June 23, 2019

And What About that Old Testament God?
Hebrews 1:1-3a

In the past, God spoke to our forefathers 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 he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being . . .

My daughter Ginger is rarely a troublemaker but, when it comes to things biblical, she can make you squirm. You see, Ginger is one of those people who reads the Bible then dares to ask those hard questions.

Not long ago she called me one Sunday afternoon and I could tell by the tone of her voice she was feeling indignant.

“Dad,” she said, “I don’t like the Old Testament. In fact, I think they ought to take it out of the Bible.”

“What brought all this on?” I asked.

“Well, during church today I got bored with the preacher’s sermon and so I picked up the pew Bible and started reading it, and I found this Old Testament story that really bothers me.”

“What story was that?” I asked.

“It was a story about this prophet named Elisha – and Dad - it was a horrible story.”

“What was the story about?” I asked.

“It was about 42 children getting mauled to death by two bears simply because they called Elisha ‘Old Baldhead.’”

I remembered the story and perhaps some of you do, too. But just in case you don’t, let me read the passage to which Ginger was referring?

In 2 Kings 2:23-24 the Bible states, From there Elisha went up to Bethel. On the way some boys came out of the city and made fun of him. They said to him, “Go on up, too, you baldhead! Go on up, too, you baldhead!” 24 Elisha turned around, looked at them and put a curse upon them in the name of the Lord. Then two mother bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys to pieces.”

Yep, that story’s in the Bible, and let it be a lesson to you. If any of you start calling me “Old Baldhead,” I just might have to call out the bears to take care of you.

Seriously, I could see Ginger’s struggle. It does seem a little extreme for God to send bears to tear up 42 children simply because they called a prophet “Old Baldhead.”

As Ginger continued, she asked that question that plagues many of us. She asked, “Dad, what about that Old Testament God? Did he really do all those things that the biblical writers said he did?”

So that’s the question I would ask you today. What about that Old Testament God?

You know, the God of the Old Testament can, at times, seem pretty brutal. In Genesis, he gets disillusioned with his human creation and drowns most of earth’s inhabitants. Not just the bad people but the children, the grandchildren and most of the animals as well.

Then in Exodus, he sends an angel to kill all Egypt’s firstborn children. That’s pretty tough punishment for children who didn’t even realize what was going on. Then he sends the Israelites into the Promised Land and tells them that after they conquer a city they should kill every man, woman and child who survives the attack.

Ouch. That kind of mass genocide certainly wouldn’t bode well in our day.

Even some of God’s earliest commandments seem rather extreme. Take this one for instance. In Deuteronomy 21 we hear this commandment. Suppose a man has a stubborn, rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. 19 In such cases, the father and mother must take the son before the leaders of the town. 20 They must declare: ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a worthless drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the town must stone him to death.

Wow. I can hear those parents now. “Listen son, you better behave or I’ll take you to the city gate.” But seriously, would any of us sentence our child to “death by stoning,” simply because he was stubborn and rebellious.

Now do you see why Ginger was so upset with the Old Testament God? Some of the things we find in the Old Testament certainly seem extreme for our day.

You know, most of us are not as bold or as honest as Ginger. When we read about this kind of Old Testament God, we tend to ignore him. We tend to believe what we want and ignore the rest.

But not everybody! There are still many people who mainly think of God in Old Testament terms. Yes, every time something bad happens in our world you’re going to find some doomsday prophet who announces that an angry, vengeful God has sent AIDS, a tsunami, an earthquake, or a hurricane to punish us for our sins.

I’ll never forget what one lady told me during last year’s Tomato Festival. Pat and I were manning the Hands of Christ booth, greeting the folks who came by and telling them about our ministry of benevolence. One lady came by and I casually said, “Kind of a hot day today, isn’t it?”

Immediately, she turned to me with the most serious look on her face and said, “It sure is, and you know why God made it so hot?”

“Not really,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“You see,” she said, “God made it hot so we’d be miserable and in our misery we’d think about the fires of hell and how hot hell is. And once we realize how hot hell is we’ll change our wicked ways and turn back to God. Yes, God made it hot to keep us from hell.” Obviously, this lady sure felt comfortable with that Old Testament God.

Right then and there I realized how fortune I was to be at the Tomato Festival. I’d been studying Scripture all my life and had never gleaned such brilliant insights.

Thankfully, most of us do not view God like this lady, but still we do have our questions about God. What about that Old Testament God? Is he really the harsh, vengeful, deity that proves his point by the wholesale obliteration of innocent people?

First, let me say this. I believe the Old Testament God is the same God we find in the New Testament. No, God didn’t change between the Old and New Testament; but the way we view God changed, and it changed because of Jesus Christ.

You see, before Christ, people viewed God through the customs of a brutal, punitive culture. Vengeance, brutality, and wholesale killing were the norm for that ancient culture; so their typical picture of God was one of hostility, anger and retribution. But then Jesus came, and said, “I and the Father are one. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” Yes, when Jesus came we got an updated vison of God, and when we looked at God through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, God no longer looked like an angry tyrant. When we looked at God through Christ, he started looking like a God who loves us deeply, a God who would do anything (even sacrifice himself on a cross) to redeem us from the tragedies of our sinful lives. That’s why today’s text is so important. Listen, again, to what the writer of Hebrews says about our updated view of God.

In the past God spoke to our forefathers 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 he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being . . .

Did you hear that? Jesus Christ is “the exact representation of God.” So if you want to know what God is like, you don’t look to Abraham or Moses or Elijah or Elisha. If you want to know what God is like, you look at Jesus Christ, for Christ is the exact representation of God.

Now, if this is true, we must deal with a very important question. If the God we see in Jesus Christ looks different than the God we see in the Old Testament, were the Old Testament writers mistaken?

I’m not sure mistaken is the best word. I think their view was primitive and incomplete.

Let me explain it like this. As children, we obtained our education through a process of accumulative learning. We started on a primitive level and grew from there.

Our first grade view of the world was important, but it certainly wasn’t an adequate world view. Our fifth grade view was better, but it was still woefully inadequate. When we graduated from high school, we knew enough of the basics to get by, but our view of the world was still so incomplete.

Now let’s look at the Old Testament view of God. Abraham had a first grade view of God, a primitive view of God. Oh, his view was important, but it was so incomplete. By the time Moses came along and received the law, he had a 5th grade view of God. He knew more than Abraham but his understanding was still woefully incomplete. By the time Jesus was born, the Jews had a high school graduate’s understanding of God. They knew enough of the basics to get by, but their understanding was still so incomplete.

But then Jesus came and said, if you want to get past this high school understanding of God, look at me. For in me, you will see the fullness of God, because I am the exact representation of his being.

I think the Old Testament view of God is important, just like a first grader’s view of the world is important, but I think we should remember that those Old Testament writers were at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike you and me, they didn’t have the example of Christ when they tried to understand the person of God. They didn’t hear his Sermon on the Mount, or watch him forgive the adulteress, or see him die on the cross for the sins of humankind. So while their writings were as faithful as possible, their view of God was primitive and incomplete. Their picture was incomplete because it lacked the center piece to the puzzle. Their picture lacked the person of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament we see a God whose focus is on the Jews. In Jesus we see a God who’s focused on all humankind.

In the Old Testament we see a God who often condemns. In Jesus we see a God who came not to condemn but to save.

In the Old Testament we typically see a God of Judgment. In Jesus we most often see a God of Grace.

In the Old Testament we see a God who, at times, changes his mind. In Jesus we see a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.

In the Old Testament we see a God who resides in a temple. In Jesus we discover a God who resides in our lives.

In the Old Testament we see a God who must be appeased by sacrifice. In Jesus Christ we see a God who becomes the final sacrifice for all of our sins.

So what about that Old Testament God? Do we need to get rid of the Old Testament? No, not at all. It’s beauty and its message is rich as it traces humankind’s accumulative understanding of God.

So let’s keep the Old Testament, but let’s remember that it’s an incomplete picture of God. For the complete picture of God came not through the writings of Moses, David, Elijah or Elisha. The complete picture of God came through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the one who is, indeed, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.