No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.John 1:18
I like how the New American Standard said that Jesus has “explained” God in its translation of this passage. Isn’t that interesting? What is it about Jesus that adds to, modifies, or expounds upon the picture of God which one has when reading through the Hebrew Scriptures alone? Can one reach a proper understanding of who God is by only reading the Old Testament? That is, without thinking about Jesus at all, can one rely upon the first 39 books of our Bibles to give us a perfect picture of the Father?
The reason I bring this up is because there are some difficult passages in the Old Testament. These are passages that personally make my skin crawl. Here’s one in particular:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.1 Samuel 15:2–3
Death comes to all living things. Old men and women die everyday. On occasion, we’ll hear about the tragic death of a young person. But in those instances when we hear of the death of a child or an infant, there is a unique sadness which creeps over us, a sadness that is not soon forgotten.
So when I read a passage like 1 Samuel 15, I can’t help but think of what those families must have felt when the swords of the Israelites pierced through their little ones. I can’t help but think of what it must have took for the people of Israel to brandish those swords and spears.
And as I think about the current debate over abortion, I can’t help but wonder how 1 Samuel 15 is any better than that. Yes, there is a debate about defining things such as murder, personhood, and life for an unborn child, but I’ve never heard of anyone debating the right to life of an innocent nine month old, toddler, or preschooler.
As I struggle with these questions, my mind finds its way to another baby, a baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem, a baby who’s life was in danger by the kings of his day. I’ve never heard someone justify Herod’s actions in Matthew, but what makes taking an innocent life okay in one situation but wrong in another?
This isn’t just a question about biblical interpretation; it is a question about the nature and character of God.
The Veil is Removed
To begin our journey in learning how to better approach the Old Testament, let’s see what the apostle Paul, a scholar in the Hebrew Scriptures, has to say in 2 Corinthians 3:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are qualified of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our qualification is from God, who has made us qualified to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2 Corinthians 3:4-6
Paul’s qualifications as a priest and minister in the kingdom of God came from God. The letter, which is the Law as we will see in the next reading, kills, but the Spirit gives life. This is not to say that Paul has a “low view” of the Hebrew Scriptures; what it is saying is that he has an extremely high view of Jesus.
The Old Covenant by itself, Paul says, kills.
Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’s face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory! Indeed, what once had glory has in this respect lost its glory because of the greater glory, for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!2 Corinthians 3:6-11
Paul calls this covenant a “ministry of death.” It is the “letter” that Paul has in mind. This covenant had glory, but the ministry of the Spirit, the new covenant, is far more glorious. The good news of justification by faith far outshines the glory of the old covenant.
While the first covenant was temporary, the new covenant is permanent and has a greater glory.
This is somewhat similar to the light of the moon. The light of the moon is helpful when trying to navigate at night. Animals depend upon it to hunt, and it is a great comfort to see the beauty of the full moon.
But the moon’s light does not originate from the moon; instead, it is illuminated by the sun and even by light reflecting from the earth. Certainly it is a great light! But it is a reflection of the true light, the sun. When we read the Old Testament, we are getting glimpses of sunlight (or Son-light), but we aren’t seeing the full thing. Notice below:
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with complete frankness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, the same veil is still there; it is not unveiled since in Christ it is set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds, but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.2 Corinthians 3:12-15
When the Hebrew Scriptures are read apart from Christ, there is a veil which keeps us from seeing the glory of the Lord unfiltered. Do the Hebrew Scriptures contain glory? Of course! They are, after all, inspired by God. But that glory pales in comparison to the glory one sees when they turn to the Lord!
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:16–18
The Spirit brings life, not death. He brings justification, not condemnation. He transforms us into the unveiled image of the Lord.
We aren’t talking about another set of writings here; we are talking about being transformed into the image of Jesus, the Word made flesh.
Jesus Reveals God
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.Hebrews 1:1–4
Unlike the Hebrew Scriptures, which on their own give us a veiled view of God, Jesus reveals God to us in ways that the “ancestors” long ago could not see despite the many and various ways in which God spoke to them.
Jesus is an “exact imprint” of God’s very being. That is,
God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus; we haven’t always known this, but now we do. God is like Jesus!Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 9). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
If we accept that God’s nature does not change, then the God revealed by Jesus is the God that has always been, regardless of what veiled pictures we may pick up on. If there is ever a doubt about the nature or character of God, we only have to ask, “What would Jesus do?” If we can answer that question, then we will have our answer about the Father; the veil is taken away.
We see this in the teaching and life of Jesus over and over.
In Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, he uses several examples which will be familiar with you:
- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus boldly uses the expression “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you…” to challenge the veiled views of God of Jesus’s day, including the “eye for an eye” method of justice taught in the Law.
- When Jesus preached his first sermon in Nazareth, he famously quotes Isaiah 61 and leaves off an important part of the passage mid sentence: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” He does this to include Israel’s enemies such as the Syrians and citizens of Sidon in the plans of God for a new kind of kingdom (Luke 4:25-27).
- In Luke 9, Jesus’s disciples wanted to call fire from heaven like Elijah to consume their enemies, but Jesus rebuked them.
- When asked to assist in the stoning of an adulterous woman, Jesus doesn’t appeal to the Scriptures by asking where the man is; instead, he refuses to condemn her and challenges the mob to find a sinless person among them to cast the first stone. Jesus, who happened to be sinless, refuses to carry out the Scriptural penalty of death.
What do all of these stories tell us about Jesus? He was a man of compassion, mercy, and love. He challenged veiled readings of Scripture in his day. And he sought to include those who were typically excluded (and sometimes wished dead) such as tax collectors, Gentiles, and adulteresses.
If that’s what these stories tell us about Jesus, then that’s what they tell us about God.
But what about the many passages you can find throughout Scripture? Drawing from the imagery found in the Mount of Transfiguration story, Brain Zahnd answers the question in this way:
Moses says this. Elijah does that. But Jesus says and does something completely new and different. And what does God say? Does God instruct us to find a healthy balance between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus? No! God says, “Listen to my Son!” If we want to rummage around in the Old Testament and drag out Moses or Joshua or Elijah or David to mitigate what Jesus teaches about peacemaking and loving our enemies, we are trying to build an Old Testament tabernacle on the holy mountain of Christ’s glory, to which God says, “No!”Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 57). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Moonbeams versus SON-beams
I read the Old Testament all the time. I love the study of prophecy. I enjoy the stories in the narrative sections, except for the parts about rape, violence, and genocide of course. I scratch my head at the poetic books and their invaluable wisdom. But as a Christian, I must filter everything through Jesus.
When we talk about polygamy, should we look to Abraham or Jacob to justify our desires, or do we look to Jesus? When we talk about biblical manhood or womanhood, do we look to the flawed characters of David or Sarah, or should we look to the character of Jesus? When we talk about the methods of worship in the church, do we treat the New Testament like a car manual, or do we ask our questions to the Word of God and seek out his attitudes towards rigid traditions and interpretations?
When talk about slavery, do we look to the Bible’s (Old and New Testaments) instructions on how to properly treat slaves as justification for slavery, or do we challenge the presupposition that slavery is simply part of life by looking to the person of Jesus who proclaimed liberty to the captives? Check out this quote:
The question isn’t “What does the Bible say?” The Bible says lots of things. The question is “What does the living Word of God to which the Bible points us have to say?” The New Testament gives us a trajectory toward the living Word, who clearly commends the dignity of all human beings and calls for the abolition of slavery.Zahnd, Brian. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (p. 62). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Why must we grope in the darkness of the shadows with a veil over our eyes when answering these questions? Why do we burden ourselves by only depending upon the light of the moon? Why not allow the life and light of Jesus to illuminate the path for us?
Isn’t it obvious from the character of Christ that slavery should be forever done away with? Isn’t it obvious from the life of Jesus that calling down fire from heaven to destroy our enemies isn’t the way to go? Can’t we see from Jesus’s refusal to defend himself in court and not invoke his power to call legions of angels that violence, war, and genocide do not have to be facts of life?
There is a more excellent Way! And he has flesh, blood, and a name: Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.
Jesus said, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39).
The Scriptures point us to Jesus. He is the goal of salvation history. It is Jesus that gives us life, not mastery of the Scriptures. When we come to him, we have life to the fullest regardless of our ability to answer these difficult questions (that means letting go of the need for iron-clad answers!).
The Bible is a wonderful tool, and I believe it is inspired by God. It teaches us about who Jesus is, and it documents the history of the children of Abraham. But Jesus is the ultimate Word of God. And when I think about some of those passages that make me feel off, like the genocide of the Canaanites, I thank Jesus for those feelings of discomfort. I thank him because he has shown us a far better way to live that doesn’t require the death of our enemies. I thank him because he is the Word of God and an exact representation of who our wonderful, loving Father is.
Thank you, Daniel, for your reflection on this difficult issue. There is no easy, airtight answer, but we can trust that God is just, righteous, and loving in all His ways. His highest and most perfect revelation is Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15). Blessings.