Two Halves of One Book
I remember one of the first Bonehead Bible classes I taught. There were those who were offended by the title. They didn’t like to admit they knew nothing of the most purchased book the world has ever known. They had the book on their shelves or on the coffee table. It had rested there, looked at, but seldom if ever opened. The gold leaf fringe was undisturbed. So, ‘Bonehead Bible’…’Bible for Dummies’…’Taking A First Look at the World’s Greatest Forgotten Book’…are all appropriate titles for what became “Bible 101.”
I remember my opening statement after the beginning prayer: “The Bible is made up of two halves.” Immediately a hand shot into the air. “It does?” I have always said ‘there is no such thing as a bad question if it is an honest question’ and this was an honest question. The answer: “Yes. The Bible is made up of the Old Testament and the New Testament.” This began the exploration of this book that is really a mini-library.
The Bible is made up of 66 books written over 1600 years by 40 or more authors. In its original manuscripts there are at least 3 ancient languages in which it was composed: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Its scope ranges from the beginning of the universe to the culmination of human history. It reveals God’s love for humanity, God’s purpose for humanity, the broken relationship between God and humanity, and God’s desire and method for reconciling the brokenness with humanity. In the pages of The Book we see the outline of how God designed us, the blessings when we live according to that design and the consequences for when we do not. I have spent most of my life reading and learning this sacred book.
One of the great struggles many encounter as they read The Bible is found in what appears to be the different portrayals of God in the first half of the book versus the second half of the book. The God of the Old Testament presented by Moses and the prophets comes across as controlling, angry and violent. “I created the universe and determined how it ought to run. Do it my way or else. If you do not do it my way then I will send plagues and droughts and disease upon you. I will send one nation to decimate another.” Even though Deuteronomy 30:19 spells out what I believe to be the heart and hope of God for his people,
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…
the tone of the Old Testament is often seen to be that of a God who dishes out death and curses, not life and blessings.
The God presented in the New Testament seems to be very different. The two key passages that set the tone of the New Testament for me are John 3:16:
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life
and Ephesians 2:8-10
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Here God is presented as a God who wants a reconciled relationship with people, a God who loves us and does not want bad things to happen to us and a God whose love is not based upon our deeds but upon his grace.
Why two presentations of God? Why an angry and seemingly vengeful God in the Old Testament and a loving and reconciling God in the New Testament? There is no given answer. Different people will tell you different things. Here is my take on the two halves of one book.
The Old Testament was about the beginning and development of a society, the nation of Israel. Because God was the nation’s creator, God set the ordering of that society. Because it was a theocracy there were rules that pertained to how people relate to God as well as to one another. As in any society, if you take away the laws there is chaos. For society to be orderly the laws had to be taken seriously which meant there must be consequences. Even though the consequences were harsh (sometimes very harsh), they served the purpose of getting people’s attention and establishing the social order. Thus, on the appearance of things, God, the one establishing the social order of Israel appears harsh.
The New Testament is not primarily about social order. The New Testament is about establishing a reconciled relationship with the living God through the work of Jesus Christ. Where the focus of the Old Testament was law the focus of the New Testament is love:
Love God with all you are (Matthew 22:37);
Love your neighbor as yourself; and within the church (Matthew 22:39);
Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34, 35).
When a person reconciles with God they become part of a society of people who have freely chosen to love God and one another. They become part of The Church. The word “church” in Greek means ‘called out.’ Whereas the Old Testament was written for a nation, the New Testament was written to provide the history of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and provide the behavioral code for this people who are called to be “the salt and light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14).
Both halves of the Bible are important for us today. The next blog will tell you how.