A statement came up in Bible study this week that is actually often expressed. The important thing about this statement: depending on how you approach it, it can lead to a deeper love for or to a complete misunderstanding of who God is:
"It seems like the God of the Old Testament was angry and punishing, while the God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving".
While I now know this statement not to be true, I get it! Before I came to saving faith, and when I first started studying God's Word, I could have identified easily with that confusion of who God was. I used to see the Bible as a disjointed group of stories from the Old Testament (that I found irrelevant for the most part, perhaps symbolic as to how I am to behave [at best]...a morality thumb on top of me, if you will), then the New Testament was all about the story of Jesus...all flowery and nice...that's the good stuff I like to listen to.
Two things here:
1) I saw these as stories...not reality. They floated around as things I could vaguely reference as if they are human fictional or philosophic writings, but stories still. I never understood that the Bible is the very real history of man. This is true and breathed out from our Creator in order to reveal who He is, who we are, what He has done and the promises He has made to us. Without understanding that these are very real events, with context and real consequence, we miss the point.
2) I saw them as disjointed and one-off stories and the Old Testament unrelated to the New Testament. The reality: they are all woven together. It is one complete story about the beginning of time, God creating image-bearers of Himself, who fall away from Him - reject Him - and how He pursued and provided over and over and over again; then in perfect time His perfect plan to redeem us was revealed in the person of Jesus. When God stepped down from Heaven and put on flesh. Jesus's ministry further exemplifies our living God, while He also fulfills all the promises God has made about our blessing and salvation. God over and over again in the Old Testament points forward to Jesus.
These two things created huge stumbling blocks for me in understanding who God is, and what promises He has made to us.
So while I was driving to work the day after study, God put on my heart "I AM". He is, He has always been and always will be. He is no more of one thing at one time than at another time. He simply is always the fullness of His perfect self. And I realized, understanding more completely who God is, is what it takes to understand and see unwavering consistency in His character throughout history.
"Before Abraham was, I am."
"God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”"
So: Let me back up just one notch and talk about some characteristics of God because I think it's helpful:
There are communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. Communicable attributes are characteristics He shares with His image bearers (read: us humans) such as love, patience, goodness, mercy, grace, justice, wise, holy (this is not comprehensive). These are attributes that God is the fullness of - He is the very definition of love. He is the very definition of patient. So on and so forth. His Spirit - which He promises to live in us when we put our faith in His Son - works in us to bring us to greater levels of these attributes. He works through trials, suffering, hardships and even victories to reveal areas of growth to us and bring us to Christ-likeness...this is sanctification. Well as much work is done, none of us are perfectly love or perfectly merciful or perfectly holy (set apart). When we fell and remain stained with sin, that image we bear, that mirror reflection of God, got foggy at best.
Incommunicable attributes are those that only belong to God: such a sovereign, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent and unchanging. Again, God is not only the very definition of His attributes, but He is unchanging and never lacks in any of these attributes. He is always "I AM". He never lays one down to practice another. He never puts aside mercy to act in justice. He is both perfectly just while also being loving and wise.
So many times we impose our distorted and foggy versions of these attributes onto situations instead of trusting God is who He says He is. We judge situations for ourselves; we see something as unjust and unfair and forget that God is in control. He will punish every sin - those sins of His children have been paid for through Jesus's perfect work, and those of unbelievers on the day of judgement. It will all be made right.
And we have to trust that promise (that all will be made right) because we can not always see it happening in the here and now. We are not made to understand everything; we are not God. To say the same thing differently, God is not human. He is not like us, even though we often try to put Him in a human "box" ["you thought that I was one like yourself." Psalm 50:21]. We are limited in our abilities and knowledge. We are not all-knowing, we are not perfectly wise or eternal. We do not see the entire quilt our GREAT God is weaving. He knows no sin.We are stained, drenched, driven by it. Sin is a complete affront to a Holy God and, when we understand the gravity of sin and who God is, we can begin to understand the necessity - in God’s perfect wrath - to perfectly judge it.
The Bible teaches that God is slow to anger, and praise Jesus for that! He is patient with us and merciful with us, while He cannot let sin go unpunished, and we see His wrath and judgement toward sin throughout history in the Old Testament.
Throughout the Old Testament, we also see His grace and mercy even before Jesus paid for our sins. For instance, grace (giving us what we don't deserve) was shown in Eden when, even after Adam and Eve sin, God pursues them. At that point, humans are unworthy of His presence. And then He clothes them out of His goodness, and makes them a promise that all will be made right (Genesis 3:15) ! Again, we see grace when God gives us His law through Moses to show us the most joyful way to live. His law not only shows us joy is found in obedience to His law, but it also points straight to Jesus - knowing we can never fulfill it perfectly, but HE DID...FOR OUR SAKE.
Over and over again we see Him reaching out and chasing and rescuing and redeeming and showing mercy on His people in the Old Testament...and over and over again we see His people rejecting him and distrusting Him: turning to everything else in this world to fill the vacuum of their heart instead of the very thing they were created to turn to for satisfaction, fulfillment, true joy.
Do you see it? We are continually rejecting him. He continues to seek, chase us down and save in His grace and goodness and overabundant love. He could have left us as rebellious creation to ruin ourselves, but He (simply put) didn't. His love is agape (unconditional and perfect) love and in that love, He sent Jesus to make our reconciliation possible. Without history before Jesus we wouldn’t know the depth of sin that required Jesus’s suffering; we wouldn’t know we need to be saved. We wouldn't know how lost we are without Him. He had to be perfectly patient with us before interceding for us. His perfect timing wakes His children up in a way that we understand the magnitude of what He has done because we KNOW how far we have fallen from His glory. We wouldn’t be able to see if it He didn’t reveal it through time and His Word recording His work of mercy for and redemption of His people.
So it comes down to this: I can see in the Old Testament the gravity of our sin in our rebellion and idolatry; I also see - brighter than any darkness we walk in - God's patience, grace and mercy as He faithfully pursues and rescues us over and over again.
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:5)