Sometimes I think the God in the Old Testament can’t be the God in the New Testament. Who is he? What is his character? Did he change?

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 thoughts

Isaiah 55:8-9

If I could remember to ask God to bless me with a good memory, maybe I wouldn’t keep forgetting that God promises to be my rock, my comfort, my guide, my teacher…um, what else?

In the days before the Israelites finally enter the promised land, Moses speaks at length to the people recounting what God has done for them, describing what God will do for them, and what they must to do remain in God’s blessing. He tells them to, “Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character…to find out whether or not you would obey’ (Deuteronomy 8:1-2), and ‘…Recognize today that the Lord your God is the one who will cross over ahead of you like a devouring fire to destroy them (the inhabitants of the land whom God knows to be wicked). Then Moses asks ‘Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve with all your heart and soul. And you must obey the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am give you today for your own good.” Remember, Recognize, Required.

As I continue to read the book of Deuteronomy I wish that I began to take note of how many times the Lord, through Moses, urges the people to Remember, for it is often. Here are three: “Remember and never forget how angry you made the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until now, you have been constantly rebelling against him (Deuteronomy 9:7), “Remember that the Lord rescued you…in order to make you his very own people…(Deut 4:20), “…Remember this and keep it firmly in your mind: The Lord is God in both heaven and on earth, and there is no other (Deut 4:39).  It seems then, that God knows human memory is limited, but his desire for us to remember what he has done in our lives is infinite. 

Does this mean that if we remember what he has done, it will be easier for us to recognize him currently at work in our lives? Remembering who he is, who he says to be and what he did for us personally, is the best way to relax in this moment as we look for the signs and recognize that he is working for us today.  Can God really be at work, for the good of those who love him, during this very frightening and uncertain time millions of people are out of work, sick, and afraid? Why doesn’t he just end this now? 

I wonder, as the Israelites looked over the promised land, did they wish that God would just immediately give them land? For they knew that to get this land they would have to fight in hand to hand combat to get it. Could there have been some people, who would have rather returned to Egypt? I am sure there would have feen fear and anxiety amongst them, they are after all, only human. But God tells them to recognize that he went before them, that he is at work in their lives, basically wanting them to trust him, no matter how hard and long this time will be. 

While he’s working out our lives for our good, for that’s what he says he will do for those who love him, and that’s what you can see he’s done in your past, all he wants us to do is love, trust, and obey – as in do what his word says.

So, as you remember what God did for the Israelites and the miracles he did for them, what can you personally remember about God and what he has done for you? And right now, in the middle of this pandemic, what can you see God doing? Can you recognize his love? Can you recognize his goodness? It may be in something small, like a phone call or text message from an old friend, or the kindness of a nurse or doctor, or the promise of getting back to work sooner than you thought. Or can you recognize God at work in someone you love? Can you see their heart and mind turning to thoughts of God at this time? Or are you being ‘God recognized’ for someone else as you serve them? We are many people and God is at work in many ways. What then, do you think God requires of you right now? Aside from loving, trusting, and obeying, is there something that God keeps putting in your mind, something that you should probably do but just haven’t yet? 

As for me, I don’t have an awe inspiring testimony to remember; a moment like the apostle Paul experienced as he was on his way to persecute Christians when Jesus appeared and in an instant changed his life (and the course of history for Paul’s writings make up a large portion of the New Testament). My faith journey is one of slow burn with a little bit of revelation here, a prayer spoken over there, and a good sunset or two around that world that inspired me to think more of God and his purposes. But there are times that I can remember God at work in my life. In recent years I have seen and felt God’s guidance and assurance over my life and the lives of my family members as we grieve through the sudden and tragic death of my brother Paul. And now I can recognize God at work in the spiritual and personal disaster that has come in the wake of Paul leaving earth. Also in all of this mess, and the disaster that is Covid-19, as I read God’s word I have come to know what God requires of me today – to love him, to read about him more, to serve him (thus the blog – I really am a reluctant blogger but for some unknown purpose I feel compelled to do this), to trust him always, and obey his commands he so clearly makes known in his word…for my own ultimate good. But mostly, Remember who he is.

These truly are alarming and worrying times. No person or expert really knows how this Coronavirus pandemic is going to end, nor what we have to go through to reach that day. It can feel as if the world is teetering on the edge of collapse. It can feel hopeless. We all know that we all feel isolation to an extreme. So what now? What can we do? Worry? I pray not. God said three things to the Israelites and he says it to us today: Remember, Recognize, and Required. As we remember how he has helped us in time past and we recognize him and the work he is doing in our lives now, all we are required to do is love, trust and obey him today. We only have today. 

So don’t worry about these things…but your heavenly Father already knows all of your needs. Seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you every thing you need.

So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s troubles are enough for today.

Matthew 6:31-34 NLT

I find some of the stories in the Bible so disturbing. Is it bad for my faith to question them?

There’s something about the Bible. It is capable of evoking joy in those that choose to believe it or it evokes anger in those that choose to discredit it. Oftentimes, it can evoke anger and joy in those who believe it too. Most of us modern day thinkers find many chapters (or the entire thing) in the Old Testament too terrible to comprehend. Much of the old testament speaks of brutal war, murder, rape, plagues, sin and sorrow. The Israelites were themselves brutal in their conquering of their enemies as they took hold promised land. In Deuteronomy 3:6-7 Moses, the author of the book, puts it bluntly: ‘We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered – men, women and children alike. But we kept all the livestocks for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns’.  In my opinion that is horrific, barbaric, and wrong! I am forced to ask ‘what kind of God could do that?’ And, if I take this further, I must consider if a God like that is really God at all because shouldn’t God be all about loving thy neighbor?

Somewhere along my journey of faith, perhaps when I heard Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in the United States say that it is ok to have doubts, I came to realize that it is good to have questions too. In fact, more than that, it is essential to have questions, to mediate and think about God and what all of this means. Questions and doubt are not something to fear or to feel guilty about. It is part of who we are and how God made us. The intelligence he gave us is to, first and foremost, think.  And in our thinking and questioning we should not feel the need to hide from our christian friends, pastors, leader and churches. They too should not shy away from the deep questions we ask for there is opportunity for everyone to grow in faith and knowledge. Questioning God isn’t an act of doubt, it is an act of belief! If there was no belief, or no desire to believe, why bother questioning? There would simply be no reason to. It would be a waste of our precious time. To question then, is to desire understanding and meaning. Nothing wrong with that! 

So how then do you and I read the Bible? How do we continue in relationship with God when there is so much we don’t get and empathize with in the book? I suppose we need a little bit of faith, even just a tiny bit, to begin. Faith is that thing we can’t see but might be able to feel in our hearts but is also something we choose to have. It’s like saying ‘I don’t know about that but I’m going to trust that one day I will and that it will be good for me’. ‘But how do I even get to have faith, I don’t even know where to begin?’ 

Faith is found, seeded, and grown in hope. Hope comes from trusting a God who promises life and blessings to those who believe in him. We hope that the good stuff in the bible is true, we trust that it is. Trust is made manifest in the questions, trials, tribulations, joy and goodness that can be found in relationship with God (all those times we can see that God worked the good into our lives). Trust grows over time and relationship with God comes from time spent together with him. That’s time spent in thought, prayer and reading his word (and other writings that encourage you). Time given to thinking though God’s purposes and meanings. Wrestling over the purpose, meaning, and character of a God who stood by as the Israelites slaughtered thousands, means that you haven’t given up, you haven’t lost faith in God, it means that you desire peace in your heart over something that doesn’t sit right. And it doesn’t. I admit it. The slaughter of children never sits right. But then I wonder, why doesn’t it sit right? It seems like many ancient cultures killed children in war. In fact, many ancient cultures sacrificed their own children to gods (Deuteronomy 12:31b). Is there a difference in how we see children, or how we value life now in comparison to then? Yes. There is. Obviously.  

The reaction of many of governments around the world to bring their nation’s economy to a standstill in favor of protecting it’s citizens during this Covid-19 pandemic reveals something striking: life is valued. It is valued more than the billions of dollars lost. It is valued more than winning the next election. A world at standstill, in lockdown, in isolation to save the lives of people indicates more than strongly that we are valued. I am valued. You are valued. It seems that governments are acting in good faith that there is no financial loss that could be considered worse than losing one life in this pandemic. In Australia, where I live, to date, 97 people have died. The dollars spent to protect them – it’s not countable. So what happened? How is it that we read the Old Testament with such disdain, disgust and interrogation when ancient cultures and it’s celebrities, including King David (the most celebrated Israelite (human) king), read it with acceptance and understanding? They even agreed with it! So, what changed us? The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ did. It was he who offered a profoundly different way of thinking and living. In doing this, he also brought about a different way of relating to God. 

When Jesus was ministering in Israel, the nation was under the command of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, famous to many of us now for it’s architecture and Gladiators, waged war for centuries with millions of people across land and sea. It was also a people who, if a baby was not wanted, it was put into the street to be ‘exposed’ to the elements so that it would die. Children were not valued anywhere. Was it shocking for people to witness Jesus reprimanding his disciples for attempting to stop children approaching him? And when Jesus placed his hands on the children’s heads and blessed them saying ‘Let the Children come…For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children’ (Matthew 19:14), doesn’t this infer that Jesus placed value and equality of the lives of children, on all of us? Similarly, when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman (Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people), and at such length, he broke all social custom and treated her as equal. Most distinctly, when he commanded that we should love our neighbor (Mark 12:31) he said something that no one before him had done. The act of loving our neighbor as ourselves makes us equal in ways that the Old Testament did not do. It is this, this idea, that our western civilization, our world has profited from. For now, in our hearts, we abhor murder, rape, war, and all evil treatment to our neighbors and children alike. We are a changed civilization. Our perspective has been altered and it is for this reason that we have difficulty reading, understanding, and empathizing with parts of the Old Testament. But that’s a good thing! We are not meant to empathize, how could we, we view things in the light of Christ. We’re the lucky ones. We have an enormous benefit of seeing the story played out in God’s word. The ancient Israelites did not, they only knew the beginning of the story. For that’s what the Bible is, it is a story, it is history, as in HIS story, describing how God plans to bless all nations through the birth, death, and resurrection of his Son.

Depending on where we fit in story, in that timeline, we will all view things differently and have many different and similar questions. The more I read the Bible, the more I can see one thing in particular common to all peoples at all times: God is there and waiting to be found by those who seek him. So ask, think, ponder, doubt, talk to others, and even celebrate about what you think it all means. Thinking, meditating, questioning and seeking is a privilege – a God given one. What question is on your mind? 

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

Matthew 6:33 NLT

The Israelites in their wilderness saw God, they saw his incredible miracles and they still doubted. I don’t see God, is he talking to me at all?

Three weeks ago I began reading the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Aside from skimming over the details for the building and presentation of the Arc of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, I read it as closely as I could. I underlined, I made notes, I asked questions, and I discussed it with a person who knows the scriptures better than most (my mother). I wasn’t surprised by the violence; ancient cultures are known to have been barbaric. The strangeness of the plagues God used to expel his people from Egypt didn’t astonish me for I have known this story since childhood however, I found myself in awe of the constant complaints and failure of the Israelites. I came to understand that Exodus and Deuteronomy are not only about how God rescued his people from slavery, it is a record of how the Israelites kept getting it wrong. And in their failure, this record stands as example of God’s perfect and loving grace. 

I was dumbstruck to learn that within days of fleeing Egypt many Israelites (or Hebrews as they were known as at the time) doubt God’s deliverance and wish to return to slavery for ‘its better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness’ (Ex 14:12). I could not believe that even after they witness the extraordinary parting of the red sea, experience God providing care, food and water for them in the wilderness, and seeing God’s daily guidance and protection manifest in a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night, they still doubt! Can you believe that before the first year is out they even take their jewelry and form a carved idol, which they then celebrate with a big party declaring that idol to be the god who brought them out of Egypt? (Ex 32:1-8) How did these people forget him so quickly? Did they have amnesia? 

In 2020, thousands of years after these events, it’s easy to judge the Israelites. They had physical proof that God was with them! They witnessed miracle after miracle! They were guided daily by God who even went ahead of them and chose the best campsites for them to dwell in (Duet 1: 32-33), but they still didn’t trust the Lord God! And here we are in May 2020 never having seen, or likely to ever see, anything remotely like this, yet we are still asked to put our trust in him? They had it so easy! So much easier than us. God appeared to them, time and time again, but there are probably millions of Christians today who don’t even believe that God has ever, or will ever, communicate with him. To him, he’s a distant God, not an interventional God, but one still worth believing him. When comparing us to the Israelites at the time of the Exodus with a God that so obviously showed up, it is difficult to comprehend their mistrust of him. Worse, when God after a short time takes them to the Promised Land and tells them to enter it, they refuse in fear. They still do not trust him. Their failure in this resulted in another forty years in the wilderness!

I wonder, what would my belief have looked like if I was among the Israelites? Would I have given my jewelry to be melted down and made into an idol? Would I have failed at the tests God gave them? Tests that God had already provided the answer for? What about you? Do you think you would have trusted him? When overlooking for the first time the land that God had promised to give them, all they had to do was enter and take it, instead they let their own fear and worry consume them. By not trusting and obeying God, they missed the blessings he had prepared for them and they were ordered back into the desert to learn again what God had already taught them – ‘Trust me and I will provide for you’.

Covid-19 and the enforced isolation that comes with it, feels (and looks) like a wilderness. It is unknown, it is mundane, it is a place a fear and loneliness, it is something all of us wish to turn away from. But I must wonder are God’s blessings, his provision and his very presence in this Coronavirus desert too? This may be a time of unprecedented change, worry, sickness and grief (don’t forget boredom too) but it can also be a time of trust, peace, faith and understanding. We may not have pillars of clouds or fire to guide us but God has already provided guidance for us in his word. 

The bible isn’t a book about God’s commands, punishment and law, it’s a book expressing God’s grace and unfailing love to a people who continually failed him. It’s a book that can be a light upon our path as we walk through these days. It is a book with a personal message of hope for you and I, if we decide to take the time to read it. The more I read it, the more I can see that God’s plan was, and will always be, good for those who put their trust in him. What will you discover?

 The wilderness the Israelites experienced destroyed many of them. My prayer for you and I is that this wilderness called Covid-19 and all the stress and discomfort it brings will not be a time of failure to trust, or a failure to hope or a lack of wanting to seek God, but rather a time of growth and blessing as we search for and rest in his comfort and guidance…as we seek him – the God who wants us to remember the miracles he did to rescue his people, knowing that one day when our time to be on this earth would come about that we would be blessed by what he did then.  I wonder, was King David thinking of the Exodus when he wrote Psalm 25:6 ‘Remember O Lord, your compassion and unfailing love, which you have shown from ages past.’ His love, the same love that dragged a stubborn people out of slavery so that he could honor his promise and bless them, is the love that God still has for his people, all people today.  Just now to trust him. 

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands…He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” 

Deuteronomy 8:2-7 NLT