And Old Testament/New Testament difference

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.

What I learned in Sunday School

I have really enjoyed teaching Sunday school, because it’s forced me to interact with the Bible again on a thorough and intellectual level. Whatever you think of Christianity, it’s hard to really get to know the Bible and not think it’s an amazing book. The quality is spotty at times. It’s contradictory and frustrating. It’ll start out on this fabulous path and you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh yeah! This is the stuff!” and all of a sudden it’ll take this left turn, and you end up flipping the page quickly so you don’t have to read it too closely. But you can come back to it again and again, and find new richness in it, and new hope. Everytime you read it, it seems like a portion of it was written just for you, and for your problems.

I’ve read the New Testament in completion between three and four times. I read the whole thing long before I could understand it. But then again, I’m not sure anyone’s reading comprehension is ever sufficiently high that they truly understand the Bible. The last time I read the whole thing was for a New Testament class I took in college — a factual instead of faithful class. I figured that in that reading, I’d really read the whole thing, and understood much of it.

Oh how wrong I was.

As you probably know, I’m writing my own curriculum for my Sunday school kids, mostly because I didn’t have time to research one I liked, and I was inordinantly underwhelmed by the one I had, which I used to teach the Old Testament. During the summer I mapped out what I would cover on what Sunday. I knew that I could fill in the details each week. And so I have.

I started with the letters. They were some of the first books written in the New Testament. It’s important to realize that Paul predates the writing of the Gospels. They are also much less familiar material. We’ve all heard the lectionary readings over and over… the 8 verse snippits of the gospels that pastors use as molds for their sermons. But rarely do we look at a whole book, and if we do, it’s not going to be the letter to the church at Ephesus. So I gave nearly half a year to the letters.

Advent is coming. It’s a good time to return to familiar stories, and the week after next, I’m going to turn to the Old Testament messianic prophecies, to prepare for the coming of the christened one, the Messiah. Next week, the few turkey-coma-survivors and we will review the Epistles. I won’t give you the review I’ll give them. Instead, I’ll tell you the three things I learned.

1) I must never have read the New Testament before
I was amazed at how much of it felt new and unfamiliar, even though I know for a fact my eyes have passed over it before. I think it’s because I read it so regularly, with the same format and clear mind each time. But who knew that Hebrews sounds so much like a medieval text, harkening back to prior ‘auctorities’ with it’s repetition of magic numbers, and lists of historic figures? How different the letters are, in their tone and intent. How strange, the degree to which they speak to us, and the degree to which they talk against other things that have no relevance in our world. I had never understood before, but I am now convinced that when I come back to the New Testament again, with eyes made older by other seeings of the world, it will speak to me on totally different issues than it did this time.

2) The disciples are relatives and old time friends of Jesus
I don’t know about you, but when I think of where the disciples came from (rarely) I imagine the fisherman close to the shore, pulling in his nets. And Jesus standing there and saying, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And I imagine Peter dropping his net — his whole life to that point — and swimming to Jesus and standing before him dripping wet, leaving behind an angry crew, ready to follow. That may very well be how it happened. What I didn’t realize is that: James the apostle is Jesus’ brother (eg. the son of Mary and Joseph). Judas (not Iscariat, the one who wrote the book of Jude) was also Jesus’ brother, although younger than James. John may very well have been Jesus’ cousin. At least, this according to the introduction notes in my Bible. I can only assume I never knew this because Catholicism got so wrapped up in the whole “ever-Virgin Mary” business that it hid, forgot about, or ignored any information that said otherwise. But Jesus wasn’t wandering around Judea with a bunch of random guys at his back. He was walking with his friends and his family.

3) Most of the letters are written for A Reason
A very decent proportion of the letters are written combatting the heresy of Gnosticism (the idea that the body is pure evil, the soul is pure good, it doesn’t matter what happens to your body, oh, and for good measure, since Jesus forgave all your sins, go ahead and sin all you want!) I’d say it’s at least 1/4 of the letters, especially the general letters. This means that the letter writers were focused on one particular issue, which really isn’t much of a problem anymore. It makes me wonder… what if the “issue” of the day had been a different one? What if it had been facism or cruelty by someone in the early church? What if the heresy they wrote against had a different slant… how different might the Bible be? Golden calves and secret knowledge aren’t that much of a problem today. We have our own issues, just as real and just as pressing. But it’s important to remember that the apostles weren’t writing about our issues.

It’s been a fun journey so far, and I’m looking forward to the Gospels. I’m very curious about what I’ll learn, that I never expected to.