Got Questions: Why does God seem different in the Old Testament and New Testament?

Scripture:  1 John 4:7-19 and Nahum 1:2-6

In the late 1980’s/ early 1990s professional wrestling was in a golden age of peak popularity and Hulkamania was running wild.   There are several really popular wrestlers from that era.  One of the more bombastic ones was George “the animal” Steele.   The wrestling coloring commentators would often call him the “missing link” as he acted like a Neanderthal.  He was known for sticking out his green tongue, he would either say single words or babble incoherently, he would tear up the turn buckles by throwing their stuffing everywhere, and one of his signature moves was biting the opponent on the arm.    George Steele lived up to his nickname the animal in every way.   However, there was a slight oddity about the animal.  He was most active in the WWF during the summer.   During the other seasons, his matches and appearances were much more infrequent and rare.   The reason for this was fairly simple, but it was also the animal’s biggest secret.   George Steele was not as active in the non-summer months because school was in session.   George Steele’s actual name is Jim Myers, and Mr. Myers was a mild-mannered high school teacher in the Detroit Suburbs.  A former football player and natural strongman, Myers sort of fell into professional wrestling as a way to supplement his income in the 1960s.   He attracted the attention of the then World Wrestling Federation and began wrestling on the national level.   The entire time, Mr. Myers kept his in the ring persona a secret from all but his closest family.    Every now and then a student would mention the resemblance between Mr. Myers and the animal.   He would deny it and when they would inevitably show him a picture, he would just ask “Do you really think I am that ugly?”    For twenty years he lived two completely separate lives.   In an interview conducted several years ago, Myers said, “My wife and I joke about it all the time.  It’s like there are two people living inside one body.”  

            It is remarkable how Jim Myers was able to live a life as two completely different people.   I mention his story this morning, because some people wonder if God is the same way.   Today we are starting a several week focus on answering questions, specifically your questions that several of you turned in.    This morning the question we are going to consider is “Why does God in the Old Testament seem different than God in the New Testament?”  This is a fairly common question that pops up as people begin to understand different parts of the Bible.   This question occurs because churches tend to emphasize the message “God loves you very much.”   Yet the bible has stories like that of Sodom and Gomorrah where God destroys the cities with fire and brimstone.   We have scriptures like the one we just heard read where it states as plain as day “God is love.”    Yet at the same time, the Bible also has scriptures like this one from Nahum Chapter 1, verses one through six.  

            “God is love” and “The LORD takes vengeance as is filled with wrath” are radically different descriptions.   These statements do seem opposed to each other, so it is easy to see why people can start asking why God seems so different between the Old Testament and the New Testament.   When we see the stark contrast between these two scriptures, it does cause us to pause and consider if the question has validity.    Does God live two different lives like Jim Myers and George “the animal” Steele?   Is the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses somehow different than the heavenly Father of Jesus?    Well, the answer is no.   The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament and is still the eternal God of today.   So why does the God of the Old Testament seem different than the God of the New Testament?   To answer this question we need to consider what are the qualities that make God who God is.   Then we need to consider what really leads us to answering this question in the first place.  

            One of the things that I tend to really emphasize to teens in youth group is that the Bible is the source of all knowledge about God.    What we know about who God is and what God does comes from the bible.   When we look at the bible as a whole there are two qualities that come up time and time again.   God is a God of justice and God is a God of love.    In other words, God is a just AND loving God.    We see this emphasis of justice and love in both the Old Testament and New Testament.    However, because the language is so strong we tend to associate the attribute of justice with the Old Testament.   We certainly see that in this morning’s scripture from Nahum in verse 3 which states, “The LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.”   The Old Testament has a tendency to have a lot on God’s just nature, because the Israelites were so guilty.    God made a covenant with the Israelites to be their God and they would be his people.  A covenant is more than a “I’ll try hard”, it is more than a promise, a covenant is a sacred vow.   In the ancient world, a covenant was sealed through a ceremonial act where a cow would be cut in half.  The implication was that if I break this covenant, may what happened to this cow happen to me.    A covenant was an act that sealed the deepest of trust, and breaking a covenant was the shattering of that trust.   The breaking of a covenant has the same stigma and betrayal has breaking a marriage vow by committing adultery.   The Israelites time and time again, broke the covenant.  They worshipped idols and they ignored God.   God’s trust was betrayed and God’s heart was broken.    Worse, the Israelites did worse than betray God they did not honor each other.  They took advantage of the poor, and did evil to one another.    God being a God of justice eventually punished the Israelites for these crimes against God and against others.   

            We do not just see this in the Old Testament though, God is a God of justice in the New Testament as well.   In Matthew 11, Jesus proclaims woe to unrepentant cities when he declares, “Woe to you Chorazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida.  . .And you Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens?  No, you will go down to Hades.  For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom it would have remained to this day.  But it tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgement than for you.”   That sounds a lot more like a statement we would normally attribute to the Old Testament.   Jesus encourages us to join with God in providing justice in this world.   It is Jesus who told us to love our neighbor as ourselves and said when you do this for the least of these my brothers you do it for me. 

  There are warnings of God’s just nature all throughout the New Testament, often hiding in plain view.  For instance, last week we read a passage from Galatians.   We emphasized what the scripture said about the fruit of the Spirit.  However, the passage also listed the acts of the flesh, and about these acts in verse 21 Paul wrote, “I warn you as I did before that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”   When we do the things that we know in the core of our being are wrong, when we devalue others, and when we elevate false gods to idols in our lives we sin.   Sin separates us from God because sin rightly and justly deserves consequences.    It is the book of Romans, in the New Testament and not the Old Testament that plainly states “the wages of sin is death.”    In the New Testament and the Old Testament, being just is part of who God is.  

            Thanks be to God, that God is also a God of love.    Because God is a God of great love, God is compassionate and forgiving.    We see this stated in our scripture from 1 John.  Verse 10 states: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as atoning sacrifice for our sins.”    In the New Testament we see a strong emphasis on God’s love because the New Testament is the story of Jesus and then how we faithfully live as followers of Jesus in this world.   In a lot of ways, Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s love.    On the cross the punishment we deserve is taken from us, and we are forgiven as a free gift.    Yet this aspect of God’s nature is clearly displayed in the Old Testament as well.   We see this in the prophets time and time again.  The prophets often state how the people have sinned and angered God, the prophets are full of warnings of what will happen if the people do not stop.  Yet, even though these warnings fall on deaf ears and the warnings would come to pass, many of the prophetic writings end on a positive note with a promise of forgiveness and restoration.   An example of this is Micah 7:18-19 which reads, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?  You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.   You will have compassion on us, you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”  

            Even though the Israelites betrayed God again and again by breaking the covenant, God never destroyed them because God is a God of love.   One of the most amazing things we see displayed in the Bible from how God treats the Israelites to the cross that this God of Justice and love, when forced to choose between the two let’s love win.  Willful disobedience angers God, the bible is clear it may even have consequences, but the biblical promise is that God’s love never fails and never gives up. 

            From Genesis to Revelation we can see portrayed in the books of the Bible these two dominating elements of who God is: A God of justice and love.   This portrait is consistent in both the Old and New Testaments.   Since this is true, the real question then is why do so many people see an inconsistency between how they understand God and what they read about God in the Old Testament?   Unfortunately the answer is that in the church we have not always done a good job at teaching who God is.   Love is comforting and justice is a bit uncomfortable so for over a generation, the primary message of the church is God loves us.   This is undeniably true.  However, when we fail to teach that God is just and that we honestly deserve punishment for out transgressions we weaken the unbelievable message of God’s grace.   When we remove what God’s love prevents we take out what is so amazing about amazing grace.   Unfortunately, this has largely been to our peril.    When we divorce God’s love from God’s desire to see love justly reign over the earth, we dilute who God is.   We turn our Father in heaven from the God of Love and Justice into something more like a sugary Santa Claus; a divine being who is going to give us what makes us happy because we are mostly good people.   God is love, but God is not indulgence.   God grace is an amazing gift, but what makes it so amazing in the first place is that we did nothing to deserve it.   In fact, we often deserve the very opposite of salvation.    When we emphasize love but ignore justice, forgiveness loses its power.  Grace becomes an entitlement and not a life giving gift.    The reason why God seems so different in the two sections of the Bible is because we have not done a very good job at properly teaching who God is.   We teach God love you, but we fail to explain why that love is so amazing and life changing.   

            The amazing truth of Christianity, the essence of our gospel, and the amazing grace that we celebrate here today is beautifully encapsulated in 1 John 3:10: “This is love.  Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”   God is a God of justice and at the same time God is a God of love.    What makes God’s love so amazing is that through Jesus God is willing to forgive our sins and reconcile ourselves back to God.   May we testify to that truth with our beliefs and our lives.   May we work out salvation with fear and trembling, as we humbly acknowledge our guilt before God and give thanks for God’s amazing grace.    To fully and finally answer today’s question God is not different between the two parts of the Bible.  The God who was is the God who is now and forever, Amen.