Hillside Free Methodist Church
Great Questions Series 2000
Pastor Mark Adams
How can the seeming change in God's personality from the Old Testament to the New Testament be justified (e.g., from a spiteful, angry God to a loving Father?) Hebrews 13:8
Heb13.8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Is God really the same yesterday, today and forever? At times the Bible seems to tell a different story. A couple of Hillsider's posed the same question this year, and it relates to the integrity of God and Scripture. It's an important question.
How can the seeming change in God's personality from the Old Testament to the New Testament be justified (e.g., from a spiteful, angry God to a loving Father?)
It is certainly not a new question. One of the first Christians to ask the question did so in 140 AD, not long after the New Testament had been around. His name was Marcion. Marcion said that there is no change in personality from the Old to New Testament, but rather, there are two different Gods. The evil God, the vengeful, spiteful, arbitrary God reveals himself in the Old Testament. The good, pure, loving God reveals himself in the New Testament. Well, that's one solution.
I do not believe it to be the correct solution, neither did the early Christian fathers. Polycarp, one of the Apostle John's disciples, referred to Marcion as the 'firstborn of Satan.' Too much of the New Testament is based upon the Old Testament to believe this to be true. Marcion's solution to this was to rewrite the New Testament and take out all references to Judaism and the Old Testament. This didn't leave much else to read.
There is a better approach that preserves the integrity of the Scripture, both Old and New, as the Word of God, and allows us to understand how God has revealed himself in both. I have seven points that I hope will prove useful in answering today's great question.
First, God does not change from the Old to the New Testament.
Second, We are in no position to judge God's motives - God is, after all, God.
Third, some of God's harsh commands are clearly justified when we consider the situation.
Fourth, the Bible records much that is heinous as a mere fact of history, not as God's command.
Fifth, the New Testament cannot be understood outside of the Old Testament context.
Sixth, God has been leading humanity toward a spiritual maturity through progressive revelation.
Seventh, Father knows best. Yet, so does the New Testament. Loving Jesus is the man who teaches us about hell, not Moses.
First, God does not change from the Old to the New Testament. Heb13.8 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." God never changes. The idea that God changed from a vindictive God to a loving Father is simply wrong. IN both Old and New Testaments God has always been a loving father. And while I find no justification for calling God vindictive, his justice - which demands that evil and wrongdoing be punished - is an integral aspect of his nature revealed in both Old and New Testaments.
There are over 300 verses in the Old Testament that tell us about God's love and about how God wants us to love others, including strangers. There are only about 200 such verses in the New Testament. The idea of loving God and neighbor was not a New Testament invention, in both cases Jesus is quoting Old Testament Scripture. In fact, there is nothing new in the New Testament, it is all grounded in the teachings found from Genesis to Malachi.
A brief reading from Psalm 36 demonstrates the tip of the deep iceberg of God's compassion, love, caring seen in the Old Testament:
Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep. O LORD, you preserve both man and beast. How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. Continue your love to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart.
The God of the Old Testament is a God of love, though also a God of justice. But so is the God of the New Testament. Indeed, we know that Jesus taught we should love one another, but he also taught that people who refuse God's grace will go to hell. We don't hear about hell as a punishment for the wicked until Jesus brings it up.
In both the Old and New Testament God is good, people are sinful. God wants people, all people, to be saved, to follow after him, to find salvation and escape the eternal flames! In the Old Testament, for example, God speaks through Ezekiel (33:11) and cries out, with obvious tears:
Say to them, `As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?'
God wants all to be saved, knowing that many will refuse to follow his ways and repent. But this is the exact same message of the New Testament:
2P.3.9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Old or New, the same Holy, Loving God gives the same message - I want everyone to be saved! Now follow me! Like it or not, there is no evidence of a personality change at all.
So again, God does not change from the Old to the New Testament.
Second, We are in no position to judge God's motives - God is, after all, God. God is the definition of right and wrong. We also must understand that we can't possibly know all the variables involved in God's decisions, nor can we understand all the variables involved in human freedom as it interacts with God's plan. The Apostle Paul, himself a Jew, steeped in the Old Testament, struggles with today's great question. We read about his struggle in the Book of Romans, Chapter 9:10-21:
After wondering aloud why God would choose to call Jacob but reject Esau, an apparently arbitrary decision, Paul asks:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." . . . Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?' " Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
This text is often, for me, a reality check - Who am I to talk back to God? My job is to discern and accept and do his will, not call into question his character.
Third , some of God's harsh commands are clearly justified when we consider the situation. Justice demands that evil be punished. Wether we like it or not, many of the wars and warlike situations in the Bible are means of God's punishment for evil-doing. The people of Israel invaded Canaan and many were killed. What both Scripture texts and archeology bear out is that the people of Canaan were deplorable. They practiced human sacrifice, many of their homes were built upon children's bones that had been sacrificed to their gods. Fertility rites included sanctioned sexual immorality and fornication. Bone remains of ancient Canaanites reveal evidence of being wracked with disease, including sexually transmitted disease. The grossest forms of barbarism, intense violence and immorality, slavery, worship of demons and human sacrifice were a stench in the nostrils of God.
God's judgement on this people were the Israelites. Likewise, when the Israelites would also begin to engage in similarly vile behavior, which happened on and off despite knowing the Word of God, God would bring in the Assyrians or the Babylonians, for instance, and justice would be done.
Is it evil to have this kind of justice? No, the greatest evil would be to allow evil to grow unchecked in the name of some sentimental notion that being nice to people will make the bad guys stop. It doesn't work that way. It never has.
God asking Israel to invade Canaan was as evil as the American allies driving their tanks across France to stop Adolph Hitler and his reign of evil, which may also have, by the way, God's judgement on Nazi Germany. Just as Abraham Lincoln believed that the Civil War was God's judgement against American for it's barbarity and paganism in the sin of slavery.
So, first God does not change from the Old to the New Testament. Second, We are in no position to judge God's motives. Third, some of God's harsh commands are clearly justified when we consider the situation.
Now, Fourth, the Bible records much that is heinous as a mere fact of history, not as God's command. It is one of the most important facts to remember when reading the Bible. The historic sections of the Old Testament we find God's holy spirit preserving for all time all that happened - good and bad. One of the facts of Scripture that lends credibility to it for me is that it is far from sanitized. The deeds of the people, even the saints like Abraham, David, Peter and Paul are not cleaned up to make them look like heros. No, their sins are as clearly depicted as their victories. Why? Because God is the hero of the Bible, not the people he interacts with.
So when we see David commit adultery. This is NOT a recommended course of action - rather what we learn from this is that all people are susceptible to sin and to denial, and that no matter how bad the sin, God can forgive when we, like David, humble ourselves before and seek his forgiveness and restoration.
Likewise, when we read about one of the darkest moments of Biblical history in Judges 19 we see a Levite traveling abroad through the region of the tribe of Benjamin with his concubine. He stops in village to spend the night. The men of the village come around that night and demand to have homosexual relations with the visitor, and in response, the travelers concubine is sent out, and is abused in the most heinous of ways all night long, and left dead for the visitor, who finds her in the morning. Stricken with grief, we see in verse 19,
When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.
The tribes of Israel, each receiving a piece of the dead woman, are enraged by the acts of the Benjamites, and seek God as to what to do, and God tells them to punish Benjamin, and so a war breaks out against Benjamin and the other 11 tribes of Israel over this terrible and dark deed. Over 25,000 soldiers and one innocent concubine die as a result.
It's a horrible story. Why retain it? Because it happened. Because we can learn from it. Why do we revisit the horrors of the Holocaust? Ask any Jew and the response should be one with our own, "Never again!" Why do we revisit the horrors of slavery? Because it happened, and it's oppressive effects still affect each of us in America to this day, but heaven forbid that we ever forget, lest we repeat the horrors of our forefathers. God did not demand the death of the innocent woman, she was an innocent victim and we know Jesus weeps with her even now - God did not demand the death of 6 million Jews and Jesus weeps over them even now - and God did not demand 20 million Africans be slaughtered in the name of American slavery - and Jesus weeps over them even now. History records the evils of humanity as well as God's justice and mercy.
Fifth, the New Testament cannot be understood outside of the Old Testament context. The New Testament tells us that is a fulfillment of the Old Testament, not a replacement for it. Jesus himself said that (Mat.5.18)
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
John Wesley said of the relationship between the Old and New Testament:
'Tis called the Old Testament with relation to the New, which doth not cancel, but crown and perfect it, by bringing in that better hope which was typified and foretold in it!
Much of the New Testament simply makes no sense without the Old Testament. Let's take the critical moment of Christian faith, the cross of Jesus. Jesus dying on the cross makes no sense in and of itself. How can an innocent man being crucified bring anything other than sorrow to his followers?
Why did God choose to save us from sin in this manner? Why not just say, "You're forgiven?" No mess, no crown of thorns.
Why not? The Bible says, that God's grace must be dispensed in such a manner as to fulfill God's sense of justice, as well. The Old Testament and New make it clear that sin merits death and that a sacrifice is necessary to atone for sin. In fact, the Old Testament makes it clear that a perfect lamb sacrificed was what was necessary for God's judgement to pass over Israel during the days of slavery in Egypt. In this fashion only the cross makes sense. If the penalty for sin is death, and God wants to pay the penalty as a gift to his sinful children - and who of us has not sinned - then the only way to pay it is for God to somehow die. That's impossible, unless he takes on flesh, and that's Jesus. Jesus who becomes, even as John the Baptist pointed out, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It's no mistake that the crucifixion of Jesus occurred on the Passover. But none of this great plan of God makes sense without the progressive revelation of Scripture.
Sixth, God has been leading humanity toward a spiritual maturity through progressive revelation. When the first people to hear and obey God's voice began to follow the Lord, it was in an era and time when violence, the golden rule - he who has the gold makes the rules - and survival of the fittest certainly reigned true. The austere rules about holy observances were necessary to set the one true God apart from the pagan God's who were surrounded with human sacrifice and sexual sins. The clear and unyielding ethical laws were necessary to provide a guide that no one in the world except the Hebrews had. You shall not kill? Are you joking, how else are you going to be able to steal your neighbors wife? What, you're not supposed to steal your neighbor's wife, either? What's the point of coveting if you can't take what you want by force? What, you can't even covet?
We take the ethical commands of the Bible for granted, but don't forget that four thousand years ago these were hot off the press, and radically different from anything - ANYTHING that had ever existed before. These laws brought a new human freedom, a new social order that has impacted every person on earth for the better. Yet the laws were just the beginning. Just as you must spank your two old when he runs into the street - a two year old will not understand higher reasoning - so too God had to spank, so to speak, those people who had never had a moral code or standard of this nature before. But if the law can be seen as similar to God raising children, then so too the prophets of a thousand years later can be seen as God raising rebellious teens. It was no longer enough to follow a law because God said so, the prophets brought a new dimension. The laws of God, ethical behavior, and heart relationship with God, were because they were simply the right thing to do, and here's why - when you treat people right, and justice flourishes, society is much better - when you oppress others, they will rise up and your society will crumble. Reasons were offered, as well as - and appropriately so, "Thus saith the Lord." The prophets began to move us from following an external law because our Father says so to following the law because it's the right thing to do. All of this prepares the human being for the law of love and the age of grace, when we see that we can live out a relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ. The law becomes much broader and it becomes internalized. The prophets predicted that a time would come when God's people would receive a new covenant in which sins are forgiven and the spirit of God actually indwells each believer. Jesus brought that era in. The inner life is so much richer and fuller, the gift of the spirit is an amazing blessing, but it also broadens the law, it doesn't narrow it. The new law is Love. And love demands greater responsibility than law.
Remember Jesus saying "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment?" This is a perfect example.
If you simply live by an external law, as long you don't kill anyone you're acceptable. But if you claim to live by the law of love, then you should not even harbor in your heart anger at your brother. In the Old Testament law, you could be get by and be acceptable to everyone by tithing, giving ten percent of your income, but in the New Testament, guided by love, you are to sell all your possessions and give to the poor. Wow. Which is easier, living by law or by love? By far the more mature, more fulfilling, and saving way of life is the way of love. But don't be fooled by the groovy, mellow sound of, "They will know you are my disciples by your love," because love is tough, it means self-sacrifice to benefit someone else.
Prophecy . . .
Even then, the Bible makes it clear, whether we say we follow the Law or the Law of Love, that no one is saved by either. It is impossible to follow the law, we all have broken at least one of the ten commandments. Worse still, it is impossible to follow the law of love, for have not always loved our brother, "Fool" or "lusted in our heart" to use Jesus' examples? Old or New Testament, the clear thought is plain - we are saved by grace, as a gift from God, through faith - not by works - not even by our own ability to love - but rather merely by our ability to let the God of justice and holiness love us through taking the punishment we deserve for our sin upon himself. Greater love hath no man, said Jesus, than to lay down his life for his friends, and that is what you are. Said Jesus.
Seventh, and finally, Father knows best. We really don't have a clue what God is doing, except that He loves us and is working out things for good, even when they don't seem that way. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your path."
A child thinks that dad is very harsh for imposing a curfew, or saying "No you can't watch TV today" or "you simply must eat your veggies before desert." That parent is clearly vindictive and evil, seeking only to make life miserable for the poor kid. Whereas the parent viewed as loving is the one who says, stay up as late you want, watch TV before you do your homework, or go ahead, chow down on cake before you eat the broccoli. A parent has a clear reason for imposing the rules and hindrances and even doing those things that are seemingly inhumanly mean, like forcing the kid to sit in the dentist's chair. The kid doesn't see the reasons, and may even throw a tantrum. How can we avoid the parallels between God the Father and we his children? We can't. And when we find one of God's laws or commands, be it in the Old or New Testament, or even a whisper in our hearts, remember that Father knows best. Trust in the Lord l l l
After all, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Return to Homepage
Return to sermon files
Return to sermon viewer