A leading principle, in this type of missions, is finding a communicational starting point in the culture we are reaching. We find something in that culture that the people understand and then start using that as a basis, or beginning point, for sharing something new. This is what we find in the Old Testament.
In so many ways, God was communicating with us on the basis of our present cultures and understanding, wanting to draw us on to a new understanding, to lift our eyes from our ways to his way. This type of missions is a necessity. You have to start where people are, if they are going to understand anything at all. So God did this in the Old Testament, to slowly move us to the place he wants us to see and understand. But we didn’t get it still. This is why Jesus and his life and teachings came as such a shock. We couldn’t perceive what God was saying to us in the Old Testament, though his Prophets spelt it out. We became stuck in our views and interpreted God that way.
Some people call this communication method anthropomorphism. This means “attributing human characteristics and purposes to inanimate objects, animals, plants, or other natural phenomena, or to God.” God takes on human characteristics in order to communicate with us, and to transform our human understanding. We need to remember; the reason God did this was always transformation. He used human traditions, to turn their meaning upside down.
We see anthropomorphisms at their most basic level in statements like “the arm of the Lord is not short that it cannot save.” He speaks of having ears, eyes, feet, and otherwise presents himself in human ways. God is taking on human characteristics to communicate with us. In another text, in Isaiah, he presents himself as a human army general, putting on armour for battle, but he then transforms this armour into the fruit of the Spirit. This is how God fights, unlike us. God always does this with battle language, showing that the way he wins is different to us. He speaks of having wrath, but again, in Christ, he transoms this wrath into compassion and suffering for the lost. In so many ways God presents himself in human emotions or characteristics, and then transforms them to show a new approach to human lostness. Jesus wasn’t angry with the woman caught in adultery, and no one could understand why. “Wasn’t he angry with this in the law?” Is his wrath really his care for us?
“In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you.” Is God angry like a man? No, he isn’t. But how else are we going to understand him? His anger is compassion, pleading, suffering for our wellbeing, if by any means we will hear him. In no other way does he lift his hand against us.
This missiological form of communication fills the Old Testament. It is a prime way in which God communicates with us until Jesus comes. It is vital to understand this when reading the Old Testament. So many of the things presented there are not from God, but they are starting points, within our own fallen human cultures, that God is connecting with, in order to show us something 22 new. If we don’t understand this, then when we read the Old Testament we will think that God is like the human traditions he uses to speak us. God is nothing like them at all and we see this when Jesus fills and transforms these Old Testament traditions.
God is not at all like any of our fallen cultures, even our main cultures today. The whole point of God coming towards us, slowly in the Old Testament, and then in Christ, is to take us out of where we are, to transform us into his image. But seeing his real image first is the key. How can we see it, when we always look at God in our own mirrors? We saw him using our cultures, but we didn’t see how he was transforming them. Only some of the Prophets had a glimpse. This is why the people did not know Jesus when he came. They thought he would be like us, but he wasn’t.
This constantly shocked the Pharisees. They spoke to Jesus about their legal right to divorce, written into the Old Testament law. “This was given because of the hardness of your hearts,” Jesus answered. Why not rather forgive, as God does? So, the law of God wasn’t his will? It wasn’t truly from God, in that sense? It was an allowance for human nature? Yes, the law was God meeting man where man was, in so far as God was able to communicate with him, given the state of his heart?
This communication with man wasn’t an easy task for God. Think about how different his character is to fallen human nature and culture? Remember what God did with his unfaithful wife, poetically in Hosea? He took her back from prostitution to himself. That unfaithful wife was all of us. How different this is to human hardness. How could God possibly start in communication to redeem and change us? What is there is our cultures and understanding that he could use to portray to us what he is really like? There is nothing in our cultures like him. Even our love is marred. How could we possibly understand even the smallest thing about him? He is so different to us.
The Old Testament is full of symbols that God uses to start this communication with us. This is only the start. What follows, is a long proses of transforming these symbols, to reflect God’s nature. This is finally achieved on the cross. A classic Old Testament symbol is God sitting on a throne. Do you really think that God sits on a literal throne? Doesn’t the idea of a throne rather communicate something else instead?
Some people think that God has an ego problem and needs thrones and worship from his subjects. This is how all the gods of idolatry behaved. This is how humans constructed their own gods, because this is what people are like. They then transposed these same ideas onto the true God, who was nothing at all like this. He was so far from this, that our corruption could not possibly even glimpse him.
The symbol of the throne communicated the truth that the earth belongs to God. It showed us that no enemy could finally displace us. It showed us that God rules and that though we are persecuted, we should have heart and encouragement, because goodness shall cover the earth and the ways of wicked shall not prosper. The throne symbol was a threat to the wicked, who sat on thrones, and used those thrones to oppress people. This is what the throne concept communicated.
And we understand this because we invented the throne to oppress others. God didn’t invent it. He has no need for a throne. God simply used this symbol so we would understand him. It was men that built thrones to elevate themselves above other men and lord it over them. It was men who had the ego and power issues. This is where thrones came from. They didn’t come from heaven, but from oppression.
Kings are the worst idea that men ever invented, but God even uses this symbol of “King” to describe his reign. But his reign is so different from ours, that we misunderstand what is meant 23 when God uses the word “King”, unless we listen to Jesus and what he taught about it. Israel chose a king and this wasn’t the will of God for them. God didn’t want them abused by a king. Kings have been one of the worst ideas of mankind in our history.
So how did Jesus describe his throne? John and James heard about this throne, and came and asked if they could sit with Jesus on smaller thrones. He said, “Do you know what you are asking.” And they answered, “O yes, we know what throne means. We think is sounds good, something to be desired.” Jesus answered, “Are you sure you understand what God is communicating by using this symbol of rulership? Do you know how God rules? Are you able to drink of the cup I am going to drink, to serve the sheep?” That should have shut them up, but it didn’t.
Jesus called his disciples and said that in the world, people rule over other people, but in his kingdom it shall not be like that. In his kingdom, those who serve the lowest shall rule. We are to rule from under people, lifting them. So in his kingdom, rule means servanthood. This is a glimpse of what God means by throne and kingdom. It’s completely opposite to our human view. When God uses the symbol of throne, he completely transforms its meaning, and we should remember this also when reading about him in the book of Revelation.
Then in Matthew 25, Jesus spoke about what it would be like at his ascension, when he ascended to heaven and sat on his throne to rule. What would that throne, rule and kingdom look like? It would be like this: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me…” Jesus is with the hungry and naked. It’s not the place where you normally find a king, but this is where he is. This is his throne, among the poor. “Throne” is a symbol of how God rules, and in Christ we see what this means. God rules through service. He overcomes evil with good, and this type of rule shall fill his universe.
A classic symbol is that of a lion. Men decided that a lion should represent conquest. So God calls himself the lion of Judah. A lion prevails and conquers his enemies. But in Christ, we see how God does this. John heard a voice behind him saying, “The Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed.” And John turned around to look at this lion and he saw a lamb, as though it had been slain. (Rev 5:5-6) So this is how the lion conquers, as a lamb. This is what John is communicating to us about who God is, so we can be transformed and begin to rule like he does. This is what the Revelation was written for. If he conquered with force, he would be like his enemy. But he overcame evil by sticking with good. This is how we conquer, not by might, but by service.
It is vital that we understand these symbols, because these symbols are always transformed by the gospel of Christ. This is the point of the symbols. God starts with our ways, customs and cultures, and then he fills them with Christ and transforms them entirely. This is how he gets our attention, and then he transforms us. If we don’t see these symbols as pointing to something better in Christ, then we misread the Bible. If we take the symbols as men understand them, and then use them to depict God, we get God so wrong. We then make God in our image. But if we allow God to take our symbols and fill them with the true revelation of himself, with newness of meaning, then he makes us in his image. This is so vital to grasp.
The temple is another symbol. God took this from man and completely changed its meaning. This is another reason why the people could not receive Jesus. Creation starts with a temple, in Eden. But this is an open temple, with no hindrance between God and his natural and human creation. God’s plan, and this is the goal of the gospel, is that the whole earth be filled with his personal presence. The whole of creation is his temple.
But man changed that. They put their gods in buildings and shut them up from the general people. Then priests ruled over the people, giving them special conditions of entry, which they had to pay for. Religion was part of the economy. In the law, God adopted this human system, that was already prevalent all through the world at Moses’ time, and which all men followed in their minds, and then once again, in the gospel, he completely changed it.
He opened up the temple, tore down the separating curtain. In Christ he came out of his holy place and visited sinners in their homes and ate and drank with them. He made access to himself free of charge, for all people, of all races and levels in society, and took his faith completely out of the hands of the special classes of rulers and priests. He gave himself freely to all people, without exception.
This was intolerable to the leaders, who profited greatly from the former arrangements: “This must be persecuted,” they said, “It must be stopped.” But in Jesus, we see who God really is. We see the temple that God really designed and built through the lives of his people. He didn’t build a hierarchy of male priests, with loads of special rules. Men built that. God used that to point to Christ, so that Christ could come and change it to be what he wanted. He built an open plan family of “neither male, nor female, neither bond nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.”
It is the same with sacrifice. He took sacrifice as he met it in our societies and he filled it with new meaning. He filled it once again with service. Instead of gods taking from the people, it is God giving to us. Instead of God demanding death, it is God giving life to the violent and criminal. Instead of death, his sacrifice is a living sacrifice, of love between us. All these things have been transformed at the appearance of God in the gospel.
These are some of the things in the Old Testament that people blame God for. They say he is a God of blood, of sacrifice, of the priesthood, the temple and its restrictive rituals, of the ego centred throne, of the angry wrath, or patriarchy. All these are human violence and exploitation of others. We could go on and on, and maybe in some later chapters we will raise other things, like our human governments, our armies, wars, and even the law. None of these things were invented by God, nor were they in any way of God. These things don’t reflect on the character of God. They all reflect on the character of man. We can’t blame God for them or point the finger at him. We invented them to oppress our fellow man. That is where they all came from.
Instead, we must see the truth about this. God took all these things and used them to reach us, to unfold who he is. This is what Jesus did in his ministry. He took each one of these symbols, or human traditions, and he opened them up and took out the violence of man, and put in the nature of God. This is Jesus. It’s time we paid attention to what he taught us in Jesus, and renewed our human values, and stopped seeing God through our human eyes.
The law, for example, was made by man after the fall. There is no record of God introducing it. Before Moses, civilizations already had complex law codes, not as merciful, or as equitable, as the Moses code. But law had been developed long before Moses. After the fall, the law was needed to regulate man’s actions against man. Before the fall, this wasn’t necessary. Man lived in relationship with those around him. Adam and Eve were conscious of each other, of God and of the creation they were part of. These were in harmony, so law wasn’t needed. Our human identity was seen in the context of these relationships with others.
An African friend told me a story of a man who placed prizes on the ground and made children run towards them. The winner would receive all the goods. But the children ran hand in hand, won together, and shared the prizes. When the man asked why, one of them explained that they had been taught by their family that, “I am because of you.” Compare this with the climax of Western 25 philosophy, by René Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” The central feature of human reality had become our self, not our relationships with others. This is what happened in the fall.
This Western view of reality is still present in much of our theology. It is orientated towards the individual, not to the ecclesia, the church and to the wider community. This is still “fallen theology.” The fall was when man began to focus on himself. He became predominately self-aware, rather than his previous primary orientation to relationships. At the fall, he thinks of himself only. After that, his actions were no longer in the common interest, so society developed laws to govern his actions.
The law is not celebrated in scripture, but it is called the minister of death. Because of the fall, because of self-centredness, the law becomes a weapon. It is a weapon against our own conscience, and a weapon we use against each other. It is the weapon of death that we need desperately to be set free from, to be delivered from the accusations that hurl around in our minds and societies.
So God starts with the law when he calls Israel, because this is what men lived by. He then worked to set me free from this law. First, he moderated the law, to make it less harsh. Then he used the ritual aspects of law, already in human society, which alleviated the human conscience, thus reducing levels of guilt in the community. But he transformed these rituals, steering them away from human brutality, away from idolatry, and turned them into a symbol of love rather than of recompense. When Jesus came, he showed what the law pointed to. It pointed to love for our neighbour.
Jesus then introduced the “new commandment.” He used the commandment language, the disciples were used to, but actually steered them away from the commandments of the Old Testament laws. This is what Jesus was doing all through his ministry. The couldn’t heal on the Sabbath, because of the law. They couldn’t visit sinners, because of the law. They couldn’t help the man on the road to Jericho, because of the law. They couldn’t love their enemies, because of the law. The people constantly put the law in the way of love. They used it instead, to accuse each other and to destroy. Jesus said, drop all those commandments and turn to a selfless orientation in relations with others. He said, since God has forgiven you and made you friends, the law in no longer needed. Therefore, forgive each other.
Then Jesus used his life as the model of the new community. He loved his disciples to the end, shedding his blood to save them. This is the new law, to drop the old law, by which we accuse each other, and take up a new way of living instead, which is focused on forgiveness, service and love, to the point of losing our own lives for others. This new orientation on serving the other, frees our whole community from the law, from the accuser, working in our minds and society.
The communion is an example of this. We share our lives together, as the bread is shared. We give our blood for each other, as Jesus gave his for us. The “new law” of Jesus is to drop the law, that we used to kill, and instead live by love, and not by commandments. It’s like Jesus saying, “You guys like commandments, so I’m now giving you one you don’t expect: ‘Drop the commandants and replace them with relationship love. Take away the law that the Pharisees, rulers, and the violent Zealots use to hurt others. Don’t live by law anymore.’” Jesus is using missional language, starting with what we knew, the law we cherished, and using that language to introduce us to an entirely new way of life. This renews us together as one family. The whole purpose of God is liberation, to set us free from what destroys.
The letter to the Romans was written this way. It shows how God used our retributive thinking. He found that thinking in Israel and used it to make a law based covenant with them. Israel was not able to keep that covenant. The gospel, is God entering into that covenant, and therefore into our retributive mindset behind the covenant, and saving us from it. It’s another Trojan Horse idea. He 26 builds a salvation plan around the thing that makes us captive, and then he climbs into the middle of it, into our very heart, and pulls us out of that captivity to set us free. It cost God the cross to free us from the law that sin brought us into. He sets us free from the anger of the law and leaves us only with his love, to share with others, by giving our lives.
Man invented the law, and God got rid of it.