This past Sunday we proclaimed the good news that God is just like Jesus, and during the Sunday morning class, I linked this with our liturgical practices of 1) reading Scripture aloud, and 2) preaching a sermon each week in worship.
Reading certain Scriptures out loud in worship, though, can be a bit awkward in light of the New Testament’s claim that God has always been just like Jesus.
For example, this past summer in worship we read from the prophet Hosea for a few Sundays. Some of the passages were shocking and difficult to hear. Here is some of what Hosea tells us God says:
- “I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them” (Hosea 1:6).
- “You are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9).
- “My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them” (Hosea 11:7).
It’s easy to hear passages like these and conjure a picture of a vindictive, petty tyrant-god who enjoys inflicting pain and delights in doling out punishment to those who thwart his will.
So how are we to hear such passages in worship and keep our faith in a God of compassion and mercy? How do we read these kinds of passages and still say that God has always been just like Jesus?
I offer three thoughts:
1) It’s normal for this to be hard
First of all, realize that wrestling with these passages is a very Christian thing to do. It’s normal for those who take Jesus seriously to have issues with these kinds of passages.
In fact, the earliest Christians struggled with these same questions, and wrote quite a bit on how Christians can read the Old Testament as Scripture without necessarily assuming that God himself is the author of violence.
2) Remember we are always interpreting
Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that whenever we read a passage of Scripture, we are interpreting what’s happening. The way I’m reading a passage isn’t necessarily the only or obvious way to read it. So however you initially read a difficult passage of Scripture, keep in mind that your interpretation isn’t necessarily the same thing as “what the Bible is saying.”
Let’s use Hosea as an example. Even though there are some passages (quoted above) that seem to indicate that God is angry and vindictive toward his people, eventually we get to chapter 11, where we hear God saying things like, “How can I give you up? … My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger … For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.“
God is saying he will actually have compassion on his people. Why? Because he’s not like humans! He’s holy, which means he has compassion on people who scorn him and reject him.
There’s a LOT to think about when it comes to how to interpret these difficult passages, but it’s enough for now to simply acknowledge that the way a passage first hits you isn’t necessarily what the passage is actually saying.
(And if you’re interested in diving more deeply into these interpretive issues, I’d recommend starting with Greg Boyd’s excellent book Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence.
3) Let Jesus overrule other pictures of God
Finally, even if you can’t see how a difficult passage actually reveals a loving God, it’s important to remember that as Christians, we always allow Jesus to overrule all other pictures of God.
Please hear me: I’m not saying that we throw out the Old Testament! But I am saying that when we’re unable to see how a difficult Old Testament passage reveals the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can rest in the knowledge that God is just like Jesus.
As Christians, we don’t read Scripture “flatly.” Not every passage “weighs” the same for those who follow Jesus. The Bible isn’t a magical book in which every passage is an oracle spoken straight from the mouth of God. The Bible demands interpretation.
And our first interpretive move is to remember that we are Christians, not “biblicists.” The primary fact about us is not that we “believe the Bible,” but that we follow Jesus. We believe the Living Word (Jesus) is revealed in the written word, but that the Living Word is primary.
We can always rest in the knowledge that Jesus shows us, finally and ultimately, who God really is (Hebrews 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-20). So if we can’t make sense of a specific Old Testament passage, we simply come back to Jesus. It’s okay to say, “It’s not clear to me what’s going on here, but what is clear to me is that I follow Jesus, and the faith I’ve received tells me God is just like Jesus.”
Therefore, even after Scripture passages that give us pause or make us cringe, we can confidently proclaim “The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God!” because even if we aren’t sure how this passage reveals Jesus, we can be sure that it reveals Jesus somehow.
Even if we don’t understand fully or see clearly, we can stay open to difficult passages of Scripture, because we follow Jesus, and Jesus shows us finally, concretely, who God is.