The Better Covenant
by Grace Outlaw
I have always been a fan of New Year's resolutions. In addition to typical resolutions like reading a certain number of books or expanding my running distance, every year in high school and college I would add 'read the entire Bible" to my list. Every year I would break open Genesis in January determined to get through it, and every year I would make it to Leviticus (one year I even made it to Job!) only to become overwhelmed and give up.
To be completely honest, the Old Testament scared me. I didn't understand the laws in it, I couldn't reconcile the fierce God of the Old Testament with the loving Jesus of the New Testament, and I was overwhelmed by ancient customs and traditions that had me terrified I wasn't living up to God's expectations, and that he was mad at me for constantly failing Him.
I think a lot of people who grew up Christian can relate. I think there is another group of Christians who grew up comforted by the Old Testament - the laws, customs, and traditions may give you a sense of comfort and guidance for what we should and shouldn't be doing as we navigate these difficult waters of life. Many of us grew up in the church on the stories of Noah, Moses, Jonah, and memorizing things like the 10 commandments. For these Christians the Old Testament can be comfortable and familiar. But what does the Old Testament mean to Christians today?
THE NEW COVENANT LENS
I hope if you have hung out with us at The Gathering for a while that you have heard us talk about viewing the Bible through a 'New Covenant lens'. But what does that mean? What I have had to wrestle with, and I hope many of you will consider is this: What roles do the Old and New Testaments play in my faith today? And are these roles different?
The word "Testament" actually means "Covenant" and the Old Testament tells the story of God's covenental relationship with his people; the Israelites. So, what does this mean - what is a covenant?
A covenant is a formal agreement or promise made between two parties to do, or not do, something specified. We see many covenants between God and different people or groups of people in the Old Testament.
In Genesis 9:11 God establishes a covenant with Noah and all living things: Never again will I flood the earth to destroy it.
In Genesis 12:1-3 God establishes a covenant with Abraham: Go from your country, and I will bless you and your descendants.
In Exodus 20 God establishes a covenant with Moses and the Israelites that establishes the ten commandments in addition to over 600 Jewish laws. This covenant was conditional on the Israelites obeying these laws.
The Old Testament was filled with these covenants some unconditional (God promises something), and sometimes conditional (if you follow these rules, then I will bless you).
The problem is that this system did not work well. The Israelites were constantly messing up, and had to rely on religious leaders to tell them what to do and what not to do in order to be right with God. 600+ laws is a LOT to keep track of! So God, in his relentless pursuit of his people, promised a better way:
"'The days are coming,' declares the Lord, 'when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people 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 broke my covenant... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people... I will forgive their wickedness, and I will remember their sins no more.' "
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Something big was coming, and it would save all of humanity from a covenant they couldn't possibly live up to.
JESUS ARRIVES ON THE SCENE
Jesus ushers in a period of transition between the Old and the New, which was quite a shock to the religious leaders after 1500 years of Mosaic law. The Old Covenant was still in effect when Jesus was born, but as he tells us in Matthew 5:17, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."
What does THAT mean? If someone went to your bank and paid off your mortgage, they would be fulfilling the contract between you and your bank. They would not be abolishing your mortgage - it wouldn't just go away - but instead they would fulfill it. Likewise Jesus didn't trash the Old Testament when he arrived on the scene, but he did fulfill the prophecies and the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament that called for a Messiah and ushered in a New Covenant.
THE PASSOVER THAT CHANGED IT ALL
The night of the Passover Jesus says this, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Jesus is not tacking on additional commandments to the Old Covenant - he is rendering the Old Covenant obsolete and ushering in a completely New Covenant.
Obsolete?! But surely that's heresy!
“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Hebrews 8:13
Oh thank goodness.
I know, Hebrews 8:13 is just ONE verse - surely this one little passage can't render the entire Old Testament obsolete?
Hebrews is a fascinating book - it was written specifically to the Jews that were being persecuted and pressured into returning to the Old Covenant, and this letter was encouraging them to remain in Christ. Even the word comes from the Hebrew verb ivri meaning “to cross over” - and these Jews were in the process of crossing from the familiar old of the Mosaic law into the new, grace-filled covenant ushered in by Jesus.
This book reminds again and again that this New Covenant is a better way, a better replacement for what was.
“This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.” Hebrews 7:22
“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” Hebrews 8:6-8
“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” Hebrews 9:15
THOU SHALT NOT?
The Mosaic law given to the Jews is comprised of over 600 laws, beginning with the 10 commandments. The 10 commandments are inseparable from the other 600. When Jesus fulfilled this covenant, he fulfilled every single one of these laws including the 10 commandments.
Jesus fulfilled these laws and pushes us one step further. It's enough not to murder someone, right?
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment." Matthew 5:21
Jesus addresses our heart. Following rules can be easy, but addressing our hearts? Addressing these issues when they arise in a loving way? That's the challenge of the New Covenant. And what a challenge it is! How many times have the 10 commandments been leveraged to demonstrate right and wrong? Have you ever heard a Christian claim that tattoos are a sin? Well, why do we eat animals with cloven hooves? Or why do we wear clothing of mixed fibers? It is a challenge to completely let go of the old, but let go of it completely we MUST. You cannot draw the line arbitrarily amongst the laws of the Old Covenant and pick and choose what to follow. When Jesus died on the cross, what he did was ENOUGH.
The early church struggled with this, and obviously many Christians still do. But Paul has some harsh words for those who want to pick and choose amongst the Old and the New.
"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?" Galatians 3:1-3
He's essentially saying, 'how dare you! Is Jesus not enough?!' And he continues by making a rather crude comparison:
"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." Galatians 5:2-4
Paul isn't pulling his punches when he tells believers you can't have it both ways. You cannot adhere to the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
SO WE CAN JUST IGNORE THE OLD TESTAMENT, RIGHT?
The most challenging part of the Covenant Theology, and the reason I think it gets so much push-back - including being called heretical and blasphemous - is because most American Christians grew up learning the stories and lessons of the Old Testament are equally as authoritative as the New Testament. When you hear that Jesus made the Old Covenant obsolete, it's easy to assume what we're saying is 'it's ok to throw out the Old Testament' - that 'it doesn't matter' - but that is entirely untrue!
The Old Testament tells the story of the Old Covenant. While these Mosaic laws are now obsolete to Christians, the Old Testament as a history of humanity and the story of God's people is still relevant.
When we look at the Old Testament through a 'new covenant lens', we can see God's relentless pursuit of his people. We see a love story - the story of humanity - and how God fulfilled our need for him by sending his Son to earth to die on a cross.
The Old Testament is incredibly useful to help Christians understand the implications of the gospel for our lives. It can also illuminate our understanding of God's way in the world. It paints a picture that shows how we got from the God of creation to the God of salvation, and how they are one and the same.
The Old Testament provides us with examples and illustrations of God's relationship with his people - all of which illuminates the amazing news of the gospel. We see how God was faithful to his people time and time again, despite their failures. We can also see how the apostles use the Old Testament when speaking to a Jewish audience, which clearly demonstrates God relates to people differently in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. Jesus changed it all.
The Old Testament required people to base their love on their own standard of fairness: to treat others the way you want to be treated. Jesus changed everything by raising the bar. We are to love others by his standard: love others as I have loved you.
We don't need to mix the old and the new - what Jesus gave us is better.