The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That's Dying to Bring Us Home240
The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That's Dying to Bring Us Home240
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The Pursuing God
A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That's Dying to Bring Us Home
By Joshua Ryan Butler
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Joshua Ryan Butler
All rights reserved.
Into the Canvas
I once had a vision of an artist painting a masterpiece. With lavish brushstrokes and bold strikes, he threw splashes of rich, beautiful color, pouring himself into his painting with passion on a large, wall-sized canvas bordered by an ornate gold frame. When the masterpiece was complete, he stood back and gazed with joy upon the wonder his hands had made.
As if to say, "It's good."
Something strange, however, happened next: a small, dark spot appeared in the center of the painting. I thought, What is that? The artist watched as the mold-like decay began to spread, like a crack in the windshield that starts at a point but gradually expands its fissures and fractures into the whole. The invasive intruder began to stretch its thin, straggly arms, creeping its corruption throughout the canvas. The masterpiece was threatened with destruction.
What will the artist do? I wondered.
What happened next was the strangest, most bizarre thing I would ever have expected: the artist lifted his leg, extended it forward, and ... stepped into the painting. First his leg entered the canvas, then his torso, and finally his head. Then, with a whoosh! the integration was complete: the artist stood within the work his hands had made, at the center of the masterpiece.
That's weird, I thought.
But even stranger was what happened next: the moldy rot began to attack the artist! The great painter had positioned himself in such a way that the central point of invasion was right over his heart. As the tentacles retreated from the cornered edges, they sank into the artist himself, blow by blow. The creator received the corruption at the core of his masterpiece.
Until finally, with a whoomph! it was gone.
The masterpiece was restored. The artist had absorbed the destructive power until it was extinguished.
To my surprise, however, the great painter didn't step back out of the painting. Having united his life with the canvas, he remained permanently at the center of his restored masterpiece.
In a way, however, restored doesn't seem like the right word, because the work was now even more glorious with his presence inside. He brought radiance and beauty such that the painting seemed to glow with his life. There was a sense that this was always the way it was intended to be: the artist at the center of his painting.
This was the true masterpiece.
A PICTURE OF THE GOSPEL
This is a picture of the gospel. In the coming chapters, we'll use this "artist in the painting" image to guide us through some tough topics, like sacrifice, wrath, and atonement — I think it will help us see how these arise from the goodness of God, rather than in spite of or in contradiction to it. But first, let's unpack the parable.
Jesus is the Great Artist, the one "through [whom] all things were made," the "image of the invisible God ... in [whom] all things were created," the "heir of all things ... through whom also [God] made the universe." Jesus pours himself into creation as a great painter pours himself into his masterpiece, with passion, creativity, and imagination. The heavens and earth display the glory of Christ, the Master Craftsman.
When sin enters, however, it defaces and destroys. Its dark tentacles stretch and spread through God's good world, unleashing dissolution and decay. The Great Painter's masterpiece is threatened with destruction. Rather than discard this world and start a new one, Jesus' solution is to step into his painting. At his birth, the Artist steps into his masterpiece. Through his incarnation, the Creator enters his creation, merging his eternal life with the canvas of his world, becoming part of the work his hands have made.
Jesus is God in the painting.
In his earthly walk and ministry, Jesus lives the life we couldn't live — embodying the kingdom for which we were made and bringing restoration to his creation. In his death on the cross, he dies the death we should have died — absorbing the sin, decay, and destruction we have unleashed into his masterpiece and carrying it with him into the grave. And in his resurrection and ascension, he is exalted at the center of creation as its Lord, to restore the masterpiece of his world in the power of his Spirit to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus at the center is, in an important sense, the way it was always destined to be. "Before the foundation of the world," Peter tells us, Jesus was destined to accomplish this. Jesus is not only our origin but our destination, both the "once upon a time" and "happily ever after" of our world. "There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ," Paul reminds us, "through whom all things came and through whom we live." As early church father Athanasius observed, it is right that
the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning ... for the One Father has [effected] the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.
Jesus is both kickoff and closure, start and finish, A to Z — beginning and end.
Jesus wants to be with us. He doesn't just fix the painting then leave his body behind; he doesn't step back out of the painting. Rather, he remains permanently embedded in the canvas of creation through his resurrected body. God makes his home with us in Christ. And when his kingdom comes in glory, his restoring work will permeate the world through his presence at the center of the new creation.
The Creator creates us for communion with him. The Deliverer desires to dwell with us forever. The Resurrector reaches out to us for relationship. We're invited to participate in the restoring life of Jesus, the Artist at the center of the painting.
So is God afraid of getting dirty? Some people fear God is a clean freak, backing away, frightened, at the first sight of our mess so as to not get tainted. In light of the great painter entering the painting: Is the Artist scared of our mess? Does the Creator back away from the corruption? Is God willing to get dirty?
It depends what we mean by dirty. If we mean physical dirt, God has no problem with that. In the beginning, the Creator reaches deep into the soil with divine hands to plant a garden, forms humanity from the dust of the earth, places his lips upon us to blow the breath of life into our lungs, then walks in the garden with us, kicking up dust with bare feet.
The Creator is distinct from his creation, in holy power and awesome majesty, yet he is intimate with the work of his hands, like an artist who pours himself passionately into his masterpiece. The Craftsman crafts dirt and sky, bone and bark, roots and rivers — then steps back upon completion to declare it good. And when we jumble things up, God pursues us. Our heavenly Father comes after us. Jesus breaks into the painting — the Word through whom the world was made becomes flesh — taking on dirt and blood and bone to pursue us in the muck and the mess we make.
Divinity gets dusty as the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, comes after our world. God isn't afraid of getting dirty.CHAPTER 2
Pulling Back the Rib Cage
God has no problem getting physically dirty, as we saw in the last chapter. But there is a second sense in which God getting dirty can be taken. What if we mean spiritual dirt, as in "Can God sin?" Can the Artist participate in unleashing the dark, destructive decay into his masterpiece? Historically, the question has been asked, "Could Jesus have sinned?"
This sounds like a simple question. "No, of course not," we quickly answer. But if we say no, we must ask, "Why?" Was Jesus forced to obey by something outside himself? A victim of fate controlled by marionette strings from above? If we say yes, did we simply get lucky, with salvation hanging on the line of his whim? Would all have been lost if Jesus had joined our rebellion? There's more to this question than first meets the eye: Can Jesus get spiritually dirty?
Jesus' wilderness temptation is a good place to explore this question. Right before Jesus launches his ministry, he "was led by the Spirit into the wilderness" to be tested, where he fasts forty days and forty nights before the devil comes to tempt him. Wait a second: Does that sound familiar? Forty in the wilderness? Temptation? Ring any bells? Can you think of any Old Testament stories with forty in the wilderness and temptation?
That's right: Israel's temptation in the wilderness.
Jesus' temptation mirrors Israel's forty years in the wilderness in a whole bunch of ways. God led Israel into the wilderness after freeing her from Egypt's clutches, similar to the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. What was God's purpose? "God led you ... in the wilderness," Moses tells her, "... to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands."
Like Israel, Jesus is now led into the desert to be tested — we're about to see what's in his heart. Israel did not do too well on the test. In fact, she flunked.
Now Jesus is here; let's see how he does.
TAKE US BACK TO EGYPT
Jesus' first test involves food. "After fasting forty days and forty nights," we're told, "he was hungry." Uh, no duh. That's like saying, "After swimming for an hour, he was wet." Anyone fasting forty days would be starving, quite literally. Talk about stating the obvious.
But Jesus' hunger emphasizes something important: his humanity. The Artist feels the weight of his painting. The Son of God knows the hunger pangs, bears the burden, and doesn't pull out his Creator of the World ID card to use his status and opt out of suffering.
So Satan tempts him: Turn these stones to bread.
Use your privilege to avoid pain. Turn from your Father's provision and look to yourself for food. But even after forty days of fasting, Jesus' eyes are not curved inward upon his aching belly, but outward upon his loving Father. Jesus responds, "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Now, this is where it gets really interesting: Jesus is quoting the Old Testament here, and not just any verse, but Moses' words to Israel in the wilderness, when she cried out in hunger against God. Israel was hungry in the desert (as Jesus is now), so she turned against God and complained:
If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.
Israel failed the test; she revealed in her heart that she did not trust God.
At the first sign of trouble, she cried: Take us back to Egypt. Back to bondage. Back to the empire of the serpent. God provided anyway, as he planned to, with manna in the wilderness. But Israel's outstretched fist showed she was ready to jump ship at the first sign of trouble. She was called to bring restoration to God's masterpiece, but simply doubled down on the distrust that distanced our world from God in the first place.
Jesus, in contrast, displays trust in the wilderness, looking to his Father for provision. When he quotes Moses, saying, We don't live on bread alone, he's tugging Israel's temptation back into the picture. Jesus succeeds where Israel failed. The Savior gets an A on the test she flunked. The Artist refuses to participate in the destruction that afflicts his masterpiece.
One exam down; two to go.
SUICIDE OR SALVATION
Satan next tempts Jesus, "Throw yourself from the temple! God will send his angels to rescue you." Here the idea is: Walk through the crowded capital of Jerusalem, up to the heights of the Most Holy Place on Mount Zion, and jump — if your Father truly loves you, he'll rescue you in front of all the people, with a miraculous display of supernatural fireworks. Force God's hand! Show everyone who you really are!
It's either suicide or salvation.
Jesus again quotes Moses: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." This comes from Israel's second temptation: the wilderness was dry; the people were thirsty; Israel needed water. They were ready to stone Moses, saying, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" They turned against God again.
God provided, as he planned to, and quenched their thirst with water from a rock. But their grouchy grumbling revealed what was in their hearts: they did not trust God. So Moses calls the place Massah (which means "testing") and Meribah (which means "quarreling") "because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, 'Is the Lord [really] among us?'"
Israel was spiritually dirty, with broken trust and a lack of faith.
Jesus, in contrast, trusts the Father. He does not need to ask whether God is really with him, really for him, really ready to deliver. Jesus doesn't put God to the test, because he trusts the Father for his ultimate deliverance — and will ultimately trust him all the way to the cross. When the people mock Jesus at his crucifixion — If you are truly the Son of God, come down from there! — it echoes this temptation to call on God's angels for rescue and bring himself down for all around Mount Zion to see.
Israel failed its test at a rock, from which God gave life-giving water. Jesus passed his test at a rock — both here at Mount Zion and ultimately at Golgotha (both of which are rocky) — to bring the water of life gushing forth to a thirsty, rebellious world.
Because Jesus is spiritually clean.
RIGHT THING, WRONG TIME
Satan takes one last crack at it: "Bow down to me, and I will give you the kingdoms of the world." Turn from your Father, and you can have it all. This is a test of worship. The irony is this: Jesus already has it all; the kingdoms of the world are destined for his inheritance. He will be exalted by his Father as Lord of the world — but he will do this through sacrificial love, giving his life for us. The problem is not what Satan offers, but how he offers it.
Satan offers the kingdom without the cross.
So Jesus again quotes Moses: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only." Once more, this also comes from Israel in the wilderness. She bowed down to the golden calf, to goat idols, worshipping other gods and finding herself under the death-dealing power of the Law. And it didn't stop when she came out of the wilderness. Throughout her history, Israel looked to Baal and Molech, the starry hosts and the gods of the nations, to provide when she feared God would forsake her.
Jesus, in contrast, worships God alone.
Jesus passes all three tests, succeeding where Israel failed. But he also succeeds here where Adam and Eve failed. They, too, were tempted with food by a twisting of God's words, and they bowed to the tempter when offered the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus is succeeding here where we fail: we don't trust God; we bail at the first sign of trouble; we want to rule the earth on our own and live without God. We are not the solution; we are the problem.
Jesus, however, refuses to participate in the corruption we unleash. The Artist will not contribute to the decay that afflicts his world. These tests are like exploratory surgery: they open Jesus' chest, pull back his rib cage, and reveal what's in his heart.
He's spiritually clean.CHAPTER 3
The New Captain
In light of Jesus' temptation, let's return to the question: "Could Jesus have sinned?" It depends on what we mean by could have. The phrase can be taken two different ways. If we're referring to his external circumstances, as in, Did Jesus truly have the opportunity to sin? then the obvious answer is yes. Jesus was surrounded by a situation that pressed the option upon him with force.
Jesus was hungry, thirsty, and tired — he experienced the horrible heaviness of our humanity — and the option to give in was open. If Jesus had never entered our world, or had simply come as a ghost, or had kept himself at some safe distance from the full-freighted frailty of our flesh, it would not have been a true temptation. But Jesus carried our infirmities, bore our weakness, and as Hebrews puts it, was "tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."
The Artist felt the full brunt of affliction in his painting — and didn't bail.
Excerpted from The Pursuing God by Joshua Ryan Butler. Copyright © 2016 Joshua Ryan Butler. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I The Artist in the Painting: incarnation
1 Into the Canvas 3
2 Pulling Back the Rib Cage 9
3 The New Captain 15
4 God on the Prowl 25
5 Coming Down the Mountain 33
6 Romance in the War Zone 41
7 Reckless Love 47
8 Olympic Father 53
9 Welcome Home 59
10 Dumb Farmer 69
11 A Mighty Oak 75
12 Selling the Farm 81
II Taking Down the Corporation: crucifixion
13 Lion and Prey 89
14 Jesus Is a Wall Street CEO 97
15 Muggers and Physicians 103
16 For God So Loved… 113
17 A Helicopter in the Forest 123
18 Destroy This Temple 129
19 Dead Meat 135
20 The God Who Walks Alone 143
21 Soaking Up Death 149
22 Fish on the Dock 157
23 Furious Love 165
24 Unraveling Creation 173
III Rising Up From the Waters: resurrection
25 Communion of Love 185
26 The Journey Home 191
27 Life into Death 197
28 Bad Bridge 205
29 The True Myth 211
30 Upside-Down Kingdom 221
31 Nazis and Whores 227
32 Forgiveness Sets You Free 235
33 Blind Date 241
34 Vampires 253
35 Kingdom in the Wilderness 261
36 Bigfoot Jesus 267
Appendix I Kill Your Son? 277
Appendix II Forsaken 287
About the Author 321