I’m just going to say it.
The Old Testament is confusing.
I’m not saying it should be, or that it even needs to be, but the reality for many believers is that it is just confusing. We read stories and are often overwhelmed on how to interpret them in light of cultural differences, and even perceived differences in how God related to people then versus how he relates to us now. The New Testament feels much “safer.” Yes, it’s challenging, but there are nice words like “grace, peace, love, and hope” that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. We really like the New Testament but the Old Testament is… eh. How many times have you seen people get excited about studying Leviticus? Or Lamentations?
Again, I’m just trying to be honest about how I have felt in the past and what some believers have shared with me. If this is not your experience, and you LOVE the Old Testament, then that’s amazing! But if your experience of the Old Testament is something like “Adam & Eve, Noah, blah blah blah, Moses, blah blah blah, Psalms, blah blah blah…” then I hope you read on as we briefly consider how our understanding of God can be magnified by a commitment to studying all of his word, not just the parts that are most easily accessible.
Notice I said “briefly.” You can study this topic for years and still not have it figured out. My goal is not to answer every single question or put your mind completely at ease, but give a birds-eye view of some commonalities regarding how God has related to his people throughout history. Hopefully this will encourage you to pursue some study of your own.
The perceived disparity between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament is nothing new. Christians have struggled with this tension (again, perceived) for centuries following the coming of the Christ. A writer and thinker named Marcion, for instance, in the 2nd century CE taught that the Yahweh of the Old Testament was in fact a different god than the Heavenly Father Jesus spoke of. Although most followers of Christ rejected those teachings outright, this belief and the sentiment surrounding it still persist today.
And yet the Old Testament is full of grace.
In this brief space I do not believe it is possible or even necessary to go through every part of the Old Testament that we consider to be problematic or confusing. My main goal will be to provide a succinct, biblical rebuttal to the idea that has taken up residence in our hearts and minds: that God used to relate to people through only the law, and now relates to people only through grace.
This idea may come from many different places, some even within Scripture. In Romans 6:14 we see Paul saying that we are not under the law but under grace. And at the very beginning of the gospel of John it says in verse 17 of chapter 1: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Romans 10:4 – “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” We could go on and on. It seems that the New Testament is replete with examples of grace being introduced as a “new” concept. In reality that could not be further from the truth.
I am not going to dive into a law vs. grace debate here. That is for another day (days actually, months, years…). My main focus is this: grace is not solely a New Testament concept. As we recognize the definition of grace to be “unmerited favor,” we can see that the New Testament teaching on grace does not negate the grace that God has shown humanity throughout history.
Consider the examples from the Old Testament that testify to God’s grace. Look at the people he picked to do his work! Moses, David, Abraham, and others that clearly struggled with sin throughout the course of their ministry. Even as far back as Adam and Eve, God chooses to continue a relationship with humanity even after their rebellion against him. Is that not grace?
In Deuteronomy, God has brought his people out of the land of Egypt and is preparing to settle them in their new land. He sets up a lot of laws and commands them to follow, but throughout the entire process we see his grace being lavished upon the children of Israel. This is clear in Deuteronomy chapter 9, encapsulated in verse 6 which says “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” Even in the midst of giving the law to the people, God makes sure they know it is because of his grace that he has chosen them.
Two more examples
First, the famous passage of Hebrews 11 where we read about how all of these heroes of the Old Testament did these mighty acts for God “by faith.” What is the point of ensuring that the readers of Hebrews knew these people acted out of their faith in God? It drives home the point that mankind has never been saved by their works or their ability to measure up to God’s standard. Even in the Old Testament, mankind was not saved by their ability to be perfect, but by faith through grace.
Second, the law itself was a form of grace. Paul declares this in Romans 7:7 where he says “What shall we say then? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” How cruel would it have been of God to tell his people to follow and obey him, but not give them any direction on how to do so? God’s people would never have known what was right and wrong without God delivering them a standard to abide by. In this, the law was and is a form of grace to allow us to be able to follow God by seeing his heart for humanity.
This, again, is a very brief view of the thread of God’s grace through human history. I hope it will encourage you to do more study on your own but to be encouraged by the truth that we serve a God that has not changed, and has consistently demonstrated his grace to mankind throughout history. Let the words of David in Psalm 103 minister to your heart as you dwell on the character of the God we serve.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)