Study Guide: Has God Always Been Loving?

Sunday May 21, 2017 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

The underlying theme behind our 'Glimpses of Truth' series is the idea that before we had the full revelation of God in Jesus, people only caught glimpses of him. He showed himself, but like the sun on a cloudy day, people's view was obscured by their culture, so what they saw was not the full revelation but one marred by their own expectations and fallenness. But despite this, there were still a few instances in the Old Testament where we can see glimpses of the Christ-like God that we know.

Extended Summary:

We have been spending time in this series exploring what Paul meant in Hebrews 1 when he said “God, who gave our forefathers many different glimpses of the truth in the words of the prophets, has now, at the end of the present age, given us the truth in the Son.” People had glimpses of the beautiful truth of God, but it was like the sun peeking out from behind the clouds. The clouds of their surrounding ancient near east culture largely clouded their view. As a result, what they saw was a “foggy” incomplete revelation of the God we now know in Jesus Christ.

God is not coercive. He will not force people to do things, feel things or to have right ideas about him. He is always working as a heavenly missionary who meets people where they’re at. So he will reveal as much of himself as possible, but he has to accommodate us in order to not make us automatons. This means if we interpret his revelation through the lens of our violent culture, he is not going to prevent that.

His revelation and our understanding did not come all at once, it was revealed a little bit at a time until it was completed in Jesus. This concept is called progressive revelation, and it was the standard view in the early church.

Notation — “de Trinitate” 200-258 c.e. “God sometimes had prophets use symbolic language that was fitted to the [Israelite’s] state of belief and that reflects God not as God actually is, but as the people were able to understand. God, therefore, is not mediocre, but the people’s understanding is mediocre; God is not limited, but the intellectual capacity of the people’s mind is limited.”

In today’s sermon we ask the question if God has always been as loving as he is in Jesus Christ? The answer is yes. God has always been as loving as we see in Christ. But back in the ancient near east, their answer would not have been the same. Love, for them, had little to do with it. The ancient Israelites (like the culture at the time) thought killing people was only way to acquire land. The entire culture and surrounding cultures all believed in warrior gods — they all believed theirs was the most powerful, and can “beat up” any other god. Nobody in this ancient near east culture was saying “our god is so loving kind and gentle.” No one ever dreamed of a god that would say “if you follow me you won’t have to fight.” It was the opposite.

This is why we see in Joshua 8, God giving his people disturbingly detailed instructions on how to slaughter the Canaanite city of Ai. The strategy was to divide their soldiers into three groups. The first group attacks and when they fight back you turn and run away, they will chase you. At this point you have a second group that goes and kills all the unprotected women and children, and burns the city to the ground. The men will see smoke and hear screams will run back, but then a 3rd group would attack them and thus you will kill everybody. To add insult to injury, they kept the king alive to watch then hung him from a tree. This, Greg feels, reflects a *very* foggy view of God.

But this is perfectly consistent with the picture of God from the surrounding culture at the time, who expected and wanted a god who was powerful and empower them to fight their way to victory. It doesn’t look anything like Jesus who rebuked Peter for using the sword, who prayed for forgiveness of his enemies with his last dying breath, who taught us to serve our enemies, and lay down our life, feed our enemies when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty. Calvary is the perfect expression of God’s love. Killing people is the opposite of all this!

So we can feel confident that this Old Testament picture of God is a shadow. But we also know that Jesus endorses the *whole* Bible as the inspired word of God. In fact he says the entire set of books is all about him, inspired for the divine purpose of pointing us to the revelation of God on the cross.

How can this story in Joshua be a portrait of the God revealed on the cross? Greg feels this sordid story reveals God in the very same way the cross does. We don’t see him on the surface– that’s horrific and ugly. We see him when we look past that and see him stooping down and taking on our own ugliness and condemnation. This ugliness doesn’t tell you anything about God. What tells us about God is that he takes on and bears our sin, just like Jesus did. He stays in the game to stay in relationship with his people. God has always been the same — he has always been loving us and taking on our sin and doing what he did on the cross. Once you start looking, you start finding all sorts of evidence of this picture of a God didn’t ever want to use the sword.

Exodus 34:11 God says do everything that I command today, and I will force them out of your way. He says you won’t have to do it, I’ll make them leave. Just trust me.
And in Exodus 23:28-30 he says I will send a pestilence, and drive out the Hivites before you. I won’t do it all at once, I will instead make the land unfruitful and drive them out gradually, until you have increased your numbers and possess the land. This is “the God way” to replace an indigenous population — do it gradually and nonviolently.

So, what happened to all these nonviolent plans everywhere else in the Bible? Did God change his mind? Get into a bad mood? Or, was it as we see people doing over and over again throughout the entire Bible, which is that the people just did not get it? Of course this is the answer, we know this because the people never got it! Over and over through history we see people who are tempted to follow pagan neighbors, worship idols, taking on kings, wanting to return to Egypt, and generally always doing the opposite of what God wants. All the way to Jesus telling his disciples he’s going to die, but what they hear he’s going to conquer the Romans. They never get it!

God says to his people If you trust me you will have this land and you won’t need to use the sword. What they hear is take the promised land and kill all the people. In this way he takes on appearance of a slaughtering god. The surface tell us a lot about God’s people, but not always about God himself. What God himself would have liked is to not fight at all. We can see two more glimpses of this truth where God says “Trust me and you won’t have to fight.”

2 Kings 6:15-23
Israel is at war with the country of Aram. The Arameans have a plan to ambush Israel which the prophet Elisha receives a word of knowledge about, so he warns the king to avoid that place thus thwarting the attack. The King of Aram is angered by this so he decides to kill Elisha. He sends an army to surround the city he is staying. When Elisha’s servant wakes up the next morning, he’s terrified by the sight of the army. But Elisha assures him that they have far more power on their side since they have the lord on their side. He asks God to “open his servant’s eyes” and he sees on the mountain around them, there are fiery chariots and horses of the divine army in massive numbers. The fiery chariots are a classic ancient near east symbol for war so it’s assumed that God is going to help them fight. But as the Arameans start to attack, Elisha instead of fighting back, asks God to strike them blind. He then leads the blind army to Samaria. The King of Israel now asks Elisha, now that they have captured the Aramean army if he should kill them, but Elisha says no. Instead they should throw them a great feast and then send them home. They did, and the Arameans never attacked again.

This story looks exactly like Jesus. This is where the sun breaks through the clouds. Gods way of fighting not to fight at all, but to throw a feast for your enemy just when you have them cornered. God fights by refusing to engage in violence. He fights not by cutting off the guards ear but by healing it. Not to fight the Romans but to let them crucify him. Over and over we see his way is not the power of sword but the power of the cross.

The second example of a glimpse of the sun is in Isaiah 62:2-5. He says You shall be called “My Delight is in Her”, your land will be called “married.” This is one of dozen places in the bible where we see Yahweh wanting a husband-wife relationship with his people.

This picture is unlike anything else in the surrounding culture that wanted a god who was a powerful, warring tyrant whose good side you wanted to be on, for your protection. But it is a perfect reflection of the God we see in Jesus. When we see God for who he really is, he longs to be our husband. It’s why the church is called the bride of Christ. Similarly in Hosea 2:16 God says you call me master but I look forward to you calling me husband. This is the relationship God wants with his people.

God has always been like this, wanting a relationship where he opens up to us and we respond to him in kind. You may think you’re alone but no. Your name is My delight is in Her. In Christ you’re holy and blameless, married, and a perfect spotless bride for our loving husband. The more we let this truth in, the more we can take on the perfect love of God.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Is there anyone in your life that you are holding a grudge against or hanging onto anger or unforgiveness against? This is spiritual cancer, which just goes on and on and escalates. The only way to get free is to fight God’s way: do something outrageously nice for that person. Throw a feast instead of a fist. Refuse to retaliate, turn the other cheek. Do something shocking that doesn’t fit into the pattern they expect. The way of the cross looks like foolishness and weakness but it is the power of God. It’s the one thing that can break the cycle of war.
  2. “Your name is my delight… I rejoice over you like a new husband.” Can you see this with your minds eye, absorb it into your heart? Paul says as we behold the glory of God we are transformed by him. It all starts in our head letting this in.  Greg suggests we spend time basking in the sunshine of God’s love, and hanging out with our heavenly groom. Be together, do what you got married to do: enjoy each other. To the degree that you can do this, you will be fed and free and not trying to suck life from the world around you.