by William J. Stewart
Some who look at God’s interaction with the people of the Old Testament compared with that which is seen in the New Testament, have concluded that God has changed. The claim is that the God of the Old Testament brought swift punishment and destruction on those who walked contrary to His will, but the God of the New Testament expresses love and patience instead. Is this so?
Note what the LORD says about Himself:
- “…I am the LORD, I do not change…” (Malachi 3:6)
- With God “…there is no variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:17)
- “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Such being the case, we should expect to find that God is the same in character, whether it be in the Old Testament or the New Testament. There is not a harsh, hardened God in the Old Testament and a lovable, whatever-goes God in the New. Let us consider what we see of God in both covenants.
Certainly, there are numerous instances in the Old Testament where we see God’s wrath come upon the people. The flood came because mankind turned from walking right to violence (Genesis 6:11-13). Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed due to their wickedness (Genesis 18:20-21; 19:13). Even after God brought Israel, His own people, from the bondage of Egypt, He caused all but 2 of that generation to fall in the wilderness (Numbers 32:10-13; 1 Corinthians 10:5-10). Several other examples of God’s wrath upon those who rejected His will are scattered throughout the Old Testament.
Though there noticeably fewer occasions where individuals incurred the wrath of God in such a direct fashion in the New Testament, there are some examples of such nonetheless. In Acts 5, a Christian couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold a property and brought a portion of the proceeds (inferring that is was the whole) to lay before the apostles, that it might be used to tend to the needs of the saints. They were called on their lie, and both fell dead before the Lord and those who were present. In Acts 12, King Herod received praise as a god from the people of Tyre and Sidon. God struck him, and he died before them, for he did not give glory to God.
Is there an emphasis on love in the New Testament? Absolutely. Throughout the New Testament, God’s love is strongly attested. It certainly ought to be. We’re told that “…God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). The same writer, clearly states, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16). And not only does John speak of the love of God, but also Paul (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:5), and Jude (Jude 1:21).
However, it is faulty to conclude that love is merely a New Testament characteristic of God. The Old Testament also speaks about God’s love for humanity. Deuteronomy 7:7-13 addresses God’s love for the nation Israel; Isaiah 63:9 speaks of God saving people through His love and pity. Frequently through the Old Testament, and especially in the writings of David, the mercy of God is praised (Psalm 57:3; 59:10; 62:12; 86:13; 100:5; 106:1, etc.). What is mercy, but an expression of love? God’s mercy, which was felt and acknowledged by folks under the Old Covenant, was an expression of God’s love.
But if God’s character has not changed, then we are still left to ponder why we see His wrath displayed more in the Old Testament than the New. Throughout the Old Testament period, God was teaching His people. In the process of doing so, just as our earthly parents do, the Lord employed physical discipline and earthly examples, to train up His people. When a child is grown, no longer do the parents use corporal discipline. It is expected, by that time, that the child has learned the right way, and will follow therein. Likewise, when we come to the New Testament, we come to a spiritual covenant, no longer based in the physical illustrations and lessons of the Old, but a covenant which appeals to spiritual discernment. Note what the apostle Paul wrote of the Old Covenant and those who were under it:
“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the end of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
1 Corinthians 13:11 reads, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” These words are given in a context which addresses spiritual gifts in the early church. The inference is that these gifts, which were in part, would be done away with when the complete will of God was present (v 10). Then, the “childish things” would no longer be needed. In like manner, the things used to train up His people through the Old Covenant, which are recorded as examples for us today, are no longer required. As it were, the “childish things” or the child-rearing things, have been put away.
It is not that God has changed, but that God has expected us to change. The expectation is that as we see the examples of the Old Covenant, and read the spiritual instruction of the New Covenant, that we will walk according to the Spirit and not the flesh. God expects that humanity has grown up, and is cognisant of the spiritual covenant which is affected in Christ Jesus.