God is love according to 1 John 4:8. Even people who are not Christians will sometimes quote that. But sometimes people will ask a follow up question, “Where is this God of love in the blood and violence of the Old Testament?” Fortunately, God gave us more than one verse of scripture with which to know him. So we need to search out the whole Bible to understand the answer to this question.
First, let’s talk about the Old Testament for the Christian. For the authors of the New Testament, the Old Testament was their Bible. We read and interpret the Old Testament through what we know from the New Testament, but we definitely need to read it.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:17-18
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:25-27 (emphasis added)
There is a great quote by the early church father Augustine that puts the relationship between the Old and New testaments into perspective:
The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New. — Augustine, A.D. 354-430
Next, let’s talk about sin. God is Love, that is absolutely true. God is also holiness and light. Light by its very nature destroys darkness. And God’s holiness by its very natures destroys sin. It would be a grave mistake in this era of mercy, when forgiveness can be ours through Jesus Christ, to believe that God doesn’t really care about sin, and that he will never put a final and complete end to it.
God’s wrath against sin is what helps us understand the greatness of his mercy. After all, if sin is no big deal, why did God have to send his Son into the world to die for our sins? The Old Testament teaches us that sin brings death, and that a Day of the Lord is coming when God will ultimately destroy all who oppose him (see for example: Isaiah 65, Dan. 12:2, Zeph. 1).
Finally, let’s talk about God’s long range plan of revealing himself to the world. God is eternal, he sees all of history as one moment. That’s hard to wrap our minds around, but at least let that thought remind you that what seems to us like a long time, even thousands of years, is nothing more than a passing moment to God.
God revealed himself to the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. They sinned and were expelled from God’s presence and died. The virus of sin quickly consumed the whole world. Genesis 6 records these sad and terrible words:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Genesis 6:5-7
God’s light could not help but destroy the darkness. But wait! The next verse offers hope:
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Gen 6:8
Although the world was deserving of death and was to be destroyed, God showed grace and spared one family: Noah’s.
Sin spread anew in humanity as the earth was repopulated. And to slow their descent into rebellion and destruction, God separated people into distinct languages and nations at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). Then God decided he would start with one faithful man and make a nation to be his witness and instrument to the other nations of the world. So God called Abraham and promised to make an entire nation of his descendants (Gen. 12).
Here we have to think carefully about this phase in God’s plan. A nation is not just a family in a house. It’s not just a group of families or a neighborhood. It’s tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people living under one rule. It needs food, criminal justice, administration and military defense against other nations. Israel was God’s chosen nation to be stewards of his words, of his presence, of his covenants. To attack Israel in the Old Testament was to attack God’s representative and therefor to attack God himself. And in war people forfeit their lives when they try to attack God.
While there will be one final day at the end of time, when sin and sinners who refuse God’s mercy are dealt with forever, God also executes justice in history. And just as God had wiped out the sinful world through the great flood and spared Noah, so God chose the nation of Israel to wipe out and completely destroy the sinful nations that occupied Canaan (modern day Palestine). The nation of Israel was God’s instrument of wrath as well as his witness to the world of his mercy.
Only when we understand this do we have a full understanding of who God is and who Jesus is. Today, God’s people are not a single, civil nation-state. Rather we are seeds scatter throughout the world, or leaven in the flour of the world. Now we are not agents of God’s wrath but of his mercy. Yet the same Savior who laid down his life for us will also be the Judge of all when he returns at the end of the age (2 Thess. 1:5-10). Then the light will dispel the darkness forever.
Why does God seem different in the Old Testament? Probably because we haven’t taken the time to get familiar with it. But we have to know what it teaches, or our beliefs will be incomplete and will skew.
Christianity is not just another religion, a nice moral teaching that encourages people to do good. The world is sinking like the Titanic, and the church is the life boat. The Tornado of God’s justice is coming, and the church is the storm cellar. Everyone and everything will die and pass away. But God extends his hand of mercy now to those who will believe. That is the God of the whole Bible. He is terrible and he is wonderful. He is holiness and love, justice and mercy. Praise be to God.