Study Guide: Shadow of the Cross

Sunday July 22, 2012 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

If Jesus dying on the cross reveals God’s true nature, then what do we do with the barbaric pictures of God in the Old Testament? In this sermon, Greg talks about the problem and offers a different viewpoint of how to see the shadow of the cross in the Old Testament.

Extended Summary:

If Jesus dying on the cross reveals God’s true nature, which we saw last week is what Scripture tells us, and if the whole Bible is divinely inspired, then what are we to do with the portraits of God in the OT that seem to contradict the revelation of God on the cross? There are many different ways to view this problem, but this is the way that Greg views this issue.

Many people say that “God is God, and he can do what he wants. In fact, whatever he does is good.” This doesn’t make much sense when we read passages about how God says that he will smash parents and children together, allowing no pity or mercy. Even Calvin admitted that God’s behavior in the OT is sometimes “utterly barbaric, crude, and savage”. Yet, Calvin says that because it’s God, we must say that these actions are “holy” and “good”. This can be a hard pill to swallow, especially when we see the actions of Jesus are nothing like the violent images in the OT.

Some Christians give these utterly barbaric pictures of God and Jesus the same amount of theological weight. This type of thinking makes it difficult to believe in God. We get a schizophrenic God who is both love and war. It doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t make sense for good reason, as Jesus points out in the NT. Both Jesus and the NT authors hold that Jesus’ testimony of God is greater than any previous testimony. In fact, Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God, not just a part of it. And everything spoken of God in the OT is a shadow of the true picture of God, Jesus.

God gave us these shadows to break our addiction to law based relationships, Nationalism, and violence, and thus he laid the groundwork to eventually reveal his true nature in Jesus. The horrific ugliness of the OT pictures of warfare, genocide, and of the cross is simply reflecting humanity’s fallen nature. The cross is the ultimate picture of this stooping to our level that God did. Instead of condemning us for our actions and sin, God stoops down, dons humanity’s frailness, and takes on our sin. In so doing, he reveals true beauty. This image of God is what speaks into the OT accounts of God. This picture of the cross is the fullness of the message of God, and not simply one part of it. The question then becomes, did God actually engage in the shadow activity of the OT or did he merely allow his people to THINK he was doing it?

There are two ways to answer this. The first is that God did engage in the behavior ascribed to him. Some scholars say that God did act and do the things the OT says he did. They say he did smash the Israelites together and also commanded the genocide of the Canaanite people in the book of Joshua. He did this because it was the only way for him to continue his mission among his people. This view doesn’t mean that God didn’t love these people; it just means that he had to do what he did. These scholars still hold that this behavior stands in contrast to the cross. Greg’s latest book started out by defending this answer; however, he became increasingly disturbed by it and found a different answer to the question.

Greg believes that God did not engage in the barbaric behavior attributed to him in the OT. On the cross, God reveals his self-sacrificial, loving character by not only taking action towards us, but allowing action towards himself. The ugly aspect of the cross depicts humanity’s actions towards God. He allowed Judas to betray him and the soldiers to arrest him. We did that to Jesus, not God. Conversely, all the beautiful aspects of the cross were God’s actions towards humanity. In this light, it makes sense that the OT and the ugly pictures of God are things that God allows people to put on him. Out of love, God allows this in order to continue his heavenly, missionary activity.

On the cross, God judges sin by withdrawing and allowing evil to run its course. Romans 8 says that God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us. Jesus died in our place but God let it the evil run its course so that the evil actions would backfire in the resurrection. Because, on the cross, God assumes responsibility for all that he allowed to happen. He took responsibility for the sin and evil that happens in creation and thus appears guilty of it, even though he is not morally culpable for it. When we read through the OT, we see this happening all over the place. God promises to smash the Israelites together, but in fact, he simply withdraws his protection and King Nebuchadnezzar was the one who smashed the Israelites together. The Bible says that God gives Israel into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he (Nebuchadnezzar) will destroy it with fire. It initially sounds like God is doing it; but in fact, the only thing God doesn’t do is protect them.

This view isn’t the only one to explain the OT pictures of a barbaric God. Yet, this view provides a picture of a God, who with a grieving heart, allows others to act in barbaric ways as a judgment for pushing God away, but also taking responsibility for it by allowing others to depict him as doing it. Which looks exactly like what happened on the cross. God has always been revealing himself as the crucified Christ, and when we see this, we need never suppose that God acted in ways that are contrary to the enemy-loving, non-violent character portrayed on the cross.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What additional questions and comments did you have about the sermon and supporting texts?
  2. Do you agree or disagree with Greg’s views? Why or why not?
  3. Have you ever had a problem with the barbaric pictures of God in the OT? What did the problem look like?
  4. How did you reconcile the picture of the cross with the OT pictures? Did you smoosh them, disregard one, or possibly some other way of dealing with?
  5. What today sparked a new understanding of God in the OT that you didn’t have before?