I got a very interesting comment over the weekend on my post about the new book I am reading by Stanley Hauerwas. The comment reads in part:
The bible seems to send mixed messages about war because the God of the old testament seems so warlike but in the new testament he is non-violent.
That is a very legitimate question and one that demands serious reflection rather than cheap platitudes.
There can seem to be a disconnect for Christians, sort of akin to a child growing up in an upper-middle class suburban home who finds a box of old pictures and realizes that his minivan driving parents used to be in a motorcycle gang. Reading the Old Testament without understanding the New Testament understandably leads to confusion. Various groups have tried to forcibly reconcile this in the past by positing that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New were not the same. That is neat and tidy but tragically flawed because it misses the important relationship between God the Father (the “God of the Old Testament”) and Jesus, God the Son (the “God of the New Testament”) .
One common way of dealing with this is a fatalistic appeal to sovereignty, a “well that is just the way it is” attitude. I get that we are not to question God but God has also revealed to us enough about His nature that we can certainly glean what is going on, why the God who called for the conquest of the land and the eradication of whole people groups can say “love your enemies”.
The key to understanding this lies in understanding the difference and even discontinuity between the Old and New Covenant. Trying to read the Bible as if there is not a radical change between the Old Covenant administration and the New is a recipe for confusion. It is this failure to understand the difference that leads to “Christian Zionism”, theonomy/dominionism and various flavors of dispensational/“Left Behind” theology. Just as God did not call the Israelites to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the pagan nations, He has likewise not called Christians to establish a physical home in the Promised Land. In other words, the New Covenant is called New because it is new and not like the Old.
God had a very specific purpose in the commands to go to war and conquer in the Old Testament, namely creating a unique people in a specific location that was distinct from the pagan nations that surrounded them. That is why we find the concern over not intermingling via marriage and avoiding contact with the pagan religions. National Israel was a shadow of the church to come, a unique people group. While Israel was marked by ceremonial laws that distinguished the Jewish nation from anyone else, the church is not tied to any nation and is made up of people from all tribes and nations and tongues. Rather than being called under the New Covenant to be distinct as a people group and separate from all others, we are called to go and make disciples, something that can never be accomplished at the end of a gun.
The nation of Israel is not a normative state for God’s people. Under the Old Covenant God commanded the Israelites to take possession of the land of promise as part of His covenant and because the land was already occupied, the Israelites were commanded to drive them out. Not just drive them out but eradicate their presence and prevent them from becoming an influence on the Israelites by being starkly distinct from them. We are not now and never will be called to form a distinct nation-state as a “Christian nation”. As such we have no need and are in fact forbidden to kill on behalf of a secular nation in their squabbles with other secular nations. Our mission, one that is incompatible with divided loyalties, is first and only to be ambassadors of Christ. As others have said, when a nation sends an ambassador to a foreign country, the ambassadors doesn’t enlist in the armed forces of the nation he is sent to.
Has God changed? By definition He cannot. What has changed is the way He relates to His people via covenantal revelation. We live under the New Covenant. As such we have no earthly king like David, rather we have Christ as our King. We have no prophets who call the kings to account, our King is our Prophet. We have no human priestly caste to act on behalf of God because we are all priests under the headship of Christ as our Great High Priest. The church is not a parenthetical in the quest by God to create a nation-state in the Middle East, rather the nation of Israel was a parenthetical type and shadow of the church to come. God no longer commands and no longer permits His people to kill. The normative state for Christians is not warfare but enemy love. God has not changed but the way He interacts with His people and the way He calls His people to interact with the world certainly has under the New Covenant.
I am not sure that captures what I am trying to say but the overall point is that God is the same. He did not change from a bloodthirsty god of war to a peacenik hippie god. His jealousy for His name, His holiness and righteousness are the same. So is His love and mercy and grace. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Trying to comprehend that is impossible for finite creatures but with study and submission we can see why He commanded the Israelites to conquer under the Old Covenant but demands that we love our enemies and eschew the sword under the New.