Gordon Fee, Like Father, Like Son
Gordon Fee is professor emeritus of New Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He received his PhD in 1966 from the University of Southern California.
In this interview, Dr. Fee talks about the renewed image of the Father through his likeness shared in Christ the Son.
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J. Michael Feazell: You’ve been preaching and writing for most of your life. What is it that you want people to know about God?
Gordon Fee: I can get at that best by telling a story. I was a freshman at Seattle Pacific College and had a remarkable encounter with God. I was there on a basketball scholarship, and it was an idolatry to me. Douglas Stuart led me to give that up to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus. That happened in early December, 1952.
Later that year we had a chapel series we called Spiritual Emphasis Week — a special speaker for each chapel in that week. Her name was Eugenia Price. She was a well-known figure in Hollywood — a writer and that kind of thing — who five years earlier had been converted in Billy Graham’s first crusade in Los Angeles. She was a marvelous person and a gifted speaker.
Somewhere at the beginning she said, “You will never find a more relieved person in all the world than I, when I discovered that God is just like Jesus Christ.” She admitted that wasn’t theologically well-said, but her point was well-said. That’s pretty much where any true believer in Jesus, any true Christian must come to terms with theology, with how one understands God.
In John’s Gospel this is put on display in every imaginable way, the Son is revealing the Father. It isn’t that the Son is separate from the Father; the Father and the Son and Spirit are the one God. But in the incarnation, God became present among us. My way of putting it is: He came among us, took the wraps off, and said, “Here’s what I am like. Here’s what God is and what God is like.”
Every false theology in history has been a failure to take that seriously — that the only true understanding of God is that which comes through revelation of the Son, who is the full, perfect, absolute representation (it’s hard to find language when we talk theologically, but understand…), representation of who God is and what God is like. Every false theology is steered away from what we learn about God through the revelation in the Son, because that is where the full revelation of God takes place.
The ultimate expression of that revelation is in the crucifixion. God on a cross with his creatures trying to get rid of him. And instead of getting rid of him, they got him forever. You can’t get rid of him. Death followed by resurrection followed by the Holy Spirit with a total complete passion on God’s part to do what was intended in the Garden of Eden, and that’s to create human beings in his image.
What God has done in Christ and by the Spirit is to recreate fallen human beings back into the image of God so that we live on this planet as the image-bearers of God, which should constantly point people to God, because we bear that image. I have a great relief that God is just like Jesus Christ.
JMF: Many Christians think of the Father being a scary God of the Old Testament.
GF: A mean old man in heaven, yes.
JMF: Jesus is the nice guy who shields us from the anger of this scary God of the Old Testament.
GF: Everybody who does this has not read the Gospel of John. “Have I been with you for so long,” Jesus asks, “and you don’t know who I am? The one who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Gospel of John takes all of that story, that Gospel, that incarnation, and raises it to the next level so that we hear the Gospel story in its theological setting of who this is.
It’s in the Synoptic Gospels as well, but John just makes it so stark that you can’t miss the point that this is not just another human being, this is God incarnate — taking off the wraps and saying, “Look, this is who God is. This is what God is like.”
JMF: John also records Jesus talking about his oneness with the Father. But he also prays that the disciples “may be one as we are one.” What is he driving at there?
GF: That’s one of the more difficult texts to spell out in detail. The concern throughout that section of the Gospel has to do with, in this case, two believers, two followers of Jesus — that they both together reflect the likeness of God that’s found in Christ in their relationship with one another. All of that had to do with how we become the bearers of the image. We do that not because we pray a lot, we do that because we love our neighbor, and our neighbor is often our enemy.
As God loved his enemies, namely you and me, and redeemed us by that love, he wants us to be his image-bearers and to be redemptive agents in a world where people not only don’t believe in him but would prefer to curse. They don’t believe in him, but they’ll use his name and curse. It’s how terribly fallen the human race has become.
JMF: When he’s saying that about the disciples, they have been at each other’s throats over who’s going to be the greatest, and he’s having to interrupt their disputes over all that, and yet he’s talking about a oneness that will transcend all of that.
GF: He does scold them a little bit here, but he’s constantly bringing them back. “Look, watch… the works that I do are the works of the Father. I am doing the Father’s work. Pay attention, this is what God is like.” People ask me what God is like. This is not theologically well-put, but it says it. God is just like Jesus Christ.
JMF: We’re not afraid of Jesus. We read about Jesus and we think, I could trust him to not surprise me with condemnation. But we are a little afraid of the Father. We’re worried about what he might do next.
GF: That is understandable, because many of us have broken fathers who aren’t people we would necessarily emulate. My case is different. My father was a true representation of my heavenly Father. So I never had to overcome the frailties and the difficulties and the weaknesses of my own father because I regularly saw the revelation of God and the way he treated my mother and the way that he was a pastor and the way that he created a congregation, became a professor in a Bible college, the way he treated students. He was an image-bearer, so that was never a difficulty for me.
But I wasn’t long as a pastor or a teacher when I realized, that image didn’t work for some people because their fathers were so bad, so brutal, that they didn’t want God to be a father. In those cases they had to rethink what they would like a father to be and then come to terms with the fact that God is infinitely more than that. It’s an image that in our culture does have drawbacks, but I won’t leave the image, because not only is it the biblical one, but correctly expressed, it’s the best one.
JMF: The Holy Spirit comes into the picture as well in John. Jesus is talking about his oneness with the Father, he’s talking about “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” he’s talking about how they may be one…or how the disciples may be one as he and the Father are one. Then he starts to talk about the Comforter: “I’m going to send you a comforter. It’s necessary I go away.” How does the Holy Spirit fit into the relationship with Father and Son?
GF: That isn’t spelled out in the text. That’s where theology comes in. It’s clear in John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit both of the Father and of his Son, and therefore the one Holy Spirit is the full image-bearer of the Godhead. The reason, the point, of the Holy Spirit throughout the New Testament is that the Spirit is to continue the work of the incarnation by incarnating us with God’s likeness As the Spirit, there’s the fruit of the God likeness in our relationships with one another.
This is the great problem I had – in history, the solitary monk, the one who went out into the desert to get Christian perfection. That’s impossible. You can’t find out whether a person is a true Christian until they rub elbows with another Christian. That’s when you find out whether the work of the Spirit is really taking place. The solitary hermetic monk was so unbiblical that it doesn’t have a leg to stand on, because the real test is how one responds to another when the other is doing things that are either distasteful, wrong, deliberately evil…how we respond to that is going to be the ultimate evidence of the Spirit’s outworking, the life of Christ in us.
JMF: Christ forgives, he loves his enemies. It’s good for us, but we don’t like it when he’s forgiving our enemies.
GF: Exactly. We don’t like that part of it. We like to be Christians, but we also like to be fallen at points. Our fallen-ness can still find expression.
JMF: I’m glad he forgives his enemies, which often includes us…
GF: Yes, on the cross.
JMF: …and our enemies. Here he is telling us that we can be one with each other, and the Holy Spirit then is continuing that incarnation…and that includes loving our enemies. It isn’t just telling us something that we need to do, because we can’t. We don’t do that. We never have. His ministry is the doing of that which we fail in.
GF: One of the difficulties with this is the enormity of the population, and that these are spoken in basically rural contexts, where people live in small villages and they have to get along, or the village won’t make it. We now live in a global village where almost no one can live in isolation anymore. The context for us is so huge that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like to love our enemies, because we don’t even know who our enemies are. I was a kid growing up in grammar school during World War II. How would one love Hitler? I’m sorry, Hitler was the incarnation of evil. So I quit thinking in those categories. The question is, how do I love the neighbor next door?
JMF: Our neighbor is the one we’re having the problem with.
GF: Yes, so this is the person that we must love, but it’s easy to overlook that person in thinking in broader people terms. I love the people in my church… I still want to have dinner with some of them. It’s the one-on-one thing that Jesus is about — not that global or larger communal. How do I love somebody out of their evil? I would assume that’s the basic reason for loving them.
JMF: But Jesus does that, and he’s in us, therefore we can rest in his doing of that, without us having to take the burden.
GF: Here’s where the Holy Spirit must come in.
JMF: It’s a rest, isn’t it? He does what we’re unable to. He heals us.
GF: Yes. Good thing, too.
JMF: You’ve done a lot of work with reading the Scriptures in the context in which they were written. As you just mentioned, this is written in the context of a village kind of thinking. It doesn’t address details and specifics of our kind of world in which we live on a block where we don’t even know most of the people who drive by the front of our house.
GF: Yes, exactly.
JMF: We have a different kind of relationship from any of the relationships people would have known then. They talk about a stranger… When a stranger comes to town, everybody knows that a stranger has come to town, and it’s one, or one little group. Pretty soon everybody knows a whole lot about them, because they make it their business. We can’t do that.
GF: Yes. How that translates for us is very difficult. I don’t pretend that I would not answer that in our context. I think the greater question is, how do I love those neighbors that are closest?
JMF: The neighbors I know.
GF: Yeah, those who are around me. Maudine and I live in a ten-unit complex of individual units. We think in terms of how do we love? We are in a very good community. We’re the only believers, but we get along well with everybody. They get along well with one another. There’s very little of the kind of fighting that I know happens in a lot of these communities. That would be the next step for us. How do we love? How do we care for somebody if they’re ill? How do we get food to them or something like that as a way of demonstrating that we’re part of this community…not trying to convert them by the four spiritual laws, but trying to love them as they are and then perhaps at some point they might ask what we’re all about.
JMF: Being ready to give an answer, but not cramming …
GF: Pushing it down their throat, yes.
JMF: Isn’t there some trust in the Spirit’s power to work with somebody instead of taking it all on ourselves?
GF: Altogether. On the other hand, sometimes the door sits wide open and we get hesitant and don’t step through the door. Part of that is a personality matter, too. Neither my wife or I are extroverts on one-on-one relationships, so…
JMF: Most people aren’t.
GF: …we have to push ourselves to move in that direction.
JMF: We tend to assume that everybody should be the same when it comes to evangelism, and yet there are so many different aspects of how we are with other people according to the way God has made us as individuals. We’re not all the same.
GF: True evangelism has to stem out of good relationships. The only other evangelism is the kind that happens in church when there’s a sermon and a visitor is there and they hear it and the Spirit speaks. True evangelism is a relational thing where the relationship is secure and you hope they might ask you, “Why are you so weird?”
JMF: So it’s a good idea for Christians to make friends with unbelievers.
GF: Oh yes.
JMF: For the sake of friendship.
GF: Neither Maudine or I are good at that. But if they make the first step, we’re good at it. It has to do with our personalities.
JMF: Studies have shown that people would rather live next door to almost anybody than an evangelical Christian because of the stereotypes of evangelical Christians being so pushy and judgmental…
GF: …and aggressive.
GF: The New Testament makes it clear that you love your neighbor by doing good for your neighbor. Evangelism will come out of that, and no other way.
JMF: The St. Francis quote is always interesting, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
GF: This comes from my wife: many years ago she was struck by how many times in Scripture it talks about doing good. Not doing works, but doing what is good. Somehow evangelicals have never caught on, it seems to me, that’s the primary biblical text on how we live in the world.
JMF: When you hear a discussion about what we’re going to do in the church, “And here are some good things we can do in the community as a church.” There’s always the “But then how do we set it up so that the good thing we’re doing gives us an opportunity to hit them with the gospel?” In other words, it’s like we don’t know how to do good without also having to say something, or else we haven’t done what we are supposed to do. The “saying something” is the most important, and the “doing good” is only a means to the end, rather than doing good being the end.
GF: Taking a casserole over to the young couple that just had a new baby. That’s what you do.
JMF: Not so that you can give them a spiel.
GF: No, just because you’re doing good! It’s the good thing to do. Many people who don’t make any profession of faith understand that better than Christians do — that we should do good. Too many evangelical Christians are more interested in evangelizing as the first matter of business rather than loving their neighbor as the first matter of business.
JMF: That’s a good point. I was listening to Jack Hayford once talking about that some people tend to see evangelism as scalps on your belt…
GF: Oh dear me, yes.
JMF: …rather than living with people as Christ would.
GF: Loving them for their own sake.
JMF: For their own sake because they are people.
GF: Yes, made in God’s image. We need to be recreated into Christ’s image.