Is God the same in the New Testament as in the Old Testament?
When Samuel L Jackson's character in “Pulp Fiction” ominously recites his passage from the Bible, which he uses as a threat, a warning that he is about to kill everyone in the room, he famously describes a God of wrath and furious anger.
It is easy to see why people find this image of God, who appears to be in search of vengeance from those who have wronged him in some of the Bible's older stories, hard to reconcile with the loving father-figure that Jesus describes when he teaches us to pray.
In Genesis 19:24-25, we are told: "Then the Lord rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah sulphur and fire from the Lord of heaven, and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain and all the inhabitants of those cities and what grew on the ground." This is the God in the mould of “Pulp Fiction” – a fearsome, powerful figure who metes out punishment.
Then, in Matthew 7:11, in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples: "If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"
There does appear to be a tension here between a God of judgement in the Old Testament and a God (who is even described as a father) of love, forgiveness and good gifts in the New Testament. Is it the same God?
When God describes himself to Moses, He calls himself I AM. Present tense and continuous tense. I AM who I AM, not I AM not who I was, or I AM going to change. He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow; eternal, unchanging. The judge who is so pure he can't tolerate wrong and the loving father who forgives and is merciful are present in both the old stories and in the newer ones in the time of Jesus.
In the Old Testament, God is also seen as a father who loves his people with a jealous love. He sings or rejoices over us with gladness and renews us in his love (Zephaniah 3:17). He gives good and gentle advice and instruction. In Proverbs (3:5), he says he will make our paths straight – show us the way to go, give us success – if only we trust him to do it. When God gives one of his biggest Old Testament heroes, Abraham, a blessing, he does it with so much abundance, it's almost too much. He says: "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:2-3)
More than that, the whole history of the Old Testament can be described as one long story of God's people asking for his blessing, him giving it, them turning away and living life their own way, messing up and then coming back to God to say sorry. It is here that the God of judgement, who by his very nature cannot tolerate anything wrong because he is so right (or holy), forgives his people again and again and again. Without reason, without logic, with no promise that they will not go wrong again, he keeps loving them. Where he “ought to” punish them, because they have turned to other Gods, he shows mercy and grace instead. In the Psalms, the Old Testament poetry book, God is described as “compassionate” and “slow to anger”.
Of course, God's biggest expression of mercy is when he breaks into history and comes in the form of a human being to reconcile all people to him, in an even bigger way than he did with the Jewish people in the Old Testament.
Jesus says: "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him" and, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:7,9). God breaks into our lives in the person of Jesus and shows in human form what his “grace” means – he loves us so much he will do anything to get close to us, and us close to him.
Jesus, the human I AM, the present continuous expression of God as a man, exhibits the same characteristics as the God of the Old Testament. He instructs and teaches those around him (famously through the Sermon on the Mount and through the parables – stories which explain who God is, and shine a light on how we behave). He blesses those he meets, by healing, forgiving sins, and telling us we are inheritors, or heirs, of God's. But he is also holy. He is not wishy-washy when it comes to speaking out about right and wrong. He speaks of judgement (Matthew 25:46), and more importantly, when people see him, they are aware of their own mistakes and weaknesses – many ask for forgiveness.
Most importantly of all, Jesus of course shows great love to those around him, by healing, reaching out to the poor and hurting and, finally, by dying for us – an innocent death as a sacrifice. We can't ever live up to God's judgement so Jesus makes it possible for us to not even have to try.
Despite the difference in writing style between a number of the Old Testament books and those in the New Testament, God still is the same throughout. Jesus exhibits all the same characteristics that God has and is attributed with in the Old Testament. He shows the same father love, with the same abundance. He is also a plumb line of justice and does not tolerate wrongs, even if he does still love those who do wrong. The focus in the Old Testament on God's jealous love for the Jewish people broadens out to encompass God's love for all his people with the coming of Jesus. And because Jesus is fully human, as well as fully God, we get a much clearer idea of who this creator of the universe really is and just what his love for us really means.