People sometimes think that the God of the Old Testament is different to the God of the New Testament. Similarly, some Christians may think, since there is only one God, that he was angry and vengeful in the Old Testament but loving and compassionate in the New.
For all of us, though, how we are shown God in the Old Testament is difficult to reconcile with his actions in the New. In the Old Testament, God says things like:
Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. (Deut 28:47-48)
But in the New Testament, we hear: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). These verses are the ones we usually see on inspirational memes and bookmarks—and not without cause. But how do we hold these two pictures of God in balance? And do we have to? Can we just focus on the ‘nice’ God?
We already know the answer, I think. Intellectually, we know that they are the same God. But do we feel it in our heart? Do we appreciate, amongst the mess of ordinary life, why we need both sides, and how one without the other is so dangerous?
What is wrong with only having a God of love? We hear a lot about love these days. God is love. Love is love. Love is good, right? The trouble is, if God is only love, then Jesus died for… what? Why did Jesus have to die if God is love?
Let’s follow that thread. It is God’s justice and righteous anger at sin that requires a penalty to be paid. If God is love, there is no need for someone to pay the penalty of death for sin. But already there is a problem. Is love that excuses evil really love? Will a loving God tell people of terrible wickedness that their actions are exempt from judgement? That would not be loving to others.
Now, we are all sinners, and it is because of his love that we can be forgiven our evil and wickedness—but it is not by exemption. It was always via Jesus’ death. Right from the beginning, the penalty for sin was death. When God warned Adam away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he told him the penalty was death (Gen 2:17).
In Leviticus, we see God’s gracious provision of a sacrificial system that allowed the Israelites to substitute animals to be the carriers of their sin. The animals would be sacrificed for the sins of the Israelites—again, death. One of our clearest pictures relates to the annual Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:7-10. Two goats are chosen: one of the goats is sacrificed as a sin offering; the other (the scapegoat) is sent into the wilderness to make atonement.
Punishment and atonement. Punished for sin, then making amends for the wrong. Jesus’ death is entirely consistent with this picture. Not only that, it is the culmination of the whole sacrificial system. Jesus’ death only makes sense when you read the Old Testament. The Old Testament only makes sense when we appreciate where it is leading.
Punishment and atonement have no place with a God of only-love. If you remove justice and reckoning, there is no problem of sin. So, if we discount the Old Testament as out-of-date or irrelevant, we remove the entire framework that explains what Jesus did. He was both the substitute for us, taking the punishment of death for sinners, and the scapegoat, making atonement for us.
Let’s play this out, because, if it’s hard for us to understand, I’m pretty sure that non-Christians would find Jesus’ death a bit pointless.
Let’s assume we’ve discounted the Old Testament and our Bible starts with the gospels. God is love and that’s awesome because we are confident that he wants to be with us. But where does that confidence come from? Jesus dying on the cross? Without any penalty for sin, Jesus’ death is just an example of the ultimate sacrifice. What builds the bridge between our sin and God’s perfect holy presence? In the Old Testament, people couldn’t come into the presence of God until they had cleansed themselves and sacrificed an animal. What are we to do? Sacrifice ourselves on a cross too? Be as good as we can?
It could be argued that we are already ‘right’ with God because he loves us, and if he loves us we can come into his presence without all that sacrifice stuff. But in which case, what is the entry point? Surely that means we don’t have to do anything because we’re ‘in’—no repentance or faith or obedience needed. I think we’d all agree that doesn’t sound real. So, if the entry point to God is via Jesus and not just because God loves us, that brings us back to wondering what we are supposed to do. There’s not much certainty there. Life becomes a list of things to do, hoping we’re doing enough but never knowing if we are.
Jesus’ death is, and always will be, enough.
In the Old Testament, we see God’s love: the Exodus, his patience, his enduring compassion in the face of blatant disobedience. But we also see God’s raw power. We see the consequences for sin. We see what we need to see: that he can do anything. God is powerful enough to mete out his wrath on individuals, families and whole towns. We see his fury in all its fiery and terrifying glory.
We need to see this picture and we need to believe it. Otherwise we can’t appreciate what Jesus suffered for us.
And yet we need the New Testament picture, or we might not understand what God was doing—how true it is that persistently we fall short and deserve his wrath and yet can be reconciled to him as his children, of all things! We need to keep these two aspects of God’s character in tension. If we focus too much on one, we concentrate too heavily on God as judge. If we focus too much on the other, we lose sight of the extraordinary act of love that he planned from the beginning.
We need to see what God could do, to be able see more clearly what he did do.
God could smite me down in a nanosecond like a droplet of water on white-hot metal—and I would deserve it. But he doesn’t. He sent Jesus to rescue me from that.
How do we keep this balance in our lives?
Reading both Testaments together—even a few verses a day—also helps us to grow into this picture of God and appreciate how big he is. Find it hard to fathom the enormity of God? That’s okay (and expected). Because Jesus is the picture of the invisible God, when we can’t wrap our heads around God’s greatness we can look to Jesus. God was even gracious in that! And when you look at Jesus, know that the picture he presents to us encompasses everything we see of God in the Old Testament, in all his most wondrous and glorious ways.