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Imagine telling a first century Jew that they don’t really know what God is like. Or, even to go a step further, imagine telling them that no one has ever seen God. They would be quick to object! Christians who know their Old Testament may even be sympathetic to these objections. What about Adam? He encountered God in the garden (Gen. 3:8). And Enoch? He walked with God for years (Gen. 5:22). What about Abraham? He sat with God and shared a meal underneath the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-15). Jacob? He saw God at the top of that ladder (Gen. 28:10-22). Moses? He spent time with God on Mount Sinai and even received the ten commandments from God (Ex. 19-20). Then, the 70 elders of Israel went to Sinai and saw God as well (Ex. 24:9-11). God spoke through the prophets to the people of Israel. Ezekiel even had visions of God by the Kebar River (Ezek. 18:1). Plenty of others talked with God, such as Hagar, Sarah, Rebekah, Aaron, Joshua, David, etc.

Yet, in spite of all this, the apostle John said “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (Jn. 1:18, NRSV) In light of the entirety of the Old Testament, this is quite the claim. At first glance, we may be tempted to side with the objecting Jews and Christians, as God clearly has a long history with the people of Israel. Who is John to say, despite Israel’s long history with God, that no one has ever seen God? What’s more, what could possibly compel John to say that it is Christ who has made God known? Has not God been making himself known in various ways to Israel, including through the Hebrew Scriptures?

There’s no need to be overly-spiritual about it: this is an audacious claim made by the apostle John. But the issue is not the audacity of the claim; what matters is whether or not it is true. And sometimes, the truth is audacious to many.

Of course, John isn’t a Marcionite. He values the Old Testament. John quotes from it some 40 times in his gospel, and another six times in 1 John[1]. The book of Revelation quotes from the Old Testament another 249 times[2], though many in modern scholarship do not think John of Patmos and the apostle John are the same person. Nonetheless, it is clear: John believes God revealed himself to Israel through the Old Testament, and that followers of Jesus should take it seriously. The question still remains though, what did John mean when he said that no one had ever seen God before Jesus revealed God to us?

I think John gives us some clues in the verses preceding verse 18. The apostle John describes John the Baptist in verses 6-8, saying he was sent from God but was himself not the light. Rather, John the Baptist bore witness to the light. And, it was the true light that was coming into the world. John called this light the Word of God which became flesh! In that, God was not content to simply reveal himself through other people, or through words written by men. Instead, God himself became a man. He lived and walked among us. And during this time, he perfectly revealed himself to us. In the same way, Scripture is itself not the light. Rather, Scripture’s purpose is to bear witness to the light, the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

John’s paradigm of thought should inform our own opinions about the nature of Scripture and the Christian faith. The writer of Hebrews does something very similar in Hebrews 1:1-3. We are told that God did speak to our fathers in many and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. It is the Son who reflects the glory of God and is the exact representation of his very being (v.3). This is interesting, to say the least. Though the writer gives us multiple ways in which God has revealed himself to us, it is his revelation through Christ which he says is an exact representation of his character.

What does John mean by saying that no one has ever seen God? I believe he would say that compared to any revelation of God we’ve had before, no matter what visions, encounters, dreams, theophanies or Christophanies which may have taken place before, they pale in comparison and are submissive to the perfect revelation of God we have in Christ!

Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us; rather, he came to change our minds about God. Jesus is exactly what God has to say![3] So, we need to make sure that the God we are worshiping and proclaiming to people is a Christ-like God.

If you cannot find it in Jesus, you should not say it about God.[4] This is the truth John dared to proclaim concerning the Messiah.

[1] “Quotations from the O.T. In the N.T.,” Blue Letter Bible, accessed July 25, 2018, https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/pnt/pnt08.cfm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: the Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook, 2017), 59.

[4] Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey in and Out of Calvinism (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 41.

Harding Profile“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42, NRSV.

“Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conception of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.”

James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate (1887) [1]

As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as a influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition, and it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others simply emphasized its fundamental orientation. James A. Harding, co-founder of Lipscomb University and namesake of Harding University, called them “means of grace,” that is, four spiritual disciplines that form believers into the image of Christ.

Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table as a community, and (4) habitual prayer.[2] Sometimes Harding identifies these with the Lord’s Day assembly or communal gatherings but generally understood Bible study, missional engagement with the poor, and prayer as daily spiritual disciplines. According to Harding, believers should adopt a kind of rule of life which involves daily Bible reading, “doing good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.

But these are no mere duties. Rather, they are “four great means of grace—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in, and through the people of God.[3] They are not modes of human self-reliance but means of divine transformation by which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines through which God conforms believers to the image of Christ.

Harding stressed how “the life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ.”[4] To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s “greatest” desire. [5] In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of practicing the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a larger number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord.” As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ.”[6]

Harding’s antidote recommended the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and personal piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure.”[7] But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are god’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines with a heart that seeks God.[8]

God in Christ through the Spirit is graciously active through these communal and personal faith-practices. God actively transforms believers into God’s own image, and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.

**This is adapted from John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Press, 2006), 75-77. One chapter is devoted to each of these means of grace.

[1]Harding, “Scraps,” Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February 1887), 88.

[2]Harding, “Questions Concerning the Way to Heaven,” The Way 4 (12 February 1903), 370.

[3]Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (17 July 1902), 123.

[4]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (23 July 1903), 735.

[5]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 945.

[6]Harding, “About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 (14 September 1887), 588.

[7]Harding, “Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader and the Way 23 (18 May 1909), 8.

[8]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903), 401-2.

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