Study Guide: The Heavenly Missionary

Sunday March 26, 2017 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

God is a God who stoops down, out of love, in order to meet people where they are. He is a heavenly missionary who accommodates that which he is against in order to win people over to the truth. This metaphor of a heavenly missionary helps us understand what God was doing when we read about the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament.

Extended Summary:

In this second installment of the series entitled “Cross Centered,” Greg continues to outline his proposal for how to interpret the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament. The metaphor of a “heavenly missionary” is a way to imagine what it going on in the stories of violence in the Old Testament. Greg told a story about missionaries that lived with a tribe that practiced female circumcision. They could not just force the tribe to cease this practice. They had to earn the right to speak into their lives. For three years they had to remain silent, and because they were silent, the tribe thought that the missionaries supported this practice. They appeared to condone it. They taught sanitation practices, acquired anesthesia, and procured better surgical knives. They were “bearing the sin” of this tribe’s barbaric practice and taking on the appearance of that ugly sin. After three years, the tribe began to embrace the Gospel, which lead to a deeper understanding that female circumcision was wrong.

If someone in the tribe began writing a book recounting the activity of these missionaries from the start and someone were to read that text 100 years later, the missionaries silence would lead the reader to assume that they were just like the tribe and approved of this practice. In a similarly way, we can imagine God as heavenly missionary to this fallen world because his highest goal is about love. Because love requires free will, he refuses to coerce people into having true views of him or anything else. Therefore, in light of the cross, lots of things that God seemed to approve of in the Old Testament now can be seen as accommodations, including the assumption that God commands and engages in violence.

The pattern of accommodation applies not only to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament. God stooped to meet the Israelites where they were in many different ways. Greg introduces four of these accommodations. The first is marriage, where God accommodated to allow for divorce, polygamy, and even concubines. The second way God stooped was in relationship to kingship, as God’s ideal was for Israel to have no king.

The law in the Old Testament is another illustration of how God acted as a heavenly missionary. While the Old Testament celebrates law as a means of getting rightly related to God, Paul says it was given to demonstrate how we cannot be rightly related to God. A final example is animal sacrifices. God doesn’t actually approve of animal sacrifices, but he had to stoop to appear as though he demanded and enjoyed them because his people were still too spiritually immature to let this culturally-conditioned misconception go.

By faith we can look through the surface of these portraits and see God stooping to bear the fallen and culturally-conditioned state of his people. In doing so he takes on the appearance that mirrors that fallen state, which is a written witness to God’s missionary activity. When we interpret violent portraits of God through the lens of the cross, we can see that God has always been non-coercive, as he is willing to accommodate that which is not cross like in order to stay in relationship with his covenant partners.

Reflection Questions:

  1. In what way is God like a missionary? What does it mean for God to accommodate or stoop to the level of those he is trying to reach?
  2. Why did God not just announce in clear ways that he is a nonviolent God? How does the inability to hear God’s truth about God’s ways hinder one’s ability to understand that truth?
  3. What are some examples, other than violence, of God accommodating and stooping to the level of what the people of Israel could handle?
  4. What motivates God to stoop in these ways? How does this teaching impact your view of God and God’s love for you?
  5. What additional questions do you have about this teaching?