GOD IN THE OLD TESTAMENT AND GOD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT: WHY ARE THEY SO DIFFERENT?
QUESTION. It seems that in the Old Testament God tends to be more legalistic and harsh, while the New Testament is more about the coming of Christ and the gospel of God’s love and grace. How do we explain this difference between the two? I know that the same God is acting in both testaments, but why this difference?
ANSWER. I will make three main points. ONE. One of the most important truths about God (one that is often missed) is that there are two distinct sides to his moral nature. They are summed up succinctly in Romans 11:22, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (NASB, ESV). The NIV says “kindness and sternness”; others say “goodness and severity.” The Greek word for kindness or goodness means an attitude of goodwill and generosity toward others and a desire for their happiness and salvation. The word for sternness or severity stands for an attitude of relentless commitment to justice, including retributive justice, and a strict upholding of the requirements of the law. These two sides of God’s nature can be summed up in the attributes of LOVE and HOLINESS. I have explained them in detail in my book, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer. Chapter 5 is about “The Holiness of God” (which includes his wrath), and chapter 6 is about “The Love of God” (which includes his mercy and grace).
TWO. The second main point is that the two covenants and two covenant peoples are NOT PARALLEL to one another. The New Covenant era does not succeed the Old Covenant era like the second half of a football game succeeds the first half. The church does not simply replace Israel as “God’s special people,” as if they are playing a similar role under their respective covenants. No, the purpose for each is different, and the way God relates to each is different.
Regarding Israel under the Old Covenant, their main purpose was to prepare for the first coming of the Messiah, the man who would be God incarnate, the one who would perform the redemptive works through which “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b). Israel was chosen to be God’s instrument for bringing Christ into the world. Everything God did for them and through them was leading up to this goal (Rom. 9:4-5). It is a huge mistake to think that Israel was meant to be God’s spiritual family within which every individual was promised the gift of salvation. This is the erroneous idea that Paul is refuting in Romans 9-11. Here Paul explains that Israel was chosen for service, not for salvation. Salvation was available to all Jews through God’s special revelation, but it was not guaranteed and few (a remnant) actually accepted it. Most of the “chosen people” were actually unbelievers and idolaters, not very different from their pagan neighbors. They were a physical nation, not a spiritual family. It is no wonder that the main side of God’s nature displayed in the Old Covenant era was his holy sternness and wrath.
Israel served its purpose, though. It brought the Messiah into the world, and Jesus the Messiah accomplished his purpose through his mighty acts of redemption, on the basis of which the new people of God, the church, was established. There is a continuity with the spiritual Israel of the OT era (Rom. 9:6; 11:17ff.), but the new people is of a different kind. It is indeed the KINGDOM of Christ, but not an earthly kingdom (John 18:36). It is a spiritual family composed equally of believing Jews and believing Gentiles; this is the “eternal purpose” of God (Eph. 3:11) accomplished through Jesus Christ. (This is the main point Paul is making in the letter to the Ephesians.) A main purpose of this spiritual kingdom and spiritual family is to spread the saving message of the gospel into the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20)—something OT Israel was never commanded to do. It is no wonder that the main side of God’s nature displayed in this New Covenant era is his mercy and grace.
THREE. This leads to my third point, which relates specifically to the difference in the WAYS in which God interacted and interacts with his people in the two different covenant eras. A huge amount of detail could be presented, but I can only summarize it here. The main idea is that in the OT era God interacted with his people (and their neighboring nations) mostly on the physical level, while in this NT era God interacts with his people mostly on the spiritual level.
On the one hand, Israel was a physical nation with a physical homeland earned by physical warfare. Membership within the nation was by physical birth, and the sign of membership was physical circumcision. Her worship was mostly physical. The nation had a physical king, and her history was mainly interaction with other physical nations, who were mainly her physical enemies. Her punishments by God were physical, usually involving these physical enemies (the captivities); and even her spectacular salvation experiences were mainly physical (exodus from Egypt; return from Babylon). Given Israel’s long history (two millennia), the impiety of its people, and the prominence of physical, international events, it is easy to see why the harsher side of God’s nature is in the forefront in the OT era.
The New Covenant people of God is indeed a Kingdom, but a new kind of kingdom with a new kind of King. His Kingdom is spiritual in nature; or as Luke 17:21 says, it is “within you” (the better translation). God deals with us (the church) in a way totally different from the way he dealt with Israel. Everything is (for the most part) on the level of the spirit rather than the physical. We are all believers, and members of a spiritual family of God based on spiritual birth. Our worship is defined spiritually (e.g., spiritual homeland, Philp. 3:20; spiritual temple, 1 Peter 2:5; spiritual Jerusalem, Heb. 12:22; worship “in spirit and in truth,” John 4:24). Our enemies are spiritual (Eph. 6:12), and our deliverance is spiritual (the indwelling Holy Spirit, 1 John 4:4). These are all marvelous gifts and a marvelous display of the wonderful grace of God.
I believe this helps explain the picture we get of God in the OT, as contrasted with the picture we get of him in the NT. Without doubt he is the same God, but in the OT era, because of the nature and purpose of the PEOPLE he was dealing with (the physical nation of Israel), and the WAY in which he was dealing with them, the HOLY (harsh, wrathful) side of his nature is expressed more. In the NT era (and remember, the NT period of history is less than 100 years) we see the other side of God’s nature displayed more prominently, because the nature of the new Kingdom is different, and the way God deals with us is different.