I have my youth group kids for two seperate types of meetings — I have them for Sunday School and for youth group. In Youth Group, we’re currently going over a passage in Matthew that talks about God recognizing us for what we do for others, not necessarily for what we believe or say. In Sunday School, we’re doing an Old Testament summary — mostly Moses lately.
It’s really a pretty striking difference. In the Old Testament, you have a God who hardens the heart of Pharoah, blasts the people of Egypt with 10 plagues, kills the firstborn sons, threatens to eliminate the people of Israel when they create idols, changes his mind when argued with and generally lacks in warm fuzzies. In the New Testament, we have a God who humbled himself, served those around him with kindness and compassion, only got angry like twice and then usually against the establishment, and finally sacrificed himself on a cross for our sakes.
But Christians believe that the OT God of fury and temper and violence, and the NT God of compassion and sacrifice… they are one and the same. There are some mitigating factors. For example, I pointed out to my kids that even in the Old Testament, God was far more merciful than would be expected, while still practicing justice. For example, he killed the first born sons of Egypt. Well, the Pharoah had previously killed ALL the sons of Israel. So he exacted justice, but justice tempered by mercy. God also kept his word to the people of Israel, even when they broke theirs to him as quickly as humanly possible.
One of the greatest differences I see between OT and NT, however, is the scale on which God deals with people. In the OT he is really dealing with nations on a national basis. While he deals with Moses, he is really judging and interacting with Israel on a national basis. Salvation or damnation doesn’t come according to what one person does, but how the nation as a whole acts in covenant with God. Likewise, in Egypt, God deals with the nation of Egypt harshly, not just with the Pharoah in particular. When Jonah goes to Ninevah, the communal acceptance of God’s message is what saves the entire city-state from destruction. God was not going to spare the ones who followed his word and punish those who didn’t — it was all or nothing. So you have a history of sort of spokesperson individuals (like Moses and Pharoah and Jonah), and nations (like Israel and Egypt and Ninevah). If you personally were too sinful, you would be thrown out of the nation, and not be a part of its covenant with God.
In the New Testament, Jesus seems to redefine God’s relationship to humanity on an individual basis. Jesus no longer says that salvation and favor will be given on a national basis — to the nation of Israel, for instance. He emphasises the need for personal action and also personal judgement. He doesn’t stand and exhort the nation of Israel to follow God’s will. He stands in a crowd of thousands and exhorts each of them to do what is right. He answers individuals questions about what they must do, themselves, to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it is. Can you imagine what would happen if God judged America on a corporate basis? (I think, by the way, that IS the way the real conservatives look at it, and why they are so eager to impose their morality on others.) I much prefer to be held accountable for my own actions, because then at least I have control. This difference between corporate relationship and individual relationship is a key, I think to understanding the change that happened when Jesus came. It’s also a key for understanding WHY it is that for some religious groups that see us as part of their nation — they are so very eager to make us comply with their morality.
But like Paul, I want to preach Christ crucified. I believe in a God who sacrificed himself in order to still practice justice, but not have to punish us. I believe in a God who judges us on how kindly we treat others — who holds us to the standard of doing unto other people as we want to be done to ourselves. I believe in a God who has an individual relationship with every person on the earth — a relationship that make take different shapes or forms depending on our individual relationship and background.