I once imagined 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 massive, 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.

Picture of Christmas

Jesus is the Great Artist, the one “through whom all things were made” (John 1:3), the “image of the invisible God . . . in whom all things were created” (Col. 1:15–16), the “heir of all things . . . through whom God made the universe” (Heb. 1:2). 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’s 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.

At his birth, the Artist steps into his defaced masterpiece.

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 (2 Pet. 1:20). 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” (1 Cor. 8:6). 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 is not only our origin but our destination, both the ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ of our world.

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.

Divinity and Dirt

So is God afraid of getting dirty? Some people fear he 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.

Merry Christmas.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home (Thomas Nelson, 2016).