Is the God of the Old Testament different than the God of the New?

God of Wrath, God of Love

QUESTION: How do you reconcile the Old Testament to the New Testament picture of God? Specifically I’m reading Deuteronomy 28 and the God of this book just does not seem anything like Jesus. In verse 63 it even says he will get pleasure from it… It just seems so different than Jesus and everything he was about.

This is a very common issue when reading the Bible.  There’s this seeming difference in God’s character between the two covenantal periods.  Specifically, the Old Covenant God of Moses is full of wrath, the New Covenant God revealed in Jesus is full of grace.

There are two main things to say about this apparent discrepancy.

  1. When we look more deeply, the differences are not as glaring as they first appear.  In other words, when we look inside, everything that is revealed about God’s character in the Old Testament is still seen in the New, (and vice versa) even if there’s a different emphasis.
  2. The different emphasis in God’s attributes fits with a well-established pattern of “progressive revelation”.  Which is to say that God does not reveal all of himself or his plans at the earliest stages of his interactions with the chosen people.  God’s revelations progress in content and depth over time, so we should never, from our position here in the “last days,” consider the earliest revelations to be complete or interpret them in isolation from the later stuff.

In dealing with Deut. 28 specifically and this list of blessings and curses, we are getting insight into God that consistently runs across both Old and New testaments.  The holiness of God is revealed inside this moral order: obey and be blessed, disobey and be cursed.  As in physics, so in ethics:  for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The message is simple:  attune your life to moral reality, just as you do to physical reality.

You might think that outlining (repeatedly) the specific consequences reveals a harshness in God, but would we think a parachuting instructor was harsh if he detailed the graphic results of failure to obey his instructions?  Would we think his lengthy, redundant, legal waiver meant that he was being mean?  No, once we understand the stakes involved, the graphic warnings are actually seen as a kind of mercy.

This teaches us that not only is God a merciful parent (laying out consequences up front), but also God is just, and holy for he follows through with discipline (every curse mentioned here ACTUALLY HAPPENED!).  Also, the stark warnings reveal that God is fair, because God is treating them the same as the nations they would be displacing in the Land.

The point is, what the Jews are learning about God here is not diminished by the arrival of Jesus Christ.  This is Jesus’ Father:

  • no respecter of persons or nations, impartial and fair (Deut. 10:17).  
  • whose rules are not arbitrary but based in his good, fair, and loving character.  So his law is built on love, forbidding unfettered self-interest, protecting the weak, foreigners, children, orphans, widows (10:18-11:1).  
  • who chooses his children not based on their pedigree but because of His love! (7:13).  
    • How is this inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus’ gospel which teaches us that God adopted us out of no goodness in us, but purely by unmerited favor (Eph 1:3-6)?

Christians did not stop believing in this Lawfulness, and Holiness of God just because Jesus revealed God’s grace in a supreme way.  Look at Galatians 6:9 – “do not be fooled, God is not mocked, a man reaps what he sows.”  In fact, the Cross makes no sense apart from these characteristics of justice and holiness revealed in the Law.  As much as the Cross shows off God’s grace, the pain of it also reflected the terrible, ultimate punishment for sin.   No, the cross is God’s grace AND justice together (Rom 3:26).

So to my first point:  there is justifiable wrath in the New Testament (Romans 1:18, 2:5, 5:9) and in the teaching and actions of Jesus (Matt 3:7, Luke 21:23, John 2:15), which is consistent with the picture of God we get from Moses.  Also there is amazing tenderness and grace in the God of the Old Testament which is consistent with Jesus (Hosea 2:14).

The consistent picture of God is simply that God is completely “other” – holy and perfect and hating sin.  Also there is one consistent picture of sin separating people from people and people from God and ultimately diminishing human life and leading to terrible outcomes; in the Old and New Testament.

To underline this, remember that the picture Jesus paints of the sinner apart from his Grace, is probably worse than the picture Moses paints of his People who are disobedient!  The Old Testament warned of people being pillaged and suffering greatly for disobedience, and yes death for many… but for Jesus, the disobedient will suffer eternal death (Luke 12:5)!

And look at the curses of Deut. 28, and how it paints the disobedient as groping, blind, oppressed, robbed, hungry, and powerless.  This isn’t a contradiction of the New Testament, rather, it sets it up beautifully!  For how can we see the sacrifice of Jesus as a Rescue unless we can see in our own disobedience, the same kinds of helplessness God predicts for disobedient Israel?  We too were disobedient and wrecked and helpless when Christ came into our lives.  This is painting one consistent picture of human nature, and God’s nature.

But perhaps you still struggle with the language Moses uses – in the language of Deuteronomy, it looks like God is sort of deliberately inflicting suffering on them (and gleefully!).  Yet who is the one who ACTUALLY decides to invoke the consequences God warned about?  The people do!  See, Moses didn’t care to separate the primary cause from the secondary cause in his language, which makes it seem to us like God is more callous than he actually is.

Imagine primary and secondary causes like this:  I set up a booby trap in my home for robbers.  I say to you, don’t go in there, you’ll get smashed by my trap, it’s for robbers.  Then you go in anyhow.  And guess what?  You get smashed!  Who smashed you?  Well, in a sense, I did, I set up a trap to smash – it was MY trap after all, so clearly I caused it.  But truth is, YOU caused yourself to be smashed, because I warned you away, and you went in anyway!

It’s just like that here in Deut. 28.  It feels really rough because God says, I’M doing curse X, Y, or Z.  But God’s actually simply allowing natural consequences to flow, rather than deliberately inflicting arbitrary terror.  In fact, God is only a secondary cause of the curse, we ourselves are the primary cause of the cursing.  In the New Testament Paul will put it like this, “God hands the disobedient over…” (Romans 1:28) so He releases them to do what ought not to be done, and then they suffer according to their choices.

So God’s holiness, and his judgment on sin is consistent throughout the Bible.

Ok, now my second point.  There is progressive revelation here.  Yes, we can see judgment and wrath in the New Testament and even at the heart of Jesus very mission to save because it borrows the same language of God cursing the disobedient sinner to separation… (See John 3:36).  HOWEVER, in Jesus we get no sense of God “delighting” in the judgment which you pointed out (Deut. 28:63).  So do we have reason to think this may be not the whole story on God’s attitude?  Yes, because of what ELSE is said about God LATER in revelation history.

For example:

Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” This is the declaration of the Lord God. “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives?

Ezek. 18:23-24

Because of progressive revelations, we can see Deut 28:63 as hyperbole.  We can see this in the context of the sarcastic, dramatic way that the ancient Middle Eastern mind would think and talk, not as proof of God’s callousness.

If we take all Scripture as one, we rest assured, God is not happily cursing his people.  We don’t interpret one verse in isolation or in violation of another.  So we learn from LATER revelation that God must have been speaking in Deut. 28 like an exasperated parents speaks.

In fact, I have said something similar to my kids – “If you don’t put your bike away, I am going to run over it someday and I won’t even be sad, I will not shed a single tear, I will just happily take that thing down to the dump!!”  Saying such a thing, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have empathy for my kids or wouldn’t feel their pain at loss – even if it was all due to their choices.  I would have empathy still, and so does God.  We KNOW this, because Deut. 28 isn’t the only thing God ever said to us.

Also, when it comes to progressive revelation, how did this all play out AFTER he laid down the law?  In fact subsequent history shows, God laid out these curses, but then rather than invoke them at the first sign of disobedience, tolerated the worse kind of violations of his law for centuries before they finally reaped the harvest they had sown.  And in this demonstration of God’s patience we see yet another consistent insight into God’s character which spans from Old to New Testament.  For the God revealed in Jesus also said:

The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

So if you look deeper you will see not only the consistency in the Bible’s picture of God’s character, but also how all Scripture must be interpreted as a whole.