Forty years ago this month, I took a challenge that radically changed my life. In December of 1981 our pastor issued a challenge to the members of First Baptist Church of Boynton Beach. He challenged us to read the Bible through in the year to come, 1982. He made arrangements with a local Christian book store so that we could purchase a new NIV Bible at a discount and he provided everyone with a daily devotional guide produced by the Walk Thru the Bible organization. He knew that we would need some help in order to stick with it through the whole year.
By the grace of God, I stuck with it and it changed me. Contrary to the experience of many, reading the Old Testament changed my thinking and the way I related to God as much as reading the New Testament. Many people try reading the Old Testament and all they see is lists of genealogies, rules and regulations, nations at war or a God who seems angry all the time. It’s led many Christians to ignore the Old Testament and some to declare it irrelevant. That breaks my heart, because I saw something else and still see it today.
I saw grace. I saw how people rebelled against God time and time again, how they snubbed Him and turned away and did what they wanted over and over again. Yet, over and over again God was patient. He didn’t give people what they deserved. He forgave and provided and called people back to Himself. I saw this most emphatically in regard to the nation of Israel. God made them a nation and declared them to be His chosen people. He rescued them from Egypt, delivering them through the Passover and through the Red Sea and to Mt. Sinai. Through all of it they went kicking and screaming, complaining at every turn. They panicked at the Red Sea, grumbled at Meriba, turned their backs on Him at Mt. Sinai and refused Him as they stood on the border of the promised land. After they finally got to the promised land it only took one generation before they went chasing after other gods. Still, God was patient with them. Time and again He sent invaders, plagues and drought to get their attention. Over and over and over again He sent judges and kings and prophets to call His people back to Himself.
In all of that, God showed me myself. I came to realize that I was no different. I saw where I had turned my back on Him, complained against Him and had done my will rather than His. I saw that I was just as stubborn, unbelieving and rebellious as they were. But, there was something else that also jumped out at me in my reading. Every time the people turned back to God, every time they repented and cried out to Him, He received them, He forgave their sin and He welcomed them back. I figured if He responded to the people of Israel that way, then I could trust Him to respond to me in that way as well. And He did, over and over again!
In the book of Exodus Moses asks to see God’s glory. The Lord then hides Moses in a cleft and passes by. This is what He says as He passes by, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Is He the God of justice? Absolutely. But notice what He leads with: compassion, grace, patience, forgiveness and love. Giving us what we deserve is not His first inclination. His heart is to show mercy and grace. We know this of course, because the Old Testament is not the end of God’s revelation of Himself. He proved that He is abounding in love because He sent His Son to atone for our sin and satisfy His justice once and for all. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s declaration to Moses. He is the One who physically and visibly displayed the compassion, grace, patience and mercy declared on Mt. Sinai and extended to the Israelites time and again. This is, in large part, what the letter to the Hebrews is getting at when it says that Jesus is “the exact representation of (God’s) being….”
So how do you read the Old Testament? Full of fire and brimstone? Does it leave you with an image of God as angry and brooding, just looking for us to mess up so that He can smite us down? Did Jesus have to come to rescue us from the God who is out to get us? If that’s the case, may I encourage you try again? 2022 would be a great year to read it all again believing that God is who He says He is. It could change your life. Then you could say with the Psalmist, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good.”