December 29, 2014.
Sometimes when we look at the allegedly striking differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament we can almost get two different pictures of God. We see His character in the Old Testament and usually focus on His righteous and wrathful side and then we flip over to the New Testament and look at Jesus, and we see the loving and merciful side of God. If you don’t take too close of a look, you might even think that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different gods. I’m sure that this has even been a criticism of Christianity, as the New Testament seems to differ so much from the Old Testament. After all, it can’t be in God’s nature to change, right?
“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
If God is eternal, that means His attributes are likewise eternal. This being the case, how can we say that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament? It would seem that God changed, no?
I was reading through the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy today and it reminded me of how wrong our perception of God is. See, it is true that God, by His own nature, cannot change. But the thing is, God hasn’t changed. When you look deeper into the Old Testament, you see the same God that acts in the same way that the Father does in the New Testament. I think our confusion is two fold. First, without personal study, it is likely that you have only heard the mainline Christian teaching of Jesus’ wonderful love, mercy and grace and have not been taught much about the hard teachings of Christ. It is true that we serve a loving and merciful savior, but this does not discount his righteousness nor the times where Jesus did indeed preach hard to accept teachings. Secondly, I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding of righteousness and we ignore its necessary, yet challenging, implications.
But perhaps beyond these two misunderstandings, maybe the most important thing we miss is the actual revelation of God’s character in the Old Testament and actually how similar it is to His character in the New Testament (you might even say… the same). Let’s start with that passage from Malachi even and consider the context.
“From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’”
God says through the prophet that He does not change, and He says that in reference to Him biding His people return to Him in repentance, and thus He would be with them. How’s that for mercy and forgiveness? These people were committing spiritual adultery, and yet God still cared for them. Sound familiar?
“And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
God has always been in the business of saving those who had gone astray from Him. There are even instances in the Old Testament where God calls out to a people who are not His people and spares them when they repent! If you don’t believe me, I would encourage you to read the book of Jonah. Even before the fall, God had a plan that He would implement for the sons of man to be reconciled back to Him once they did fall, and that plan was Jesus. God has always desired mercy over sacrifice, and He has always wanted to see His people come back to Him, lest they be destroyed. The story of Hosea is a great place to see the steadfast love of God for His people. Hosea was told to marry a prostitute as a symbol of the children of Israel who had left God and had sold themselves to other gods.
“And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”
God still loved His children even in their sin. But His righteousness cannot allow for sin, and that is why a plan had to be developed to take away our sin. It is this misunderstanding of righteousness that makes us view the God of the Old Testament as wrathful and unloving. It is in no way the case that He is unloving, however. And by the way, the wrathful side of God can also be found in the New Testament.
“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”
(II Thessalonians 1:5-10)
In pop Christianity I suppose this side of God is not highlighted all that often, and this sets up a surprising realization when Christians who have not been taught about the righteousness of God are challenged with verses in the Old Testament (or even in the New) that explicitly show God’s wrath. Without the proper context, this can be hard to take in. This is why I think it is actually a disservice to leave out the hard parts of Christianity. After all, how can we truly love a God who we do not know?
But again, all sides of God are reveled throughout all of Scripture, we just overlook it sometimes and choose to focus on just one thing. This is part of the passage that I was reading today:
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord‘s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. For the Lord your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you. If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.”
Deuteronomy is part of the five books of the Law. Usually when we think about the Law, we think of a long list of weird rules about foods that the Jews could and couldn’t eat and the sacrifices that they were to make. All of that is indeed part of the Law, but so are provisions like this one. Who does that sound like to you?
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
“And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
See, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament is the same God. We need not interpret the change of the covenant as a change in God, for the New Covenant was always the plan. The Law was simply a tutor for the children of God until Christ came. It was a shadow of things to come, when would come the time that all righteousness was to be fulfilled. Even the sacrifices where but a shadow of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, the only perfect lamb whose sacrifice could actually take away sins.
What’s the greatest command?
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This is a fairly known passage and it is often quoted, especially for the second command, to love your neighbor as yourself. But where did Jesus quote this from?
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Straight from the mouth of God, so to speak. God is the same. His love is seen throughout the scriptures as well as His wrath. We must not leave out any of the characteristics of God, for they are eternal. And this is a very good thing. One of the wonderful things about the Old Testament is the fact that we get to see much of the character of God, who He is and what He is all about. He is indeed a loving, merciful God, not wanting His children to perish. But He is also a holy and righteous God, who will exact justice on those who will not accept His grace. For without grace, no one can be saved. Period. The choice is up to us. I believe there is a verse in Numbers that basically sums up this whole post.
“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
We serve an almighty and wonderful God who does not change. I encourage you to get to know Him.
Suggested Daily Reading: Numbers 14-15, Matthew 5-7.
Grace and peace.