“Why is God so different in the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT)? In the OT, He seems so wrathful. But in the NT, Jesus is so loving and tender … did God change over time?

That was a question to posed to me by a friend. It was a good one. Was God, as he said, so fickle and prone to mood swings?

I read through the OT, trying to find an answer. I found that in many instances where God was present amidst the people of Israel – they would feel a certain kind of fear.

Stretch your imagination and picture them: The Great Flood (Genesis 7) and the Ten Plagues (Exodus 7-11) would have been utterly terrifying to witness. And the Israelites met with death and venomous snakes in the desert. Even the encounter at Mount Sinai, where God met with Moses to reveal Himself to all Israel for the first time, was terrifying.

“You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. Not a hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot with an arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live …

Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:12-13, 16-17)

I was stumped. God seems so far away from man in parts of the OT – but was He really that distant? I found my answer as I read other chapters in the OT, where I found proof of intimacy between God and men:

  • God and Enoch: Enoch walked closely with God and was taken up by Him (Genesis 5:24)
  • God and Abraham: Abraham’s shield and exceedingly great reward (Genesis 15:1)
  • God and Jacob: Jacob wrestled with God face to face (Genesis 32:30)
  • God and Moses: They spoke face to face, “as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11)

I realised that when God met these people intimately, it occured when they were alone with God. That showed me that God is an intimate God who is tender and loving towards us.

Perhaps the reason why God is perceived as cruel and wrathful is because sin mars the way we see Him. Think of how Adam hid from God. That’s a picture of man when he sins against God – mired in fear and overcome by dread.

“Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”” (Genesis 3:9-10)

Sin separates us from God because God is holy and cannot tolerate sin. And that was the whole “distant” thing I had been asking God about. God isn’t wrathful, but His wrath as judgement necessarily follows after sin – judgement must exist if justice is to be upheld.

So, why is God more tender in the New Testament?

It’s because we get to experience Jesus in the NT, who came to bear our sins. And because He is fully God and fully man, we relate more easily with Jesus.

“But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

All of God’s wrath – consequential judgment for mankind’s sin – was poured onto Jesus. The pain of separation, the pain of fear – even the pain of death – Jesus bore all of it for us.

That was the price for peace with God. Jesus died for us, so our Father God could be intimate with us. He rose again, defeating death, so we’d someday be resurrected as well – raised into community with God.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:8)

Jesus died to reconcile the world back to God. What He did was perfect love.

“For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”” (Romans 8:15)

Through Jesus, we no longer need to remain fearful sinners. We can have the new identity of redeemed sons and daughters who are loved!

So, what was the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the New? If we read properly, there is no difference. God has always been holy, just and loving.

He’s the same and unchanging God who’s waiting for us to walk with Him.

This article was first published on Weiren’s blog, and is republished with permission.