Why Does God Seem Different In The Old Testament As Compared To The New Testament?
Since the early church, many believers have perceived a difference between the god of the Old Testament (OT) and the god of the New Testament (NT). In the OT, YHWH often comes across as a force to be reckoned with, passing rigorous laws and exacting the most severe punishments. In the NT, Jesus seems more interested in alleviating the rigors of the law and offering forgiveness.
Marcion of Sinope was a pastor’s son who lived in Asia Minor from 85 AD to 160 AD. He was among the first to advance the idea that the two Scriptures presented two different gods. In his canon of Scripture, therefore, he rejected all of the Old Testament and only included those parts of the New Testament that favored Gentiles over Jews (e.g., he only accepted the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul).
The early church rejected this assessment. Like Paul, they believed Jesus was the fulfillment of the faith of Israel and therefore the Hebrew Scriptures. Accordingly, our Bibles today include all the writings of the Old Testament, and alongside the writings of Paul (apostle to the Gentiles) we find the writings of Peter (apostle to the Jews). Our New Testament also preserves a number of writings that present Christianity from a very Jewish perspective (e.g., Jude, James, Hebrews, etc.).
Why then does this perception persist? The main reason is that the Scripture presents the unfolding of the divine plan progressively. A good illustration of this might be the life of a tree: on the outside a seed looks very different from a tree, but on the inside they are quickened by one and the same life. In the same way, one and the same god lies behind the OT and the NT, but the OT is the seed while the NT is the full form. Two big examples comes to mind: (1) first, the OT concerns itself with only one nation (Israel), while the NT concerns itself with all nations (the Gentiles); (2) second, the OT promises and commands are very this-worldly (judgment or reward in this life), while the NT commands and promises are otherworldly (judgment or reward in the life to come).
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see that the same God lies behind both the OT and the NT. Both depict God as holy and therefore utterly opposed to sin. Both of them present God as just, the OT condemning unrepentant sinners to death in this life, and the NT condemning unrepentant sinners to damnation in the life to come. And both of them present God as gracious, the OT providing remedy in the form of animal sacrifice, and the NT providing remedy in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ.
The perception that the two testaments are fundamentally different is illusory. It owes less to the Scriptures themselves and more to the fact that we tend to read them selectively. All anyone has to do to realize that Judaism is not a religion of outward works and harsh judgments is read through the Psalms. And all anyone has to do to realize that Jesus is no soft peddler of cheap grace is to read through his “Woes of the Pharisees.” In either case, we recognize the same holiness and justice and grace in the God of the Old Testament as we recognize in the God of the New.
Pastor Chad LewisMay 7, 2018