OT God vs. NT Jesus?

photo by jerebu

The other day, I was listening to a radio news program while driving.  The program mentioned how the outgoing governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, had pardoned some 200 people convicted of crimes.  In a sound clip, Gov. Barbour commented that many of these people he pardoned had earned his trust by working faithfully at the governor’s mansion.  He also mentioned that his actions were motivated by the Christian principle of forgiveness; everyone, he said, deserves a second chance.

You may or may not agree with his reasoning, but that’s not the issue that strikes me today.  The news program host then turned to a political commentator and asked her what she thought about Gov. Barbour’s application of religion to politics.  The political commentator’s response went something like this (a paraphrase, not a quote):

“I am not an expert on religion, but I have heard many people refer to the differences between the Old Testament version of God and the New Testament version of God.  The former is more about justice and punishment, while the latter is more about love and forgiveness.  The public conflict about Gov. Barbour’s pardons seems to reflect these differences.”

Friends, as biblical Christians, we must affirm this truth:  there are not two versions of God in the Bible.  God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The Lord does not change (Malachi 3:6).  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  While God may change his mind from time to time (Jeremiah 26:19, among others), his essential character remains the same throughout all history.

It is a mistake to say that the Old Testament God is different than the New Testament Jesus.  That idea damages the truth that in Jesus the fullness of God dwells in bodily form (Colossians 1:19).  It is not helpful to call the OT God judgmental and the NT Jesus forgiving, because then you can allow yourself to pick which one you want to believe in, depending on your circumstances.

Let us remember that the OT portrays God as forgiving (Jonah 3) and the NT portrays God as the ultimate judge (Romans 2:12-16).  God forgives and judges; this is his nature.

When we think about whether governors claiming Christian motives should pardon convicted criminals, we must resist the urge to appeal either to the “Old Testament God” or to the “New Testament Jesus.”  Issues surrounding conviction and forgiveness are much more complicated than we often make them.

My advice?  Practice obedience to God; speak the truth about his righteousness and justice; rehearse his forgiveness as often as possible.  And perhaps we should be more generous and understanding with our politicians and media commentators alike!

–Pastor David

Thoughts on Veterans Day

Veteran Flag
photo by Dustin C. Oliver

This Friday is November 11, our national holiday for honoring our veterans, both living and deceased.  We do well as a nation to remember those who have participated in military exercises on our behalf.  We enjoy so many freedoms and privileges that we often take for granted, and our military, over the years, has done much to preserve those freedoms and privileges.  Several veterans are members of our congregation, and nearly all of us know of or are related to veterans of one war or another.  In this season of giving thanks, please do take the time to thank veterans in person for the gift of their time and resources.

Today, I find myself drawn to the reason Veterans Day came to be observed on November 11 each year.  The name “Veterans Day” has been in use since the end of World War II, and the same holiday was observed prior to that war under the label “Armistice Day.”  The first World War officially ended on November 11, 1918 – ninety-three years ago this week – and many nations around the world continue to remember the end of this great conflict on the same day.

Why am I drawn to this?  Well, you know I enjoy history and the stories that shape who we are today.  But my interest here has more to do with the reason for celebrating this holiday.  Culturally, we (as Americans) are in a position in our collective history in which we applaud, support, and give thanks for our military forces on a regular basis.  For instance, at the beginning of every Great Lakes Loons game, a veteran asks the crowd to rise and sing the national anthem.  That is who we are, culturally speaking.

As Christians, however, we should celebrate the historical reasons behind Armistice Day:  we should rejoice when nations lay down arms against each other and come, finally, to peace.  That’s because our identity as disciples of Jesus is modeled after the life of this Prince of Peace.  True, he said that he came not “to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 NIV).  However, he also encouraged us to “be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50 NIV).  The overwhelming biblical call is for God’s faithful children to live peacefully: see, for example, James 3:17-18; Hebrews 12:10-14; Ephesians 4:3; and Romans 14:17-19.

Peace is related to righteousness; peace is the way of Christ.  True, scripture often speaks of us living peacefully within the church, but it also speaks of living peacefully with everyone.  Scripture often speaks of an angry, vengeful God, but it also speaks of the same God applauding the peaceful way of life.  Christian history has often applied scripture to justify violent actions, but the higher road, whenever it is possible to be traveled, is peaceful.

This Armistice Day, remember to give thanks for the gift of peace.  Then take a few minutes to pray for peace around the world, in war-torn nations (just check the daily news for examples!), in our own nation and cities.  As Jeremiah called the Israelites in Babylonian captivity to do, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7 NIV).

–Pastor David

Remembering September 11, 2001

In just a few days, our nation will pause to observe the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that affected all of us and changed our lives dramatically, some more than others.  If you’ve been watching the news on TV at all, you’ve surely seen a good bit of coverage on this event.  It seems that we all are corporately engaging in a bit of public remembrance, perhaps to soothe the wounds that still ache in our nation.  Ten years is a long time, and much ground has been covered in the past decade.  But moments like these seem as if they took place just yesterday.

I was a senior in college in the fall of 2001.  I remember that we held a special chapel service in the afternoon of September 11 for the purposes of prayer, worship, and catharsis.  The dean of the chapel was our worship leader, and I remember vividly how he led us from the piano in singing the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”  He explained how we should rely on the Lord, who never changes or abandons us, when we experience tumultuous events.  One of the faculty members stood up from his seat among the students and called out for a song of lament instead of the dean’s selection.  A brief conversation between the two men ensued, but the dean’s choice eventually carried the day, and we sang of our faith in God.  (Laments – expressions of grief – surely followed in the rest of the service.)

In every circumstance, we face the same two choices:  either to reiterate our faith in God or to give voice to our emotions and desires.  Both are valuable, and each is appropriate in its own time.  However, I see one major difference between these two acts:  our emotions and desires fade over time, but our faith in God must remain consistent.

Ten years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, we do not experience the same emotions as we did on that day.  Some of us are young enough to not even remember that day.  But as I reflect on our cultural remembrances, I think those of us in the church – and remember, the church is not the same as our culture – those of us in the church would do well to reiterate our faith in God, who will remain God in good times and in bad.  No matter what happens, he will care for us.  Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.  And perhaps – just perhaps – at times like these, when people’s hearts are turned toward emotionally challenging memories, our message of salvation, wholeness, and hope in Christ might be able to take root in the lives of those around us.

Life is not about sorrow, anger, retribution, justice, prevention, or any of these things.  Life is about a living relationship with the creator of the universe, the one who died and conquered death that we might know him, be set free from sin, and live eternally with him.  On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand!

–Pastor David

Citizenship in the Kingdom of God

By now you are well aware of the news: Osama bin Laden has been killed. How should we respond as Christians? Much has been said in the past few days; here are a few more thoughts.

I am a citizen of the kingdom of God. This is due to the work of salvation that Jesus Christ began on the cross and has been completing in me since I accepted him into my heart when I was a child. One way our scriptures speak of this is being “born again” or “born from above.” This new birth marked my entrance into the kingdom of God, which Jesus proclaimed was breaking into the world but was not of this world. This kingdom is already present but not yet consummated. This kingdom is populated with human beings whose earthly mortality will not end their participation in the kingdom.

I am also a citizen of the United States of America. This is due to the fact that my parents lived in this country at the time that I was born. I am certainly grateful for all the blessings that accompany that citizenship – and I am sure that there are many of which I am not even aware. However, my citizenship in this country is only good for as long as my mortal body is alive. At death, this citizenship expires.

Why is this distinction important? I believe that I must maintain this distinction so that I can learn to react appropriately to events that take place in the world around me. When crime occurs in my neighborhood, I struggle with the presence of evil, but I attempt to forgive those who do me harm and pray for those who persecute me. When joblessness and poverty fuel each other in a vicious cycle, I encourage and share resources with (or ask for help from) people around me. When troubles, wars, famines, and plagues of all kinds strike my homeland, I trust in the Lord, who said these things must happen, and I offer a helping hand whenever possible.

How does a citizen of the kingdom of God react to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death? How should an American Christian respond? To be honest, I don’t know.

It is undoubtedly a good thing for the United States that bin Laden has been killed. His death signals a major victory against terrorist organizations, and it allows us to breathe a small sigh of relief after holding our collective breath for the past ten years. However, since my citizenship is primarily in the kingdom of God rather than in an earthly kingdom, my reactions to this event must reflect that identity.

One more person has died without having a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

This person’s death has elicited responses of satisfied revenge among many American citizens. King David praised God for how Abigail persuaded him not to seek revenge against her husband Nabal and the men of his town (1 Samuel 25:32-34).

This person’s death may usher in an era of peace for our nation; on the other hand, the future may hold more uncertainty and hardship. Jesus Christ’s command still stands: we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us – that is, those who persecute the church, not those who persecute the United States (Matthew 5:43-48).

Furthermore, we should agree with Paul, who says that “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:1-12). However, this statement comes in the context of disagreements within the church. How we choose to relate to other believers is, I believe, of far greater importance than how we choose to react to the death of an international terrorist. Our unity is of extreme importance, because it points to the reality of Jesus Christ coming from God the Father on a mission of sacrificial love (John 17:22-23).

Osama bin Laden is dead; this may indeed be a very good thing for our nation. Yet the mission of the church is the same as it was a week ago – and ten years ago – and it will remain the same ten years from now. Our safety and national interests cannot take precedence over the interests of the kingdom of God.

–Pastor David