Did God change from the Old Testament to the New?

Editor’s note: Columns in the Faith section reflect opinions and perspectives of the writer and are not necessarily those of The Republic.

A friend recently asked me why God in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) seems wrathful and judgmental, while God in the New Testament seems loving and forgiving.

It’s a common question.

After all, in the Old Testament, God authorizes the Israelites to bear the sword and use it against their enemies, while Jesus in the New Testament advocates non-violence and warns his disciples, “Whoever lives by the sword will die by it.”

In the Old Testament, God may seem preoccupied with justice and retribution, while the New Testament seems more oriented toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

So, does God change from one testament to the other?

Not according to Jesus.

Jesus repeatedly affirms the unity and coherence of both testaments by saying, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.”

Jesus fulfills the law and prophets by doing for us what we have failed to do: He kept God’s laws perfectly as our substitute, so that his righteousness is credited to us through faith in him.

Jesus fulfills the Old Testament laws in another way: He taught that love is the fulfillment of all God’s commands, meaning that whoever loves God and neighbor automatically does whatever the commandments require.

Finally, Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the Old Testament, which announce the coming Savior who will redeem humanity through his death and resurrection.

On the evening of the first Easter, Jesus appeared bodily to his disciples and said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” (The three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible.)

Jesus understood his own words and deeds not as different from, but as the continuation and completion of the words and deeds of God in the Old Testament.

So how do we explain what appears to be some obvious discrepancies between the testaments?

It is important to understand that Old Testament Israel was not simply a religious movement, but a system of earthly government.

In other words, Israel was both church and state.

Throughout the Bible and throughout history, God authorizes and establishes earthly governments to bear the sword, wage just wars, administer justice and maintain order. Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes in the New Testament that the ruler “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is a servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But men are not angels, and the sword is God’s measure of last resort to limit evil and its spread.

When ancient Israel bore the sword, it was acting as God’s agent to carry out God’s just judgments on individuals and nations, in the same manner that God employs earthly governments today.

The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel writes, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

Nehemiah, another Hebrew prophet, writes, “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

The forgiveness foretold by the prophets in the Old Testament was accomplished for everyone by Jesus in the New Testament.

Israel’s prophets, priests and kings foreshadow the Christ who was coming to redeem not only Israel, but all humanity.

Through Jesus, the religion of Israel goes global.

That is why the church Jesus established was not to be limited by ethnicity, race, geographical boundaries or political affiliation. Jesus did not set up an earthly kingdom. Therefore, the church does not bear the sword. That work is left to earthly government, as it has always been.

Christ’s realm is spiritual, and for that reason it is powerful and permanent. It is like the Old Testament in that it provides forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and man, but it is unlike the Old Testament in that it is not an earthly kingdom.

God has not changed. He still threatens lawbreakers with retribution, but such threats are a means to a greater end: They drive us to the cross of Jesus, where God reveals his mercy and love for all sinners.

The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org. Send comments to [email protected].