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God’s Shadow Activity

• Greg Boyd

When people read the Old Testament, it can be a bit confusing to those that know Jesus and his ministry. In this sermon, Greg talks about how the Law in the Old Testament was simply a shadow of the cross, and that the ugliness in the Old Testament simply shows how far humanity was separated from God.

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In the book of Colossians, Paul implores the readers to see the Law in the Old Testament as a shadow of the Cross. His readers were being told that they needed to follow the Old Testament rules and religious festivals. Paul disagreed with this thinking. He saw the Old Testament law, rules, and religious festivals as the shadow of the cross and that turning back towards the shadow was the wrong thing to do.

A shadow is merely an image of a reality. That is to say, it is the negative outline of something. When a person is standing outside, a black silhouette of that person will be cast on the ground. This shadow does not show the face of the person, the smell, or the texture of their skin. It only shows a part of the reality. For Paul, the shadow of the crucified Christ on the cross was the law in the Old Testament.

This is tricky territory to talk about. We see the Bible as divinely inspired. We believe it’s true. But we don’t believe we hold all of it with the same weight. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, the messiah the law pointed towards, and he is the Son of God who is greater than all the other prophets before him. Why, then, would people hold the law as equivalent to the message of Jesus? The law is still a part of the story of the cross and resembled the cross, but it is not the cross and pales in comparison. The cross determines who God is and what he is trying to accomplish. So why did God even use the law?

God is like a missionary. There is a story of some missionaries that went to a village in Africa that practiced female circumcision. The missionaries knew that this practice was wrong, but they couldn’t just walk into the village and tell the people to stop it because it was a centuries old practice. They bit their tongue and slowly invested themselves into the culture. After teaching for a long time, the village eventually turned to Jesus and began to live according to the Kingdom. At that point, the village realized that female circumcision was wrong. Looking back in time, the missionaries could be seen as endorsing the practice. However, they had to slowly reveal their true nature to the village in order to be accepted.

God works in a similar way. When humanity rejected God, they chose to go their own way. This way led to terrible ugliness in the world. This ugliness is reflected in a lot of the stories of the Old Testament. God stepped into this world to influence people back to him, but he didn’t coerce humans to follow him. Instead, he used influence and persuasion to try and get people back to him. It may look like God is endorsing the practices of humanity, but God was slowly revealing his true nature to humanity. And that true nature was revealed on the cross. And the cross is very different than three aspects of the Old Testament law.

The first aspect is the law. When Jesus came to this Earth, he became the ultimate sacrifice so that no more sacrifices were needed. Jesus did away with the economy of sin and humanity’s indebtedness to Satan. No longer was the law to be followed because it is a shadow of the cross.

The second aspect is the nationalism of the Old Testament. The Jewish people were looking for a messiah that would come and restore the glory of Israel. They wanted a nation-state where they could have a king. They didn’t realize that God was instituting his Kingdom among all of the nations. Jesus didn’t come to reform Israel and release it from captivity. He came to free the people from their sin and reconcile them to God the Father.

The third aspect is the violence in the Old Testament. A lot of violent things happened in the name of God. This violence was not the character of God though. Rather, it was the character of a fallen humanity. God came alongside the people and allowed them to be autonomous beings that lived life without being forced to live like God wanted them to. In the end, Jesus shows us that violence is never the answer because living by the sword means dying by the sword. Jesus chose a different path of non-violence, and violence lives in the shadow of the cross.

Understanding this shadow terminology gives us a new way of viewing the Old Testament. We begin to see God as a missionary to this Earth, where he is slowly influencing and preparing people for the revelation of Jesus on the cross. The cross and the love of God shown on the cross are the true character of God, and that image holds more weight than any other part of the Bible.

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Topics: Controversial Issues, God's Will, Nationalism

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Focus Scripture:

  • Colossians 2:15-17

    And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

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29 thoughts on “God’s Shadow Activity

  1. Jill says:

    Thank you for this message Greg Boyd! You are great teacher with so much knowledge and wisdom.

  2. Abigail says:

    Yes, I agree with Jill. But I think I will need to hear it more than once. Also, what if you (in one of your bad states)
    made a vindictive prayer and it came true?!

    What’s that about?


  3. Jason says:

    The analogy of the missionaries going ‘native’ is definitely plausible. The only challenge with the analogy is that much of the Old Testament is written from the viewpoint that not only does God accommodate horrific violence but ‘appears’ to be ordaining it. Obviously reading the OT back through the lens of Jesus and the cross we must conclude that God does not ordain such violence and let that is the plain reading of some of the texts. What do we do with such texts that go beyond God condoning but appearing to ordain violence? Were the OT writers unreliable? Like Greg I don’t want to abandon the idea of biblical inspiration but it seems at times like the OT writers at times paint a picture of Yahweh that looks for like Molech! I suppose this is an issue that I/many will wrestle with until Christ returns but thankfully we have the perfect picture of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself at Calvary.

  4. Nathan says:

    Around 45 min. you state that some of the things seen in the OT are in fact beautiful pictures of God, “the real Him popping up” or “love based, faith based…” my question is this: if the OT and the law are a “negative contrast” or a “shadow” as you’ve stated, then how can some be “negative contrasts” (i.e. the ones we don’t like) and some be “truer images of Him” (the ones we do like)? Aren’t they both in the OT aren’t they both law? It seems, yet another way to pick and choose. This time with a different identifier (OT God vs NT God and now Negative Contrast or shadow vs truer images of Him). I love how this stretches me and I love the disclaimer about the opinion realm in the beginning, really disarming and conducive for listening without walls already up.

  5. Andrew says:

    I echo the questions of Jason and Nathan- especially in light of the analogy of the missionaries- they may have stooped into the culture in order to gain trust and love even though they were present during female genital mutilation that they disagreed with. But I think the analogy breaks down in that they didn’t “ordain” the people to perform those acts. The missionaries did not say that God wants them to do these female circumcision.

    I hope this question makes it to the Q&A, and i look forward to the book.

    I appreciate Greg’s work, my questions dont criticize, but are sort of my last effort to hold on to any sort of recognizable biblical inspiration doctrine. Though Im not convinced such a doctrine is a good thing any more, but I would like there to be an option of a coherent one, which I think Greg is offering.

  6. Teresa says:

    I agree with the above questions and I, too, appreciate Greg’s teaching and his disclaimers at the beginning of this message. Right now I think I’m most confused about how we can know what God is doing as his shadow activity when I thought the whole point of the book of Job was that we can’t know. God chides Job for trying to explain what he couldn’t possibly know. Is this similar in some ways?

    Also, I see a lot of violence in Jesus’ words the NT (ie.Luke 12:45-53 …if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.

    “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” etc)

    I don’t have a category for those verse anymore if we are to see Jesus as peaceful, loving (in our description of love) and non violent in the NT.

    Finally, why not be OK with God’s love being something we can’t understand fully – like an addict who is confronted in an intervention cannot understand that as a loving act at the time? He/she understands it in retrospect or when it is fully explained to them by the one doing the act of intervention, right?

  7. Rebecca says:

    I really appreciate the tenacity and honesty with which you tackle topics like these. I (like many people) have just these questions, but they are generally glossed over and given “pat” answers that really just don’t do the job.

    I do have some issues though (they are numbered, but are mostly different facets of the same unresolved issue):

    1. This was already brought up, but I’ll reiterate. You mention that like the missionaries, God sometimes seemed to condone activity that aggrieved his heart…but God actually commanded the people to do these barbaric things (and at times did them himself), he didn’t just listen to the violent prayers. It is one thing to not correct people right away, it is another to jump in and start participating.

    2. You say that God let people do things one way so that when Jesus came, he could say…”well how’s that working for you?” Well…how is the Jesus model working? Are we much more civil, humane, or holy than Biblical people were? If we are to judge the efficacy of a prescription without judging whether or not people are taking it, the results are bound to be skewed.

    3. So he killed people…so that we would accept that he is completely peaceful and loving? He did things he hated to prove they are worth hating? He changed who he is by not loving some people to show his love for all people? He became people’s misconceptions to prove he is not those things? This doesn’t make much sense.

    4. Your main thesis is that just as Jesus took on the appearance of sin through crucifixion, God took on the appearance of sin in the old testament by being complicit in savagery. Jesus never actually committed any sin, however; in his crucifixion he bore the consequence without committing any wrongdoing. Bearing sin does not equal committing sin.

    I really do appreciate this attempt to reconcile the old testament God with the new testament God…I personally believe/hope that there is a reconciliation of the two, I just don’t think this does the job just yet. I would love to hear what you have to say about this – I just finished “Letters From a Skeptic” and appreciated your thought process immensely.

  8. Matt says:

    @ Nathan, it’s all hinging on what we perceive of God through Christ. It’s not a picking and choosing of what we like or don’t like, but what truths are synonymous with the image of Christ. As the focus scripture points out, anything not revelatory of Christ are the shadows of what was to come, when He arrives, we now see the reality within Him; which is also the reality of the Father, if we hold true to what Christ says,”If you have seen me, you’ve seen the Father.

    @ Teresa. We also must remember there has always been punishment for those who reject God and disobey Him. This reality transcends through both covenants. Christ is not lax in His exposing of the Judgement to come. Though condemnation has always been able to be thwarted by His mercy if we so choose to accept it. The judgement must be carried out for sin, the price must be paid. As Greg pointed out in earlier sermons, God is revealing Himself in Christ not as the accuser, the condemner; but the Grace giver and the Life bringer. We need not suffer the punishment if we trust in Christ , for he already took it for us. If God gives us a parachute to use and we jump out of a plane. On the way down we choose not to deploy the chute and suffer a very violent conclusion. The wage of jumping from the plane was a violent death, but can we truly blame God, when He gave us the parachute to use to bring us safely to the ground.

  9. Jeff Martin says:

    I like a lot of what Dr. Boyd says here , especially about God accommodating himself to the culture as missionaries do. But that is not at all what the idea of SHADOW is supposed to be about. Boyd only focuses on the negative aspect of it, where Colossians was viewing as far as the similarities were concerned. The Apostle Paul was not thinking of the Canaanite Genocide as a shadow of the cross. He might of thought it as God accommodating to their practices, but, again, is a totally different thing

  10. James says:

    I love to listen to Greg’s teachings. He challenges me to think and evaluate truth. One big question keep coming as I listened to this message. Is the Bible God’s words or man interpretation of God acting? Was the law, the sacrificial systems and other old testament ordinances God’s idea or was it man’s? Did God command Israel to kill the tribes in the promise land or was this how man interpreted what God wanted to do? Did God command Moses to kill the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath or was this Moses’s interpretation of the consequences of the law? Who originated these things? I am confused.

  11. Lilly says:

    The whole idea of accommodation really makes so much sense of Scripture and I think answers the ever-present questions with non-believers of the seeming atrocities committed by the OT God and the children of Israel. However, if the OT God is a shadow of what is revealed in Jesus, and if Jesus reveals the true self-sacrificial nature of Jehovah, what do we do with the returning triumphant Jesus? What do we do with the last judgment? There is and will be violence that seems to be God’s just way of doing things and setting things right. How does that fit in with the passive, self-sacrificing model of God on the cross?

  12. Scott Schneider says:

    It is hard to conclude how to deal with some of the OT versions of God. I like the thoughts of Pastor Boyd. It brought to mind some scripture that seems to at least belong in the conversation. In seminary we were posed with the contrast of Paul encouraging Timothy to get circumsized. By the time Galatians roles around, well, Paul had a different take on circumcision. The question Dr. Dwyer asked was would Paul at that point in his life encourage Timothy to get circumsized. So we saw Paul mature in Scripture and both were inspired. How can both be inspired and yet opposites? Also if we are to take on the image of Christ, who is fully God, if we believed that God is violent(Im talking about the people on this blog and part of Woodland Hills) would we not be modeling that behavior ourselves? Since we are not murdering or committing vioent acts ourselves then it must mean that all of us believe in what Greg is saying, even though we cant put a finger on why we dont act out OT version of God’s behavior. It is hard to explain theologically but something inside of us says that Greg’s message is true. And we have to make those types of Judgments about behavior. We judge Hitler and Hussein and bin Laden to be evil, yet why do we judge them so? I say, just thinking, is because we dont see God’s behavior in it. So even though we may not know how to thelogically reconcile this, in our hearts we somehow know.

  13. Westley says:

    Thank you for this. Quite an elegant rendering of a profound revelation. I wonder the following:

    If God like a missionary enters into the experience and outlook of his people, bearing their shortcomings in order to eventually bring about the full revelation of the Cruciform God can we apply a similar pattern to the checkered history of the Church?

    As if to say that in order to express his nature and character throughout the world and by the development of the movement we call the Church he is willing to subject himself to limitations of the members of the Church.

    This might be helpful to me as I find Church history as distressing if not more so than the Old Testament account of God’s dealings with humanity.

    Alternately should we consider that in fact “It is Finished” and that God no longer needs to put himself through this. In that case we’re back to Church history’s curious testimony. Hebrew’s 6,6 comes to mind but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Pardon my idiom, do Americans refer to a Kettle of Fish?

    Much Love in Christ you Magnificent Characters (smiley face).

  14. Jill says:

    Wow, this is all such healthy dialogue! Here are two things I’d like to add;

    1. Westley – I like your comment regarding the “church”. My Dad is convinced religion has screwed up the world because of the things he hears and watches. I have tried to dialogue with him somewhat like Greg did in Letters from a Skeptic. I’m not so sure it’s working, but I’m not giving up hope,maybe I can get him to read the book someday. It always helps me to remember that it’s sinful people that came up with all the different Doctrines and religions and then they somehow get a following, usually because they have power for whatever reason?

    2. There’s quite a need for that new book Greg is writing!

  15. Robyn says:

    I did gain a different insight out of this message, it was good and I have shared it around.

    My question (after being an orthodox evangelical for 40 years) is why do we still need to hold to the full inspiration of scripture as we have it? I would love to hear Greg speak on this. I know we have some references within scripture such as “all scripture is inspired …” etc. But I wonder sometimes if we have accepted that “scripture” is synonymous with what we accept as our “bible”?

    It is seeming to me that we may be creating a lot of mental gymnastics for ourselves which could be avoided by a true definition of “scripture”. OK I will walk peacefully to the stake and e fire can be lit. One of my heros was always Joan d’Arc

  16. Mandy says:

    Can u say Perfect? That is all i can say here. I am constantly receiving confirmation from Greg’s sermons. I do not have the ability to articulate the messages, I know to be right, coming from this church. Very refreshing to hear them voiced out! And at times pushed to think. Thank you please keep on truck’in

  17. Joann says:

    All of Greg’s prayer start by calling God “abba” or Dad. So if we look at the OT from a parental view, some of it makes sense. One of my children, no matter how much or how often I tell them the rules, they insist on their way. They will only learn from the school of hard knocks. They’re just wired that way. So I, as a parent, have to develop a tough love and let the pieces fall wherever. But as a tender parent I am always there to help them pick up the pieces.

    I don’t have all the answers. But if I look at the OT as a parent, a lot falls into place. Not all, but then I also figure that I will add this to my list of questions I plan on asking Jesus face to face. PTL.

  18. Westley says:

    Thank you Robyn,

    I think it would be helpful to have some sort of definition of what inspired means in this context.

    I am not always sure what people mean by inspired when talking about Scripture. Some people seem to mean that the person writing was inspired to write something to the people they were living with while others seem to think that the ink on the page in front of them has been ordained and than typographical, translation, editorial and interpretive decisions are somehow ordained also.

    These two positions may not be contradictory but then maybe they are.

    This Missionary God model for interpretation would seem to me to require a view in keeping with the former at least. It is tempting to exclude the latter all together at times but at what point do we start writing off entire sections of Israel’s ancient folk memory as irrelevant to us today.

    Any inspired or even just considered opinions gratefully received.

    God bless you all you Lovely Lovelies.

  19. Hey Greg,
    This was an excellent message. I know you categorize this as your opinion, but if something of this sort is a proper way of interpreting and reconciling the OT with the NT, then how can it remain in the realm of opinion? This is a game changer! God’s very name and nature are at stake. The very revelation of God in Christ is on the line. Wherever we place it on our chart, this is serious stuff.

    It does seem that “inspiration” of Scripture must be the starting point in this discussion. I know that you have recently written on your views of inspiration, but I’m still unclear about how to understand God’s commands to do violence. How is that inspired? The missionary analogy works great up to this point. It’s one thing to accommodate and go along with the sin of others, but quite another thing to commission it. I’m sure your book will address this.

    Are we willing to consider that the Hebrews/Israelites were simply wrong about what God was commanding? If not, how can genocide be reconciled to God in Christ? If so, what do we make of the apostles and prophets claim that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and useful for training in righteousness?

  20. Craig says:

    Yeah I have the same follow up questions as most of the rest of the comments here. Basically I see these as ways forward (be aware incomplete/messy thoughts and ideas to follow);

    1. God didn’t say/do those things but rather let His own Name and Character be “portrayed” in such a way. (This pretty much eliminates any kind of view I have heard of regarding the “inspiration” of the OT this if applied to the NT would also have negative results I believe.)

    2. God did say/do those things and we see them as evil in the same way a child sees a doctor as mean when the doctor hurts him. Decapitation vs Amputation. This would work in much the same manner that pain helps us to remove our hand from fire. (This would introduce some ambiguity in our understanding of God as revealed in Christ. However it is the reality that when someone is sick that sometimes a doctor who see the big picture out of and intention to heal must do things that hurt for a time. However in hindsight we see the doctor as a healer not a butcher.)

    I think option one is easier to stomach however option two in my opinion looks more like reality.

    Here are some of my own reservations about these two options;

    1. Makes God look deceptive if he did say these things but they were not really his heart. If He did not say them it makes the OT into just an interesting story of how Israel/humanity didn’t get God at all. How is that Inspired in any way? You could get the same thing from Homer.

    2. It makes it much harder to see God as non-violent by nature. I think this is only a problem when we have a violent world as our starting point. God by nature is not non-anything. He is Love. He is not even necessarily merciful or gracious. Without a fallen humanity mercy means nothing. So perhaps God is just as much a Judge as he is a Merciful Lamb but neither of these really show His essence only His response to a fallen humanity.

    What do you think?

  21. Charley Swanson says:

    Hey everyone — great comments! Today we posted the sermon from last weekend, which was a follow-up to this one. Greg addressed the most common question, which has been echoed here: if we should assume that God actually *did* violent things written about in the OT, or whether there’s an alternate way to read the text.

    Check it out here:

  22. brian says:


    I think we can go with your thought #1 without losing scripture’s inspiration.

    If God did allow the Israelites to portray Him in this manner, stooping to our level, and it all eventually points to the cross, how is that not inspired?

    We don’t necessarily say that all scripture is filled with God-ordained commands, but that what we read in scripture is inspired by God to reveal himself to us. If the shadows reveal a negative contrast to the reality, and God allowed to be revealed negatively, then we’ve got to see the whole picture as inspired. Not just the NT or the beautiful picture of God.

    It’s inspired because God is allowing us to know that for thousands of years people have seen him one way, but now in Christ we see the truth.

  23. Bill says:

    These two messages have truly challenged me, but have helped as I’ve looked for years for a way to reconcile what seem to be polar views of God. One question though: Greg’s example from the OT centered God withdrawing his protection from Israel, but what about God telling the Israelites to devote their enemies to him, i.e. slaughter every living creature? Saul lost his favor with God because he disobeyed this command (as well as others).

  24. Kevin says:

    Hello Greg

    Thanks for your ministry. Stoked by your genuine love and zeal for the Word.

    I agree with compassion for enemies and that God, as revealed in Christ Jesus, is our model for love even (and especially) for our enemies. Also agree there is a challenge in accepting the veracity of the *entire* Word of God as it relates to reconciling OT and NT specifically as we look to the “new dispensation” of the NT and Jesus modeling a new paradigm by teaching

    “You *have* heard… but *I* say”

    Thanks for being open to discussion – being able to chew on the Word with other believers is so much more satisfying to being force-fed from pulpit (amen?) so here is a question:

    When we say that God is a God of grace and He loves His children unconditionally, and if we point to Christ and the NT to justify our dogma, then how do we reconcile this unconditional love with the NT chronicle of Acts 5 where God slays Ananias and Sapphira ?

    PS interestingly, the name Ananias means “Jehovah is gracious”


  25. Chad says:

    Greg, Listening to your two ‘shadow activity’ sermons I’ve grown hopeful for a new way to manage the tension of scripture. I just thought of a ramification of your proposal… I’m sure you have thought of it but I don’t recall you addressing it yet.

    If the shadow activity found in the Old Testament of a violent God is not the ‘real’ then what about future violent acts of God that will come to be as prophecied in the New Testament? In light of your proposal I’m having a hard time understanding some parts New Testament scripture and there are some extremely violent things that are certainly going to happen as predicted in the New Testament.

    It seems easier to reconcile Old Testament depictions to shadow activity, partly because we recognize that their culture was much more primitive and violent. Being that we take descriptions of God’s activity to be ‘the real’ and no longer ‘the shadow’, how do we then say it is still ‘shadow activity’ for God to be the judge and executor of this future violence as predicted in the New Testament? As compelling as the ‘shadow’ explanation is in helping me keep the character of God ‘safe’, It does seem to pose at least this one problem. I may not have worded this well but I hope you get the meaning I’ve intended.

  26. Matthew Boyum says:

    I think it’s possible that this book will be so ground-breaking that it will be read 500 years from now.

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