The Old Testament often portrays God as either doing, commanding, or threatening violence. For many, this is a huge problem because these depictions contradict the way Jesus lived and commanded. What are we to do with this contradiction? In this sermon, Greg invites us to see that there is something else going in these portrayals of violence, and we can only see this something else when we understand what was going on when Jesus died on the cross.
This sermon is the first in a four week series called “Cross Centered”. The content presented here is unique in a couple of ways. First, this is a highly complex theological presentation. It will require you to think. In fact, some may need to listen to this sermon a couple times to let the ideas that Greg presents seep in.
The second way that this sermon is unique is that it centers around a theological opinion that is being proposed by Greg in his book ‘The Crucifixion of the Warrior God’. The common practice is to preach on the dogmas and doctrines that have been fully established at the core of beliefs by Woodland Hills. Think of it this way: at the center of our beliefs, is the cross. All our worth, significance, well-being, and security are anchored in this one belief. In the next ring we find the dogmas of the church, which are the basic beliefs that have been historically espoused and are summarized in the creeds of the church (i.e. Apostle’s Creed). The third ring is called doctrine, where different traditions promote different ways of working out the dogmas. One example of doctrine is that some churches adopt either Calvinism or Arminianism. On a fourth level, there are theological opinions where the implications of doctrines are proposed for others to consider.
In this sermon, Greg is introducing his opinion about a way of working out how the violent portraits of God become revelations of a non-violent God when we interpret them in light of the cross. He introduces this by claiming that “something else must be going on” in Old Testament passages where God is depicted as violent. He illustrates this with an imaginative story where he happens to see his wife Shelley across the street. Before he can get close enough to greet her, he observes her walking up to panhandler, stealing his cap, knocking over his collection cup, and kicking over him in his wheelchair. Because he knows the character of Shelley after 37 years of marriage, he cannot fathom that these actions actually reflect her character. There must be “something else going on.”
Something similar is going on with the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament. Because Greg trusts the character of Shelley, he can imagine that something else going on. If he did not fully trust his wife’s character, then he would assume that her violent acts on the street are part of her character. The same applies to our view of God. If we don’t see that the cross is the center of God’s character, then we are forced to conclude that the violent portraits of God actually reveal his character. If we really trust that God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ who died on the cross, then we can see that something else really is going on in the depictions of God being violent.
The way to see this is to fully embrace the inspiration of all of Scripture and to look honestly at the ugly reality of the violent portraits of God. You’ve got to embrace these passages in all their ugliness to see how they point to the beauty of the cross. And being that there are over 1,000 of such passages and many of them depict God acting and commanding grotesque violence, this is not that hard to do. One example suffices here:
“…when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy (h?rem) them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” —Deut 7:2
Can you image Jesus saying these words to us? This genocidal portrait of God contradicts the God that Jesus revealed. However, because Jesus viewed the entire Old Testament as divinely inspired, we too must believe it is inspired to point to the revelation of God’s perfect self-sacrificial love on the cross. Something else is going on, and this something else must show how these ugly, violent, and confusing portraits of God point to the cross.
To see this something else in pictures of God being and commanding violence in the Old Testament, we must look at the something else that is going on with the cross. If a first century Jewish guy named Levi happened to see Jesus hanging beside two other criminals, what would Levi see? To the natural eye, Jesus is just one crucified criminal among three on this hill and among thousands on other criminals who had been crucified by the Romans. If you travel back in time and explain to Levi how Jesus on the cross is the full revelation of God’s true beautiful character, he would think you are crazy. He can only see the cross on the surface, whereas you can see something else going on by faith. By faith, you see that beneath the surface, the Creator is stooping out of love to become this ugly guilty-appearing criminal.
What you see on the surface reflects the ugliness of the sin of the world that Jesus bore. What a person sees by faith beneath the surface is supreme beauty, for it is God stooping an infinite distance to take on this ugly sinful appearance.
If the cross reveals what God is truly like, then the cross also reveals what God has always been like, including what God is like when he inspired the Bible. Therefore, shouldn’t we expect to find other examples of God revealing himself by stooping to bear the sin of his people, thereby taking on an ugly appearance that mirrors the ugliness of their sin? To read the Bible through the lens of the cross means that when we come to ugly sinful portraits of God that contradict the beauty and holiness of God revealed on the cross, we must by faith look through their sin-mirroring surface, place all of our trust in the revelation of God on the cross, and ask “What else is going on here?”
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