I am the Lord, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:6}
Is the God of the Old Testament different from the God of the New Testament? To hear some people, even in the Church, you would think He is.
God’s judgment of sin seems to overflow the pages of the Old Testament. You can open it almost at random, especially the prophets, or the historical books like Kings or Chronicles, and find unmistakable evidence of God’s wrath against rebellion and evil. But unless you land on the book of Revelation, or isolated passages in the gospels, Acts, or the epistles, the God pictured in the New Testament seems tame by comparison.
But God, as C.S. Lewis observed, is not a tame lion.
Because of what seems a difference in God’s character in both testaments, a heresy called Marcionism developed in the second-century Church. Marcion, a church leader, believed the wrathful Old Testament God was different than the all-forgiving God of the New Testament. Marcion also rejected the Old Testament scriptures as unworthy to be included in the Christian bible.
The Church, however, rejected Marcion’s teaching as false and dangerous to the faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 123) says this about the Marcion heresy: Christians venerate the Old Testament as true Word of God. The Church has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting the Old Testament under the pretext that the New has rendered it void . . . .
While a superficial reading of Scripture can suggest an inconsistency in God’s character between both testaments, the inconsistency evaporates on closer examination. God is the same God of mercy, love, judgment, and wrath in both eras. For example, Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deaths because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5) is not dissimilar from the deaths of Nadab and Abihu who ‘offered strange fire” on God’s altar (Leviticus 10). The reason for King Herod’s death (Acts 12) is not much different from the reason God killed the Judean King Ahab (1 Kings 22). God struck Elymas the magician with blindness (Acts 13), and did the same to the mob surrounding Lot’s house (Genesis 19). God brought judgment on Israel because of her sins (e.g. 2 Chronicles 36), and God warns His church against turning from Him (Revelation 2-3), and He will bring global destruction on a world of unrepentant sinners (Revelation 4-18).
The reason people confuse the pictures of God in both testaments is often rooted in the amount of material available to form an accurate understanding of God’s unchanging nature.
The New Testament covers the span of about 60 years, but the Old Testament encompasses a period of 1400 years. That difference alone allows the writers of Sacred Scripture much more time to demonstrate the fullness of God’s character. Further, the Old Testament is comprised of 73 books. The New Testament has only 27. The Old Testament has 1,074 chapters, the New Testament only 260. The Old Testament has more than 25,000 verses, the New Testament a little less than 8,000 verses. But the differences in the quantity of material in both testaments should not surprise us. The Old Testament is the story of a people. The New Testament is a story of a person.
The Holy Spirit tells us: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2) In his letter to the church at Corinth, St. Paul underscores the importance of familiarity with the Old Testament to help us understand the New Covenant: These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. And do not become idolaters, as some of them did . . . . Let us not indulge in immorality as some of them did . . . . Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:6-11)
Little wonder that St. Augustine commented: The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.
God’s character has not changed, and neither has His modus operandi. The Holy Spirit tells us: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). And He tells us through the prophet Malachi: “For I, the Lord, do not change” (Malachi 3:6).
God’s love, mercy, and compassion extend from Genesis and into the 21st century. Equally important – and we ought not to minimize this eternal reality – God’s holiness, justice, and wrath toward sin also extend across the same period of time.