Almost four years ago, I wrote a post addressing the phrase “the God of the Old Testament.” Little did I know then that it was going to explode from being an interesting point of doctrinal dispute into a contention that could split churches. I know of at least one group that has already divided over the question, “Who was the God of the Old Testament?” And now the related issue of whether Jesus was created by the Father or existed before His human birth is starting to tear apart one of my local churches.
In the post from four years ago, I described the phrase “God of the Old Testament” as coming under the category of “stupid things we say in the church.” I still believe that. The wording is misleading and confusing, often causing inaccurate statements and doctrinal fallacies. In reality, the God we worship today is the exact same God (two beings in one) that has always existed. Scripture is quite clear on this point. And trying to argue that either the Word who became Jesus OR the Being we now know as the Father was the only “God of the Old Testament” is an exercise in futility (and quite possibly blasphemy as well).
The arguments on both sides are no longer just an intriguing discussion about scripture. They’re becoming a stumbling block . I’ve heard that some people in the group I mentioned which has already split are so confused they don’t even know who to pray to anymore. And studies into this topic, which may have started out with good-hearted Christians seeking to understand the word of God more fully, are turning into schisms, contentions, and heresies that cannot be pleasing to God. He does not look kindly on those who generate endless debates (Tit. 3:9), fracture His body (1 Cor. 1:10; 12:25), or lead His little ones into error (Matt. 18:6). This has to stop.
Why Is This So Contentious?
I think part of the issue with resolving questions like this is that we often fail to look at the Bible as a whole. We get so focused on digging out the slightest variations in meaning for a specific scripture that we don’t look up from analyzing a single sentence long enough to see there’s a whole narrative that clears things up. That’s something I talked about in my post titled, “Why Does It Matter If Jesus Existed Before He Was Human?”
Another way we fall prey to deception in this area is what I call the two ditches problem. Human beings aren’t good at finding balance in our ideas. We tend to avoid the middle of the road. So if we discover that we’ve been taught an extreme view in one direction (for example, that Jesus is the only “God of the Old Testament”), there’s a temptation to head straight for the opposite ditch (e.g. that Jesus wasn’t around at all in the Old Testament). In trying to avoid one error we come up with a new one.
Something else that might be playing a role for certain people is the temptation to come up with their own doctrine. If you’ve been lied to by church leaders in the past (and far too many of us have), we might want to question everything we’ve been taught. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. In fact, following blindly is a great way to end up in errors that could be avoided if we were studying the Bible for ourselves. But if you start feeling like you have to come up with a new or alternative way of seeing scripture that is “your own,” then you can run into problems. Chances are, you’re not the only person God is revealing “new truth” to. And if you have to argue your point out of obscure commentaries or a possible mistranslation when the people who believe something else have myriads of clear scriptures and the bulk of Biblical scholarship to back them up, then there’s a good chance you’re the one who’s wrong.
“God” Has Always Been Two
Let’s dive into the scriptures now. Some of this is going to be a repeat of the post I wrote four years ago, but I doubt most of you have read that and it’s good for context. We’ll begin in Genesis.
The word translated “God” in the opening chapters of Genesis, Elohim, is plural. From the very beginning, we’re given a picture of two Beings so closely related that They can be referred to by one plural name. It’s similar to the way that we use a family’s last name to encompass several individuals, e.g. “the Bakers.” We can even see the fact that there are two Beings in English when They say, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). This isn’t a single being talking to Himself. It’s two acting in perfect unison to create humanity.
There are examples throughout the Old Testament of people who knew there were two God-beings. The most well-known is probably Psalm 110:1, which reads, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.'” But other writers besides David recognized this, too. In Proverbs, Agur wrote,
Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name, if you know? (Prov. 30:4)
We often say the Father-Son relationship didn’t exist between the two God-beings until Christ came in the flesh, but that phrasing is used here anyway. I’m assuming this description indicates the type of relationship They have didn’t change all that much throughout history (which fits with what we know of the unchanging nature of God), though it could also be looking forward to the fulfillment of their plan for the Son to come to this earth as Jesus. Similar wording is used in Daniel’s prophesies where two God-beings appear.
I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)
Christ referred to this scripture as confirmation that He was the Son of God when the high priest asked him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus had no problem confirming that He is the Being identified as “Son of Man” who Daniel saw interacting with the Ancient of Days. And there are other places He confirmed His involvement in other Old Testament encounters between God and human beings as well.
Encountering The I AM
One of the many things Jesus said to upset the Jews of His day was that He had seen Abraham. The implication that accompanied this statement — that He was God — made them want to stone Him.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:56-58)
In this passage, Jesus also claimed the title “I AM” by which Elohim introduced Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). And this isn’t the only passage where Jesus made this connection (see Mark 14:62). Reading from John’s account of Jesus’ betrayal in the Complete Jewish Bible shows us this:
Yeshua, who knew everything that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Whom do you want?” “Yeshua from Natzeret,” they answered. He said to them, “I AM.” Also standing with them was Y’hudah, the one who was betraying him. When he said, “I AM,” they went backward from him and fell to the ground. (John 18:4-6, CJB)
Claiming this name was so powerful that it bowled the people who’d come to arrest Jesus over backwards. That wouldn’t have happened if Jesus simply meant “I’m the guy you’re looking for.” The name of God is powerful and Jesus isn’t using it lightly. He’s telling us who He is and Who He has been for eternity past.
When people in the Old Testament encountered the I AM directly, they were not seeing the Father. Jesus told us, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). Christ repeats this two more times saying He is the only one who has seen the Father (John 6:46) and that no one else at that time knew the Father (John 7:28-29). Witnessing to this fact is 1 John 4:12, which states “no one has seen God at any time.” That doesn’t mean they didn’t know of the Father (since several scriptures show they did know of two God-beings). Rather, it indicates they didn’t see Him in-person and probably didn’t talk with Him.
I don’t have the time here to look at all the scriptures where God appeared in the Old Testament, but there are plenty of them (click here for a good article on theophanies). Because these verses saying that no one has seen the Father are uncomplicated and clear. It leaves little room for doubt that while there have always been two Beings in the God-family, the Word who became Christ was the one mainly responsible for interacting with Their creation.
The Word Of The Lord
As The Word, Jesus has been entrusted with expressing the thoughts of the Godhead to man. That’s what logos (the Greek word translated “Word” in John 1:1-3, 14) means: an expression of intelligence. When used as a title, it also implies the role of speaker or spokesperson. In his dictionary on Biblical Greek, Spiros Zodhiates writes that this phrase presents the Word “as the second person of the Godhead who is the eternal expression of the divine intelligence and the disclosure of the divine essence” (entry 3056, IV).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1-3)
The sentence structure used in Greek supports interpreting this passage as talking about two distinct God-beings. The phrase usually translated “the Word was God” is conveyed in Greek using an unusual clause. In an article published in Journal of Biblical Literature, Philip B. Harner proposed that this structure is used to “express the nature or character of the subject,” and that a more accurate representation into English of “the Word was God” would be, “The Word had the same nature as God” (Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1, p. 75; 87). In other words, “The Word is divine, but he is not all of divinity, for he has already been distinguished from another divine person” (Bruce Vauter, The Gospel According To John, quoted by Harner on p.86).
Since we know from Hebrews 13:8 that Christ’s character is constant, it makes sense that this role would be consistent throughout the Bible. It’s interesting to look at the Old Testament passages saying things like, “The Word of the Lord came to Abraham” from this perspective (Gen. 15:1, among others). Perhaps the God we now call Jesus has been known as the Word for longer than we thought.
As the One responsible for the act of creation (see Ps. 33:6; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 3:8-9; Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 1:1-2; 2:10), it was fitting for The Word to redeem us by His own sacrifice. And we can see that this was planned from the beginning from His description as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” and the statement that God gave us grace “in Christ Jesus before the world began” (Rev. 13:8; 2 Tim. 1:9). This also fits in with the narrative arc that runs throughout the Bible of Jesus redeeming a Bride, which I talk about at greater length in chapters 2-4 of “God’s Love Story.”
Before We Called Him Jesus
The Bible also provides additional clues telling us which of the two God beings interacted directly with people in the Old Testament. One of the clearest passages addressing this is in 1 Corinthians, where Paul talks about Israel’s history.
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. 10:1-4)
It really can’t get much plainer than that. Paul additionally says, “nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted.” That added statement confirms that he’s identifying The Word, who we now know as Jesus Christ, as the God who Israel tempted (1 Cor. 10:9). We can conclude, therefore, that the One who spoke with Moses about Israel tempting Him was the Word (Num. 14:22-23)
It’s also worth noting here that acknowledging the role Jesus played before He came as a human in no way diminishes God the Father’s role. Rather, the Father says He is glorified when we acknowledge His son’s Lordship (Phil. 2:5-11). And we’re also told that not acknowledging the Son means you’re antichrist and that you lose your relationship with the Father (1 John 2:22-23). In fact, the Father loves us because we love Jesus Christ (John 16:27). The two Beings we know as God are not sitting up in heaven arguing about who gets more glory or fighting over roles. And there’s actually quite a bit of fluidity with their titles. We even have passages describing Jesus as “Father” (Is. 9:6) and the Father is called our Savior (1 Tim. 1:1).
There are going to be times when we cannot in any useful or meaningful way separate, or even identify, which of the two God-beings is being talked about in a specific passage. That truth leads to another important fact which I’ve already alluded to. Just because the Word who became flesh is the one interacting directly with people in the Old Testament, that doesn’t mean the Father wasn’t their God as well. Indeed, He is identified as “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” by Peter in Acts 3:13. Both God-beings have been God for all eternity and the people who’ve had a relationship with one also knew about the other. To debate which one was “the God of the Old Testament” is pointless because it assumes as fact something that is non-scriptural. There was not one “God of the Old Testament.” The God we see in the Old Testament is the exact same two Beings that we know from the New Testament.