Tom and I have attended the Seekers Sunday School Class at Wesley UMC for five weeks now. We have been enjoying the Epic of Eden study, learning something new from Dr. Richter every week. Today she talked about the differences that some people perceive between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.
I love the Old Testament. I love the stories about faithful people who were deeply flawed. It always puzzles me when people tell me they don’t like the Old Testament. They say that God, in the Old Testament, was so wrathful and judgmental. They feel that the God portrayed in the New Testament is loving and merciful and the God portrayed in the Old Testament is not.
So, today, when Dr. Richter talked about perceptions of the Old Testament versus the New Testament God, it really resonated with me. She pointed out that God is a God of mercy and judgement in both Testaments. God desires a loving relationship with people but, when we turn away from God, God is willing and able to punish us. The relationship is always based on love and instigated by mercy, and what we get depends on our response to God’s grace.
For instance: in Exodus 19, Moses goes to the top of Mt. Sinai. He meets a God of mercy and compassion. This God has remembered his chosen people and brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He has already saved them and shown them his mercy. God performed miracles to get them to the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. But, as soon as Moses disappears from sight, the people become disobedient and build an idol.
When God sees what the people are doing, he is ready to wipe everyone out. God’s love, however, wins out and spares most of them. The story is equal parts mercy and judgement – as are most stories in the Bible. If we only focus on the people wiped out for their disobedience, we might miss the mercy that has gone before and continues after their idolatry.
The New Testament is the same. In Matthew 7:13-27, Jesus warns about the people who are disobedient. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Jesus may be talking about love and mercy but there is still judgement. Only a few will find the gate that leads to life. Everyone else is on the road that leads to destruction. Matthew 25 has the story of the sheep and goats, where those who are obedient are blessed with eternal life in heaven. Those who do not do God’s will, however, are sent into eternal fire. If we only focus on the mercy of Christ, we miss the judgement.
The truth is, we worship the same God in the Old and the New Testaments. Jesus allows us to focus on God’s love because of his willingness to sacrifice his life for us. But those who are not obedient to God – who do not choose to be in relationship with him – are condemned to death. God always reaches out to us in love and God always takes the first step. But we must accept that love and be obedient to it. If not, we will suffer the consequences no matter which Testament we read.