In Mark 8 and Matthew 16, Jesus and the Disciples have just arrived at Caesarea Philippi, which is in northern Israel. Jesus asks them two questions. The first is, “Who do the people say I am?” The second one is, “Who do you say I am?” The scene that plays out from there is that Jesus tells Peter that he will be “the rock” on which he will build his church. Then Jesus explained to the Disciples that he would have to die and be resurrected, but they didn’t want to hear anything about him dying.
I bring up this passage to focus on those two questions. They are questions that each of us needs to ask ourselves daily. Who do we say that Jesus is, and who do we say that God is?
I was meeting with a friend a week ago who I haven’t seen for a few years. He has certainly had his ups and downs in that time (as have I). As we were catching up, he told me about how he abandoned his faith for a good portion of that time but has since come back. The reason for his lost connection to God is one that is all too common; he has been taught a skewed version of who God is.
The God that he had been told to believe in simply exists to make sure that we follow the rules and brings the hammer down on us whenever we screw up. This god’s chief characteristic is disappointment in us. He sits upon his glorious throne just to administer punishment upon our failures. To quote Santa Clause is Coming to Town, “He sees you when you’re sleeping/ And he knows when you’re awake/ He knows if you’ve been bad or good/ So be good for goodness sake.” That is often the image of God that is seared into our brains as children. It’s no wonder so many people give up on God as teenagers. And, to be honest, with that image of God, I don’t blame them.
The problem is that it leaves out, in my opinion, the most important aspect of who God is: love. That is the reason Christ came and died for us. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The whole Bible is full of God demonstrating his love for us, but it is most apparent at the cross and at the tomb. As Brennan Manning constantly writes all throughout his books, “God loves you for who you are, not as you should be.” We need to get rid of this idea that God is just out to get us. Yes, there will be a final judgement. Jesus says in John 5 that God has given him that authority. The one who has the authority over our eternity is the same one who came and died so that we will forever be in the glorious presence of our all-loving God. That doesn’t sound like the judgmental, vindictive God that is forced upon so many of us.
Jesus makes it clear, those who believe in him will have eternal life. That’s the only requirement. It’s not about what you do; it’s about what he did for you. God is not sitting on his heavenly throne to pour out punishment on you when you screw up. He is ready to pour out his grace on you instead. That’s what was bought for us on calvary, the place where Christ willingly gave his life as payment on our behalf. All that is asked of you is that you believe it to be true.
If the image you have of God is one of damnation, know that this isn’t who he is. As I repeatedly said in a sermon a couple weeks ago, “God loves you and Christ died for you.” That is the true image of who our God is.