The Old Testament’s image of God as a warrior seems to influence many Christians’ worldview more profoundly than the New Testament’s image of Jesus as the incarnation of peace. How should I reconcile the two?
The image of God as a warrior appears many places in the Old Testament. Exodus 15:3-19 describes him this way as it celebrates his deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea. Isaiah 59:17-20 describes God wearing battle gear, including a breastplate and helmet, as he goes out to unleash his wrath on his enemies. In addition, the Old Testament records God commanded his people to engage in violence, ordering them to kill men, women and children (Joshua 6:16ff; Deuteronomy 7:1ff).
This “God as warrior” imagery seems to be at odds with the picture of God we find in Christ. Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:43ff). He commands them to forsake vengeance and violence altogether (Matthew 5:38ff). Jesus lived by these principles, refusing to use violence to save himself, submitting to a torturous death on a Roman cross.
The Apostle Paul taught the battle in which Christ’s followers engage isn’t against people (“flesh and blood”), but against demonic forces (Ephesians 6:12ff). He took the imagery applied to God in Isaiah 59:17-20 and applied it to believers engaged in spiritual warfare. The book of Revelation uses warlike imagery in relation to God and Christ, but it puts that imagery in terms of spiritual battle (Revelation 1:12ff). The main image of Christ in Revelation isn’t a warrior but a lamb that was slain (Revelation 5:6).
The differences in the images of God found in the Old and New Testaments caused early Christian heretics like Marcion to claim they were referring to different gods! They believed the God of the Old Testament was inferior to the God of the New Testament.
Given these divergent views, it isn’t surprising Christians have different views on the places of violence and war in life. How do we reconcile these different images of God?
Same God revealed in Old and New Testaments
We must remember that although we affirm God inspired both testaments and the same God is revealed in both, our ultimate standard is Jesus Christ. In John 14:7, Jesus said when we see him, we see the Father. Hebrews 1:1-3 says in the course of history, God has spoken to us at many times and in various ways, but in this last segment of history, he has spoken to us by his Son. He says the Son is the ìexact representationî of God’s being.
Again, we affirm the God in both testaments is the same. Yet we also believe his Son Jesus is the clearest revelation of him we’ve received. While we take into account the images of God as a warrior, we must live by the image of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the incarnation of peace.
Robert Prince, senior pastor
First Baptist Church
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