems to be the central thrust of Christ’s teachings. God’s will and ultimate authority alone determines who enters the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 7:21).
The need for repentance and discerning who can enter into the kingdom of heaven demonstrate God as Chief Justice of the universe. Just as humans are subjects of a sovereign ruler, they are to be judged on their hearts and actions by a perfectly just God (Mt. 3:10; 5:17-22). Humans are imperfect — though they are counseled by Jesus to perfection — but will be expected to bear fruit and live in accordance with God’s will (Mt. 25:31-46).
Fortunately, though God expects His children to bear fruit, He does not expect them to do it on their own. Quite the contrary: God expects a degree of self-emptying in order to allow the Holy Spirit to fill and work though His people. In the tenth chapter, he sends out the twelve disciples and promises that “it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt. 10:20). The gospel provides other examples, too, of those who heard God’s commission and answered obediently — Joseph and Mary (Mt. 2), John the Baptist (Mt. 3), the first disciples (Mt. 4:18-22). And Jesus also issues an open invitation to the rest of God’s people to participate likewise in the cosmic drama of repentance and the Kingdom. Moreover, Jesus’ followers have a specific role to play in proclaiming the Gospel far and wide, to “proclaim from the roofs” the glad tidings they have heard (Mt. 10:27; 28:16-20). God commissions a grand project of evangelism and justice, just as a king might issue a decree through his land.