Article of the Month

February 2012



Is the God of the Old Testament Different from the God of the New Testament?


This question has surfaced from time to time among sincere Christians as well as among Bible critics. It is a very important question, and understanding its answer is dependent very much on understanding the underlying differences in Old and New Testament perspectives.

It has been wisely stated that “The Old Testament is the New Testament CONCEALED; the New Testament is the Old Testament REVEALED.” But what does this mean?

In practical terms, it means that the New Testament writings help us to see in the Old Testament that which is not obvious to the casual reader. In other words, what the Old Testament SEEMS TO BE is NOT WHAT IT IS!  Thus, while some see the Jehovah of the Old Testament as vindictive, jealous, barbaric, war-like, etc., THAT IS NOT AT ALL a true reflection of Him. And, while some see the Father of Jesus in the New Testament as loving, peaceful, and compassionate — and they are correct! — they may well miss the justice and rightly-demanding parts of His character. 

—  God Introduces Himself  —

God took the time to introduce Himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 34 we have a revealing glimpse of the Lord God.  Verse 5 says that God “proclaimed the name of the LORD (= YAHWEH  —  usually translated “Jehovah” in English).

The word “name” is important in this verse. In the Bible, “name” is a word which is often used to mean CHARACTER. Thus, in Exodus 34:5, God is ready to give a CHARACTER summary of Himself to Moses. His name (YAHWEH) means, “He is becoming.” God had chosen this name to help us to understand that no word, no name, no single idea can truly express the greatness and limitlessness of His personal qualities. So, He chose a name that virtually says, “You will never catch up to Me. I am forever BECOMING new and wonderful things.  I am forever to be BECOMING more and more REVEALED unto you. The only name I can give to you that has no limits is this continuous I-N-G form of the verb TO BE.  I will eternally be BECOMING things you will want to know about and to be blessed by.” 

While we may, by misinterpreting His actions in the Old Testament, see God in a severe light, it is best that we see God as He, Himself, interprets His character to Moses. Exodus 34:6, 7 is very revealing. Just look at how God introduces Himself: 

1.        “The BECOMING ONE; The God who is always BECOMING.” (We have thus translated this opening statement because “LORD” is “YAHWEH” which meaning we have discussed.) He begins, as we have shown above, by reiterating that there is an ETERNITY ahead during which we will not have a static or restricted God, but a God Whom we will be delighted to follow for an eternity of delights!


2.        “MERCIFUL.” The very first descriptive word He gives us erases all possibility that we should interpret Him as vindictive, barbaric, or war-like. Merciful is the very opposite of vindictive!


3.        “GRACIOUS.”  This word, in its root meaning, has the thought of stooping down to help those in an inferior position. So, once again, we are admonished to see God, despite His grandeur, as one always willing to take His time, energy, and attention to help us. Being gracious is the opposite of a barbaric character!


4.        “LONGSUFFERING.”  Here is another comforting character trait.  He is not willing to give up on us.  As John 3:16 famously puts it, He so loved this world of fallen humans that He gave His greatest treasure (His son) to sacrifice for our salvation. Most men have not been longsuffering with God!  They have often given up on Him.  But, not so with Him toward us.


5.        “ABUNDANT IN GOODNESS AND TRUTH.”  As far as is consistent with His plan for the ages, God has supplied the blessings of truth for those who will receive them.  He has also supplied us a glimpse into His inherent goodness, as well as His supplying the goodness of the earth (even in its imperfect state) for the benefit of mankind.  “Goodness” is inconsistent with a fearsome God!


6.        “KEEPING MERCY FOR THOUSANDS.”  The extent that God’s mercies prevail is sometimes limited UNTIL HIS KINGDOM.  But He is repeating this all-important trait of His character. He doesn’t want us to forget it even IF IT LOOKS LIKE He is not being merciful!


7.        “FORGIVING.”  He well knows that “iniquity, transgression, and sin” are built into our fallen natures. But, rather than stressing that fact and holding it over our heads, He quickly addresses the problem with His promise that FORGIVENESS is His objective.


8.        “NOT CLEAR THE GUILTY.”  The remainder of verse 7 can suddenly sound cold and heartless! But how can this be? The totality of His introduction of Himself before this point GUARANTEES that we are MIS-READING these words if we find them contradictory to what has gone before!  The bulk of this verse stresses a point which might be lost to those who see the “New Testament God” as all “warm and fuzzy.” God is here pointing out that, even with all of His mercies, forgiveness, grace, and longsuffering, HE HATES SIN AND ALL THAT IT CAUSES.  When He says He “will by no means clear the guilty,” He is saying that He has no tolerance for man’s harming of man. And while He has the just prerogative of wiping away any given generation, He has, rather, chosen to let men SEE the horrible results of their actions. But, even in this, He lets the results of our stupidities NOT FALL ON ONE GENERATION, because it would often be more than we could take.  Instead, He lets the results of our foolish ways be DISTRIBUTED over three or four generations so that no one generation need be obliterated by its errors.  We can clearly see that this is MERCY IN ACTION.  It also allows all generations to learn the exceeding devastation of sin — a lesson they will need for their future welfare.


Moses was overcome by the magnificence of this introduction. He immediately fell to worship this benevolent God (verse 8). In verse 9, Moses takes God up on His revealed character traits. Moses says, in essence (verse 9), “Now I know that we, who are stiff-necked and sinful, can REST in being your inheritance!”

This introduction of Himself which God supplied to Moses should be the standard by which we judge all of the events of the Old Testament. God does not introduce Himself as hard, cold, unyielding, mean-spirited, and unapproachable. If God’s actions SEEM to attribute less-than-desirable traits to Him, we should mistrust our interpretation of those actions.

Even when we find descriptions of God which make us shudder because we have not REASONED on them, we will find blessings BY REASONING on them (even as God invited us to do in Isaiah 1:18). For instance, Exodus 34:14 makes it abundantly clear that God is JEALOUS. Among men this is a despicable trait. So, why, is it GOOD in God? Actually, verses 15 and 16 explain why it is good. God did not want Israel to become involved with false gods which would be to Israel’s detriment.  Jealousy is the trait of not wanting others to interfere with a relationship we have:  In men, this is a bad trait because we cannot balance the emotions and consequences. But with God, it is a wonderful trait because it means that He (with His perfect, all-seeing, eternal wisdom) knows what is for our best, and He refuses to let inferior relationships work for our eternal harm. Now THAT kind of jealousy we can applaud!


—  Some New Testament Clues  —


In the New Testament are numerous references to teach us that Old Testament writings are not what they seem on the surface. 

1.    Hebrews 10:1 is one example. In this passage the Apostle Paul points out that the sacrifices of the Law are only “a shadow of good things to come.”  He is telling us that things in the Jewish arrangement were only foreshadowing, typifying, or picturing much better things to come later.  Thus, while nearly everyone would shrink in distaste for a God Who required daily the sacrificial slaughter of animals, we are here assured that this practice doesn’t represent God at all!  He instituted these things only to provide symbolisms for a later age.  He, Himself, took no pleasure in them! (Hebrews 10:6) Nevertheless, the entire Jewish Age (from Jacob’s death until Jesus) is dominated by these animal sacrifices. But understanding their typical nature, and understanding that God didn’t like them, helps us immediately see that we can, on the surface, easily misinterpret the God of the Old Testament.

2.    In Galatians 4:21-28, Paul shows another kind of Old Testament function.  He explains that some things are ALLEGORICAL — that is, they really happened, but they, more importantly, represent something prophetic.  Thus two of Abraham’s wives were PROPHETIC of the covenants which would dominate two ages, the Jewish Age, and the Gospel Age.  His one wife, Hagar, was allegorical of the Law Covenant, and her child was prophetic of the entire Jewish nation.  But Abraham’s beloved wife, Sarah, was prophetic of the Grace Covenant of the Gospel Age.  And her son, Isaac, was prophetic of us who are Christians.  (Galatians 4:28)  Thus, when we read in the Old Testament (Genesis 21) that God told Abraham to send his wife (Hagar) and her son away, our initial impression might be one of cruelty and dismay.  But when Paul has explained that this was all allegorical of the end of the Law Covenant and the animal sacrifices of the Jewish age, our fears are erased.  That which appeared to be cruelty becomes allegorical of the switch from Judaism to Christianity.  A personal family tragedy is used by God to teach us about ultimate glorious endings!

3.    In I Peter 1:10-13, the Apostle Peter touches on the same concept which Paul taught.  These verses show that Old Testament prophets foretold the sufferings and the glory of Christ.  But these prophets knew not of what they were writing — many times because they were recording allegories and types.  Sometimes, as we have seen, even their personal lives were prophetic.  But they had no idea what they were picturing —although Peter explains that some were told that they were writing, not for themselves or their contemporaries, but for those of us who came later.  Peter is confirming that the Old Testament was written for Christian edification and understanding, not for the people then living.  Thus, it cannot be correctly understood without seeking its deeper meanings.


—   Summarizing the Concept   —


A careful study of New Testament teachings reveals so much about Old Testament atrocities, experiences, horrors, and histories.  While the Old Testament may appear  bloody and heartless to the reader who is unwilling to receive an explanation, it becomes a prophetic handbook for those who have been enlightened.

The reigns of kings Saul, David, and Solomon, for instance, are used in large measure to picture the natures of the Jewish, Christian, and Millennial ages.  Thus the continual wars of David’s reign become pictorial of the struggles of the Christian against his inherited sinful nature.  Other “terrible” events represent other lessons for us.  For example, when God tells Israel to slay all the Canaanites when Israel is entering its promised land, the history itself appears blatantly repulsive.  But this event is there to teach Christians that they, to enter their promised reward, must slay every vestige of sympathy with sin and evil within them.

Now, it might be argued that God still promoted slaughter.  But we must remember that the entire race was, and still is, under the death penalty since the disobedience in Eden.  Everyone dies; and whether that death be by famine, sword, disease, or “old age,” God is going TO BRING EVERYONE BACK FROM DEATH.

It is also good to remember that God has (in some documented cases) actually been MERCIFUL by cutting some lives short.  For instance, Jesus says, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city (Capernaum).”  (See Matthew 10:11-15; 11:20-24.)  The whole Jewish and Christian world uses Sodom to exemplify how horrible a people can become.  However, God, by cutting short their existence, makes it easier in the long run for that people to regain life than it will be for Capernaum which was not cut off in a fiery holocaust.  “More tolerable” in judgment are Jesus’ words.  Thus, Sodom’s destruction was a favor rather than a destructive rage as some might interpret it.  Their destruction cut short the progress of ever-increasing degradation.

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We have mentioned only the edges of the argument of how God has not changed from Old to New Testament times.  The PERCEPTION of His being different then as opposed to now is merely that — a PERCEPTION.  But God, like Jesus, though He may change the approaches He uses, is eternally THE SAME.  As it is written of Jesus, so it is true of his Father (Whose image Jesus is):

“Jesus Christ, the same yesterday,
and today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8; 1:2, 3)


—  Attributes  —

God’s primary character traits and personal attributes are found throughout the Bible —both by literal statements, and in symbolisms.  They are four:  WISDOM, JUSTICE, LOVE, and POWER.  These are so perfectly balanced as not to let one negate, weaken, or violate another.  They have never, nor will they ever, change.  YAHWEH of the Old Testament writings, and our Heavenly Father of the Christian experience are one and the same.  His WISDOM is perfect and all-seeing into eternity; His JUSTICE is inviolate —even though His LOVE finds ways to justly bless the violator!  His POWER is unending and limitless — and always used for good.  What a God!


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