The Bible announces God’s good news. However, what do we do with the disturbing parts of Scripture, like the passages that depict God as promoting violence, animal sacrifice, or treating women as property?
The whole Bible is God-breathed for the purpose of pointing us to the most glorious good news the world has ever seen. It points to a God who, out of love for us and the creation, went to the extreme of entering into solidarity with our humanity, our sin, and our God-forsaken curse that is intrinsic to sin. He did this because it was required if God was to share His eternal life, love, and joy with us. Therefore, the whole Bible points to the cross, where God’s true character is revealed to be perfect, passionate, other-oriented love.
However, if you associate the Bible with bad news, scary news, or shaming news, it’s because you’ve not yet been taught how to read the way God inspired it to be read. This sermon talks about how the biblical material that seems inconsistent with the character of God revealed on the cross actually can be read to show us the beautiful love of God revealed on the cross. Thus what looks like bad news is actually good.
There are many Old Testament passages that are disturbing and do not appear to align with the good news of the cross. These include laws about cleanliness, cruel laws about the treatment of people, stating that women are the property of males, the promotion of slavery and depictions of God commanding violence. How do all these bear witness to the unsurpassable love of God revealed in the crucified Christ?
Revelation in the Bible is progressive. This is a commonly shared understanding about the Scripture, as seen in Isaiah 28:9-11. Why would God take such an approach? Why not just lobotomize people into believing the truth?
First, we must start with the cross. The cross is the opposite of coercive power. It’s the power to change and transform hearts by the beauty of self-sacrificial love. Second, if God were to lobotomize people into having only true thoughts about him, it would undermine their personhood. You can’t achieve a freely-chosen loving goal by a coercive unloving means. Third, the fact that biblical revelation is progressive presupposes God does not rely on coercive power. It means that God is respecting their personhood while influencing them toward truth.
God is always lovingly influencing people in the direction of truth, but because he won’t coerce, there comes a point where God must stop and accept people exactly as they are. God must stoop to accommodate people as they are. Since God refuses to coerce them into having true ideas about him, in order to continue to influence them, God must embrace all their false ideas about him. And since God is breathing this story through these very same people, it means the way God is depicted in Scripture will reflect both God’s influence on them in a direction of truth, but also it will reflect the fallen and culturally-conditioned views of God that they weren’t ready to release.
Examples of God stooping to embrace culturally-conditioned views of God include animal sacrifices, the choosing of a king in 1 Samuel 8, treating women as property, slavery and the promotion of violence.
In the Ancient Near East, people always credit their gods with their violence as it is a form of praise. Naturally, they would have believed that God told Moses to have them slaughter everyone. Since God would not coerce people to believe truth, he must in love stoop to meet his people where they are at and embrace His people in their lies. Yahweh stoops to bear their fallen and culturally conditioned view of Him and to take on a semblance in Scripture that reflects the ugliness of that sin
In Christ, God stoops to bear the sin of the world and takes on the semblance that reflects the sin of that world. On the surface, the cross is supremely ugly, but to believers the cross is also supremely beautiful. By faith, we see it was God the Son who voluntarily, out of love, stooped an unsurpassable distance to take on this ugliness and the unsurpassable distance God crossed on our behalf reveals the unsurpassable perfection of the love God has for us. The surface of the cross doesn’t tell us what God is like. We see what God is like behind the scenes through faith.
This culminates the story of progressive revelation. When we fully trust that God is fully revealed in the crucified Christ, we know that when God appears ugly on the surface, it’s because he is stooping to bear the ugly sin of people and is taking on a semblance that reflects ugliness of that sin, just as he does on the cross. The surface doesn’t reveal God; it tells us about the people God had to work with. We, by faith, look through the surface to see God stooping this incredible distance to remain in saving relationship with his people.
When we read the Bible with this God in mind, we need to read with bifocals. On the one hand, we see through one lens all Christlike depictions reflecting the Spirit breaking through in a direct way. We can simply see this by reading what is written. Through the other lens, we see how all sub-Christlike material reflects (if we have faith) God stooping to bear sin, showing forth God’s love in an indirect way. We have to read in both ways at the same time.
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