Tough Questions: why doesn’t the New Testament emphasize God’s ‘Jealousy’?

Hi Dr. Smith,

 I was intrigued by your comment today about the God of the Old Testament vs. the God of the New Testament & how so many people separate the two between a God of wrath & vengeance vs. a God of love & concern. I found this dialogue very timely, as my boyfriend & I just had a discussion last night regarding the godly characteristic of jealousy. We discussed the fact that jealousy is typically viewed with a negative connotation, yet the OT clearly describes God as a jealous god (Ex 20:4-6, Deut 4:23-25, Nah 1:1-3). However, we also discussed the fact that the NT never describes or refers to God as jealous… 

 What should we make of this? Did God change from the OT to the NT in regards to being jealous (like so many people believe) OR is it more so that just b/c the NT doesn’t mention it doesn’t mean God still isn’t jealous? I left the discussion last night perplexed, wanted to see if you had more insight…

Good question.  First, we should probably note that God’s jealousy is mentioned in the New Testament:  John 2:17 and 2Co. 11:2. That last one is speaking of Paul, but he does call it a “godly jealousy” which certainly implies that he understands this to be a characteristic of God.  However, these verses may not come up on a search depending on the translation because some English translations use the term “zeal” instead of “jealousy”.  That’s a perfectly understandable translation because the Greek term is zēlos, which means something like passion.    However, this term (or its counterpart zēlōtēs) is the same Greek term that was used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew qana in passages like Ex 20:5 (…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…).  So this idea that God is jealous/zealous for His people is found in both the Old and New Testaments.

God’s “jealousy” is, however, less emphasized in the New Testament, as you’ve rightly noted.  Why is this?

Well, first, I think we shouldn’t overemphasize the difference of frequency between the Testaments.  Since the New Testament is about 1/3 the size of the Old Testament we would naturally expect any term to be used considerably less in the NT, even if it was being emphasized to the same extent.  But of course not all concepts are going to have equal emphasis in both Testaments, which brings us to the second reason why God’s jealousy is not mentioned very often in the NT:  the jealousy of God in the OT is always tied to God’s response to national Israel as a covenant people; that is, when  we see God being “jealous” in the OT it is usually linked to national Israel’s abandonment of the covenant.  In the New Testament, however, there is a dramatic shift of focus from national Israel to the Church which includes (and at the moment is predominantly composed of) Gentiles.  This shift of focus to include the Gentiles means that the covenant promises to national Israel – and the accompanying divine “jealousy” with which God pursued national Israel – are no longer the dominant focus and, consequently, the statements of God’s jealousy are fewer in number.

In other words, since the NT focus is not on His covenant with national Israel, mentions of the jealousy which He felt when national Israel abandoned their covenant with Him are fewer in number.  It doesn’t signify a change in God’s nature or behavior but a shift in focus on the part of the text.  God remains as He has always been, but the statements of His covenantal jealousy are fewer in the NT simply because that covenant is no longer the primary emphasis.