Heavenly King or Foxy Idol
IRENAEUS OF LYONS, the prodigious grand-disciple of the Apostle John (2nd century) was concerned with a pressing problem. He laments the common problem of facing those who misconstrue and misrepresent God. He’s confronting idolatry that misused our own Scriptures to create a false image of Christ.
Irenaeus illustrates this by observing how the “gems of Scripture,” rightly arranged, reveal God as a glorious king. But the “heretics” of his day had dismantled that image and rearranged the gems to contort the image of Christ from that of a majestic king into that of a dog or a fox. Then they’d point to the gems as proof that their image of was the right one. “Behold your king!”
This was a great tragedy, because for Irenaeus, the image of Christ as king had not yet been despoiled by the ugliness of Christian empires … and dogs and foxes in his day were more like flea-ridden wild pests than cutesy Instagram portraits. He was alarmed at how the glory of God revealed in Christ was made ugly through the crafty projections. To his horror, they even used the Bible to do so!
Of course, anyone could co-opt Irenaeus’ illustration to justify one’s personal notions of God and accuse their opponents of heresy. Our best bet is to look to Christ, the Word of God, who is what God has to say about himself (h/t Brian Zahnd). The apostolic testimony is that Jesus is the image of the invisible God and the exact likeness of God’s nature. His “arrangement of the gems” reveals the face of God as Love incarnate.
For John’s protégé, “heretic” was not merely a weaponized pejorative for those who disagree with us. It refers to anyone who rearranges the “gems” of God’s self-revelation into an image that looks like something other than Jesus Christ.
“King” is largely a cringe-word these days. We typically identity kings with hierarchy and oppression. America’s “Declaration of Independence” repudiated the tyranny of monarchs: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.”
That’s an apt description of a great host of history’s kings. With such associations, it seems almost blasphemous to refer to God as King.
And yet Christ did speak of a Kingdom. But he refused to be the warrior-king his fans demanded. When he appeared to us, our heavenly King rode a donkey’s colt, wore a crown of thorns, and was enthroned on a cross. For John and for Irenaeus, the glory of Christ’s kingship is unveiled as cruciform humility that liberates the world in a way no democracy have ever achieved.
Yet heresy continues to do its treacherous work, pulling apart the epic saga of redemption and reassembling the pieces into a seemingly biblical but entirely Christless religiosity.
I see the foxes surging among those who are double down on human shame and divine retribution. It’s an ancient problem—as old as Adam and Eve’s first stumble. The moment they turned away from God’s glory into self-will, they felt shame. And from that shame, they fashioned a false image of God—One from whom they felt compelled to hide.
Had God ever given them reason to think he was retributive? What, by warning them of a tree that would be fatally poisonous? By setting a boundary that would ensure human flourishing? No! In their shame, they fabricated a God whose kind warning they misconstrued into threats. They constructed an idol of retribution that crept into Christian doctrine. Imagine the sacrilege of dismantling the Cross of divine love and rearranging its “gems” into an image of divine punishment!
Sadly, the desecration of God’s imagine remains popular. Some of the fastest-growing churches in North America thrive on marketing their pushback against the supposed liberalism of the beautiful gospel of God’s infinite love. They wave their fists at this gospel and condemn the so-called “God is love heresy.” The foxes have increased their emphasis on God’s wrath against sinners, wrath-appeasement and eternal hellfire. In that model, we need Jesus to save us from God! Now there’s a heresy worthy of the label!
Oddly, such chicanery finds purchase in hearts weary of “50 shades of grey.” A fresh crop of disciples craves authoritarian despots, demands a worldly king, spiritual or political. Yes, the world is in a crisis of spiraling chaos. But an unChristlike, controlling, and vengeful God is no solution!
Gratefully, the tide is turning. The apostolic truth that God IS love would be strange news to the Christless religions of the ancient world. But prophets like Abraham, Moses, David, and Hosea caught glimpses of the grace that would arrive in the person of Love incarnate. Jesus showed us that God is about restoration, not retribution. The Abba Jesus revealed is nothing like those imaginary competitors who thrive on wrath.
The great tragedy is that despite Irenaeus’ faithful warnings, even Christianity quickly reverted to pagan notions of an angry god who needs appeasement through violence. That image held sway for many centuries. But now it is fast fading in the light of the glory of the Father’s great love.
Even my agnostic friends instinctually see it. An addict friend confessed to me, “I don’t believe in God. I just can’t … But if there is a God, that God is love. And I want my daughter to know it!”
His intuitions of God are far more Christlike than what he’d heard from Christless religiosity.
The time has come for toxic theologies of divine retribution, eternal fiery torment, and angry moralism to take their turn on the defensive. It’s time for those who slander the good news of God’s grace to repent of their foxy ways because that “gospel” has created generations of burnt-out Christians and fed-up atheists. It’s time they see that the true King is divine Love, crucified and risen, whose purpose is to save (not scorch) the world.
Praise for A More Christlike Word
“A brilliant and compelling journey into reading Scripture as expounded by Christ himself on the road to Emmaus, gently exposing and correcting the weaknesses of many modern presuppositions and opening us up to the more wonderful mystery of a loving God. A More Christlike Word will be sure to touch the hearts of many.”
—Fr. John Behr, Regius Chair of Humanity, University of Aberdeen, Scotland
“For many of us who are conflicted between our deep respect for the Bible and legitimate questions which that esteem requires we address, Bradley Jersak has gifted us with this welcome companion, educating the mind and freeing the heart to harmonize Scripture with the revelation of God we see in Jesus the Messiah.”
—Paul Young, Author, The Shack, Cross Roads, Eve, and Lies We Believe About God
“Brad Jersak is a mapmaker, and A More Christlike Word is an atlas of sorts, a trusty guide for the journey ahead. This is a necessary book for our time, when so many people are experiencing crises of faith. For anyone who loves the triune God but has found the Bible problematic, this book feels like utter redemption. A More Christlike Word is an invitation to engage the written word through the living Word.”
—Felicia Murrell, Author, Truth Encounters
“Brad Jersak is a gifted storyteller, a wise scholar, a careful thinker and reader, and a compassionate human being. He brings these and other assets to the task of helping us rediscover the Bible. I dare to hope that every seminarian will be assigned this book as required reading and that Christians of all denominations and callings will let Brad Jersak reintroduce them to the Bible, a book he knows and loves contagiously.”
—Brian D. McLaren, Author, Faith After Doubt
“Bradley Jersak has spent a lifetime immersed in the Scriptures. And now, with A More Christlike Word, he shares with us his hard-won insights on how to interpret the Scriptures as Christ himself did on the Emmaus road that first Easter. Of the many recent books on biblical interpretation, I find A More Christlike Word to be the most thorough and comprehensive. It is a gift!”
—Brian Zahnd, Lead pastor, Word of Life Church, St. Joseph, MO, Author, When Everything’s on Fire (fall 2021)
About the Author
Bradley Jersak is the Dean of Theology & Culture, a modular graduate studies program at St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, Canada. He is also the editor-in-chief of Clarion-Journal.com. Bradley and his wife, Eden, have lived in the Abbotsford area of British Columbia since 1988, where they served as pastors and church planters for twenty years. Bradley is the author of a number of nonfiction and fiction books, including A More Christlike Way, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Can You Hear Me? Tuning in to the God Who Speaks, and The Pastor: A Crisis. He has an M. A. in biblical studies from Briercrest Bible College and Seminary, an M. Div. in biblical studies from Trinity Western University/ACTS Seminary, and a Ph. D. in theology from Bangor University, Wales. He was also a Visiting Scholar at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, for post-doctoral research in Patristic Christology.