I recently began reading J.I Packer’s book Knowing God. I didn’t get far into it before I was confronted with the statement ‘Those who know God show great boldness for God’. Summing up my existence and ‘slow burn’ christian faith, I realized that I don’t know God at all. Yes, I know stories of Jesus and the Old Testament (OT) but I really don’t know who God is. I suppose a reason for this is that I have always felt more akin and comfortable with the God whom Jesus reflects and speaks of; ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But the other God, or the other version of God in the OT, him I’m not so sure about. Verses like Joshua 7:15, ‘(the sinner)…will be burned with fire, along with everything he has (meaning his entire family), for he has broken the covenant of the Lord and has done a horrible thing in Israel’, cause me distress. How could this ‘all loving, all caring God’, do this? Surely, this is not the ‘father’ that Jesus reflects and prays to?
Various violent acts and absolute statements in the OT can leave many christians stumped. I know of people who no longer, or who have not read, the OT. I also know people who are lost for words when asked by unbelievers to explain the OT and why they would ever believe in a such God. I also know believers (and in this case I’m one of them) who are reluctant to show their faith at all in the presence of, what I would call, an evangelical atheist. I admit it, I am not bold in faith at all. But I’d like to be. So who is this God? Did he change or is the same? How do I reconcile these apparent two versions of God? And where, if at all, can I find the link in the Bible?
In a previous post, I briefly touch on how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ changed how we live and how we view each other. In him we learnt to love our neighbor as ourselves, to lay our life down for others, to turn the other cheek, and that we should behave peacefully and respectfully to all for God is love. So we then, should love one another. Christ and his teachings provided cohesion to the world. For from this point in time, civilization evolved in this framework and now we feel that sending armies to conquer a land and destroy it’s inhabitants is horrific (to say the least). Our thoughts, our ethics and morals have changed. Prior to the coming of Christ (and I’m still studying all of this so I won’t give an in-depth answer for now), the world was a very violent, waring place with no human rights or laws in place to protect the vulnerable. So to read the OT is to step back to a time that is difficult for us to comprehend or empathize with. The books and events wherein could not be more disturbing, alarming, baffling, different, and peculiar. Yet, the more I read of it, the more similarities I can see in God’s character as we know of him from the NT; the more I can recognize the God I am familiar with, and the more I agree with the statement in Malachi 3:6 ‘I am the Lord, and I do not change’. It is a liberating and bold thing to know.
Have you ever read the Psalms? It is a book of poetry and song written to worship God and it is written a long time before the birth of Jesus. In it, the authors use the most expressive and heartfelt emotion to describe their relationship with God, their sins, their longing, and their love towards a God they know to have ‘unfailing love’ for them, whom they call their ‘rock and salvation’, and who they describe as ‘trustworthy’, ‘gracious and merciful’ and as a ‘shelter’ worthy of all praise. Sounds a lot like Jesus and his father, right? The Psalmists also cry out to God for him to ‘Punish the wicked…(and) Break the arms of these wicked, evil people! Go after them until the last one is destroyed…The godless nations will vanish from the land.’ (Psalm 10: 13,15,16b) Um…what the heck? Obviously, they live in a very different time to us!
Does it surprise you, as it did me, to know that the Psalmist, in this case King David, was referring to the God of the OT, the God pre-Jesus, and the God as described in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible? How did King David get this version of God? How did he see God as having unfailing love when God wiped a generation of Israelites off the planet for disobeying him? King David knew something of God that we can easily forget. He knew that God was just. He knew that God commanded obedience. He knew God to be compassionate and gracious. He knew that God demanded purity and reverence. Mostly, he knew that he himself was full of sin. And in those days, sin and disobedience were dealt almost immediately. In contrast, in our post-messiah-arrival world, we now wait for God to bring justice to the oppressed, to the wronged, and to the faithful – which he promises to do at the end of time. Until then God is giving the world time for the Kingdom of God to grow; for the full measure of those who will call Christ Lord.
The prophetic description of judgment in New Testament is reminiscent of the violence and death we see in the OT. John 12:48 is blunt: ‘But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.’ Romans 2:5 is terrifying: ‘But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.’
In the NT, for those people who do not love and follow Jesus, God’s son, Jesus wasn’t and isn’t always peace and love. In the OT, for those people who do not obey God and ‘brazenly violate the Lord’s will…have blasphemed the Lord and they must be cut off from the community. Since they ave treated the Lord’s word with contempt, they must…suffer the punishment for their guilt? (Numbers 15:30) Spot any similarity? Would God, if he was different say practically the same thing over 2000 years later? There is solidarity in the Word of God if you look for it. (There’s also a lot more blessing, love, goodness, and grace than God smiting the sinner if you’re taking a tally.)
Reading four consecutive chapters a day from a variety of books (today it was Deuteronomy, Joshua, Psalms and Matthew) I have been able to perceive the piecing together of one giant story. From the beginning to end, Genesis to Revelation, God is recognizable as the same God. He does not change. The world he operates in may change, but he does not. In being able to discern this, I am beginning to see his full character. He is, at once, loving and just; for to be loving and gracious is to be just. His unfailing love for his people is to be jealous for their affection. To demand obedience is to shelter and protect. To love is also to hate sin – the very thing that makes us unclean in God’s eyes. To send His very own son to bear the burden of sin is to provide grace – an undeserved grace. To kill then, can be to save.
God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ is available to everyone for God is love. And for you and I as we choose to trust and love Him, in our efforts to desire to know Him more we need to understand live out Christ’s directive: Love your neighbor for ‘anybody that does not love does not know God.’ (1 John 4:8)
This world we live in is crying out for love, for more of God’s presence and love. As we love and respect each other, we can be God’s light to each other and in turn, God will reveal more of himself, his heart, to us and to those that we serve.
(Please note that I am not a theologian or an historian, just an average person trying to make sense of all of this. I am however, trying to read as much as I can on the topic discussed. Thank you.)
My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughtsIsaiah 55:8-9