On the surface, God in the Old Testament appears to be radically different than in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, He appears powerful, holy, punishing, angry, and jealous. In the New, in the form of Jesus, He appears kind, loving, meek, and forgiving. How do we reconcile the powerful Deity that ordered the destruction of countless cities with the kneeling Jesus who defended the adulterous woman?
Why does God seem different in the Old Testament and the New Testament?
The key is to realize the context. In the Old Testament, the context was God's relationship with the nation He had chosen to represent His holiness and teach the world about Him. In the New Testament, and now in the church age, the context is God's relationship with the individuals and the church He has chosen to represent His holiness and teach the world about Him. There are several areas in which His actions in the Old Testament are comparable to His work in the New, and in our lives today.
Personal standards: Despite the fact that, in the Old Testament, God generally dealt with the Israelites as a nation, He still had expectations for individual behavior. The most famous are those given in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). In the New Testament, Matthew 5 gives several expectations for individuals for the church age, including the admonishment to do whatever is necessary to keep oneself from sin (vs. 29-30).
Corporate standards: Leviticus and Deuteronomy are filled with God's expectations for the Israelites as a whole: worship Him only (Exodus 34:14), observe the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29) and the feasts (Exodus 11 and 12; Deuteronomy 16:16; Leviticus 23:27-28), and follow His instructions without hesitation (Numbers 14). The New Testament also contains instructions for the new corporate body—the church. The church is not to harbor unrepentant hearts (1 Corinthians 5:1-2), but follow a detailed set of instructions to purge itself of sin (Matthew 18:15-20).
Personal consequences: God meted out consequences to those who disobeyed Him in both the Old and New Testaments. He had Achan killed in Joshua 7. He took David's son in response to David's adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:15-23). And He kept Moses and Aaron from entering the Holy Land after their disobedience (Numbers 20:24; Deuteronomy 34:4). Similarly, in the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira were struck down after lying about their offering (Acts 5:1-11), and Jesus rebuked Peter when Peter denied Jesus' purpose (Mark 8:31-33). In 1 John 5:16, we learn that there are cases where an individual's sin is so grievous that, for the protection of the church and the honor of God's name, God allows that person to die.
Corporate consequences: This is perhaps the main area in which God seems to differ from the Old Testament to the New. How can the destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Canaanites be reconciled with anything that occurs in the New Testament? The answer, again, is context. Israel and Israel's land were to be holy, set apart, and free from the influence of false gods. In order for Israel to be a holy nation, the incredibly evil nations in residence had to be destroyed. These were not countries with a few sinners here and there. They were nations overrun with evil. Genesis 18:22-33 says there were not even ten righteous people in Sodom. In fact, the most righteous man in Sodom was Lot—the man who offered his daughters to be gang-raped. God dealt with people primarily on a national level. In the New Testament, God deals with individuals and with local bodies of believers—churches. Revelation 2 and 3 give lists of the faults and fortes of several churches, and the book of 1 Corinthians is filled with Paul's guidance of—and sometimes frustration with—the church in Corinth.
Governing authority: This is another area where the presumed difference between God in the Old Testament and the New seems blatant. In the Old Testament, God charged the corporate authority, Israel, to execute witches (Leviticus 20:27), adulterers (Leviticus 20:10), and disrespectful children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The New Testament says that unrepentant sinners should be excommunicated (Matthew 18:15-20). Why the difference? Because civil law is given to civil authorities. In the Israel of the Old Testament, the priests and judges were the civil law. In the church age, civil authority is given to national and regional governments, not the church. The church does not have the right to implement punishment on society at large.
The role of the Holy Spirit: This is another example of the changes in context between the Old and New Testaments, and it's directly related to the previous five points. With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the spread of the gospel beyond the nation of Israel, the role of the Holy Spirit changed to accommodate the new situation. Instead of limiting His direct involvement to a few prophets, priests, and kings, He now indwells and counsels every believer. Instead of occupying the centralized worship center of a chosen nation (Exodus 40:34), He now occupies every believer's heart (1 Corinthians 6:19). This more personal relationship means that God no longer primarily confronts us through the authority of the spiritual and civic rulers, but directly (Philippians 2:13), which also means we are even more responsible for our own behavior (2 Timothy 2:15).
Loving-kindness: Genesis 4:15 is one of the first examples of God's loving-kindness to an individual who didn't deserve it. Cain killed his brother, and the punishment for murder was death. God not only delayed that punishment, He put a mark on Cain to protect him from those seeking reprisal. In Genesis 17:20, God showed loving-kindness when He promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. And in 1 Kings 19:1-21, He provided rest, food, and a successor for His exhausted prophet Elijah. The compassion of Jesus in the New Testament is very prominent. He was kind to the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11), giving to the Gentile woman (Matthew 15:21-28), and patient with His clueless disciples (Matthew 8:26). But the God who comforted Hagar and the God who healed the Syrophoenician woman's daughter are the same.
Forgiveness and patience: The book of Hosea is the story of a man whose life was a metaphor for God's relationship with Israel. God told Hosea to marry a prostitute. He did, but she never could manage to remain faithful. She strayed again and again, but Hosea continually received her back. Similarly, God was incredibly forgiving and patient with Israel. God put up with over two hundred years of rebellion and rejection before He allowed Assyria to wipe the northern kingdom off the map. Judah lasted over one hundred years longer. But, really, the record of God's patience goes back much further, to the day Moses stepped onto the mountain of God and the people built a golden calf. For over one thousand years, God sent prophets and leaders and righteous men to lead His chosen people, and His people ignored them—or worse (1 Kings 19:10). Second Peter 3:9 explains why God is so patient: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." The patience God showed the Israelites and Peter (John 18:27) is the same patience He shows us.
Friendship: It is easy to envision Jesus walking a dirt trail, cracking jokes with Peter, or sitting at Mary and Martha's table, thanking Martha for the meal. He was so open and kind that John could name himself "the disciple whom Jesus loved." This is the same friendship that God showed in the Old Testament. Exodus 33:11 says, "Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." David was so close to God, so willing to follow and trust Him, that he was called "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22).
Purpose: The purpose of God in the Old and New Testaments is the same: choose people who don't deserve His attention, allow them to display His glory and righteousness, and commission them teach the world about Him. Abraham and the Israelites did nothing to earn God's attention (Deuteronomy 7:7-9), and neither do we (Ephesians 2:8-9). God chose Israel to obey Him and be holy (Exodus 19:5-6), as He does with us (Romans 12:1). And He charged both Israel (Genesis 22:18) and the church-age believers (Matthew 28:19-20) to present God's gift of salvation to the world.
God hasn't changed; the context has changed. He no longer primarily relates to the world through a sovereign nation, but through individuals and the church. This affects how we see the scale of His work. Where, in the Old Testament, an entire nation may have been destroyed, we see today one serial killer caught and prosecuted. Where, before, the nation of Israel may have gone into exile for their disobedience, now a sinful pastor is removed from ministry. And, by the same measure, where, before, God showed longsuffering toward His chosen people as they rebelled against Him, He now shows that same mercy to us when we choose the things of the world over His Word. God's holiness, passion, restraint, and fury are all exactly the same; we just see it on a personal level instead of a national one. And that means we can experience His love and forgiveness on a personal level, as well.
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