The Two-Faced God

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Although God is always closer to us than the nose on our face, he has not taken the wraps off and given any sinful and mortal human being a full-measure, face-to-face meeting.

The following is an excerpt from “The Christian Life: Cross or Glory” written by Steven A. Hein (1517 Publishing, 2015).

More than reflective learned scholars have pondered the question, “What is God really like?” Or even more momentous questions such as: “What does he think about us and this problem of evil here on earth? Does he care? Can we bargain with him or enlist his help in how we want to deal with it? Is he a mighty, vengeful, hard-nosed kind of God who is really not satisfied with anything less than perfection; or is he, rather, a kind, merciful sort of Deity?”’ From mature intellectuals to young, inquisitive children, questions such as these have been mulled over and debated in every age. At some point in our lives perhaps we, too, have desired to take the measure of God and wondered, what would it be like to meet him face-to-face?

The Hidden and Revealed God

Although God is always closer to us than the nose on our face, he has not taken the wraps off and given any sinful and mortal human being a full-measure, face-to-face meeting. As God told Moses who requested such a meeting, the face or full splendor of his holiness and glory would be the immediate death of any sinful human (Exod 33:20). Our God, out of his mercy, keeps himself on the whole under wraps, a hidden God—but not totally hidden.

He has chosen to reveal himself at some times and certain places—and then only to certain aspects of himself. In early Old Testament history, God often revealed himself as the One who is really in control of things here on earth. Again and again, he manifested his might and power in awesome ways. In the days of Noah, it was the destructive flood. With Sodom and Gomorrah, it was fire and brimstone. In Egypt it was the plagues, the death of the first-born, and the parting of the Red Sea. To those on Mt. Carmel it was fireballs from heaven that reduced a water drenched sacrifice and altar to powdered ash. As much as we modern-day believers sometimes think that a good exhibition by God today—as he did back then—would do wonders for the cause of true religion, these spectaculars by God never did inspire much in the way of long-term faith and devotion. For the most part, God’s mighty displays in the Old Testament simply scared the daylights out of people. Even in the wilderness when God first took up a glorious presence with His people in a special tent, the children of Israel always stood outside as if saying to Moses, “You go in and see what he wants; we’ll stay out here.” You can tell us all about it later. God’s special way of saying hello in the Old Testament often necessitated the continually spoken words: “Do not be afraid.” Meetings with the sovereign God back then were usually rather frightening experiences.

Mindful of our sinful frailty and desiring a personal relationship with him, God has chosen to reveal himself to us cloaked in the mundane things of this world. Our Creator has made himself personally known through his Word made flesh in the man Jesus, verbally in the prophetic and the apostolic Scriptures, and visibly in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. With the masks of humanity, earthly language, and the simple elements of water, bread and wine, God has not simply descended to us, but condescended to us. Here he continually gives us the opportunity to take him in with all our senses in long, slow, and unalarming ways—face-to-face! God has no desire to blow us away. He wants to love and tenderly embrace us as his own. Moreover, his burning desire from creation on has been that we might respond to his love by a returning love, molding a magnificent relationship and life together. But as we know, love always complicates things for us. It complicates things for God, too. Kierkegaard illustrated God’s problem well in the following:

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden.

How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his very kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist—no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing private grief for the life she left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross over the gulf between them.

The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend. He clothed himself as a beggar and approached her cottage incognito, with a worn cloak fluttering loosely about him. It was no mere disguise, but a new identity he took on. He renounced the throne to win her hand. [1]

As we know, the truth in Kierkegaard’s parable entered human history in Jesus, the Christ. Paul eloquently summarized the historical version of the story in Philippians 2:

Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!

The king cast off his regal robes and became a helpless baby, a lowly foot-washer, and a shameful cross-bearer. Not very scary, but that is precisely the point. God has love and courtship on his mind. In Jesus, God meets us face-to-face. But incognito! He comes humbly to win us over with a dying, sacrificial love to be his own bride forever. As he conquered the forces of darkness and death, the risen and exalted Christ is still with us. Out of his loving designs, he is humbly hidden in his gospel, cloaked in mundane human language and the common elements of water, bread, and wine. Through these, Word and Sacrament, his gospel ministry of salvific courtship with frail, sinful people continues. Only now he carries it out through common human bodies like yours and mine. We in his church have become part of our Lord’s humble disguise!

It’s not very flashy or spectacular—nothing like the great Old Testament extravaganzas. Hollywood would never clamor for the screen rights, but here is God’s loving face as clearly as we can receive it from him. And it is his ministry and the way he condescends to meet us for our sake out of his mercy and love. Make no mistake about it, God was not fooling around with the Incarnation. The cross cost him the humiliation and death of his own Son, and all for the sake of his burning love for us sinful human beings. In the gospel we truly meet an honest-to-God—God as he truly is—a loving and merciful God.

The following is an excerpt of Chapter 5 from “Christian Life, Cross or Glory” written by Steven Hein (1517 Publishing, 2015). Used by Permission, pgs. 37-40.

The second edition of Christian Life, Cross or Glory is now available for purchase