Did you hear recently that what might be a Rembrandt self-portrait was discovered hidden under another of the Dutch master’s paintings? Using advanced scanning techniques scientists investigated a Rembrandt painting titled Old Man With a Beard. Much to their surprise, the scan revealed that another painting was underneath—one that might well be an early, unfinished self-portrait of the artist himself. It seems that Rembrandt had begun a self-portrait, then later used the canvas to paint the Old Man With a Beard.
The story can help us understand a mistake we make when we try to understand what God is like. Most of us have grown up believing that God is like the first painting—an old man with a beard. That, after all, is how religious artists usually portray him. We think of God as not only old, but also as a distant, rather threatening figure—stern and quick to get angry if we fail to live up to his impossible standards.
But this way of thinking about God, kind of like the painting of the old man that hid the self-portrait underneath, actually obscures what God is really like.
To get a true idea of what God is really like we need to look beneath the layers of popular concepts about God and begin to see the God revealed in Jesus Christ. When we do that, a true and undistorted understanding of God emerges.
The Bible tells us that if we want to know what God is like, we need only look to Jesus Christ. Only then can we find out how God really feels about us.
“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus explained in John 14:9 (CEV). Only Jesus shows us what God is really like. Far from being a remote and distant figure, Jesus showed that God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—loves us unconditionally and will never let us go. God is not out there somewhere in the sky scowling at us, ready to pounce and punish. The Bible tells us that it is the Father’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32 KJV) and that God is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9 KJV). It tells us that God sent Jesus into the world because he loves the world—not to condemn humanity but to save it.
Once you get past the layers of misunderstanding, the picture of God that is revealed is one of a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. “No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand,” said Jesus (John 10:29).
Through Jesus we are shown God’s true heart toward us—we see him as he really is, not way off somewhere, and neither angry at us nor unconcerned about us. He is right here with us, ready for us to turn to him and receive his loving embrace, just as Rembrandt portrays in another of his paintings, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Paul told Christians that they are “being transformed into his likeness,” meaning Jesus’ likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV 1984). Our problem is that we get in the way at times. We use our own colors and prefer our own strokes to God’s. Sometimes we can airbrush him out of the picture completely. But, underneath it all, the Holy Spirit is making us into the image of Jesus, who is the self-portrait of the Father. As we grow spiritually, that image should become more apparent.
Don’t let other images get in the way of your view of who God is or how God feels about you. Look to Jesus, who alone is the self-portrait of God.
James Henderson, 2012