Have you ever been in conversation with an unbelieving acquaintance who brings up the fact that they could never believe in a “nationalistic, genocidal God!” They then bring up a verse from the Bible such as I Samuel 15:3 which says
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “
“Did God really say this?” they ask with incredulity. Many a new Christian faced with such a question flounders around a little. Although a little unfamiliar with the “Old” Testament, they were aware that troubling verses like this existed. They are however much more familiar with the “New” Testament and therefore the “New” revelation that God is no longer a homicidal killer of women and children but now instead is kind and merciful and a father to all who come. God, they now tell their unbelieving friend has changed his nature in the New Testament; God no longer reveals himself as the God of the nation of Israel – that was in the Old Testament, since the cross he is now the God of the Church, the gathering of all believers Jew and Gentile alike. Christians serve the God of the New Testament. In this way troubling verses such as I Sam 15:3 are brushed under the theological carpet. However I am troubled by this answer for I believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), so the belief in a “God of the Old Testament” as different from how God is revealed in the New Testament, (a belief which is growing in its popularity) needs to be examined to see if it rings true.
Firstly, let’s examine the very phrase Old and New Testament. The way we understand this distinction today is to say everything from Genesis through to Malachi in our Bibles is “Old” Testament and therefore the “Old” way of God revealing himself and everything from Matthew through to Revelation is “New” Testament and therefore the “New” way of God revealing himself. However it was not always this way; this was not an understanding of the early church. When Paul wrote a letter to his protégée Timothy telling him “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16), there was no New Testament canon in existence and therefore the scripture he was primarily referring to was the Hebrew Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Even more so, when a disguised Jesus revealed himself to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, chastising them saying
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
The scripture that Jesus used and therefore the revelation of God that he was referring to was all found in what we would today call the “Old” Testament. There is no indication in the text that Jesus was waiting for the New Testament to be written so he could present a greater revelation. There is not a small amount of confusion around the very term Old Testament, therefore for the rest of this article to avoid confusion I will, as much as possible, refer to the popular understanding of “Old Testament” meaning Genesis through Malachi as the Hebrew Scriptures (also called the Tanakh).
God’s Last Will and Testament – To answer the question of how we received our current understanding of the Old Testament and New Testament it is prudent to examine the very word “Testament”. The Greek word for testament is διαθήκη (diathēkē); it is a type of contract often called a covenant, indeed the word testament and covenant are interchangeable in Greek. In modern usage we talk of a “last will and testament” when a person dies. Prior to their death the individual has decided what their last act in disposing of all their property will be. Then when they die, the testament is read out and those who have been named in the will become heirs to the inheritance that has been left. This modern understanding of a last will and testament is helpful in understanding covenants in the Bible.
The covenants of the Bible are not typical contracts with parties of equal power. When God makes a covenant he has the ultimate “bargaining position” (let the reader understand there is no bargaining!). However he did make covenants which were either conditional or unconditional. Of all the covenants that are mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, many are in fact unconditional; the Noahic, the Abrahamic, the Davidic and the New Covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31 are all examples of unconditional covenants, this means that their fulfillment rests on the faithfulness of God alone and not on the obedience of the recipients. All of these covenants have not yet been fully fulfilled and therefore still apply today. There is however one main covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai that was conditional. This is commonly known as the Mosaic Covenant. The terms of the Mosaic covenant were dependent upon the obedience of the recipients. This is the only covenant mentioned in the Hebrew scripture that is referred to by New Testament writers as “Old Covenant” (2 Cor 3:14 – in actual fact this is the only reference in the entire Bible to the expression Old Covenant/Testament) or for that matter as a covenant that was “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). I am eternally grateful for the final sacrifice of the son of God that has made a way into the presence of God and that the Old Covenant has been done away with by a better Covenant, so that we no longer have to rely upon the sacrifice of bulls and goats. However, the apostles and the early church did not understand the Old Covenant to be Genesis through Malachi and everything therein contained, nor for that matter was it understood that the New Covenant is everything from Matthew through Revelation, rather the old covenant is the covenant that God made with Israel in Sinai, and the new covenant was that which was promised in Jeremiah and inaugurated at Calvary.
Bishop Melito – The first person to coin the phrase Old Testament with the current popular understanding was a second century apologist called Melito of Sardis (d 180). He actually is attributed with compiling one of the earliest canons of the “New Testament” so I am sure there is much we have to be thankful to Melito for, but in naming the Old Testament I feel he has done the church a great disservice, for in so doing he has linked the Mosaic Covenant to every revelation of God before the coming of Jesus. I am positive the writer of Hebrews and for that matter every New Testament writer would not have swept the Old Testament away as obsolete and not applicable. How can I be so sure? Well we have testimony from history of how the church of the early centuries dealt with such a view.
Marcion’s Story – Marcion (85-160) was son of the wealthy Bishop of Sinope in Pontus, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He was young, gifted and rich and as such travelled to Rome (the capital of the world and the most influential church of the day) in 140AD. Here, he was quickly accepted by the church when he donated a large amount of money. However Marcion was troubled by portions of the scriptures which presented YHWH as the God of the Hebrews and a seemingly bloodthirsty killer – scriptures such as 1 Samuel 15:3 (although please remember chapters and verses were not added to our Bibles until the 12th and the 16th centuries respectively). Marcion could not reconcile YHWH with Jesus and the “Heavenly Father” he read about in some of the writings of the apostles. He therefore wrote a book entitled Antithesis contrasting YHWH, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures with Jesus and the Heavenly Father. Not only this, but he compiled one of the first canons of scripture, excising the Hebrew Scriptures as he believed YHWH was an arbitrary, vindictive and vacillating God instead he picked certain Pauline literature which didn’t contradict his own views of the Heavenly Father. When the early church fathers learned of Marcion’s teachings they quickly returned his money and in 144AD he was excommunicated from the church in Rome. Marcion left Rome, but his message was popular and compelling and he planted his own congregations which perpetuated his teachings for a number of centuries. All of the early Church fathers denounced him, John’s disciple, Polycarp the aged bishop of Smyrna, is reported by Iraneaus as denouncing him as “the firstborn of Satan” quite a harsh judgment from one of the most respected Church leaders for someone who could not reconcile the different natures of God!
Although Marcion was quite extreme in his beliefs, the phrase “the God of the Old Testament” is a phrase that is growing in its popularity in church circles today, a revived form of Marcionism has infected our belief structure. No revelation of God from Genesis through to Malachi can seemingly be trusted. Everything changed at the cross we are told, God is now different. Some may soften this and say God hasn’t changed, but the way that he communicates now has changed, ultimately however the result is the same; the God of the “Old Testament” is not the God whom we serve. The early church saw this as a dangerous heresy and therefore we must take note if this unorthodox belief slips into our midst.
But why is this belief so dangerous? Isn’t it true, are we not in an age of grace? Doesn’t Jesus’ peaceful teaching negate such a harsh view of God presented in the Old Testament? The reason separating the God of the Hebrew scriptures from New Testament writing is so dangerous as it strikes at the very core of our belief in who God is. The knowledge of God is the fundamental area of spiritual warfare and if the evil one can deceive us as to God’s nature we will believe lies instead of truth, we will be serving a God of our own conception rather than the God of the Bible, we will pray without truth and ultimately we will not recognize the true God and therefore be offended with his actions.
Do proponents of the “Old Testament God” believe that God has changed his nature completely, since the cross? Well actually, no, there are key parts of his nature that are unchanging. What about the merciful God of the Old Testament? When God was grieved that he had made man he communicated this to one of his friends, Enoch who walked with him. Enoch saw judgment was coming to earth and therefore named his son “When he dies it will happen” meaning when his son died judgment would come to earth, yet he gave humanity almost another thousand years for Enoch’s son was Methusaleh – the oldest man in the Bible. The year he died God revealed judgment in the flood, but Methusaleh’s age is such a picture of the longsuffering God, who longs to save. What about His mercy for Israel and the leaders of Israel? Again and again providing a deliverer to bring the people back to God, again and again raising up a prophet, or providing another means of deliverance and healing such as the bronze snake in the desert (Numbers 21) so that all who were bitten could look to it and be healed. What about Amos’s word that “The Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” What about the revelation of God’s love that Hosea displayed to Gomer demonstrating the love of YHWH towards Israel. Again and again throughout the Old Testament we see pictures of YHWH as a jealous lover and a husband to his people. Do proponents of an “Old Testament God” say that God no longer reveals himself as tender Bridegroom to his people, one of the principle faces of God in the Hebrew Scriptures… well actually, no, nothing has changed here from Old to New Testament.
What about the picture of God that we have throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as a triumphant King who rules from heaven and who wants to extend his rule and dominion amongst man, do the proponents of the “God of the Old Testament” say that this face of God no longer is relevant after the cross? Well actually, no. Jesus is the King, he rules from heaven and he is extending his dominion on earth even as we speak. The Good News is the Gospel of the Kingdom. All of Jesus teaching was about the coming Kingdom. We too can be a part of this kingdom.
So there are no problems with the face of God as a loving Bridegroom or as a triumphant King, but what about as a Holy Judge? This is where proponents of the God of the Old Testament seem to have the problem. Yes God judged the earth through the flood, yes God instructed Israel to wipe out certain nations, yes God himself repeatedly killed thousands of the chosen people himself, but God is no longer like that. So at last we have located where the rub lies, it is not really a question of Old or New at all, rather it is a problem with the face of God as a judge, or let me rephrase this in New Testament language, the face of Jesus as judge. Judgment we are told finished at the cross and we now live in an age of grace. However when I read the New Testament I have huge problems if I hold this view, for now I cannot reconcile many, many verses.
Firstly the Christian idea of hell doesn’t come primarily from the Hebrew Scriptures, in the two thousand years between Abraham and Jesus, the idea of Sheol was at best a shadowy grave concept after death. Jesus gives us much more clarity of this place of eternal conscious torment outside of the presence of God, it is surely a scary place to think about, and admittedly there are complexities when dissecting the differences between Hades, the Lake of Fire and Tartarus, but the bottom line is there is eternal torment for those who do not make every effort to enter by the narrow gate. Even those who had some anointing and seeming gifts of the Holy Spirit will be cast out of the presence of God.
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21-23)
This certainly does not sit comfortably with our conception of a Jesus who will have grace forever, no matter what pet sins we indulge in as a practice. Yet this is not the only verse which displays Jesus the judge. When the cities of northern Galilee failed to respond to the miraculous ministry performed in their midst, the longsuffering Jesus displays the face of the judge
20Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matt 11:20-24)
Ultimately the point of these verses is to state unequivocally that there is only one way to the Father through Jesus and that is on our knees in repentance. Again and again Jesus is unflinching as he displays zero tolerance towards sin. It is not that he will not forgive, it is that he will only forgive repentant hearts.
2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)
Many proponents of the “God of the Old Testament” however would not have a problem with these verses, eternal judgment must be taken out of the equation and ultimately that is what these verses are talking about. The thing that is done away with in the New Testament at the cross are temporal judgments, nowhere are Peter, James and John told to go to Sepphoris or Caesarea Phillipi and kill a few of the Romans because of their godlessness and immorality. Weren’t temporal judgments done away with after the cross? As the judgment fell on Jesus on the cross for all of humanity’s sin, surely there was no judgment afterwards. Again the New Testament unequivocally answers this question in a number of situations. Firstly Jesus pronounces judgment on Jerusalem because she failed to recognize him as the Messiah and son of God. This prophecy was ultimately fulfilled in the terrifying actions of the fall of Jerusalem and razing of the Temple in 70AD.
41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)
It is hard to maintain after reading this verse and then the catastrophic events of 70AD in which Josephus records that 1,100,000 people were killed that this was not a judgment of God after the cross. It is interesting to note that 70AD is seen by many as the split between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism; because the Church in Jerusalem believed Jesus’ words of judgment, the entire congregation in Jerusalem fled to Pella in the Trans-Jordan and as a result it is recorded that not one believer was killed when Titus ransacked and destroyed the Temple. However there also appears to be a fair amount of judgment in the church as well after all as Peter informs us judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Soon after the day of Pentecost we find a man and his wife (Ananias and Sapphira) die as a result of lying about the size of their offering to the church (Acts 5), clear judgment. A number of years later in the city of Thyatira, in a prophecy Jesus says he will cast a female member of the church “on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways” (Rev 2:22)
Some may contend all of these issues are just sowing and reaping, if a man sows sin he will reap death, it is nothing to do with judgment. I would answer that actually sowing and reaping is the very process by which God judges. God is not arbitrary and acts outside of his word, rather he is faithful to his word. I would contend that every destructive judgment of God found in scripture in relation to man is in response to man’s response to God’s word
But why is all of this so important? Is it important that we recognize that God is still a judge today? The reason I feel it is important that the church is familiar with this face of God is because there is a day of judgment coming to the earth, known as the tribulation when unprecedented temporal judgments from God will be released. To give some shocking examples, when Jesus releases the fourth seal (Rev 6:8) we are told “Death, and Hades” are “given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” Then a little while later when the sixth trumpet is blown (another judgment) we are told
“A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths” . (Rev 9:18). These statistics are shocking and terrifying, yet they are in the Bible and they will happen, and not only will that, but they will be released by Jesus. If we as a church refuse to embrace the whole counsel of God and just choose the faces that seem pleasing to us, what will happen when events such as these begin to be released upon the earth by God? What will happen if we have not embraced the God who is the judge of all men is that we will refuse to believe such judgments come from God (as that will not fit our mindset of who God is and how he acts) we will become offended at God and ultimately adversarial towards His purposes upon the earth – now that is a terrifying prospect! This is true, however not only for the final 3 ½ years of this age, but even in these last days as we begin to experience the birth pangs released by God if we do not accept the face of the Judge we will be offended.
Let me however add a word of warning to those who overemphasize the face of the Judge. Embracing the face of God as Judge can have negative implications if we do not hold it in tension with the other faces and emotions as God as Bridegroom and King. If we do not we will have a fatalistic view of the Sovereignty of God. If we do not we will start accepting injustice, sickness, bondage and death and stop reaching to see the kingdom of light destroy the kingdom of darkness, we will stop contending for a full release of the Holy Spirit’s power in our midst, and God forbid that we should be content for a form of Godliness while denying its power.
Let me close by stating boldly YHWH (which roughly translated can mean “Always”) is the same yesterday, today and forever. Although I have contended that the very phrase “Old Testament” is misplaced I still believe fervently the God of the Old Testament is the same and reveals himself in the same ways as he does in the New Testament. YHWH is Bridegroom, King and Judge in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings and has unbelievable emotions of love towards his people so much so that he will go to great measures to remove everything that stands in the way of creating a people who will love Him with their whole heart. His emotions are the same, his nature is the same and although the story may progress until the final consummation at the marriage supper of the Lamb, I will press on to embrace every face of God.
 This is the very context of 2 Tim 2:13 – “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself”- The faithfulness of God is not toward the faithless as some contend, it is to the word of God.
 Although not the remit of this paper it should be noted that not every “judgment of God” is negative and destructive in nature. There are also positive judgments of which the proponents of the Old Testament God would not find issue with.