Friday, November 4, 2011

The Old Covenant and You

After far too long, it's about time I wrapped up the three-part series I started over a month ago on the Old Testament. In the first part I argued that the Old Testament is of critical importance for every Christian and we can't afford to brush it aside just because it's more challenging than the New. In the second part I unpacked the two main covenants, or agreements, in the Bible: the old covenant, or "law", and the new covenant, or "gospel". Finally, I'm going to try to get a bit more practical by tackling the question: what is the relationship between Christians today and the old covenant? Having already been saved by faith, are we still supposed to try to obey the law as part of imitating Christ? Luckily I have a bit of help on this one as this post will largely be a summary of a conversation I had with my pastor a few months ago on the subject. (Assuming I can decipher his cryptic notes) Partly because of this difficulty and partly because it's just very shaky theological ground, please take what I write here (especially at the end) as speculation, not established theology. But with so much confusion about the Old Testament today, I feel that something needs to be said.

One of my main takeaways from meeting with my pastor was the revolutionary nature of the gospel not just in its depth (deeper than our darkest sin), but its breadth--it is freely available to absolutely anyone for their salvation. Contrast this to the old covenant which was specifically for God's "holy nation", the Jews. Paul muses on this in Ephesians 3:4-6:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
That the gentiles (non-Jews) were now part of God's plan of salvation was a surprise for the earliest, Jewish Christians. (Acts 11:18)

So between the old and new covenants we see a big difference not just in the terms of the human side of the agreement (obey the law perfectly vs. repent and believe), but also in the parties involved: the old covenant was just for the Israelites, God's "chosen nation", but the new covenant is for everyone. This leads into the other main thing I remember from the conversation. My pastor outlined six purposes he and other church elders had discerned for the law of the old covenant. (I think there is one more that he forgot, but these seem fairly complete)
  1. To show that everyone is a sinner and convict them  of their sin. (Romans 3:19-20) The law is God's standard and failure to adhere to it perfectly is sin, imperfection that God in His perfect justice and holiness cannot tolerate.
  2. To increase (or heighten) the trespass (or guilt) of our sin. (Romans 5:20, 7:13) As circular as it sounds, another purpose of the law is to make sin more sinful! Perhaps to demonstrate how much God hates sin.
  3. To show us how to walk in God's ways. (Deuteronomy 8:6) The law told the nation of Israel how to live in right relation with God in the land He was going to give them.
  4. To set Israel apart from other nations as God's "holy nation". (Exodus 19:5) 
  5. To give life by obedience to it, as mentioned last time. (Leviticus 18:5)
  6. A shadow of the reality to come. This anticipation is explained in retrospect in Hebrews 8-10, which compares Jesus to the high priests of the old covenant. The high priests functioned as intermediaries between the people and God (for they were too afraid to approach Him themselves in their sin; Exodus 20:19) and offered sacrifices for the sins of the people. By coming in the flesh and dying, Jesus was like the perfect high priest, able to perfectly act as intermediary between us and God (because He was God) and able to forgive sins by His blood, unlike animal sacrifices. (Hebrews 10:4)
These purposes help us make some sense of how the Old Testament law relates to us today. Basically, purposes 3 through 6 listed above no longer apply to our situation in Christ.
  1. We have something better than a list of laws to show us God's ways: we have God himself, in the person of Christ, whose life is the ultimate example of the "Christian life" and whose teachings are for the new covenant, not the old.
  2. The distinction in God's eyes between the "holy nation" of Israel and the gentiles is no more. (Romans 3:22) In contrast to Exodus 19:5, Peter refers to a large group of Jewish and gentile believers as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation". (1 Peter 2:9) There is no longer any notion of people being "inside" or "outside" God's fold. Now everyone is inside.
  3. As I've hit on before, because of sin no one is justified by the law; grace is our only option. (Galatians 3:11) In Romans 15 the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem gather together to determine whether to hold gentile believers to the old covenant law. They restate this, realizing the futility of trying to be saved by the law. Verses 10-11 say:
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
  1. The terms of the old covenant served their purpose as a shadow of the reality to come, but now in Christ the reality is here! This is the joyful message of Hebrews 8-10: Christ is the culmination or fulfillment of the temple and sacrifice traditions of the old covenant. As an illustration of this, Matthew 27:51 mentions that when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple, which separated the holy of holies (where the spirit of God dwelled and the high priest only went in once a year with a rope tied to his waist and bells on his feet in case he died) from the rest of the temple was torn in half. The message is that we no longer need a temple and high priest and sacrifices to connect with God: Christ is our high priest and our sacrifice, and we can enter into His presence at any time with no fear of being struck dead.
As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, He did not come to nullify any part of the law; it is still intact to show us the depth of our sin per purposes 1 and 2 above. (Romans 3:20) But for the reasons above, our situation regarding what we do about the law has completely changed. Certainly our response to hearing the law should not be to try (and inevitably fail) to obey it, which leads only to despair and death. Rather, by admitting this, repenting the sins it convicts us of, and believing in the Son, we are saved by faith. Christ's self-offering did what the law was powerless  to do because of our sinful state. (Romans 8:3)

So, finally, we get to application. What do you take away from all of this? That since we are saved by faith and not by the law, we can do whatever we want? By no means! (Romans 6:15) Christ made us dead to sin and alive to God, so we are simply called to live as we truly are. By abusing His grace we deny who we are and abuse the gift of salvation. So, then, does the law serve as a goal or guideline for how we are to live "by the Spirit", having already been saved? (Note: This is where the mostly solid theology stops and the sanctified speculation starts) Again, because of the differences in our situation listed above, I don't think this is the case.

Specifically, we must consider the "holiness" laws that are based on purpose four above. My pastor broke these up into four main categories: food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and laws relating to temple practices and sacrifices. I don't think (again emphasizing my lack of certainty) that these laws apply to the universal church today for the reasons given above: these laws are part of the yoke that "neither our fathers nor we [the Jews] have been able to bear". And what do we stand to gain by following them? Certainly not salvation or relationship with God, for we already freely have those.

But I have to stop here, for the accusation commonly leveled at Christians that we "pick and choose only the parts of the Bible we like" is becoming far too relevant. At this point I'm not nearly certain enough in this reasoning to be certain that there is nothing in these laws that applies to us today. So, as a cop-out, I'll make the easier statement that we primarily learn how to live by Christ's example and our relationship with Him, not by the law. That we should follow Christ's teaching before the laws is evident from how He authoritatively added to or qualified the law in His ministry. Similarly the writings of the apostles in the New Testament, written in light of the new covenant, should be considered for guidance in living as a Christian before the writings of the Old Testament that are in light of the old covenant.

But again, the whole point of the new covenant is that its terms for us are not a list of rules like the old, but belief (John 6:29) that leads to repentance and salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). Our biggest concern should not be for how well we are obeying God but how close we are in our relationship with Him. For a Christian who is already forgiven for past, present, and future sins, disobedience is harmful insomuch as it damages this relationship with God. And the natural result of the relationship is not machinelike adherence to the law (which is primarily a list of don'ts, not dos) but transformation in every area of our lives to make us more like Christ. (Ephesians 5:1)

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