After a recent Bible study I led, one of the participants approached me and we discussed the study book we’d been going through. She commented on how much she was enjoying the discussion questions. St. John’s gospel was our focus in the study, so, naturally, we ended up discussing the various connections John makes between Jesus and the Creator God of the Old Testament. The author of our study guide commented that one of John’s primary messages is, “If you want to know who the real God is, look long and hard at Jesus.” My friend (let’s call her Marcie) noted how much she enjoyed that perspective. I gladly agreed. Then Marcie began to make some comments that had me raising an eyebrow. She explained she had been in some Bible studies with some very “fundamental” (her words) people, and she was refreshed by a Bible study that highlighted Jesus as God, since Jesus was merciful and loving, and the God of the Old Testament was more about rules and wrath and judgment. I was immediately aware of how she was (mis)perceiving our study author’s statement. While she understood that he was drawing connections between Yahweh and Jesus, she took him to mean that Jesus was a kind of truer or more loving revelation of the Creator God. I was caught off guard by her comment, and initially, the Polycarp (1) in me wanted to say, “Are you crazy? Do you really think that Jesus is a different God than the God of the Old Testament? Blasphemer!” Thankfully, that temptation was resisted, and instead I steered the conversation toward God’s love and mercy revealed in the Old Testament. Marcie nodded in agreement, with a facial expression that said, ‘Oh, I suppose there is some of that too.’
Is it any wonder that so many, even in the Church, have come to think this way about God as we know him in the Old Testament? Whether that is the fault of influential church leaders with poor theology, a neglect of healthy biblical engagement, or the prominently displayed “Christian” bestsellers at Barnes and Noble, written by agnostics, atheists, gnostics, and progressive theologians, one cannot say. Perhaps it is a combination of all of the above. Regardless, we seminarians, as future church leaders, have a responsibility to shepherd, to teach, and to help God’s people know that how he is revealed in Scripture (Old Testament included!) is trustworthy and true. That revelation is, in fact, essential to our understanding of God and our relationship to him. And yes, the God of the Old Testament is indeed as every bit as compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and loving as Jesus! (Not to mention that Jesus didn’t exactly take the topics of sin, wrath, and judgment lightly either.)
Reflecting on Marcie’s unintentional theological gaffe, I am reminded of how often people miss the depth of God’s love in the Old Testament. One of the things I am continually amazed by in my Old Testament class is the relentless grace and mercy shown to Israel and others by Yahweh. You cannot get through much of any of the OT books without thinking, ‘How in the world is God so patient, so compassionate, so forgiving to these selfish, indulgent, disobedient people?’ Every time Israel gets herself into a mess because of her own sin, God more or less ends up saying, “I’m still going to be faithful to you, because I love you, and have made a covenant with you. I desire the best for you.”
Consider the readings from the Daily Office last week. We adventured through Hosea, a book laden with rebuke and punishment against Israel for the moral decay that grew out of a time of prosperity. God calls Hosea to take a prostitute as his wife to demonstrate God’s own love for Israel, who repeatedly prostitutes herself out to hedonism and the idolatry of neighboring nations. Hosea prophecies judgment over Israel, but as we move to the end of the book we see that the Lord’s judgment flows from his compassion, and is meant to steer Israel back into the embrace of her faithful Bridegroom Yahweh. Toward the end of the book, we read this:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.” (11:8-9)
Of course, that’s one of countless instances of God’s relenting compassion to a rebellious and disobedient people. Just about every time Israel goes astray, she is called back and accepted by Yahweh, whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136). God often instructs Israel through punishment, but always calls her back, places her on her feet, expressing his desire for a thriving, intimate relationship with his people. David paints a beautiful portrait of Yahweh’s forgiving, compassionate, fatherly love in Psalm 103. When I read that Psalm (and I read it often), I see the same exact God who Jesus knows and describes in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). That is the God of the Old Testament, the God Jesus identifies himself as, in the ego eimi statements in St. John’s Gospel.
For some of us in seminary, Old Testament studies can seem like the red-headed stepchild who must take a backseat to the New Testament. But I suggest that our knowledge of the Old Testament — and of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is revealed within — ought to be an area of deep concern and diligent study, especially in an age like ours that is increasingly likely to separate Jesus from the God he claimed to be.
(1). St. Irenaeus describes a brief encounter between Polycarp and Marcion (who rejected the God of the OT) in which Marcion asks, “Dost thou know me?” and Polycarp replies, “I do know thee, the firstborn of Satan.” (Adv. Haer., III.3.4)
– Cameron MacMillan ’16