God and image of God: the difference

Some Bible passages paint a very contradictory picture of God. How does the New Apostolic Church see this? Quite simply: like Jesus. This is the answer from an essay that was just published.

“Images of God and the true God” is the telling title of an essay in the most recent special issue of the Divine Service Guide 2/2023, which is on its way to the ministers in the congregations. The essay underlines that ideas we may have of God cannot capture the true nature of God. And it is important to distinguish between the image of God and the true God even when reading and thinking about the Bible.

Recognisable in a progressive manner

This much is clear right from the start: “All that we can know about God is what He reveals to us.” And: “God revealed Himself to humankind in a progressive manner.” First, He made Himself known as the Creator, then as Lord in the history of Israel, then in the incarnation—which surpassed all previous revelations—and finally in the sending of the Holy Spirit.

“In Holy Scripture, the revelations of God are attested by human beings who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In their descriptions, however, the authors could only use the words, knowledge, and ideas of their respective times. Seen from today’s perspective, this had consequences especially in terms of the New Testament.

God like a human being

The way in which the authors of the Old Testament describe God reflects the cultural and religious context of their time. They often ascribe human qualities to God and describe Him, for example, as being offended or becoming angry. According to them, He punishes the people or is incredibly merciless in how He treats the enemies of His people.

Jesus Christ painted a completely different picture: He speaks of a God of love who does not seek to punish but to save. The misfortune that human beings experience is not a punishment imposed by God, but a consequence of the dominion of the evil one.

Keeping the truth in mind

“Jesus Christ reveals the true nature of God to humanity,” the essay explains. And this has consequences for biblical interpretation: “Jesus Christ interpreted Holy Scripture in relation to His own person and activity. From this we conclude that we must interpret the Old Testament from the point of view of the Son of God.”

The Catechism already formulates it in a similar way: “The significance for faith and doctrine of any statements made in the individual books of the Old Testament—or in the later writings of the Old Testament—can be determined by the agreement of their contents with that which the gospel teaches” (CNAC

Old views also in the New Testament

But also in the New Testament readers will encounter Old Testament thinking. This applies in particular to the manner in which the texts speak about the death of Jesus Christ. As an explanation, the biblical authors sometimes make reference to the sacrificial cult (atonement), or sometimes the customs of war (a ransom must be paid to set prisoners free), or criminal law (a debt must be paid).

“A literal interpretation of these texts would present God in the same image as that portrayed in the Old Testament,” the essay criticises. “God behaves like a human being whose honour and dignity have been violated. He demands punishment or compensation. Therefore someone must die for the sake of righteousness.”

The alternative

“This perspective on the death of Jesus Christ is difficult for Christians today to understand, especially for young people,” the essay says. “Fortunately, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to speak about the death of Jesus Christ without necessarily emphasising the notion of punishment.”

And that sounds like this: “The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is above all an act of love. Since the fall into sin, mankind has lived in a condition of remoteness from God. In His love, God desires to lead all human beings into fellowship with Himself.” However, this will only work if the human will is perfectly aligned with the will of God. Jesus Christ achieved this goal in His life as a true human being. “In His love, Jesus Christ is prepared to share His victory and merit with those who believe in Him and follow Him.”

The essay “Images of God and the true God” in the Divine Service Guide Special Edition 2/2023 is based on an essay that was presented at the District Apostle Meeting in November 2022. We have already reported on two other papers from this meeting under the titles “Reading with the Spirit and reason” as well as “Understanding the core message”.

Photo: Andreas Berheide

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