Attempting to Reconcile the Mighty Smite-y Image of God with the Lovey Dovey Jesus
Don't the Old Testament and New Testament portray two totally different pictures of what God is like? I mean I like Jesus and all, but the Old Testament God seems to be all about "Thou Shalt Nots", smiting people with plagues and telling his people to wipe out all the other people. If you know anything about the Bible, you have to have wrestled with this seeming disconnect.
I'm totally not going to relieve this tension for you today. I hope to help you along the path to finding the answer...
Let's start with what Jesus said in John 14:
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Hold up there Jesus, that’s some pretty hard stuff to digest. What are you saying exactly? (I’m pretty sure that is what Phillip meant when he said
8 “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”)
Then Jesus answers, 9 “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves
Jesus says in like 10 different ways here that he and God the Father are the same. In other words, they share the same character. They are together in the trinity as one (don’t ask me to explain that! He’s God so it’s complicated!!!)
But it’s so hard for us to accept that Jesus and God have the same character. I struggled with this for many years and tons of people do. At face value, it seems like the Old Testament and New Testament are promoting two different religions. The OT is all about judgment and God smiting his enemies with mighty power and smitiness. The NT is all about Jesus forgiving, hanging out with people and being sarcastic and judgmental to the people who were trying hardest to live out the OT.
Truthfully, I’m still in the middle of wrestling with this so join me in my journey…
A year ago, I began reading the Old Testament through a new lens. A friend challenged me to re-think the way I read scripture. Usually, we read the stories and focus on the human characters and what we can learn from them. My friend said, read the stories as a whole and seek to understand what it tells you about who God is. After all, he is the main character.
I faithfully did this for a while. I made it through the book of Nehemiah and then got distracted (by my blog!). I kept a notebook and wrote out names of God from the Old Testament and then added verses and stories that showed these traits. It was really eye opening. I highly suggest making the effort to get to know God on your own this way.
Here is just one example:
Let me just tell you the book of Judges makes a lot more sense to me when I read it that way! Check out Judges 19-21. There is a story of a Levite who is traveling with his concubine. He stays with a stranger. Some men in the town come to the stranger’s house and demand that the Levite be sent outside so they can have sex with him. The Levite and his host send the concubine out to the men. They abuse her all night. She crawls back to the house and is reaching for the door and dies there. They find her in the morning, cause apparently the Levite wasn’t staying up worrying about her. He cuts her up into 12 pieces and has the pieces delivered to all the tribes of Israel. Then the story continues to decline…
So how am I supposed to read that story and see God’s character that looks like Jesus?
For many years, I just read those stories, scratched my head and said, “What the heck God? That’s messed up.” (Like he didn’t know!)
As I read the scripture looking for God’s character (and I was helped by an Andy Stanley sermon), I really took in the last verse of Judges, for the first time:
21:25 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
All those messed up stories in Judges, they show a taste of what people are like when they walk away from God. They show how much people that understand God’s rules can twist things to justify doing whatever messed up things they want to do. And the crazy, awesome part that reveals God’s character that is completely what I see in Jesus…
Well, basically the fact that there is more! I mean, the Israelites were doing some pretty messed up stuff and God had given them his law so they could be an example to others and lead the world to know him As a whole, they weren’t exactly living up to their side of the bargain but God kept working!
Also, not all of the Israelites were out raping strangers and throwing their lovers outside to save themselves. God was still working. The beautiful redeeming story of Ruth took part during this time and demonstrates that in all of the chaos and messiness of human perversion, God was still loving people and wanting something different and better for them.
And that’s just one random example from the Old Testament.
God’s ways are not our ways. Throughout scripture, God reveals himself to mankind. He is constantly seeking a relationship with humanity. He repeatedly tells his followers that he wants them to build a kingdom where everyone can know him. Somehow, we always seem to hear, “That’s cool. You want to build a kingdom where I and the people that believe like I do are better than everyone else.” And we keep missing HIM and his character because we read the Bible through a preconceived religious lens.
It is life-changing to start reading the Bible with the purpose of knowing God. It is also hard. Our human nature just wants to be right. So, if we aren’t careful, we read the Bible and filter its message to justify what we already feel.
This TED talk from a former member of Westboro Baptist Church is an extreme example of reading the Bible through our own religious lens. Listen to her Ted Talk here
I have developed a simple way to test myself to see if I’m reading the Bible through a “me” lens. I simply make it a point to ask if what I read is challenging me to change or grow in some way. Generally, if I’m not being challenged, then I’m not reading it right!!! (As a whole. I’m not saying that reading the Levitical laws about how to deal with mold really convict me…though perhaps I should clean more…) Likewise, if I read the Bible and walk away from the experience feeling bitter or judgmental or superior; I know God well enough to know that’s not from him.
I hope this challenges you too! I completely believe that God honors us when we pursue him. Time spent seeking to understand his character is life-changing and invaluable…and challenging!
I feel like I could spend the rest of my life mulling over what the scripture teaches about the character of God and the balance of love, justice, and mercy and still only barely grasp it but this is a blog…
I already wrote another couple of pages about the rest of John 14! I will share that soonish. It was getting a little lengthy for a blog post.
Blessings my friends!
Thanks for reading! Thank you to all of you who encourage me to keep writing! I’m truly blessed by you!
Please comment and let me know how I can improve! Or whatever you want to share. I love hearing from my readers!