God's Two Different Moods: Old and New Testament
Why God behaves different before and after the coming of his Son
Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes
When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.”
-Matthew 5: 1-12, 17-18
Have you ever wondered why the moral law in the Old Testament differs from the moral law in the New Testament? The Sermon on the Mount, that is, Christ’s teaching on the Beatitudes, is different in its delivery and its emphasis. Many Christians over the years have been quite perplexed over God’s severe actions towards his people and sinners alike as opposed to the clemency he exhibits in the New Testament. Marcion, a second century heretic, even taught that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the New Testament.
To Fulfill Not Abolish:
To begin with, Jesus made it clear that the Old and the New Law are not opposed to each other. In fact, the former is fulfilled by the latter. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” Jesus fulfilled the law because he lived out his life in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the Spirit of God dwelling within him, inspired every one of his thoughts, words and deeds. Our Lord perfectly conformed to the will of his Father by means of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Isaiah foretold this when he said, “The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.” However, prior to the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the human race, as a rule, was devoid of these divine gifts.. Indeed, man was at the mercy of his own human frailty.
The Spirit Withdrawals: Everything Changes
Before God flooded the earth- even after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit -his Spirit had abided with mankind. But the descendants of Seth (God's faithful) had relations with women who belonged to the tribe of Cain (the unfaithful), known as the “Daughters of Men,” (Gen. 6:4). It was this act of infidelity on the part of Seth's tribe that moved the Lord to punish humanity and baptize the world, as it were, with forty days and forty nights of rain. As the story goes, God’s favor fell upon Noah and his family; and the rest is history. But even more important than the flood itself was the withdrawal of his Spirit. He said, “My spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is but flesh.” Upon the departure of his Spirit, knowledge of God, the spiritual gifts, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and that mark of civility which characterized Christian civilization centuries later would be scarce in the Old Testament world.
After exiting the ark, the Lord established a covenant with Noah. But the world would not be the same as when the Lord had walked side by side with Enoch. No. The new rules that were to govern mankind resembled what Charles Darwin coined as “the survival of the fittest.” Indeed, God inaugurated an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” policy; murder would be met with the death penalty; instead of living on plants alone, man would eat animal flesh; and in the post-flood world animals would become ill-disposed towards humans through fear.
The main point to keep in mind is that from the flood onward, the standard of morality lowered considerably. For instance, God never approved but nevertheless condoned polygamy and concubinage among his servants such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David. Warfare was brutal, capital punishment merciless, and divine punishment was severe and even dramatic at times. Human beings without God's Spirit were like little children who did not understand a well-reasoned argument as to why certain things were morally good or evil. Like a spoiled and unruly child, they were only able to appreciate the impact of God's heavy hand against their backside.
New Religion: Harsh and Exact
The Hebrew religion with all the prescribed rituals would have to appeal to the senses, that is, it was physical in nature and its observances had to be exact. All this was to symbolize man's lot in relation to God. To be sure, the Lord had not abandoned mankind completely but his fellowship with him was strained. In many ways, God assumed the role of a master instead of a Father. All this because the Sons of God (Seth's descendants) chose to marry the Daughters of Men (Cain's descendants); in so doing they signaled that their faith was secondary thereby taking a fateful step away from their Creator and Friend.
If, after reading the Old Testament, God seems severe and even caustic at times, it was because man had created this relationship. But God, who is a loving Father, did not let man wander too far off the path.
Some time had passed when the descendants of Noah and his three sons wanted to make a name for themselves by building the famous tower of Babel. This enterprise, however, was displeasing to the Lord. He subsequently intervened and divided humanity along ethnic lines into seventy-two nations. Confusing their language, God has prevented this enterprise from going forward.
It wasn't until Pentecost that the Holy Spirit once again descended upon humanity to restore both its moral power and fraternal unity. This would be realized only through Jesus' relationship with the Father; and this divine relationship would not only be revealed by the Spirit who binds them together but men, women and children alike would be invited to partake of this relationship.
Raising the Moral Standard:
With this backdrop in mind, the significance of the Sermon on the Mount can be better understood. Jesus fulfilled his Father's will with perfection; and he did this in the Spirit. Knowing that his followers would possess the same Holy Spirit he possessed, he would then elevate the demands of the moral law. In other words, he raised the bar and demanded more than what was previously demanded by God in the Old Testament. For instance, he said, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.'” Our Lord continued: “You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
As opposed to the Mosaic Law, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, puts the emphasis first and foremost on a person's interior; that is, on his thoughts and desires. As the saying goes: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” But in the absence of God's presence in the soul, the Mosaic Law was powerless to restore morality. It was an exterior system of rituals which had more symbolic value than anything else. But with the coming of the Holy Spirit, a new spiritual order would be forthcoming.
Beyond Mere Obedience and Imitation:
The prophet Ezekiel prophesied the following: “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” Jesus came to fulfill this passage from the prophet Ezekiel through his public ministry, his death, his resurrection and the sending of his Spirit from heaven. In the Sermon on the Mount, he raises the moral aim of his followers. With the impending infusion of the Holy Spirit into willing souls, Christians would be given a new moral power; as such, the demands of the moral law would be elevated.
It is important to understand that the new family of God- the New Israel -would not only be given a new law but would also have a divine model in which to imitate. Nevertheless, the observance of the moral law and the imitation of our Lord's example would prove to be insufficient. In the New Covenant, the people of God would be called to live the very life of Christ. The interior life of God- which is none other than the Holy Spirit -is communicated through the Sacraments. From this union with God, we can think with Christ and live as he did.