Following God, Across Time2021 Jun 12
In broad strokes, the first part of the Bible (the OT, Old Testament) is the story of God bringing a single people, a nation, to himself. And the second half of the Bible (the NT, New Testament) is the story of God bringing the rest of all peoples to himself.
Did that mean before the NT, that God did not bring people other than this one nation of Israel to himself? Certainly not.
History and Time
The OT story does concentrate on this one people, but there are other people who knew God and are mentioned in passing (such as Melchizedek priest of God Most High in Genesis 14). Additionally before Abraham, there was a whole line of men of God (and their families). And also as God told Elijah (1 Kings 19:18), he quietly reserves many more to be faithful to Him.
In these times, we say that those who have a right relationship with God are saved. They are saved from being excluded from God‘s presence; they are saved from the only other option which is a lonely hell. We know that this salvation is possible exclusively because of the work that Jesus Christ did. Thus, we call on the name of Jesus to be saved. We are very privileged to be living in this point of history after Jesus.
However, what about those who loved God and lived before Jesus - were they saved? Generally, that is not the language we use to describe them. Those who lived before the time of Jesus had no way to know him. Was their spiritual status any different than ours?
Theologically, Jesus has been the only way to God for those in history both before his time on earth as well as afterwards. This is because Jesus took on himself the consequence of death for the rebellion of all of us. Therefore, we say God is justified in forgiving our sins because of what Jesus did. note
Our rebellion against God has consequences on us (death). God could not just hand-wave it away. God instead took this consequence on himself and that is why God is justified to forgive us.
What Jesus accomplished by his human life, by his death on the cross and by his resurrection was effective for all people, throughout all time. Abraham was as saved by the work of Christ as I am saved by it. Salvation is the work of God, and we access it only by faith. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 4:18-25. We are saved by faith in God just like Abraham was. By faith, righteousness was credited to Abraham, and we know that only through the work of Christ is the righteousness of God brought to humans (2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 1:9-11).
How can it be that Abraham, who lived 2000 years before Christ, is benefited by the same work of Christ as we are, 2000 years afterwards? Of course this is because Jesus is both God and human, and God is not limited by time like we are. In Abraham’s time, the work of Christ was just as real and accomplished to God as it is to us now because God stands outside of time.
The Consistency of God
So has God dealt in a consistent way with people before and after Christ? note
A question has reoccured through church history about whether the God of the OT was the same as the God seen in Jesus. Some people could not reconcile the actions of God in the OT with God’s actions and revelation in the NT. Some were even were convinced the OT and NT god were not the same entity. This issue has changed the course of church history because some of these people were influential.
I agree this idea is a challenge, but I think it is more an issue of perception and understanding than of fundamentals.
There is a tricky thing about the OT in that it has served as a nation’s historical documentation as well as storage of what other peoples were to know and learn about God. The Jewish people did not distinguish their national heritage from their spiritual heritage as they collected their documents. We inherited everything as they assembled it. Therefore, there are aspects in the OT that are meant to pertain only to a historical nation and this is not always easily distinguished. Strictly speaking, our OT is not a Christian document even though we see it is something God brought to us.
The Jews documented that God directed them to nation building, which included warfare. This in particular has been troubling to some people. Maybe they were explicitly instructed to war by God, or maybe the Jews just documented it that way. In any case, we are told in the NT that man’s understanding of God at that time was limited. This is because it is only in Jesus that we are given an accurate representation of God and revelation of his character (Hebrews 1:1-3).
When God made his covenant with the Israelites (Exodus 20, 24), civil rules of justice and mercy were included in the book of law (Exodus 21-23). Note however that the covenant commandments as documented on the stone tablets was very small - only the Ten Commandments. By the time of Jesus, this had been greatly ballooned up by legalists. Case law (Numbers 36), theological rule making (Matthew 23:23), and etc had made the law into a system that was humanly unworkable according to Jesus (Matthew 23:1-4).
Jesus as God was against this extra stuff. The teachings of Jesus did not repudiate the God of the OT, but Jesus’ teachings did repudiate additions humans had made to what God had established. (See also The Commands of Jesus.)
It is for this reason we should be careful, as followers of Jesus/God, about what we take from the OT regarding the character of God and about what God requires of us. Jesus is a clear representation of God to us. We certainly know we can trust the things about God in the OT that align with the character of Jesus.
There is one aspect that is different between the OT and NT: In the first, God focused on one people with a stated goal for them to bring understanding about him to the whole world. In the second, God broadened that focus to the whole world through Jesus and his apostles, making use of the shared Greek culture and Roman governance of that time in history. In the OT, God invested in a nation and an earthly kingdom. In the NT, God introduced a kingdom that is spiritual and is not an earthly kingdom. note
Why would God do something different between the OT and NT? I think it is because God wanted humans to be able to learn from history that human effort alone consistently fails.
We see this even in Romans 7:7-11 where Pauls talks about the law producing death in him. Before the standards in the law were given, we could have been ignorant that some behaviors were not acceptable to God. After the law was known, we clearly knew we did not measure up, and this clearly showed us that on our own we could only fail in relationship with God.
God plays a very long game. At the point in the OT when God gave the covenant (Exodus 20-25), God did something different with people (that is, God did a new thing), to teach us about ourselves in relation to him. The time of Jesus was another change point in teaching from God.
Once God established the nation of Israel, the people did have God involved in their lives. However, this involvement was oriented toward the group and not so much toward individuals. The OT speaks of how the Spirit of God was only on a few significant individuals at that time.
Jesus however promised something new. He would send the Spirit of God to all his followers, to help them grow in godliness (John 14:16,26). He made this promise immediately after giving them his new command to love each other like he had loved them (John 13:34). The Holy Spirit works individually in us, reminding us of Jesus’ teaching. The Spirit strengthens us to the task of becoming like Jesus as shown by our love.
In the covenant God made with the Israelite people, he gave them simple rules of justice and mercy and the commandment to love God (Exodus 20-25). They went astray of their covenant promises to God. However, God kept calling them back to these basics when he spoke to them through the prophets.
“…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6:8 NIV
This is entirely consistent with what Jesus taught. When Jesus was asked about commandments, he also went back to basics (love God, love people - Matthew 22:35-40) and said nothing more than these basics was needed. Jesus did add one more commandment for his own followers, but it simply elaborated on the quality of love that God desires of us (love like Jesus - John 13:34-35). note
See also The Commands of Jesus.
Anyone who followed these teachings of Jesus would be a godly person. But notice also that anyone who followed what God taught in Micah would be godly (walk humbly with your God). And anyone who kept the covenant as originally given to the Israelites would also be godly (#1: love God). note Godliness comes from loving God; as a direct consequence of this love, we love people. We know that this is godliness because this is exactly the example Jesus lived for us.
The 1st Commandment says to love God. This directly connects to what Jesus confirmed in his answer about the greatest commandment, and therefore to his answer about godliness.
So, God has been consistent in what he has asked of people through time: love God, love people. Consistently also it is by the work of Christ that God has been able to bring people into right relationship with Him.
Our natural state is to be an enemy of God (Romans 5:10). This makes sense from a value system perspective because God’s primary motivation is sacrificial love for others, but our native value system is selfish. (Notice that babies are born demanding their way.) We and God have values that oppose each other, and we are not naturally inclined to approach God.
Still, we are made in the image of God so there are elements of God’s character in us. For instance, we all have a sense of justice. That would not make any sense if we had nothing but selfishness in us. When we are wronged, why should we perceive it as injustice instead of just selfish dissatisfaction? This shows that we inherently intuit values beyond our own selves. Why do humans show altruism and kindness? It shows that we can see practical beauty in unselfishness.
Because the nature of God and humans has been consistent through history, it always has been God who starts reconciliation (Romans 5:8-10). Then because God has made us in his image, we have had the option to respond.
The Nature of God
So, what we call salvation has always been a gift from God because of his nature and character. God loves every one of us greatly, and therefore he made a way to forgive us for our selfish values and behaviors.
When Jesus met people on earth he forgave the sins of those who had faith in God, even before the cross. This shows that God has always been able to forgive and save people of faith regardless of time or place. So all through time, God has acted on what Jesus finished at one point in time.
It is God who takes the initiative and introduces himself to people before they are even conscious of it. God chooses to work in the hearts of people to move them towards Him. When a person comes to a point of awareness of God, God lets them choose for Him or not. (The balance between God and us regarding this choosing remains a profound paradox.)
This story has been true for all people through all time. God has never been limited about bringing people to himself where or when he choses. God doesn’t tell us all the things he is doing. However, sometimes such as in his comment to Elijah we see that he is doing much more in the lives of people than we are able to see.
God is love, and God loves people (John 3:16). We can trust in this. note
We trust God to reach those who need him or would want him. This includes people near to us and those far away in other places, including even in those places that have limited knowledge of God. The reason a trust like this is valid is because our trust is in a merciful God who loves the world.
We believe in a God who does right by all people even though we do not understand how he does. And we believe God has consistently been like this through all history. We believe that God saved people before Jesus because of his love and mercy. In the time before anyone could call on the name of Jesus, God saved people on a large and generous scale.
Before anyone could call on the name of Jesus, God worked in the hearts of people that he chose; then they could respond and choose to seek God. God was not limited and could chose anyone, anywhere, anytime. What God did before, God is still able to do.
Of course, we also believe that God has given us responsibility to tell others about him, and so we do this. Most people learn about God from other people, therefore this is important work. However, anybody who hears us and responds must have had God already working in their heart even just to be able to respond to him. This goes back to native human enmity with God and which God takes the initiative to overcome.
What about those who have not been told about Jesus? Is God doing right by them? Again because I believe in a loving and merciful God, I believe that yes, God is doing right by them as well. I don’t know how God does this, but I trust in a God who deeply loves people.
All people, through all places and time in response to God's love are saved by trusting in God's mercy. They become godly by responding to and mirroring the love that God shows them. When they show out this love by loving people, then we know that they love God - then we know that they are godly.