Sunday, August 10, 2008

Old Covenant vs. New Covenant

Hebrews 8v8-13 (quoting Jer 31v31-34)
"The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.

This is the covenant I will establish with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, 'Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."

By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.

'Obsolete' is a very strong word. I've looked into it and the Greek word used here is also a strong word which kind of suggests 'redundant through old age'. The word translated 'outdated' here has more or less the same connotations. By using both words together, the author of Hebrews is really pushing his point home - the Old Covenant is no more, you are not bound by it, you do not need it.

So why do we have the Old Testament in our bibles today? A couple of times in the teaching from 'The Meeting House' (who I may have mentioned before) they assert that the story of the Old Testament is kind of like a history of what doesn't work. Its (apparently) a bit like an alcoholics anonymous programme, where before you get to discussing the things that do work, very often the group discusses all the things they've tried that don't work. So we need the Old Testament as a warning, showing us the sort of thinking and lifestyle and decisions that do not work.

But, we are not bound by it. The laws in there do not apply to us. We live by grace, not by law.

When we become part of the New Covenant, God writes his 'laws' on our hearts, so we no longer need the rule book.

So, does that mean we can do what we want? Fundamentally yes! If our hearts are right, having been written on by God, we won't want wrong things.

If only it were that easy though, 'what about our "sinful nature"?' I hear you cry. We're not perfect yet. OK, yes, things aren't that straightforward, but that doesn't need we need to return to law-based living. We have been freed from that 'burden'.

If you think about the amazing statement from Hebrews (and Jeremiah) above, and then look at the teaching and attitudes of much of the church, you'll realise that we are not living as God intended. There's still an awful lot of law in our Church. Sometimes it looks as if someone decided 'we no longer need those laws, what we really need are these new laws...'

No! Jesus died 'once for all' to get rid of all that!

A quick aside: The clearest example of the legalist mentality in the church in my experience came when I was 13. It was Christmas 1983 and the present that 13 year-old boys most wanted was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Stocks were limited, most of us that wanted them didn't actually get them in time for Christmas (mine arrived in January), but one of my friends (from a good, well respected, Christian family) got one on Christmas day. A Sunday. The sabbath. The day on which any form of TV watching was forbidden in his house. And in those days you needed to plug the Spectrum into a TV to use it. So he was given the thing he most wanted in the world, and then was told he had to wait until the following day to use it, because of the rules. Law, not grace. You could give and recieve presents on the sabbath and play with them - unless they involved switching on a TV...

So what's the deal with the old laws? Why did God give them?

Well, this is an imperfect analogy, but its the best I can offer...

I have a 6 year old daughter. I have imposed two 'laws' on her with regard to sleeping. She is to go to bed before 8pm and is not to get up until after 7am. The reason I have done this is that I know (although she does not) that if she doesn't have about 11 hours of sleep at night, she'll be too tired to get the most out of the day that follows and will often get grumpy and upset - with no apparent cause. Now, there is nothing special or magical about 8pm or 7am, but those are just the best times that fit our household lifestyle. Furthermore, these 'laws' will undoubtedly change as she gets older (and needs less sleep), and ultimately I hope she will learn the value of sleep and will begin to self-regulate her sleeping, such that no laws from me are needed anymore. It will take time and growth in maturity for her to internalise the principle, but she will get there one day.

In general terms, I see the same in the Old Covenant laws. There are a great many principles that the people of God need to internalise, but once we have - once they're written on our hearts - then we no longer need the laws, many of which draw lines in the sand that do not correlate to 'special' or 'magical' standards.

For example, there are laws in the OT clearly prohibiting inter-racial marriage. Not only would we reject that today (OK, not everyone would), but even in the context of the OT we see grace rather than law at work there - look at Rahab, look at Ruth, notice how they both feature in the genealogy of King David and ultimately in the genealogy of Jesus. The principal was there for a purpose - to preserve the uniqueness of the people of God - but sometimes the law needed broken (or disregarded) in God's plan. Even Moses - the law giver - had a non-Jewish wife!

So, once you've internalised the essence of the law, you can disregard the written law and even, in some instances, do the opposite of what it actually says because you realise that it doesn't apply in this situation. Don't work on the sabbath, but if you're a doctor and you see someone injured on the sabbath the right thing would be to attend to their needs, and disregard the law.

And we have internalised some of the principles, but we (by which I mean Christians) still have laws that are supplemental to the laws of the countries in which we live. We still haven't fully got it.

So, many of us are free and easy with sabbath observance (yes, we take a day off at least one day in seven, but I did drive about 20 miles in total yesterday (Sunday) and I did go to a supermarket and buy food for dinner. Most of us are dismissive of dietary laws (many of which were quite sensible before fridges and freezers were invented, but are obsolete now) and laws regarding what we wear. But we are still rigidly adherent to the letter of the law on some issues, particularly with regard to sexuality. That was the point of my last post, and I'll re-address the issue in another one soon.

Feel free to say 'yes, but...' now:


Marcus Green said...

The problem is a misunderstanding of the concept of "The Law".

There are 613 laws within "The Law" in the Pentateuch, and about two-thirds of them are about how we relate to God. The remaining third are about how we relate to each other. Strangely, we focus massively on that third, as if it's the stuff that really matters (well it's about us so of course it's more important - hmmm...) and that is symptomatic of the problem, but there's an even better way of showing what I mean.

You like words like "obsolete" and you say "The laws in there do not apply to us", and all I can imagine is that you have a view of the Bible that works like this:

In the beginning God created everything and it was glorious. But people sinned, and spoiled it all. So God pondered what he could do to restore poor fallen humanity - and came up with plan A - The Law. The only problem was - it didn't work; no-one was good enough to keep it. So then he came up with plan B - Jesus and the cross, and this time because it didn't depend on us being good (but sneakily on us being bad) it worked a treat. And all lived happily ever after.

Am I right? Is this (albeit in simplistic form) something like how you think it all works? And now that we have the cross, grace, forgiveness, PLAN B, we can ignore the vastly inferior plan A?

Respectfully, this is theological tosh.

The cross is plan A from all eternity. Always. But here's the thing - without the Law and the Prophets, it cannot be understood. They are signpost and guidebook to the destination of salvation, teaching how to get there, and what it will look like when we see it. Without them, we are tourists on the Gare du Nord thinking we have seen Paris.

The Old Covenant is given that we might have a world view that comprehends the New Covenant. At the birth of the New Covenant, the Old becomes obsolete in the way that your SatNav is obsolete when it says "you have reached your destination". But it still shows you the journey from death to life, the key route points along the way, and crucially major things to see now that you have reached "Life".

Would you agree that the Christian life is to be a life marked out by regular acts of worship in which we encounter God, and that our lives in between these acts are to bear the marks of having met with God and having been transformed by him into his likeness? Hey presto, you've just agreed that Leviticus is relevant for Christians today. And I agree with you.

Now - beyond that, there are fascinating conversations to be had. Not because The Law can be wiped away, but understanding The Law not as a moral code to inflict misery on humanity, but as a map of salvation to point us to Jesus, that map needs to be studied and understood. It has gold for the treasure seeker. Your question about the principal of "Sabbath for man" is a very good one indeed, because the whole Law works that way: God working to make people's lives better. Eternally better, for sure, though I wish we weren't so hung up about that - the OT really doesn't make a secular/spiritual distinction, it just seeks to make life better, presuming that this means everything. And if Jesus catches The Law being used to make people LESS, he gets angry.


Sinners, tax collectors.


Women with a menstrual flow who are forbidden to touch him - but then, his touch heals; so she had no flow by the time her finger left his robe.

So what does that say about the Church and Homosexuality?

Philip Yancey has a great phrase: Jesus, the sinless friend of sinners. We in the church have made the Old Covenant so obsolete we haven't the foggiest idea what it's for anymore. So some ignore it (and become friends of sinners, but sinless? Nonsense - they are indistinguishable from the people they befriend) and some think they keep it (trying to be "sinless, they point at people who are "less", and so are no-one's friends) and The Law is broken to a thousand pieces and stamped upon and ground into the soil in a torrent of abuse and an ungodly fight for power in the church.

If only we had kept sight of the best signpost and guidebook to the destination of salvation God in his wisdom saw fit to grant us, and to learn its wisdom and its lessons. We might have a little more understanding in our contemporary debates. For sure, the Law without the Cross is bitter, but the Cross without the Law is weak - both ways we are incomplete. And there's really no need.

Rant over.

Ricky Carvel said...


You seem to have come back from New Wine on fire!

And your imagination is racing too. While I possibly did have the 'plan A, plan B' mentality when I was younger - it is not far off what is taught in some churches - I came to understand that the cross was the only plan quite a number of years ago.

Yes, I understand that 'the law' gives us a context so that we can actually understand the new covenant of grace.

But your satnav illustration is interesting. Because it actually is obsolete and useless once you have reached your destination. All the 'turn left' or 'take the third exit' instructions mean nothing to you anymore. Continuing to follow them would actually take you away from your destination!

Yes, your description of the life of 'worship and good deeds' is a reasonable summary of how we aught to be living. But I think you're almost proving my point there - you've internalised the principles of leviticus and now don't really need the rules. I'm sure you don't actually use the described system of animal sacrifice and ritual washing in order to approach God.

[part two of this thought to be added after breakfast...]

Ricky Carvel said...

Marcus said:
Your question about the principal of "Sabbath for man" is a very good one indeed, because the whole Law works that way: God working to make people's lives better. [snip] And if Jesus catches The Law being used to make people LESS, he gets angry.

Absolutely! The whole intent of the law is to bring us closer to and make us more like God (and in doing so, increasing our quality of life - abundantly).

I realise one important thing that was missing in my original post. I didn't mention sin. While I am saying that the OT laws are no longer our rule book to define what is and isn't sin, I am not saying that there is no such thing as sin in the NT. Of course there is.

James 4v17 gives this great summary of what sin is in the new covenant: "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins."

Sin is no longer defined in terms of crossing lines in the sand, nor in terms of doing wrong, but in terms of failing to do what is right.

Jesus's standard is very high, Matthew 5v48: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Being perfect is an action.

As you say, we're not just to be the same as 'the world', but we are to be of the kingdom and act in the world for good.

But 'good' is no longer defined by rules, it is highly scenario dependent.

That is why sometimes it is important to actively do work on the sabbath. That is why sometimes it is important to speak out on an issue, while at others it might be best to keep quiet. And so on.



Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

Have we reached the destination, or are we still en-route? I for one am going to keep the satnav of the OT switched on!

The cross is indeed the focus of the OT but the destination lies beyond. In many ways it is where the journey begins. Jesus and the apostles both preached from the Old Testament for the benefit of the New Covenant community.

Every word of God is eternal. That is why Jesus had to come, because the requirements of the law were never just going to fade away, but had to be fulfilled. The grace we now stand on is on the basis of Christ's fulfilment of the law, not because of some dispensationalist notion that it no longer applies. Indeed it still applies to us, but by the Spirit not by the letter.

So we live by the Spirit, and not by the flesh, regardless of what orientational stamp society may put on it. To live by the flesh, be it heterosexual or homosexual is death.

Ricky Carvel said...

Welcome to the debate, Chris! To be honest, I was expecting you... ;o)

The way you phrased it there (and this may not have been your intent or your belief) made it sound like Christ had to come in order to fulfill the law. That is, the law came first and Christ was then required to come and tick the boxes.

I don't see it like that. Christ's earthly life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascention are the very focus of history. They're the fundamental part of the plan. The law was established to point to the coming of Christ, not the other way about.

Once the way has been made manifest in the flesh, do we really still need the signposts towards him in the same way as those who went before?

You go on to say that 'the law' still applies to us, but by the Spirit, not by the letter.

I agree. But what does that mean? If we're not bound by the letter of the written law, then we are not bound by some (many? all?) of the written commands in the OT. So insisting, as some do, that we need to adhere to (some of) the OT laws is indefensible. Which ones do we need to stick to, which ones do we ignore?

And thanks for bringing this thread back to my original thoughts relating to (homo)sexuality. You are right, we are to live by the Spirit not the flesh, I don't dispute that. But the issues in discussion in the church today are very fleshy - how do we approach them? By the letter of the law or by the Spirit?


Ricky Carvel said...

Oh and one other thing Chris, Jesus and his disciples did indeed preach the gospel to a Jewish audience with reference to the OT.

Interestingly enough though, when Paul spoke to an entirely gentile audience in Acts 17 he never once mentions the OT. His message of the gospel (to that audience) did not rely on the OT in any way.

And the debates in Acts 15 and Galatians make clear that the early church leaders decided not to impose the OT law onto gentile believers. They didn't need it.

Marcus Green said...

Sin is no longer defined in terms of crossing lines in the sand, nor in terms of doing wrong, but in terms of failing to do what is right.


(Still on fire then.)

Let's see: two ways of defining sin. First - breaking The Law. Er, 613 laws. Two thirds of them about how we relate to God. Not the moral stuff at all. The fundamental nature of sin is how we fail to relate to God. It's never simply about "doing bad things" in the Old Testament. Never.

Name some bad Kings - Ahab, the worst of the lot. Why? 1 Kings 16.29-33. He worshipped other gods. Didn't commit adultery or murder an innocent man (like David). These are "secondary" sins. He worshipped other gods - "primary" sins.

Second way of defining sin. It's the opposite of righteousness - the right relationship with God. Anything that breaks the relationship, or simply the broken-ness itself, that is sin.

It is never scenario dependent.

Are you worshipping God or does something else come first? Is what you are doing right now part of the healing or of the breaking of the relationship with God?

The Law is God's schoolteacher for his people that we might understand his principles for our lives; always was, always will be. You can make it up if you like - and sure, Paul evangelises without it to a culture that doesn't know it, but he then preaches its terms to them when they are converted (not as means to conversion but as ways of life, or do you think Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Self-Control etc come from somewhere else?) - but why make it up when there is something better on offer?

I'm with Chris hh.

And St Paul.

And Moses.

And Jesus.

And God is in the detail. Don't despise the detail just because stupid people want you to get hung up on it. We don't live by it, but that means we don't find Life by it - Life comes by Gift. Yet in the detail is extraordinary life. And it is a complex balancing act, it is. Absolutely, but here's the point:

Seeing Jesus without the spectacles of the Law is like listening to your favourite CD on your laptop speakers.

You can do it, but you are missing out. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE!

Obsolete my

Ricky Carvel said...

I may be about to backtrack (slightly) on some of the things I've said.

Watch this space for updates.

But, the word 'obsolete' is in your bible too...

Ricky Carvel said...

Marcus, I'm with you on the '2nd way of defining sin' - righteousness is not scenario dependent.

And there are some 'laws' in 'the law' that are still clear cut with regard to sin - it is always sin to put God second (1st of big 10), it is always sin to kill (6th of 10, yes, even in war I believe, although it would appear that many Evangelical Christians are 'just war' theorists), it is always sin to commit adultery (7th of 10) and so on.

But when it says that on the sabbath "you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates", that does become scenario dependent. In some sabbath scenarios, inaction would be sin and action would be righteousness.

So to say that sin is still defined in terms of breaking 'the law' is meaningless. We haven't used more than half of the laws in 'the law' for about two thousand years. And there is no way of defining which still apply and which do not. Some try and split the law into different categories 'moral laws', 'cultic laws' and the other, third division that I can't rememebr offhand. But there are no distinctions in the law, its all presented as hard and fast absolutes and breaking one bit is breaking the lot.

It is interesting that when Jesus was asked to pick the greatest commandment, he was forced to pick two - one, by itself, couldn't be enough. But its also interesting that the two commandments he picks are not part of the big 10. Nowhere in the main 10 are we required to love God or our neighbours.

Yet if we stick to Jesus's 'big 2' then we will actually fulfil most of 'the law' without having to worry about 'the rules'.

The intent of the law is still relevant (how we relate to God and to each other), the spirit of the law is still relevant, the purpose of the law is still relevant, but the letter of the law is obsolete.

(and so continuing to use verses like Leviticus 18v22 in debates between Christians is pointless and ultimately will not lead to any resolution within the body)

Marcus Green said...

When I talk of finding The Law to be the best way of understanding Plan A, I mean it in the broad brushstrokes and in the detail. So the Ten Commandments can be read in all sorts of ways - but have you ever stopped and tried to see them as something Jesus fulfils on the cross?

1. "No other gods before me". Not self. Not anger. Not power. Not the way things are. Not comfort. Not My Way. All these things are put in their place by the Saviour on the cross.

2. No idols. Not Caesar - "the system". Any system - for the Jews it was the religious system that they wanted to preserve that stopped them seeing the God who had come to save. Again, not self. In many ways this is simply the first one repeated. But Jesus strips bare the idols of the world as he is put on a pole and lifted up.
Note - the punishment for sin is given a limited shelf-life; the reward for righteousness is never-ending. Mercy shines out from the cross.

3. Blasphemy. All around the cross, God's name is abused and spattered with filth and mud. Jesus? With his own name being pelted with muck, he sings to God a Psalm of praise (Psalm 22) and cries "Father forgive!".

4. Sabbath. Two things. His work was done on day six; on the seventh he rested in the tomb, before beginning a new world of re-creation on the first day of a new week. But second - do note that this command makes everyone equal in the sight of God. This is no "rest for the rich", whilst the poor keep them comfortable. Everyone gets the same here. By God's command. Everyone is on a level playing field at the foot of the cross.

5. Honour your parents - that you may live long. Well, Jesus takes care of his mother's needs (with John) and praises his Father's name. But live long? Oh yes; eternally.

6. No murder. At the cross, the place of death? But Jesus uses it to bring life: if he comes down, it is indeed a place of death, but for us this becomes a gate to life eternal. Indeed no murder - just gift.

7. No adultery. Isreal commits one last act of prostitution, Hosea-like selling herself to Rome, Gomer's last fling. But Jesus takes on his people's mantle, their role, their calling, their unfulfilled faithfulness, and the faithful Son remains true to his first love.

8. No stealing. Satan steals hearts and minds. Jesus frees them. Satan tries to steal his life; but there is no theft here - this is freely given, and will be freely taken up again. To have kept what was rightly his, that would have been theft - the robbery of our eternity; but that was not on Jesus mind. He was keeping The Law.

9. No false testimony. Oh, it abounds from the religious men who bought it in order to bind Jesus to two planks of wood and keep him there till he bled to death. But Jesus is silent: no true testimony eitehr from him in this place about those people - for his true words would be their condemnation, and the Son of Man came not to condemn the world but to save it.

10. No coveting. "When you come to your kingdom - remember me!" How he must have longed for that moment. But it was not a selfish longing. Glory is no glory when kept alone. It is to be shared, not stored. He gave it away. He gave everything away.

Now, if you don't find things here for us to learn from, you aren't reading the same Law that I am. and by the way, I'm using the Deuteronomy 5 version, which goes on over the chapter line to have Moses sum it up in these words (Dt 6.5): "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." Not a bad summary. Amazingly, straight from The Law.

Ricky Carvel said...

That's great Marcus, with you on all that!

I've been thinking a lot recently about how Jesus is 'the Way' and 'the Word'.

Jesus is God's message to us. Spoken through actions and written in flesh.

Jesus also is 'the way' - not merely the way to get to God the Father (as I think many interpret that; in order to get to God we need to go through Jesus), but also the way to live - our ultimate pattern to follow. By living like him (yes, even to death if needed) we become truly the way we are suposed to be.